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Q&A with a Guam Brown Tree Snake Biologist

I admit it: most of my friends are cooler than me.

You may have heard last month about the U.S. government’s plan to drop acetaminophen-laced mice on the island of Guam to control its invasive population of brown tree snakes. Well, I was able to get the inside scoop on this odd-sounding idea, because a college friend of mine happens to be a brown tree snake biologist on Guam and is involved with this project. Meredith, who has her own blog that you should all try to convince her to start updating more often, agreed to tell you all a little more about her awesome job and what is going on with the Tylenol mice. This may be the first in a series of similar Q&A posts, but that depends on me being able to talk other people I know into doing this, so we’ll see.

Q: Who are you?

A: My name is Meredith Palmer and I graduated with a degree in Zoology back in 2011. I have recently been accepted back into school for my PhD and am very much looking forward to grappling with my own research again coming up this fall! I will be working on the behavioral ecology of lions and predator-prey interactions in the Serengeti. (Note from Rebecca: yes, she is going to study African megafauna for her PhD. Wow. Meredith, can I visit?) Over the past few years, I have been working field assistant jobs in Africa and the Caribbean.

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More Snakes

As promised, here are the two snakes I found on Friday. First, as I was loading my car in the afternoon, I noticed a robin in the yard acting strangely – pecking at something and then fluttering back. After a moment I realized it was attacking a small snake, so I went running over. Yes, I suppose I was interfering in a perfectly natural predator/prey interaction, but there are plenty of exotic invasive earthworms around for the robins to eat, they hardly need to be going after baby garter snakes.

You’d think it would be grateful that I saved its life, but no, it coiled up and tried to strike at me. Well, fine, be that way. Garter snakes have nasty dispositions, even though they’re small.

Then in the evening, I took a walk in the woods. I’ve been saying ever since I moved here how much I’d like to find a Redbelly Snake, Storeria occipitomaculata, and yesterday I finally got lucky! I almost stepped on it before I saw it, stretched out in the trail looking almost like a twig. Unlike garter snakes, these guys are very docile and easy to handle, so I couldn’t resist picking it up.

Look how little and cute! Look at those gorgeous crimson belly scales! These snakes live on the forest floor and eat slugs and earthworms. With their tiny mouths, I don’t think you’d feel it even if you did somehow manage to provoke one into biting you. (And I don’t think you could – other than being a little wriggly, this one was completely okay with being picked up, handled, and photographed. What a dear.)

So, there you have it – Rebecca’s further adventures with snakes!

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This Is One Foxy Snake

(Yes, a post that’s about neither insects nor plants! It’s a miracle!)

Yesterday afternoon I was in the office when, through the window, I heard someone exclaiming over a snake. Naturally I dropped what I was doing and ran outside. I was expecting to see a garter snake – for a reptile lover like me even a common garter snake is worth walking outside to see! However, I was in for a treat, because there in the landscaping was a totally new reptile species for me, a Western Fox Snake, Pantherophis vulpina. At the time I didn’t have my camera with me, and by the time I’d run and gotten it the snake had, of course, vanished.

The day wasn’t over, though. After I got off work in the afternoon, I spotted an undergraduate walking across the parking lot carrying the fox snake. He’d wisely decided to relocate it away from the buildings and cars into the woods, and this time I was able to snap a quick photo. I was very impressed with his snake-catching skills – it’s one thing I’m absolutely awful at.

Is that not a handsome animal? I mean, wow! Fox snakes, like many harmless nonvenomous snakes, will do rattlesnake impressions to try and scare off predators – this one was energetically vibrating the tip of its tail. Unfortunately, this probably leads to a lot of humans killing fox snakes as a result of mistaken identity.

I love snakes. Please don’t kill snakes. Even rattlesnakes.

UPDATE: Clearly I should have waited to publish this post until this evening, because since I put this up I have photographed not one but TWO MORE species of snake! Guess you’ll have to stay tuned and find out what they were on Monday!

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A Terrifying Infestation of… Garter Snakes?

This article caught my eye in the morning paper today: it describes a young couple who discovered a horrible infestation in their new house in rural Idaho. They describe it as being like living in a horror movie… the man was worried his pregnant wife would miscarry from the stress… now that they’ve left they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

What was their house infested with? Garter snakes. Small, nonvenomous garter snakes. Garter snakes = horror movie? Really? Even the term “infestation” seems like a bit of a stretch, since the article only describes one incident where they actually found a snake inside the house (the wife found it in the laundry room, and naturally she panicked, screamed, and jumped onto a counter to escape it). Apparently they were mostly in the crawl spaces in the walls, and in the yard.

