Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
Mertens uttered the last words “What a fitting death for a herpetologist.” One can only
sadly wonder whether a fourteen-inch Burmese krait, seemingly too small to be deadly,
would have killed California Academy of Sciences' Joe Slowinski in 2001 if expat Hans
Schnurrenberger's rapid demise from the bite of a foot-long MacClelland's coralsnake,
thirty-five years earlier in Nepal, had been publicized. 3
Schmidt succumbed on my thirteenth birthday, and I'd met Mertens in Germany, but
until 1981, despite their deaths, I experienced only admiration during many run-ins with
a dozen kinds of pitvipers, several coralsnakes, and a couple of European adders. Up to
that point I'd never worked where snakes felt like serious threats, but during the ensu-
ing decade in Costa Rica two species afforded some viscerally thought-provoking mo-
ments: bushmasters and terciopelos could scarcely be more different, but out on a trail
at night, the biggest western diamondbacks I'd ever caught couldn't hold a candle to
either of them as an electrifying presence. Since then I've met countless other venom-
ous snakes—from golden lanceheads and urutús in Brazil to puff adders and a Cape
cobra in South Africa—and even though bumping an unseen bushmaster with my foot
was momentarily unnerving, only March's killer had me chronically on edge. Long mis-
named fer-de-lance, French for “spearhead” and more appropriate for a Caribbean is-
land pitviper, the Mesoamerican species is now called terciopelo, Spanish for “velvet,”
by gringos and campesinos alike—an allusion to the lush appearance of its huge black-
and-gold females.
My uneasiness around terciopelos was first inspired by a severe bite sustained by
a Berkeley ecologist colleague, Rob Colwell—he'd been struck in the shoulder while
walking along a streambank and waited several anxious hours for rescue 4 —and that
apprehension was soon reinforced by the inch-long fangs and copious venom flow I en-
countered when handling them. Even more ominous was pioneering Costa Rican snake
expert Clodomiro Picado's sobering description: “Moments after being bitten, the man
feels a live fire germinating in the wound, as if red-hot tongs contorted his flesh; that
which was mortified enlarges to monstrosity, and lividness invades him. The victim wit-
nesses his body becoming a corpse piece by piece; a chill of death invades all his being,
and soon bloody threads fall from his gums; and his eyes, without intending to, will also
cry blood, until beaten by suffering and anguish, he loses the sense of reality. If we ask
the unlucky man something, he may still see us through blurred eyes, but we get no re-
sponse; and perhaps a final sweat of red pearls or a mouthful of blackish blood warns of
impending death.” 5
Although bushmasters and terciopelos are equally well hidden in their lairs, the
former lay a few large eggs and take rodents throughout life, while the latter bear
dozens of young that feed first on frogs and lizards, then switch to birds and mammals
as they grow larger. Bushmasters attain at least nine feet, prefer primary rainforest, and
rarely strike people, whereas terciopelos average five feet, thrive in disturbed areas,
and, consistent with their legendary feistiness, cause many snakebites. 6 The first big
terciopelo I tried to catch arrayed herself in a striking coil when touched with a snake
hook, so that, stuck knee-deep in swamp mud, I fervently wished for a pistol during
the few tense seconds until she moved away. A six-footer slithered between my legs as
I tried to restrain her, and two others reversed direction while crawling under palm
leaves, as if to ambush their pursuers. Despite biologists being bitten only about once
every half million person-hours of fieldwork at La Selva, Picado's grim scenario often
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