Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
When a local entomologist grumbled, “Everybody wants to meet eltigre, ” I chimed in
about ecotourists seeking a quick nature fix, as if they were rushing through the Louvre
for a peek at Mona Lisa. Better be content with turds and pugmarks, I mused, yearn for
a glimpse of the great rainforest carnivore but settle for heightened awareness. Then,
during one among countless nights searching for snakes, a companion exclaimed, “Hey,
a cat!”—it had bounded across the trail in front of him—and our lights swung into the
forest. The jaguar squinted from thirty feet away, all round head and broad shoulders,
rosettes and long tail; just as suddenly, with not so much as a whispered paw on leaves,
there were only small palms and saplings in the headlamp beams. No more cat, as if it
had evaporated, and in those few seconds we more easily empathized with the Mayans,
Olmecs, and others who have imbued forest creatures with mystical qualities.
Years later the memory of that animal surfaced when, with my wife, Kelly, and two
Mexican friends, I backpacked from pine-oak forest that rims the four-thousand-foot-
deep Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) down into sweltering tropical thorn scrub
along the Rio Urique. Fox scats and other carnivore signs were common along the
canyon's narrow game trails, so on the third day, when we sought permission to drink
from a Tarahumara family's spring, I inquired about predators. A grizzled elder told
us black bears raid their crops and they see tracks of mountain lions and jaguars.
The mammals themselves are rarely visible, he added, and, as if by way of explana-
tion, “Esos gatos caminan muy escondidos”—those cats walk really hidden. Asked about
rattlesnakes, the old man volunteered only that they're common and bite people, leav-
ing me wondering if his people regard lascascabeles as even more inscrutable than fe-
lids, and if, like me, they find dangerous snakes charismatic.
During my travels, focused on predators, I've come to believe that nature's most pro-
found lessons, like god and the devil, lurk in hard-won details. As a youth I'd envied
George Schaller's landmark studies of Serengeti lions but couldn't conceive of similar
research on the smaller, more secretive creatures that captivated me. By the 1980s,
though, I was collaborating with Tucson physician David Hardy, and technology made it
possible for us to implant tiny radio transmitters in fifty black-tailed rattlesnakes. Over
the course of nearly five thousand encounters, we tracked those lovely black and yel-
low serpents in Arizona's Chiricahua Mountains, chronicling their hunting tactics and
spying on their social lives. And throughout that experience, we kept asking ourselves
a question that motivates many naturalists: What is it like to be a blacktail, or for that
matter a house wren or my dog Riley?
Almost six hundred observations of our most scrutinized rattler began in the fall of
1994, when we located her coiled with male 18 under the leaves of a yucca. While new
female 21 was anesthetized Dave detected a meal by palpating her abdomen, and weeks
later a substantial midbody bulge indicated she ate again before entering a winter
refuge in November. That next March she moved to a rock squirrel's abandoned burrow
and in July delivered six babies. Female 21 remained there ten days, until the young-
sters shed their natal skins and dispersed, then crawled forty yards to a white-throated
woodrat's nest and hunted for the first time in nine months. She was courted by three
males over the next two years, mated with male 27 prior to her 1998 litter, mated with
male 26 prior to birthing in 2000, and then skipped three years before her fourth litter. 5
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