Two of my favorite things to do are to travel and to look for reptiles in the wild, aka to “herp.” I have been fortunate to have done quite a bit of both, and I plan on doing more in the future. Here are some photos and stories of the more memorable herping trips I’ve had so far.
In Part 1 of this series I shared my trip to Australia. Click here if you missed it.
In October of 2009, I joined a research organization called Fauna Forever as a volunteer herpetologist in the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon. For five weeks I walked transects day and night to survey the herpetological life I found there.
I came to Peru to catch snakes. That’s why I’m here, not for the scarlet macaws, giant river otters or howler monkeys. Not for the exotic food or pretty butterflies. My motive is clear, my agenda is straightforward; I quit my job, left my hometown, crossed the equator and joined Fauna Forever to catch snakes in the Amazon. I listed no second choice on my volunteer application, I was either joining the herpetology team, or I wasn’t joining at all.
When I arrived, I was excited to meet up with Brian, the lead herpetologist and Dave-who had spent time on the herp team previously-and talk snakes. Just how many would we see? Which ones can I expect to see? How often will we see them? Dave assured me we’d see “loads” of them and Brian agreed when I asked about Imantodes, a certain species of tree snake, it wasn’t if we’d find it but how many we would find.
A week later, we hadn’t seen any and Dave sang a different tune. He reluctantly confessed he had a hunch I wouldn’t see a single snake for my entire stay. It was certainly plausible. We’d been out every night running transects and surveying our trails with nothing to show for it but various species of frogs. By this time I’d begun to doubt my decision to come here. I obviously hadn’t done enough research, hadn’t asked enough questions. I must not have run the numbers correctly before I came. I desperately wanted to prove Dave wrong, but I’ve been on enough walks through rainforests all over the world to know snakes are not easy creatures to spot.
I wasn’t completely naive to the difficulty of finding something so elusive and secretive in the vast expanse of an Amazon rainforest. With a million and one places for a snake to hide, where do you begin to look? For the most part the forest is two-toned, green above ground and brown on the forest floor. How then are we supposed to find the local snakes which are predominantly green and brown? Back home I’ve had trouble finding my pet python in my bedroom before. And it was four meters long and bright yellow! It’s funny how my main methods of herping that work in the US-road cruising and flipping artificial cover-are completely useless in the Amazon. There are no roads (we arrived by boat) and there isn’t any artificial cover-just eleventy billion palm fronds, hollow stumps and 100 ft tall trees.
Ten days after my arrival I denied there being any snakes in the forest at all, despite the local guides coming back each day with photos proving otherwise. I was angry with myself for getting my hopes up, I was resentful of the Amazon-whose mere name conjures up visions of giant anacondas and deadly bushmasters-to be honest, I was a little depressed. But I was hopeful. I went on night walks, I brought my snake hook each night thinking maybe tonight will be the night, I quizzed Brian to see which trails cut through the best snake habitat and I was praying for rain, a lot of rain.
The rain came and we still hadn’t found anything. Until finally, while walking a trail late at night Brian froze and immediately dove into the leaf litter and came up with a cat-eyed snake (Leptodiera annulata.) Finally! We all took turns admiring it and taking pictures, if only that snake knew how much we longed to find it! Shortly afterwards on the same trail I spotted a green tree viper (Bothropsiosis bilineata) in a tree. The curse had been broken!
From that day to the end of my stay not a day went by without seeing a snake-sometimes three or four in one day! We found somewhere around sixteen or seventeen snakes so far representing about fifteen species from a six inch long Xenopholis to a monster, nine foot long Drymarchon. Before I came, I made a mental list of snakes I wanted to see and after finding a tree boa (Corallus hortulanus) on my last night, I had seen them all.
It was an unreal experience and just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the forest shows me something that takes me by surprise. It’s almost as if the forest was testing us, seeing just how badly we wanted to see its inhabitants. And now, deeming us worthy, it’s removed its veil and we’ve been allowed an unparalleled view of some of the animals I love the most in this special setting. I’ve seen snakes I have wanted to see for years and I’ve seen snakes I never knew existed.
I am able to appreciate my surroundings better now that my initiative has been accomplished. I find joy in many things I couldn’t before; like the way the forest flowers smell at night, waking up to howler monkeys in the early morning, a clear starry sky, observing Anolis lizards eating crickets, doing my laundry next to a scarlet macaw, watching giant river otters as they catch fish, chocolate-covered bananas at dinnertime, the sound of approaching rain and yes, even the pretty butterflies.
So for anyone visiting the rainforest hoping to encounter reptiles or amphibians, I encourage you to be patient, be persistent and pray for rain!
I stayed at two different lodges, Explorer’s Inn and Reserva Amazonica. A realization hit me one day that I have become a herpetologist. No longer are we young boys chasing snakes in our backyards, the research here goes on to be published in scientific journals, in books and may be taught in universities. And yet, I’m having just as much fun and get just as excited as when I was a young boy chasing snakes in my backyard! Probably more!!
I did see more than just snakes. One day while I was measuring a frog on one of our daytime transects, Brian came over the radio and said there was a giant anteater going in our direction. A couple seconds later and sure enough, here he came crashing through the trees and vines straight for us! I also camped out at a nearby oxbow lake and woke up to find eight giant river otters catching fish and eating them within thirty feet of me.
On our last night searching for snakes we found our sixth Blunt-headed tree snake (Imantodes cenchoa,) the most beautiful Amazon tree boa (Corallus hortulanus) I’ve ever seen, an armadillo and a jaguar! The cat sighting was very brief. It was perched on a log that had fallen across the trail when I picked up it’s eye-shine. I froze on the trail, flashlight pointed on the cat and urgently whispered to the others, “Jaguar! Jaguar! Jaguar!” He watched us for a couple seconds and then sauntered off into the darkness. Initially we assumed it was probably a marguay-a smaller, less common species of cat. However, after looking at photos and considering the size of the animal I’m more confident that it was in fact a jaguar.
I can’t tell you how surreal an experience it is to be in an environment like that, encountering animals I’ve only seen or read about in books. Some animals I didn’t even know existed! It blows my mind that there is a nine foot long cribo out there right now eating all the frogs and opossums he can find. Or that jaguars prowl undetected through rainforest I lived in and walked through on a daily basis. Its so easy to think of the world in terms of where we live but there is so much out there we haven’t seen yet. I often think of a quote my friend and fellow climber Willy wrote after climbing Mt. Rainier he said, “Some things He has made, which are so terrible, so awesome and so beautiful, that I marvel that man be allowed to look upon them!” I couldn’t agree more.
Coming up in Part 3: South Carolina