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of snakes, and one day an office mate mentioned that some students investigating black
bears in the Smoky Mountains had made hatbands out of the skin of a timber rattler,
supposedly slaughtered for the sake of their own safety. I fired of an angry letter to the
local newspaper, outraged that fellow scientists would kill any animal in the national
park and rhetorically threatening to shoot bears there in preemptive self-defense. Gor-
don's phone was soon ringing, and I was grateful for his unwavering support in the face
of heavy pressure from the snake killers' professor to censure me.
Although Tennessee was a good fit for grad school, reptiles were scarce, and I craved
tropical fieldwork. My first semester, after Gordon talked glowingly of Panama, I offered
to borrow plane fare if he'd take me with him the next time, which he did, using re-
search funds. We would spend three field seasons on Barro Colorado Island, which was
owned by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and closer to idyllic than any-
thing I'd ever imagined. Amenities included rustic lodging and family-style cuisine, but
no telephones or televisions. The forest harbored abundant wildlife, including howl-
er and spider monkeys, my first wild primates. Large black and tan weasels called
tayras bounded through the lab clearing, and American crocodiles prowled the sur-
rounding inlets. Harmless seven-foot-long bird snakes inflated their necks and gaped
when I grabbed them, whereas the smaller but deadly Central American coralsnakes
thrashed about with tails curled up and elevated, ready to bite anyone attacking their
fake “heads.”
With Gordon and another student, Beverly Dugan, I spent hundreds of steamy hours
at a clearing on Slothia, a tiny islet off Barro Colorado Island in Gatun Lake, on which
dozens of green iguanas, several red-eared slider turtles, and an American crocodile
laid eggs. S.T.R.I. scientist Stanley Rand had already filmed this reptile rookery, includ-
ing iguanas fighting for nest burrows and a huge female croc appearing suddenly in
front of his flimsy observation blind. 29 Stan's talk at a herp meeting resonated with my
advisor's long-standing dream of studying newly hatched reptiles in nature, and on his
pilot visit Gordon was encouraged by the hundreds of baby turtles and lizards emerging
from a few square yards of exposed soil.
Our blind was a tiny wooden shed, open from behind, in which we sat on stools and
poked telephoto lenses through slits in a burlap front wall. We arrived in early May,
just before the onset of the rainy season, when eggs hatched. That first year we dis-
covered sociality previously unknown in reptiles other than dinosaurs: Groups of ten-
inch green lizards emerged from nest holes, swam across open water, and dodged at-
tacking birds. They munched flowers within inches of each other without aggression.
One head-bobbed at siblings, ran several yards, looked back, returned to the stragglers,
head-bobbed again, and seemingly led them to nearby vegetation. We found iguanas
sleeping together in bushes at night and marked them with paint spots, then by obser-
vations confirmed that they spent 98 percent of daytime hours immobile. Nonetheless,
the babies were surprisingly cognizant, cocking their heads as bananaquits and oth-
er small birds flew by, and feeding when wind rustling the vegetation concealed their
movements. 30
Caught up in natural history, without a clue to the hows and whys of it all, I inevitably
had moments of introspection and inspiration. Once as we assembled for lunch Ron Car-
roll, an ant ecologist, reported a brown vinesnake eating a baby iguana nearby. “They
specialize on anoles,” I told him with overconfident authority, “but I'll have a look.”
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