I mean, I can understand not wanting to live in a house infested with snakes. Really, I can, especially since the article mentioned that their well water smelled like garter snake musk (ew – although the more I think about it, the less sense that makes; snake musk somehow permeated the groundwater???). But if you really, truly think about it, which would you rather have in your house, garter snakes or mice? Which one carries hantavirus, nibbles on the food in your cupboards, and shreds the clothes in the back of your closet for nest material? Not the snakes.

I don’t know. Some people.

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One Last Bit of Jekyll Island…

Surprise! Even though I’m in Arizona now I do have one more batch of Jekyll Island photos to share with y’all. It doesn’t feel right to close that chapter without doing a post about Walter.

Walter is a pine snake, Pituophis melanoleucus. Of all the education snakes at the Jekyll Island 4-H Center (which include seven individuals representing five species), he was my favorite. Anyone who doesn’t think it’s possible for reptiles to have individual personalities has definitely never spent much time handling different snakes. Walter was born in captivity at another 4-H center and has been an education animal his whole life, and according to my boss he had at various times been screamed at, dropped, and even accidentally stepped on by nervous people, and had never once even threatened to bite anyone. (Not great for the snake, I know, but these things happen when an animal spends its life being handled by excitable children.) This is the sweetest, most laid-back reptile you will ever meet.

Doing herpetology programs, particularly snake programs, was my favorite part of my job at Jekyll. Showing a nervous kid (or adult!) that “scary” snakes can actually be docile, friendly, curious creatures is a lot of fun. Pine snakes like Walter are constrictors with a wide range in the U.S. (My understanding is that Walter himself is actually a hybrid between two subspecies.)

Anyway, I’ll be staying with my parents out West for about the next five weeks, during which time I’ll mostly be here in southern Arizona – but we’re also planning a road trip to visit Arches, Rocky Mountain, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Parks. (Expect lots of photos!) After that I’ll be flying back to Georgia to pick up my car and then heading north to Wisconsin, with stops along the way to visit friends in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. Rebecca in the Woods is on the move…

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Snake Tracks

Down in the dunes…

…the sign of a snake.

The plates in my copy of the Peterson field guide to animal tracks suggest that the wide loops mean the snake in question was moving quickly.  Apparently a more leisurely-crawling snake leaves a straighter trail.  (Incidentally, the Peterson animal track guide is a delightfully idiosyncratic field guide, with as much anecdote- and sidetrack-filled narration as actual hard information on identifying tracks.  I kind of love it.)

The snake stopped to investigate a ghost crab burrow, as well.

The next time a kid asks me if the the burrows in the sand are “snake holes,” perhaps I’ll think twice before saying no.

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Why I Do What I Do

Tonight I gave two back-to-back programs on snakes for groups of young Boy Scouts.  I pulled out three of our snakes, a hognose snake, a Mexican milk snake, and the star of the show, Walter, our five-foot-long pine snake.  I finished each program by letting anyone who wanted to put Walter, who is extremely docile and laid-back, around their necks.  The second time around, a man whose son insisted that Dad had to hold the snake too looked up from the snake coiled comfortably around his shoulders and said to me, “You know, I never liked or had any interest in snakes before, but you’ve really changed my opinion of them.  This is great.”

The last couple days at work have been very stressful, and I’m working both days this weekend as well.  So it was nice to hear, just when I needed to hear it most, that yes, me doing what I do has made a difference to someone.

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The Cooperative Cottonmouth

Cottonmouths, aka water moccasins, get a bad rap.  I have heard so many stories about people being chased by aggressive cottonmouths, most of which turn out to be ridiculously exaggerated.  People also assume that any snake they see in the water – even a non-venomous Nerodia – must be a horrible ferocious cottonmouth.  (How many Nerodia water snakes do you suppose have been killed as a result of mistaken identity?)  Well, today I finally had a cottonmouth encounter of my own, and guess what?  I left it alone, and it left me alone.  It definitely did not chase me down the trail.

Yeah, this image isn’t particularly clear, because 1) I took it during a class I was teaching and therefore could hardly take time for a lengthy photo shoot and 2) I was photographing a freaking cottonmouth, people – I may like snakes, but I’m not dumb, and I wasn’t interested in getting too close to it.  (My parents are looking at that picture and freaking out about how close I was to the snake, but let me assure you, Mom and Dad, I took it with my camera zoomed in all the way and cropped it significantly.)

I actually saw this snake twice today.  My second morning class was forest ecology with a group of fifth graders, and I had walked right past this guy (who was coiled on a log on the left side of the trail) without seeing him when I heard one of the boys say “Oh, hey, a snake.”  The kids and their chaperons did a great job of staying calm when I asked them to stand on the opposite side of the trail from it and briefly talked about venomous snakes before moving on, all the while mourning the fact that I didn’t have my camera with me.  At that point I wasn’t 100 percent sure what specific kind of venomous snake this was; the dark lines extending back from the eyes made me think diamondback rattlesnake, but I couldn’t see any buttons on the tail.

