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Obituaries

J. Slowinski, 38; Snake Expert Is Bitten, Dies

September 20, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joseph B. Slowinski, an expert on such venomous snakes as cobras and taipans who had studied reptiles throughout the Americas and in Asia, died Sept. 12, 30 hours after he was bitten while examining a poisonous krait snake in the mountainous jungles of northern Myanmar. He was 38.

Slowinski, a herpetologist with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, was conducting scientific field research with a multidisciplinary team of half a dozen other academy scientists and local support staff when the fatal incident occurred.

Academy spokeswoman Amy Cramer said, based on reports e-mailed from researchers at the remote site, a five-day hike from the nearest town, that a Myanmar field worker brought Slowinski a snake to examine on Sept. 11. The small snake had bitten the worker the previous day with apparently no harmful effects, and Slowinski initially thought it was a harmless "mimic" reptile with adaptive capability to resemble a venomous variety.

Cramer said that, although the snake bit Slowinski, the herpetologist who had weathered several previous bites showed little concern. But within a few hours, she said, his motor skills began to deteriorate and his alarmed colleagues began efforts to get him airlifted to a snakebite treatment hospital in Singapore.

Myanmar forbids satellite cell phones, Cramer said, and the team was eight miles from the nearest radio. Despite the problems, she said, rescue helicopters were arranged through efforts of the U.S. Embassy in Yangon and the Myanmar military. Twice helicopters attempted to reach Slowinski, but were forced back by heavy rains.

Cramer said Slowinski's body was cremated in Myanmar and his ashes will be returned to the United States. The academy will schedule a memorial service at a later date.

Since 1997, Slowinski had made 11 trips to the southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma, where he had discovered 18 new species of reptiles in its mountainous jungles. He was working to train local biologists in DNA, systematics and museum curation techniques to improve conservation efforts.

Slowinski's work was funded by the National Science Foundation and had been featured on the "National Geographic Explorer" television series, in California Wild magazine and by San Francisco newspapers.

Herpetologist's Death Called Huge Loss

Patrick Kociolek, curator and executive director of the academy, called Slowinski's unexpected death "a huge loss to the entire scientific community."

Slowinski, who also had begun work on an academy survey of the biodiversity in western Yunnan Province in China, specialized in the evolutionary analysis of Elapidae, a family of poisonous snakes with tiny erect and deadly fangs, including cobras, kraits, coral snakes, vipers, adders, copperheads and rattlesnakes.

"For a herpetologist," Slowinski wrote in California Wild magazine last year, "finding a new species is always exciting; for me, finding a new cobra species is the ultimate discovery."

The man who had described himself as "obsessed with snakes, especially the venomous ones" had a painful encounter last year with a spitting cobra that shot a jet of venom into his eyes. If not washed out immediately, the venom can cause blindness.

As Slowinski screamed in pain, his photographer flushed his eyes with water, and then villagers squeezed tamarind leaves into the wounded eyes. Although the tamarind juice caused more pain, Slowinski's vision cleared after a few hours, the pain subsided, and he returned to Myanmar again this year.

He estimated that cobras kill about 10,000 people a year in rural Myanmar, and he suffered a "dry bite," or one without venom, on his finger in 1997. He contracted malaria on his expedition last year.

Yet nothing dimmed his enthusiasm for the isolated country he called "a visually stunning place" that teems with Asia's least studied reptiles and amphibians.

Fascinated from early childhood with reptiles and the occasional amphibian, Slowinski began catching small snakes and frogs at age 4. He was bitten by a rattlesnake in Nebraska when he was 15.

Slowinski earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Kansas and doctorate from the University of Miami, did research at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington and at the Museum of Natural Science of Louisiana State University.

After teaching biology at Louisiana State University and at Southeastern Louisiana University, he joined the California Academy of Sciences in 1997 and last year was elected an academy fellow.

He wrote or co-wrote more than 40 scientific papers and did field research in the United States, Mexico, Peru, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Jamaica and the Bahamas as well as in Asia. In deserts and jungles, he routinely searched out snakes, picked them up with his long tongs, put them into a sack and took them to his field lab to study.

Slowinski was co-founding editor of the first online herpetological journal, Contemporary Herpetology, and served on the editorial board of Systematic Biology.

He is survived by his parents, Martha Crow of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Ron Slowinski of Kansas City, Mo., and his sister, Rachel Slowinski of Los Angeles.

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