Sunday, February 13, 2011


If I'm being truthful, then I readily admit that I had some definite trepidation about signing up for a Herpetology class this semester.  I enjoyed my Mammalogy experience with the same instructor -- even though I had crazy highs and lows, loving him sometimes, not so much at others -- and really enjoyed my fellow students.  It was really super-fun and stressful too, since I can't let go of the need to do all the reading, do my best on the homework and field assignments, and ace the tests.  But since the teacher told me that I'd see herps in every single class, that it's the kind of class to which the students are likely to bring their pets snakes, lizards and frogs, I figured it was a prime way to get over my fear of snakes.

And there have already been ample opportunities to make new reptile acquaintances.

So far, in the first 3 classes, I've met 3 pythons, 1 Central American boa constrictor, 2 New Caledonia crested geckos, 2 firebelly toads, and 3 tree frogs.  All but the toads and frogs were readily available for handling, brought into class in carriers and pockets.  The ball pythons, especially the baby one, were gorgeous; the boa freaked me out a bit; the geckos were my favorites.  So cute and soft!  Even when a little nervous of the snakes, my inner Doolittle takes me over completely: I move quickly to be close to them, anxious to be friends.

My classmates are an interesting bunch as usual.  Many experts in the class, like last time -- afficionados, big-time.  Their willingness to share their own experience so augments what we can all learn.  I love that.

Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in NatureFor this class we don't have a single textbook. Instead we've got 4 books: a field guide naturally, then one book each on amphibians, lizards and snakes.  I started the snake book this morning, which sparked my desire to write this post so that I could share an excerpt from the Introduction.  I'm on page 2 of the 306-page text and already completely hooked by the passion of the writer, Harry W. Greene.  How not to be swept away into the great natural history adventure of understanding the greatness of snakes?

Here is Greene's retelling of his abrupt departure from lunch in Costa Rica to see a Bushmaster Lachesis muta viper, a snake he'd only ever read about -- huge, rare and supposedly ferocious, said to suckle milk from cows and sleeping women.

For almost an hour we hiked south a twice my normal speed, up and down mud-slick trails -- and all on a full stomach.  The surrounding forest was hot and humid, almost claustrophobically dark and fecund.  Huge buttressed trees towered above us, obscuring the sky and everywhere were the deep greens and rich browns of living plants or their decaying remnants.  After a brief but torrential shower, the air reverberated with buzzes, screams, and croaks of countless insects, birds, and frogs, and a troop of howler monkeys roared in the distance.  Slogging along, I mused half seriously that within minutes of dying in rain forest one would be overgrown by mosses, vines, and fungi, all the while devoured in tiny pieces by ants and fierce green katydids.

The terrain becomes more corrugated upslope from the entrance to La Selva, each ridge a little steeper and higher.  When we finally veered off the path I was soaked in sweat, almost giddy with exhaustion and anticipation.  Parting the leaves of understory palms and vines, we watched for "Balas" (bullets, Paraponera clavata), huge black ants with the most intensely painful and long-lasting sting of any hymenopteran.  Edwin stopped fifty meters or so up a broad ravine and peered over an enormous fallen tree.  Then, motioning caution with one hand, he pointed for Manuel Santana and me to lean over the chest-high log.  Coiled in a mound on the forest floor, its calligraphic black and tan colors blending with surrounding debris, was the most magnificent snake I'd ever seen in nature.  Thirty years after I'd read Ditmar's story, here was a live, wild Bushmaster -- perhaps two and a half meters long, and thicker than my arm.

As we scrambled over to it, the Bushmaster's only responses were slight elevation and retraction of its head, then a slow, vertical sweep of the long black tongue, aimed directly at us.  The snake's behavior was not exaggerated -- no lunging strikes, no frenzied escape efforts -- but there was a powerful sensation of measured readiness, like Clint Eastwood's squint in High Plains Drifter: "Don't come closer."  With no experience handling really large vipers, I simply photographed that first Lachesis muta and watched it slowly crawl away.  In the following decade our research group studied more than two dozen others, documenting a sedentary lifestyle, remarkably narrow diet of rodents and dependence on undisturbed lowland tropical rain forest.  Although much remains to be learned about Bushmasters, we now know more about this species than about many other vipers.  

Bushmasters embody our cultural and scientific traditions about what it means to be a snake: extraordinarily cryptic, they obtain infrequent but large meals with minimal risk, depend heavily on chemical cues rather than vision and sound, and convey a certain inscrutability.  Bushmasters invariably have symbolized grave danger, even though our fears are largely irrational.  Their bite is extremely serious, yet accidents are so rare than we lack a clear picture of proper treatment.  Perhaps no other serpent is such an icon for wilderness and the complex meaning of that word, including the profound uncertainties one lives with, and learns from, in remote places.


1 comment:

CloudChaser said...

absolutely beautiful!!