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Arnold Arboretum

Snakes!

March 10, 2014 by Cam Webb

Some of the snakes we’ve seen. (Photos by Marliana Krisniawati and ‘Acun’ Hery Yanto)

Some of the snakes we’ve seen. (Photos by Marliana Krisniawati and ‘Acun’ Hery Yanto)

Before getting on to the business of forest tree composition, a brief zoological interlude.

This site seems to have more snakes than anywhere else I’ve been to in Indonesia. If Waigeo was “bird-land,” this is “snake-land!” Admittedly, the snakes I’ve seen here have not been very big. However, a small snake can still give a nasty bike if you put your hand on it, and many of the snakes have been among the rocks we’ve been climbing around. Indeed, the rest of the team credit the high snake density to the very rocky nature of the site: conventional wisdom in Indonesia suggests that snakes like to live among rocks. I’ve found there is always much folk wisdom and excited talk about snakes, among locals and among foreigners! In general, snakes in Indonesian forests seem to be much less abundant than in comparable forests in Africa and America, according to my own experience and that of other biologists I’ve talked to.

However, at the Cabang Panti research station at Gunung Palung, Kalimantan, many researchers have remarked upon a strange but seemingly consistent pattern: first time visitors to the site will often see several snakes, but won’t see any snakes at all after a day or so and continuing for months. Here in Flores, the first warning we received about the forest was to beware of the giant pythons! I haven’t seen a python here, but have seen plenty of vipers (top picture) and non-venomous colubrids, and other members of the team have seen kraits (middle picture).

I did get a fright from perhaps the strangest snake I’ve ever seen. I was walking in the early morning before daybreak, and heard a rustling in the leaf litter next to the trail. I turned back and shone my headlamp on a snake about three feet long. It was black, with sparse, white, uneven blotches on its upper parts, and it didn’t seem to have the classic, triangular viper head. What was strange about it was that it was vigorously rattling the last 10 cm of its upturned tail. There was no clear rattle structure, and the sound may have been coming from the vibrations against leaves. Looking on the web I see that many colubrids* apparently will rattle their tails, but this was my first encounter with one, and having almost stepped on a rattlesnake in the US, the sound (and as always, the snake’s sinuousness of form) pushed my “primate nature” into flight node!

(*I just discovered this page by Nick Baker, about the banded wolf snake, Lycodon subcinctus, in West Flores; looks close to what I remember.)


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