Currently a major part of my research program is devoted to writing a book:

Snakes of Western and Central Africa

by J. -P. Chippaux and K. Jackson

 

This much-needed book represents the first and only comprehensive guide to the snakes of central and western Africa. This is a considerably large part of the continent, ranging from Mauritania in the north-west, to Rwanda in the east and Angola in the south. My collaborator is Dr. Jean-Philippe Chippaux, and the book is to be published by the Johns Hopkins Press (projected publication date 2012).

JPC Dr. Jean-Philippe Chippaux, my collaborator, is a physician by training , employed by the French government as a specialist in tropical medicine. He has particular expertise in the treatment of snakebite and in the taxonomy of African snakes.

In North America we take field guides for granted. See an unfamiliar bird at your feeder? Just pick up your field guide and match up the illustrations and range maps. Trees? Insects? Lichens? You name it, you can buy a book at your local bookstore that will allow you to identify the organism you've found easily and accurately.

But for much of the world field guides don't exist. In many high biodiversity areas of the third world, even the specialist is stumped by many specimens. Often there doesn't exist even a list of names of species found in the region, never mind species descriptions that would allow identification. Nobody knows exactly which species live there, and some species in the range may still be unknown to western science. Among these species neglected by science, the small and unappreciated are grossly overrepresented, even though they may be crucial to the survival of entire ecosystems.

range of book Atractaspis dahomeyensis Polemon map Mehelya capensis
Range to be covered by the book is indicated in green. Many detailed line drawings such as this one of Atractaspis dahomeyensis will illustrate the book. A sample distribution map, in this case for Polemon collaris and P. neuweidi. Photographs of Central African snakes are hard to find. This is Mehelya poensis (Photo KJ).

I have in mind in particular the amphibians and reptiles of central Africa. While guidebooks exist to the reptiles of other parts of Africa, Southern Africa , East Africa, and even a handful to West Africa, the reptiles of Central Africa are the most poorly studied in the world. This is well illustrated by the 1998 reprinting of Schmidt and Noble (1919), an account of a 1912 herpetological collecting expedition to the former Belgian Congo, which remains, to this day, the best reference to the region aside from the scattered primary literature! Without question, the systematics of the amphibians and reptiles of Central Africa is in great need of study.

Impongui children Lamprophis f.
Villagers in northern Congo. Many snakes, venomous and harmless are found right in the village, in places where the children play. A (harmless) House snake, Lamprophis fuliginosus.

Among reptiles, snakes occupy a special position, not only for their important ecological role and their need for biodiversity and systematic study, but because of their relation to humans, particularly to the human communities with which they share the forest. Sadly, in Africa, an estimated 20,000 people die from snake bites every year. This problem can only be expected to worsen with the increasing human presence in these habitats. How can these deaths be prevented? Poverty, transportation, availability of medical care are all problems that must be addressed, but ultimately the answer lies with the need for systematic study of the snakes of the region. A sound knowledge of the species is the necessary first step. The effectiveness of antivenom treatment depends entirely on using an antivenom appropriate for the venom of the species responsible for the bite.

With half a continent and 240+ species of snake, including some of the world's most poorly-known, this book is a huge project, and more than Jean-Philippe and I can accomplish on our own, so I have enlisted the help of Whitman students. Click here to read about this student/ Faculty research project.

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