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toothless scale-rubbing egg-eaters, no head-spreading toad-eaters, no amplified-hissing
gopher and pine snakes, and so forth. 25
Finally, serpents have mattered to us since the very origin of primates, and con-
versely, our lineage likely has influenced them far more than traditionally acknow-
ledged. We've shared almost eighty million years of killings, bona fide threats, mimetic
bluffs, retaliatory weaponry, and cultural traditions—impelled by constriction and front-
fanged venom injection in their corner, by binocular vision, weapon-grasping hands, and
cognitive superiority in ours. That evolutionary dialectic likely intensified on the Plio-
Pleistocene savannas of Africa—the famous Laetoli and Olduvai hominid sites have yiel-
ded fossil spitting cobras and puff adders, one of which had eaten a hare 26 —and still
challenges our efforts to coexist with snakes.
Two problems hinder appreciation of serpents, one being our long history of mutual
strife and ophidiophobia, the other ignorance of their lives as individuals. The fact that
Henry Fitch never saw a copperhead feed in the course of all his Kansas fieldwork,
and that I've watched only a handful of snakes eat during decades outdoors, under-
scores the second point. How can we illuminate the daily comings and goings of such
low-key, secretive creatures, the better to understand and care about them? As a teen-
ager, I viewed with dismay National Geographic images of radio-collared grizzlies, be-
cause their telemetry transmitters were so blatantly inappropriate for animals with no
shoulders and a propensity for tight squeezes. By the 1970s, radios were miniaturized
for snakes, and although early studies with force-fed units were crude—one research-
er sewed thread through the foreparts to prevent regurgitation—keep in mind that the
Wright brothers didn't build a space shuttle. Over the ensuing decades telemetry revo-
lutionized snake biology, and the surprises keep coming, some of them powerfully rel-
evant to conservation.
In the summer of 1980 I manually restrained a western rattlesnake in Berkeley's
Strawberry Canyon and pushed a paraffin-encased radio the size of an unshelled peanut
down its throat, then used a Citizens' Band receiver to follow the beeping rattler and
watch it ambush, trail, and eat a field mouse. Observing snake behavior in the field was
so instantly addictive that I soon journeyed to Costa Rica, intent on radio-tracking pit-
vipers at La Selva. Obvious downsides were the risks that manual restraint posed to
both the snakes and me, and the passage of transmitters out one end or the other, often
within days of being ingested. Nonetheless, we soon documented a juvenile bushmaster
hunting three, six, and twenty-four days at different sites, moving some fifty yards total.
On the thirty-third night she ate what we inferred was a rodent equaling 40 percent of
her weight, based on the shape and size of the food lump; she then remained in place
for nine days before moving on. A seven-foot adult lingered for three weeks at one site,
resting by day and hunting by night, before leaving us its shed skin, and a scat full of
spiny rat hair with the reusable radio.
Technology ramped up with publication in 1982 of a surgical implantation technique
by grad student Howard Reinert and his advisor, David Cundall, the anatomist who
later helped assemble the giant Cornell python skeleton. 27 Shortly thereafter, Tucson
physician Dave Hardy—fascinated by bushmasters since his army brat childhood in
Panama—joined me, and thanks to his expertise we abandoned manual restraint and
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