Leading Snake Expert Dies at 38

Prominent Herpetologist Suffered Fatal Snake-bite in Myanmar

SAN FRANCISCO (September 18, 2001) ­ Dr. Joseph B. Slowinski died on the morning of September 12 in Myanmar (Burma) after suffering a bite from a highly venomous snake while conducting scientific research.  He was 38.  “We are profoundly shocked and saddened by this loss,” said Dr. Patrick Kociolek, Curator and Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences.  “Joe was one of the world’s leading experts on venomous snakes and his commitment and zeal for his work never wavered despite the risks he faced.  I am comforted only by the fact that he was doing what he loved most.”   He added, “This is a huge loss to the entire scientific community.”

Dr. Slowinski was born on November 15, 1962 in New York City.  He received his B.S. from the University of Kansas in 1984 and a Ph.D. from the University of Miami in 1991.  He was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Museum of Natural History from 1991 to 1992, and a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Museum of Natural Science, Louisiana State University from 1992 to 1994.  Dr. Slowinski was an Instructor of Biology at Louisiana State University from 1994 through 1996 and at Southeastern Louisiana University from 1996 through 1997.  In 1997, he joined the California Academy of Sciences as an Assistant Curator in the Department of Herpetology and became an Associate Curator in 2000.  Dr. Slowinski was also elected to the Fellowship of the California Academy of Sciences in 2000.   During his career, he was the recipient of numerous grants from the National Science Foundation.

In 1997, Dr. Slowinski began a long-term, comprehensive survey of the herpetofauna of Myanmar, a project supported by the National Science Foundation.  As part of the project, Dr. Slowinski created a training program to provide Burmese biologists with the skills needed to conduct their own biodiversity surveys so that baseline data necessary for informing conservation decisions could be collected on an ongoing basis.  Burmese students were scheduled to study under the guidance of Dr. Slowinski at the Academy of Sciences in November for training in DNA, systematics, and museum curation techniques.

Myanmar is the largest country in southeast Asia and is isolated from neighboring countries by an arc of jungle-clad mountains.  The herpetofauna of this country is one of the least studied in all of Asia and is home to many species of venomous snakes.  Working in isolated and rugged regions of this country, Dr. Slowinski has discovered approximately 18 new species of amphibians and reptiles since he began this project.  For over ten years, he was studying snakes in the family Elapidae which includes highly venomous species such as cobras, coral snakes, taipans, and sea snakes.  In a California Wild magazine article last year, he wrote “For a herpetologist, finding a new species is always exciting; for me, finding a new cobra species is the ultimate discovery.”  This was his 11th expedition to this region.

Dr. Slowinski was one of two principal researchers on a project for which the California Academy of Sciences was very recently awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation, the largest grant ever awarded to the California Academy of Sciences.  The project, a survey of the biodiversity of the western part of the Yunnan Province, involves a number of Academy scientists and several institutions in Yunnan, China.  Dr. Slowinski has also conducted fieldwork in the United States, Mexico, Peru, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Jamaica, and the Bahamas.

Dr. Slowinski has authored and co-authored more than 40 academic papers in herpetology and is the author of Introduction to Genetics.   His field work in Myanmar was twice featured in National Geographic Television series, in California Wild magazine, San Francisco Examiner Magazine, and the San Francisco Chronicle.  He also served as an on-site scientific advisor for a BBC television special on the Guatemalan rainforest in 1987.                  

Dr. Slowinski was editor-in-chief and co-founder (in 1997) of the first online herpetological journal, Contemporary Herpetology, and a member of the editorial board of Systematic Biology.  Dr. Slowinski was a member of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, Herpetologists’ League, Society of Systematic Biologists, Willi Hennig Society, International Herpetological Symposium, and the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution.       

Dr. Slowinski is survived by his parents, Martha Crow of Brooklyn, New York and Ron Slowinski of Kansas City, Missouri, and his sister, Rachel Slowinski of Los Angeles.