Instead of collecting comic books or sports memorabilia as a kid, Dr. Zoltan Takacs collected all kinds of different snakes.
The Hungarian herpetologist says his initial interest in snakes came from spending his childhood summers in Transylvania, a region in the neighboring country of Romania. A herpetologist is someone who studies reptiles and amphibians.
“That’s where I was exposed first to snakes, reptiles, amphibians and other wildlife, so I started to catch them, take them home and keep them in all kinds of basic conditions,” he says. “Later, in high school, this turned into a more advanced snake-keeping hobby. That’s how I got into the snake business.”
Takacs is currently a research associate and assistant professor at the University of Chicago and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer.
The herpetologist says he discovered valuable information about snakes during his early encounters with the animals while growing up in Budapest, Hungary. Those experiences were not always pleasant.
“I kept vipers at home in my room, and I got bitten [once],” he says. “I tried to measure the length of the snake. It was my mistake; just as the other six bites I have had since then. I gave anti-venom to myself . . . just to find out a few weeks later that I’m allergic to the snake anti-venom! I did learn a lot during that early period.”
Coolest Molecules Nature Ever Invented
Eventually, Takacs found out that he was not only fascinated by snakes, but that he was also intrigued by their venom, a poisonous fluid some snakes secrete and use on their prey.
“I think the venom and the molecules in the venom—the toxins—are the coolest molecules nature ever invented,” he says.
Takacs’ interest in venoms led him to study pharmacology, which is the study of drugs and their effects. Eventually, he earned a PhD from Columbia University in New York City.
One aspect of venom that intrigued Takacs was how the substance is able to zoom in on particular components of the prey’s body to immobilize or kill it. Some venoms target the way a prey animal’s blood clots. Without the capability to clot, a prey animal quickly bleeds to death. Other venoms target muscles, paralyzing the target. Still other venoms target the heart or lungs, causing the target to suffocate.
Although these venoms can be deadly to prey animals—and sometimes humans—they can also provide valuable medical assistance for some diseases. Venom that prevents blood from clotting, for instance, may help create a drug for heart attack victims by encouraging blood flow.
Takacs went on to become one of the inventors of designer toxin technology, a method of uncovering the ways that animal venoms can be used to combat human ailments.
“Why don’t we use these toxins nature pre-made for us and try to tweak [them] a little bit and come up with a toxin which is exactly doing what we want a drug to do?” he asks.
Takacs says that he and his fellow scientists have created a toxin library. One area of research could become a drug to combat autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes.
“It is like a key and a lock,” he says. “If you have a specific key (the toxin) for a particular lock (the target), then you can cure diseases. We are making the keys from animal venoms, and now we have a key to shut down cells that cause autoimmune disorders.”
Takacs has traveled to some of the world’s most extreme environments in an attempt to procure his library of animal venoms.
“So many times, collecting toxins means you just have to go away to a location that is not really disturbed,” he says. “It’s more pristine, because [you’re] more likely to find a species of snake or other animal that you are looking for which hasn’t been studied. Or you meet the local people, who are not really in touch with the mainstream civilization, and they can show you cool stuff like how they can use venom for poisoning their arrows or how they can detect whether a snakebite was from a venomous snake or a non-venomous snake.”
It’s no surprise that some of Takacs’ collection missions have turned into life-threatening adventures.
During a 2008 trip to the Amazon rain forest, a South American rear-fanged snake bit Takacs. “Well, that snake bit me and unfortunately—and not surprisingly—I responded with a very bad allergic reaction to it, and an allergic reaction can kill me,” he says.
Takacs says his colleagues sped him by boat down the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon River, to the Brazilian city of Manaus. There, he was treated in a hospital. Once he knew he would survive the attack, Takacs wandered through the hospital and took pictures of other patients who had been bitten by snakes.
Another close call came when Takacs was on a venom-collection mission in an African rain forest back in 2003. “[A] forest elephant in Cameroon was looking eye to eye at me from two to three meters [six to ten feet] away,” he says. “That was a scary moment, because if the elephant decides to come closer . . . than that’s a problem that you can’t fix.”
Luckily, Takacs had some help as the largest land animal on Earth stared at him from just a few feet away. “My lookout guide—who used to be a poacher but at that time was reformed and was a wildlife officer—he just told me, ‘Zoltan, don’t shake'," Takacs says. “Then he said something in his language, so the elephant turned away and left. At that moment, I had the courage to take a picture, because my camera was on my hand. So I have a close-up picture of the elephant’s [behind].”
For Takacs, who is also an aircraft pilot and a scuba diver, his pursuit of animal venoms serves as his passport to travel the world.
“My passion for snakes,” he says, “is part of a larger passion for wildlife and the Earth and exploration.”