THE VALUE OF THOSE BIT­ING AND STING­ING CREEPY-CRAWLIES

Talk of the Town - - Front Page - JON HOUZET

FAS­CI­NATED with spi­ders, scor­pi­ons and snakes ever since he was a child, Jonathan Leem­ing made a ca­reer out of his pas­sion and is now an author­ity on the bit­ing and sting­ing creepy-crawlies most of us fear.

Leem­ing ad­dressed the U3A on the sub­ject at their well-at­tended meet­ing at the Don Powis Hall in Set­tlers Park last week.

Born in the UK in 1970, Leem­ing and his fam­ily im­mi­grated to South Africa in 1984, where he be­came fas­ci­nated with in­sects, arach­nids and snakes from a young age.

He joked that his last “real job” was as an IT man­ager for Deloitte. “I didn’t like it. Week­ends in na­ture was where my life was. I had to de­cide – is it go­ing to be snakes and scor­pi­ons or sit­ting in an of­fice all week?” He chose the creep-crawlies and be­came an en­to­mol­o­gist.

He has worked with some of the most ven­omous crea­tures in the world in more than 10 coun­tries and writ­ten nine books.

His lat­est work, a book called One World, fo­cuses more on con­ser­va­tion and the role of hu­man­ity in the ecosys­tem.

As he states on his web­site, jonathanleem­ing.com: “We are the first gen­er­a­tion who truly un­der­stands that the world our chil­dren grow up in will be vastly dif­fer­ent from our own. As we live in the fu­ture of a decade ago, never be­fore has hu­man­ity been so un­cer­tain about the fu­ture. How we over­come the chal­lenges of our time will make the dif­fer­ence be­tween a world that we tol­er­ate, and a world in which we pros­per.”

His talk at the U3A was more gen­er­ally about ven­omous crea­tures and their value.

One of the most com­mon mis­per­cep­tions is about the hum­ble spi­der.

“Spi­der bite mis­di­ag­no­sis in our coun­try is ab­so­lutely rife. Med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als tell peo­ple they’ve been bit­ten by a spi­der with­out proof. Did you see the spi­der bite you?” Leem­ing asked.

“Peo­ple think ven­omous crea­tures are a neg­a­tive as­pect of so­ci­ety we can live with­out. When we cre­ate a nat­u­ral im­bal­ance in the world we cre­ate prob­lems. Should we be afraid of ven­omous an­i­mals?”

In­volv­ing his au­di­ence in his pre­sen­ta­tion, Leem­ing asked what the largest ven­omous an­i­mal on Earth was. A few peo­ple cor­rectly an­swered it was the Ko­modo dragon.

The most ven­omous crea­ture of all is the box jel­ly­fish, which can be as small as a finger.

Leem­ing ex­plained how the ex­perts mea­sure tox­i­c­ity, by in­ject­ing venom into mice and ob­serv­ing how many of the mice die, and then chang­ing the amount of venom in­jected. The less needed to cause death re­veals a high tox­i­c­ity.

But he said the num­ber of hu­man deaths caused by a ven­omous crea­ture was not a re­li­able in­di­ca­tor, as a highly ven­omous crea­ture may live in a re­mote area where not many peo­ple are around and there are few deaths, but a less ven­omous crea­ture may cause more deaths in a densely pop­u­lated area. The avail­abil­ity of anti-venom in pop­u­lated ar­eas also re­duces the num­ber of deaths.

He ex­plained the three gen­eral types of venom: neu­ro­toxic venom (black mamba, Cape co­bra) acts on the ner­vous sys­tem and brain; cy­to­toxic venom (puff ad­der) has a lo­calised ac­tion at the site of the bite, de­stroy­ing cell mem­branes; and hemo­toxic venom (boom­slang, vine snake) acts on the heart and car­dio­vas­cu­lar sys­tem.

Sci­en­tific re­search has dis­cov­ered amaz­ing med­i­cal ap­pli­ca­tions for some of these ven­oms, like rat­tlesnake venom for heart at­tacks, the gila mon­ster’s be­ing used to treat di­a­betes, the Brazil­ian wan­der­ing spi­der help­ing erec­tile dys­func­tion, the Chilean rose taran­tula used to treat mus­cu­lar dys­tro­phy and the black mamba’s venom as a painkiller.

Pic­ture: JON HOUZET

ARACHNID AUTHOR­ITY: Con­ser­va­tion­ist and au­thor Jonathan Leem­ing, left, with his dad and in­spi­ra­tion Roy at the U3A meet­ing last week where Jonathan was the guest speaker

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