Happy Birthday, here’s
your rattlesnake. Actually here are your 28 rattlesnakes, plus
a handful of other kinds of snakes for good luck. Sound like a
good time or what? Well, that’s what we gave our son, Mike,
for his 23rd birthday. An ecology field trip. The present was
really my idea, and I got to deliver it. His mother actually
had in mind the kind of gifts you wrap up in paper and ribbon.
The presentation day was
a Sunday in October at a National Wildlife Refuge, not an
exotic pet store, near Orlando, Florida. Terry Farrell and
Peter May of Stetson University let us go with them to their
pygmy rattlesnake study site. These two ecologists have one of
the most impressive snake studies in the country. They have
collected more pigmy rattlesnakes than any other two people
anywhere. Upon being invited to join them on a sampling day I
had asked if Mike could come along. Now, Mike grew up like
most other boys, enjoying the outdoors and always wanting to
catch something. And so, because I did a lot of field work, he
often went with me. For one of this birthdays we visited Laura
Brandt in the Everglades during her study of American
crocodiles. On another we went to a tropical forest in
Veracruz, Mexico, where he caught his first boa constrictor.
He also had birthdays in Arizona collecting snakes, and others
in Michigan and on the Potomac River capturing turtles. On
some birthdays we just went to the local woods, river or swamp
to see what we could find.
For the pygmy
rattlesnake hunt we met the others at a gravel parking lot
alongside a swamp. As we drove up, one of the female students
was taking measurements on a pygmy rattlesnake that had been
crawling across the parking lot as she got out of the car. I
wondered what it would be like when we got to the study site.
We walked down a dike
separating two lakes toward a hammock where most of the snakes
are found. A hammock is a wooded area surrounded by open
wetlands and with palmettos, cypress, and bay magnolia trees.
A variety of wildlife find refuge in hammocks.
As we walked along,
Terry found a baby pygmy rattler coiled on the dike. Mike
found another, coiled in the grass a few feet away. I relaxed.
At least Mike had found a snake. He would not be disappointed.
The pygmy rattlers are so well camouflaged that many people do
not find one on their first trip. On a previous trip with
Peter and Terry, I watched Tony Mills stare at the ground
while someone pointed to a pygmy rattlesnake that neither of
us could see at first. It blended perfectly with the ground
cover of dead twigs and pine cones.
These smallest of
venomous snakes in North America are shy and retiring when it
comes to humans. They prefer not to be seen or heard. They do
have a tiny set of rattles that sound like an insect buzzing
if they get mad and you get close enough. And their venom is
potent, drop for drop. But because of their small size (seldom
over 18 inches) they are not as dangerous as cottonmouths or
Mike was in tune with
his environment that day and spotted an adult pygmy rattler on
the dike. I began to wonder how many I had stepped on. Then
came the really fun part, entering the hammock where most of
the snakes lived. A walking trail leads through the hammock
but central Florida had recently been favored with tremendous
rains. The trail was a foot deep in water, which was over two
feet deep in the woods themselves.
Some snakes seek refuge
on higher ground or vegetation during floods. And the little
rattlers were on exposed areas of dry ground as well as on
palmetto fronds and in low-lying bushes. Mike found one more
than six feet above the water in a wax myrtle tree. This gave
me a new regard for pushing vegetation aside while charging
through the woods off the trail.
We stayed approximately
three hours and found 28 pygmy rattlesnakes. I say “we”
found them because I was there. Mike found five, Peter found
six, Terry found seven, the students found the rest, and I
found none. But I did catch a green snake no one else saw. We
also found two garter snakes, four ribbon snakes, a water
snake and four box turtles.
Ecology field trips make
for fun and memorable birthday presents. You can do the same
for someone in your family, although you may prefer not to
look for rattlesnakes.
Whit Gibbons is an
eminent herpetologist and a professor at the University of
Georgia. He works at the Savannah River Ecology Lab, where he
and a large group of colleagues have completed many pioneering
projects on reptiles and amphibians. Anyone with an interest
in herpetology will thoroughly enjoy reading his book
"Their Blood Runs Cold" (By Whit Gibbons, 1983, The
University of Alabama Press, ISBN 0-8173-0133-X).