Back at LPAC. Part I: Reptiles.

The sense of familiarity I expected to wash over me as I stepped out of the plane on Puerto Maldonado’s tiny airport was silenced by the strangely cold air that hit my face. I had not anticipated a friaje, a front of frosty polar currents that often hits South America in the winter months. Combine this with jet lag and a long car ride into the forest and the result is a very tired traveller. My first afternoon back in the most wonderful place on the face of the earth was therefore spent in bed. I can confidently say, however, that in the following two months I completely made up for this bit of ‘wasted’ time. I think my campmates would agree with me.

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I found this gorgeous Liophis reginae (yellow-bellied swamp snake) on the first day; quite a good start.

Being surrounded by other people with cameras, it would be selfish not to bring back interesting subjects to share with everyone. As long as a snake, lizard or frog fits in a bag (and is not dangerously venomous), it’s coming back to camp. Unfortunately, they don’t always fit.
When the friaje cleared up, I knew that this was the time to go out. Cold-blooded animals had been deprived of warmth for a week and had to come out to bask in the few patches of sun that the rainforest has to offer. I hiked to the edge of our land to search in an aguajal (a swamp with a special kind of palm tree) for any big-bodied snakes. I hoped that the animal I still want to see the most, the green anaconda, would make an appearance there. But after scouting around the algae-covered swamp for thirty minutes, I was ready to give up. I glanced to my left one more time and did a sudden double take. On a fallen tree, stretched out perfectly, was a three-meter long Boa constrictor, fatter than my upper leg. I felt a mix of emotions taking over. Somewhere down in the primal parts of my brain, there was a dim fear for this creature; have we not been naturally selected to have an inherited fear of serpents? But mostly, I felt respect and awe for this wonder of evolution. With my trembling hands I was barely able to grab my camera. As I walked closer to inspect the marvellous animal, I realized there was no way I would be able to catch this behemoth. Its head was almost invisible in the thick undergrowth, and my futile attempt to lift up the back of its body only resulted in the boa casually slithering out of reach.
Despite seeing a giant armadillo and a giant anteater in the following months, this has been my favourite wildlife sighting.

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This massive Boa constrictor was very close to farmland, a habitat where it often comes into conflict with humans and livestock.

The longest night walk I’ve ever taken also turned out to be the best. I started off at 17:30 with a packed dinner and only returned at half past midnight. After eating my rice and eggs on a log next to a rather frightened collared tree runner, I finally found a species of boa I had somehow not seen before. A young Amazon tree boa (Corallus hortulanus) was hunting in a small shrub at eye-level. Finding this beautiful serpent only leaves me with two boas yet to find in the Amazon basin: the green anaconda (or ‘water boa’) and the very rare emerald tree boa. After bagging the young snake I continued my 12 km nocturnal loop while growing more and more tired. After 11 PM, I did not think I would see anything more as my exhausted stumbling would surely scare everything off. Imagine my surprise when I came eye to eye with a foraging giant armadillo. It’s hard to describe just how big this animal looks when it stands a mere two meters away from you. Seemingly oblivious of me, it sniffed the ground in search of insect nests to raid, before calmly walking off into the night. This encounter still had my heart pounding when I walked back into camp and made my way towards the kitchen. Next to one of the galletas (wooden stepping stones) I saw the unmistakable pitch black body of a mussurana (Clelia clelia). This snake was most likely interested in making a meal out of a sleeping lizard when I caught him in the act. After safely containing the serpent, I plunged into a deep well-deserved sleep.

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Since the animals are getting more used to our precense, they start coming into camp. Rats and mouse opossums already steal from the kitchen, which means that opportunistic snakes such as the mussurana (Clelia clelia) will come to hunt them. I predict that soon tiger rat snakes (Spilotes pullatus) will find their way to camp as well. Hopefully the fer-de-lances will stay away…
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The Amazon tree boa (Corallus hortulanus) takes many forms throughout its life. They may be completely red or yellow, or have a banded pattern like this individual.
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Because tree boas are primarily arboreal, they can perform impressive feats of flexibility and strength, coiling themselves into beautiful positions.
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Mussuranas look very different when they’re young, like this example here. When they become adult, they lose their red and white colours on the dorsum and turn completely black with a white belly.

