First author

Venom has long fascinated Bryan Fry. Based at the Australian Venom Research Unit of the University of Melbourne, Fry is interested in the protein composition of venoms and how they are generated and secreted. Together, these factors can inform evolutionary comparisons between different kinds of snakes and lizards. They can also show how ecology affects evolution, as animals in different areas develop different kinds of venom, for example.

But to compare venoms, Fry first had to collect them, which meant tackling creatures such as Fea's viper, the eastern bearded dragon and the spiny-tailed monitor. Running proteomic and genomic analyses on the venom samples changed Fry's understanding of what it means to be venomous, and also helped clear up some controversies about evolutionary relationships between snakes and lizards.

In your paper, you mention a need to rethink the very concept of ‘non-venomous’. Why and how?

Some of the lizards we previously thought were non-venomous turned out to have venom. But there are degrees of venomousness. The bearded dragon, for example, has the ancestral condition of small, thin glands that don't secrete large amounts of venom. The monitor lizards have developed their glands into something truly special — a much more advanced system. So I consider the bearded dragon to be ‘incipiently venomous’, in other words it's there but not to a high level of development, whereas I consider monitor lizards to be ‘truly venomous’. What must be stressed is that this is venom from the point of view of prey capture. The human danger level is trivial — these animals should not be considered from a practical perspective as venomous in the same manner as a cobra.

Why the interest in venom delivery?

I like venomous animals.

Who collected the specimens? Any interesting incidents?

I collected the venomous animals. Always an interesting experience.

You interviewed people who had been bitten by three rather nasty creatures. How did this help your study?

Human victims are always rather helpful. Unlike a lab animal, they can tell you exactly how horrible they feel.

Do you intend to continue with snakes and reptiles, or switch to a more benign species?

I'll continue to work with venomous animals as this is my passion. I am lucky enough to do for a career what I love.