Serpentine surprises

Never in my life have I seen so many snakes in so short a time: this part of the Quang Nam Saola Nature Reserve was crawling with snakes. Or perhaps slithering would be a better adjective. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t secretly thrilled by this unusual turn of events. Yes, it made surveying more dangerous—as if worrying about unexploded ordinance wasn’t enough, now we had to contend with pit vipers aplenty, the jungle version of living landmines—but few creatures are as fascinating to me as snakes. Beautiful, elegant, with a sinister attraction, snakes excite the naturalist in me in a way that no other taxa can. I don’t want to psychoanalyze the situation but perhaps this obsession relates to the fact that my parents would never let me have a pet snake growing up. Maybe my captivation is simply a way to make up for lost time. If so this was the perfect jungle to work in. It was full of serpentine surprises.

Apart from two close calls, which deserve a separate post, there were several amusing snake situations. One afternoon after completing our surveys I set out on my own to explore while dinner was being prepared. Near camp I came across an unfamiliar snake. Because I didn’t have a camera I decided to catch it. There was, I remembered, a snake guidebook back in camp. It wasn’t a species I had seen before, which also meant that I didn’t know if it was dangerous. Needless to say I was as careful handling it as I would have been defusing a bomb. I caught it and returned to camp. The guidebook was stuffed away in one of rangers backpacks. I put the snake into a large cooking pot, closed the lid, and retrieved the book. When I returned to the pot I found it empty! The snake had pushed the lid up and gotten out. When I broke the news to everyone a hush fell over the group. Within thirty seconds our camp became a ghost town: every last person was huddled in the safety of his hammock. Meanwhile I wandered around looking for the escapee. Every few minutes I saw an astonished face poke out of a hammock. No doubt my crew was wondering if the foreigner had taken one too many knocks to the head. After thirty minutes of fruitless searching we all assumed that the snake had left the area. The camp returned to normal. Imagine our surprise then when the cook noticed something sliding between his feet. It was the same snake! I caught it a second time. It turned out to be a harmless species. I took pictures and returned it to the forest.

Juvenile pit viper
Juvenile emerald pit viper
Adult emerald pit viper
Adult emerald pit viper

To my surprise most of the snakes we came across were highly venomous. This is, in my experience, the exception to the rule in most tropical forests. In Peru I saw snakes daily but it took almost two months to see my first deadly species. In this forest, however, nine out of ten snakes we stumbled upon were pit vipers. All pit vipers possess a chemical cocktail that is toxic to humans. The hemotoxin works by attacking red blood cells and destroying tissue. Yes, these snakes are dangerous, but they are also stunningly beautiful. There are few sights in the natural world that can compare with a perfectly camouflaged pit viper coiled like a spring waiting in steely-eyed concentration for its next victim. Most of the pit vipers we came across were from the genus Trimeresurus: brilliant emerald snakes often found near fast-flowing streams where they lie in ambush for amphibians. This was the snake I came across snacking on a frog in the grisly encounter post. I never tired of photographing this species. My Katu guides, of course, were by this point convinced that I was playing with a few cards short of a full deck. But I couldn’t hide my fascination with this slender green ribbon of death. One of the trip highlights was coming across a second type of pit viper that I had never encountered. I can’t take any credit for spotting it. One of the guides noticed it, and it’s a good thing he did, because I would have never seen it. Hidden in a nest of dead rattan, the viper blended perfectly into its surroundings—the result of millions of years of evolutionary perfection. I was enthralled by this cryptically patterned predator. It was a naturalist’s delight.

Pit viper
Pit viper
Pit viper
Pit viper
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