Some weeks, I would find at least one snake every single day, either at night or during the day. Other weeks I would find nothing. I wonder what drives these strange clusterings of snake sightings; is it the weather, or am I simply better at searching during certain weeks? Why do I sometimes have five snakeless days in a row, and then a night with both a rainbow boa and a rare coral mud snake (which unfortunately got away, as neither my pal Sean nor I knew what it was).

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Don’t let this picture fool you: this rainbow boa (Epicrates cenchria) was not enjoying being wrapped around this thick liana.
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Rainbow boa’s have one of the most beautiful patterns of all snakes in the region. Blotches like these are called eye-spots and are a form of mimicry. They either fool a potential predator or draw away attention from more vulnerable parts of an animal’s body. Perhaps these eye-spots are useful to young rainbow boa’s, when they’re still too small to defend themselves.
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When using a flash on a rainbow boa, the reason for its common name becomes quite apparent.
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Superficially, the tawny forest racer (Dendrophidion dendrophis) bears a strong resemblance to the venomous fer-de-lance. Its round pupils give away that this is in fact a Colubrid (harmless snake). However, it didn’t feel that harmless when it sunk its teeth into my hand and refused to let go.

 

 

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The black-skinned parrot snake (Leptophis ahaetulla) is one of the most photogenic snakes in the world. It very easily goes into this threatening pose, but won’t actually strike. This individual has a beautiful turquoise coloration around its mouth, something I’ve not ever seen before.
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The green-striped vine snake (Oxybelis vulgidus) is one of the most common snakes in Madre de Dios. It’s often found at night, sleeping at eyelevel. But because it tucks its head under its slender body and doesn’t show any eyeshine, it’s not as easily spotted as one would expect.
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This snake’s primary defence is striking at its attacker. If that doesn’t work, it musks (read: poops) all over the unlucky predator or interested human.
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The yellow-tailed cribo (Drymarchon corais) is one of the most badass snakes I found. Reaching up to 3 metres in length, this non-venomous snake eats just about anything it can find; including other (venomous) snakes. Notorious for its aggresiveness, it will often strike at faces when disturbed. This 2 metre individual however was extremely docile and could be handled without too much constraint.

Snakes are not the only reptiles I found while searching for subjects in the rainforest. In streams and small lakes, caiman predate on anything they can take. When you’re in the forest for long enough and you’re surrounded by other crazy people, catching caiman becomes a fun nighttime activity. The forest harbours many beautiful lizards, tortoises and turtles as well, like an Amazon thorntail (Uracentron azureum) that fell on someone’s helmet as they were climbing a tree.
Finding reptiles can sometimes feel like playing Pokémon. You want to catch them all, but this becomes harder and harder as you find more species. The common species become familiar to you (e.g. rainbow boa’s, yellow-footed tortoises and collared tree runners) while you crave more for the rare or hard to find ones; I think of anacondas, matamatas and emerald tree boas. Fortunately, you level up as you find more species. You learn where to look, how to catch them and to safely handle your subjects. It can be overwhelming to look up the incredible biodiversity that exists within the class of Reptilia (finding out about dwarf boas was interesting) and think of all the species that are still hiding out there, waiting to be found and classified within our strange and ever-evolving taxonomic system.

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Haseman’s gecko (Gonatodes hasemani) is a beautiful species of dwarf gecko. Its pattern is absolutely stunning for such a small reptile.
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Looking right into the camera. To me, this picture is evidence that not only warm-blooded animals can be cute!
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This yellow-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis denticulata) is always a strange sight to behold. For some reason, I never expect to see a tortoise on the leaf-littered forest floor.
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This turnip-tailed gecko (Thecadactylus rapicauda) likes to hang out around human settlements, such as the small house where we store boat equipment and extra mattresses (and sometimes hold parties).
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A true master of camouflage. Its common name stems from the fact that when this gecko drops its tail (autotomy), it grows back as a big turnip like bulb.
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The Amazon thorntail (Uracentron azureum) is one of more illusive species I’ve seen at LPAC. Being a canopy dweller, it rarely shows itself to humans walking on the ground.
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Bonus picture: a highly venomous Eastern ribbon coral snake (Micrurus lemniscatus) eating a blind snake. For some reason, the small oxbow lake where I found this individual is full of this species. Without failure, I’ve found them there every single night. This was my first ever sighting of a coral snake, and also a very special one.
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