So, I did some horse trading with my coworkers to get a second forest class after lunch, this time with high school students.  I stuck my camera in my pocket beforehand, and lo and behold, the snake had not moved an inch in the two or three hours since I passed it the first time.  Score!  (At least one other group apparently walked right past it in the interim without spotting it.)  Now I had a photo to show my boss and fellow instructors, and finally we established that it was a cottonmouth.

According to Wikipedia, “the majority of specimens are almost or even totally black,” making this guy’s gorgeous golden-brown hue unusual.  And this wasn’t a young specimen who’ll get darker with age, because the same article adds that the tail doesn’t turn black until adulthood – my photo clearly shows the black tail.  The subspecies found in Florida and the southern end of Georgia is supposed to have facial markings consisting of “dark brown postocular stripes that are bordered above and below by narrow light lines.”  Check.

I know that a lot of people wouldn’t consider coming within a few feet of a highly venomous snake something to be celebrated, but it totally made my day.  I give these animals the respect and space they merit, but I also think they’re extremely cool.

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Wassaw Island Wilderness

No kids here at the center the first half of this week.  The downside of this?  My coworkers and I didn’t actually get paid for what we did today.  The upside?  What we did was awesome.  Our bosses arranged for us, along with some of the interns from the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, to visit the Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge with some staff members from the UGA Marine Extension Service as guides.  While Wassaw Island is technically open to the public, there is no causeway or ferry service to get there.  Between that and the fact that it’s never been farmed or logged, Wassaw is one of the most pristine, undisturbed barrier islands around.

To get to the island we took skiffs, small open boats that hold ten people each.  Of course, the weather picked today to turn really cold – I think as we set out for Wassaw the temperature was hovering around forty.  That may not sound cold to you northern folks, but when 1) you’re acclimated to south Georgia and 2) you’re out on the water in an open boat with the wind whipping around you, let me tell you, it’s frigid.

(That’s me on the right, with friends and coworkers Jon and Sarah, who should definitely update their blogs more often.)

When we arrived on the island our guide told us we’d probably be hiking about five miles round trip, through the woods to the beach and back.  Five miles, okay, fine.  But then he said something about wading through a pond.  Wait, what?!

Luckily we didn’t end up actually having to wade, as cold as it was.  No, we walked across the potentially alligator-infested pond on the narrow, wobbly trunk of a fallen palm tree instead.  The water probably wasn’t more than a foot deep, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t nervous.  Crossing a green swamp, scaling the steep sides of dune ridges, bushwhacking through thickets of palmettos… it was all I could do not to start humming the theme music to Indiana Jones under my breath.  This was turning into quite an adventure.

We even found a snake – a scarlet snake, a species I’d never encountered before.  My photos of it aren’t that fantastic, because we had to press on rather than spending time on a photo shoot, but it’s a coral snake mimic.  Remember, red on black, friend of Jack.

After this, I admit, I stopped taking photographs.  We made it to the beach alive (whew!) and enjoyed being the only ones there, watching the antics of the plovers and dolphins and picking up as many sand dollars as we could carry.  The best moment of the day, however, came on the return boat trip.  We stopped to get a better look at a Bald Eagle soaring overhead, and someone said, “Hey, dolphins.”  I turned around and saw a pair of bottlenose dolphins watching me from the surface of the water, no more than two or three feet away, close enough to reach out and touch.

Eagle overhead, dolphins around us, the wind in our faces… I can think of worse ways to spend a Monday afternoon.  My job may sometimes be a bit stressful, and living in Georgia may occasionally make a Yankee like me feel like a fish out of water, but you know what?  Overall I have no complaints.

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Death Match: Snake Versus Spider!

In the world of unlikely epic battles between animals that may give you the creeps, much attention has been given in the past to deadly struggles between alligators and pythons in the Everglades, but my mom recently gave me a heads up about a match-up no less intriguing for playing out on a smaller scale.  Click here for the most recent edition of the newsletter of the famous Boyce Thompson Arboretum outside Phoenix, Arizona, and on the right-hand side you’ll see the headline “Widow wins big: Visitors witness venomous valor.”  (Further down in the article is the phrase “bemused biologists barricade bookstore.”  Somewhere, someone is immensely proud of their alliteration abilities.)  Apparently a baby coral snake somehow got entangled in the web of a black widow spider, and the spider actually killed and ate it.  Crazy.

 

(image is obviously not mine, having been borrowed from the article in question)

The Arboretum is one of my favorite places in the Phoenix area, and I’ll almost definitely be paying it a visit while I’m town to visit my parents for the holiday this week.  Stay tuned for photos!