Gauri Van Thiel (25 years old) from Brabant has been fascinated by animals all his life. After being kicked out of HAVO – “My grades were so bad” – he decided to focus on his passion for snakes and reptiles. “I’ve had snakes in the house since I was 17 years old, after a lot of noise from my dad. Very interesting animals.”
This was followed by an MBO Ecology and Wildlife course, and Gauri was fortunate to take an internship in Thailand. With about 20 young scientists from all over the world, he went into the woods to hunt the king cobra. “We caught them and gave them a transmitter so we could follow them day and night. This is how we studied their way of life.”
One day, he and his colleagues caught another cobra and drove their jeep to the research center. “My colleague shouted: Snake, snake! It crawled on the road ahead of us. We jumped to catch it.”
It turned out to be the Indochina cobra, known for its special defense techniques: it can spit out poison. “We carried him with sticks to put him in a bag. You can expect that, he defended himself.”
The snake sprayed poison in Gorey’s face. He was wearing glasses, but they were half broken – there was a monkey on them before. “I turned my head the moment I spit out the cobra. I felt the poison burning in my eyes, and it was painful. I took my water bottle to rinse the poison.”
On the advice of his colleagues, he went to the hospital for a check-up. “Luckily it didn’t bother me. It was okay to carry water with me, because this toxin can cause permanent damage.”
This event gave Gori an idea: There are about 15 species of cobras in the world that can spit, but also dozens that cannot. They only bite to kill. The poison enters your body through its sting. Is a different spit venom consciously to harm the attackers?
Years later, when Goree was accepted for higher professional training at the University of Leiden, he gained permission to work on this research question. With fellow student Roel Waters (23). They complement each other well: Gorey is a true toxicologist, and Rowell is more concerned with ecology and evolution.
“I’ve known Gory for quite some time because of our shared passion for snakes,” says Rowell. “This poison is very enjoyable. In African countries, people get blinded by spitting out snakes if they don’t have the opportunity to rinse their eyes.”
Hours in the laboratory
The two went to the Netherlands and Germany to collect toxins from cobras in zoos and private homes. They spent hours together in the lab.
In short, their study showed that the venom from spitting from a cobra causes more eye irritation than a cobra that cannot spit.
Gorey and Rowell together talked about how the ball started rolling. They contacted a prominent snake expert from Liverpool, who was also investigating snake venom. It is decided to work together, because their own research on eye irritation fits well.
Research at scale provides three new insights. At different times of evolution, cobras in Africa and Asia began to spit independently. Additionally, their venom is believed to have been adapted for this, as it contains a substance that is extremely painful to the eyes. “Snakes that can only bite contain much less substance,” says Rowell.
Finally, he suggests that snakes began spitting in response to human evolution. “They started spitting about the arrival of two-legged humans,” explains Rowell. “They were afraid of snakes, and used branches and stones to kill them. This differs from predators that attack at close range. The snakes learned to fight back by spitting.”
A unique find, because until now it was only assumed that snakes were using their venom to catch their prey.
The research was completed last year and also sent to the popular scientific journal Science. And in December they suddenly heard that It was published in the journal.
“Awesome,” says Gori. “A dream come true. Even we got to the cover made it complete.”
Gori and Rowell are far from having their hoses finished. There is still a lot to research. They are also not afraid of field work. “Only then would we wear durable safety glasses instead of a half-broken frame,” Gori laughs.