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er attributes the smaller western banded geckos with which it co-occurs. Collaborating
with Lee Grismer, an expert on gecko evolution, Ben then used comparative analyses to
infer behavioral and physiological changes in Coleonyx over geologic time, as banded
geckos diversified in the changing environments of western North America. In what was
perhaps his most influential paper, they demonstrated that those lizards are descended
from tropical stock and that the tiny ranges of the two rare species reflect widespread
past distributions, when moister climates characterized the arid Southwest. 10
Although geckos fascinated Ben, another reptile best symbolized for him the emo-
tional rewards of fieldwork. By the early 1960s less than a dozen Davis Mountain king-
snakes had been recorded since the species' 1901 discovery in an isolated range north
of Big Bend National Park. As high school herp nerds keen to make important finds
ourselves, we were familiar with the records of every known Lampropeltisalterna —two
were discovered sheltered among rocks, for example, one of them eating a crevice spiny
lizard. At the Fort Worth Zoo we admired the most recently collected animal's black-
and-tan bands, marveled at its large eyes and flattened head, all so different from the
black-and-yellow speckled kingsnakes we'd caught locally. Moreover, in 1951 L. blairi
had been described from the eastern edge of the Trans-Pecos region, with dark bands
widely split by crimson-orange and obviously related to L. alterna. A black-and-white
photograph in HandbookofSnakes of the second known Blair's kingsnake was spectac-
ular, 11 and that species likewise had since been seen only a handful of times.
Just before heading off to college Ben thought he'd finally collected a Davis Mountain
kingsnake, a roadkill that on closer inspection proved to be the equally poorly known
Baird's ratsnake, the basis for his second publication, about its distinctive juvenile col-
oration. 12 One of our Strecker Society friends soon found several Blair's kingsnakes by
road-hunting, and within a few years others extended the known ranges of both forms.
By the 1980s these beautiful serpents commanded a hundred dollars each in the pet
trade, and additional studies demonstrated that Davis Mountain and Blair's kingsnakes
are the same species. Those from the eastern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert more
likely have red blotches (the blairi morph) than individuals from farther west; all of them
are now called gray-banded kingsnakes. 13
Every summer Ben would head for West Texas, searching for what he called simply
alterna, as well as Trans-Pecos ratsnakes, milksnakes, copperheads, and other
creatures that as teenagers we'd regarded as living jewels. More often he'd encounter
western diamond-backed rattlers and other common species, or sometimes just a few
toads or a dead black-tailed jackrabbit, but no trip was ever described as a failure. Wait-
ing for dusk, over tacos and chicken-fried steaks, he was energized by conversations
with fellow snake hunters about everything from peyote cacti to regional history and
politics. More privately, Ben once told me that gray-banded kingsnakes embodied life's
complex mystique, from personal disappointments and victories to the as-yet-unknown
habits of such difficult-to-observe crevice-dwelling reptiles. “Wouldn't it be incredible,”
he'd exclaim, “to find out what they're doing during the day, when they're hidden? That
would just be so cool!
Night after night Ben would cruise certain two-lane paved roads into the early hours
of the morning, fighting weariness with a cooler of Cokes and scanning for the famil-
iar image of a snake in the headlights. Around midnight he'd pull over, walk of the
road to relieve himself, and contemplate whatever answers emerged from the world
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