Originally created 05/17/02

Snake patrol



JACKSON - Scott Pfaff plopped a large, sluggish reptile onto a conference room floor and stood carefully aside.

"This snake has unbelievably long fangs and a lightning-fast strike," he said. "And they've been known to eat small antelopes, too."

The creature - a Gaboon viper from Africa - is docile and somewhat rare, said Mr. Pfaff, the herpetology curator for Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia. But American soldiers on dangerous missions in hostile territory could encounter any one of the nearly 500 species of venomous snakes found throughout the world, he said.

This week, Mr. Pfaff and scientists from the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Lab teamed up to offer specialized training on dangerous snakes to Army survival instructors from Fort Bragg, N.C.

The six men - from the Army's Survival, Evasion, Resistance & Escape School - teach survival skills to specialized combat troops including the Green Beret and Special Forces units now deployed in Afghanistan.

The course is tailored to personnel with high-risk assignments and is aimed at helping soldiers survive if they are shot down or separated from their units, said Army Master Sgt. John Roberts.

"We want to instill some sense of caution, some ability to identify venomous and non-venomous snakes - and also useful information about whether a snake is a potential food source," he said.

Whit Gibbons, senior ecologist at the Savannah River Ecology Lab and a University of Georgia professor, provided instruction on venomous snakes of North America and how their characteristics often mirror those of their reptilian cousins on other continents.

Mr. Pfaff brought examples of exotic snakes from the zoo collection, including a cobra - common throughout much of the Middle East.

"King cobras can grow up to 19 feet long," he said, maneuvering a specimen that slithered quietly on the floor. "They've been known to kill elephants."

Some cobras can spit venom, he said.

"They have abrupt right angles that channel venom through their fangs," Mr. Pfaff said. "It acts like a squirt gun - and usually they aim right at your eyes."

There is good news, though.

"They're the pussycats of snakes, very gentle," Mr. Pfaff said. "In Thailand, for example, there have only been three recorded bites."

The training for the visiting instructors included a nocturnal jaunt through the Savannah River swamp, where Dr. Gibbons and other herpetologists offered insight into spotting and identifying snakes.

Gordon Smith, a retired sergeant major who instructs soldiers on food sources, said the venomous reptile education is just one of many important facets of survival training.

"We teach our guys - don't go out looking for snakes," he said. "But they need to look out for them."

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119, or rpavey@augustachronicle.com.