A Big Night Out in the Forest (by Paul Kriedemann, intern)
1 August 2017
A big part of what the Herpetology Team does is nocturnal line transects. This is a data collection method that happens at night when the subjects, reptiles and amphibians, are most active. They take place on a set of parallel 100m-long sample trails, each seperated by 10m from each other, covering an area of 1 hectare (100m x 100m). The idea is to regularly sample these transects by walking slowly along them looking for amphibians and reptiles and recording information like the location and time they were found, and then capture them for processing, which involves taking their measurements and weighing them. They are later released back into the jungle near where they were caught. The purpose of doing this is to assess species diversity and population densities in certain habitat types and to eventually compare the gathered data with data collected from previous years and at other sites and to determine if human activities such as tourism, logging, nearby agriculture, and climate change in general are affecting populations or not and ultimately providing forest land-owners with information they can use to conserve the wildlife in their forest. There is obviously a lot more science involved but the purpose of this blog is not to get into the particulars of the science but instead to describe my layman’s experience of tagging along with and assisting the professional researchers.
On my first night out with the Herpetofauna Team, I didn’t see a damn thing! Well what I mean is that I saw everything that the rest of the team had found and caught but I didn’t actually spot anything myself. It was quite a humbling experience. This stuff isn’t easy at all, especially the wildlife spotting part. And then on my second night I was at the very back of the line of people and I made the first sighting of something which turned out to be quite special - a beautiful Hoffmann's two-toed sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni) that the rest of the team had walked right under. I was sure I had suddenly become a master spotter. Despite it being probably as close as seven or eight meters away, I had had my flashlight on the creature for at least about ten seconds staring quizzically up at it wondering what I was looking at before I decided I actually had something and then suddenly and confidently blurted out, “Guys! I have a sloth here!” to which there were some excited “Ooohs” and “Aaws”. We hung around for about five minutes savouring our experience with the rare and reclusive animal and I for one, was surprised at how quickly it moved up towards the canopy and into relative safety from the nosy humans and their annoying flashlights and I was especially surprised at how clean and shiny and pretty its coat looked. I guess I was expecting a mangled and matted moss covered mess, but it really was an extraordinarily beautiful thing and I thought of my girlfriend who loves sloths and I wished more than I usually do that she could have been there with me to share the experience. We then moved on and that was the end of my spotting for the next two weeks! Nada! Nothing! And as we say in South Africa, fok all! Our mighty leader Dylan Singer has been in the jungle for quite some time now and has a very well-tuned eye and is usually at the front of the line of people on the trail so he does the majority of the spotting, but there are other jungle newbies finding stuff so I have no excuse. It’s humbling. I guess I am more used to the spotting wildlife on the African savanna back home in South Africa!
But last night, after being here in the rain forest and getting my eye in for over two weeks, my luck changed a little bit. I was the first one to find something, how about that? It was right at the beginning of our night time walk, actually long before we even got to the transects themselves. It was literally on the edge of the lodge clearing where the jungle starts. I am quite a quiet person, so when I blurted out loudly that, “I have found a frog!” a surprised chuckle spread through the group which turned into a loud burst of laughter after I immediately bent down, caught the beast and declared on the top of my voice, “ I HAVE CAPTURED THE FROG!” This initiated a stream of good natured jokes from the team mocking my reaction to the moment and as usual on the Herp team, the activity had barely begun and we were already having a good laugh!
My frog and auspicious first amphibian find turned out to be a Rhinella margaritifer or a Crested forest toad, one of the most common animals here in this part of the world. Dylan usually jokingly identifies this species as, “The Crested forest toad. The rarest animal in the Amazon”, because of how many there are here and how often they turn up on Herp team sampling sesions. After it peed on me and all the usual wart myths were declared and dispelled, it got bagged and stowed away for tomorrow’s measurement session. About five minutes later and a short distance down the trail , Dylan blurted out, in a terrible South African accent, “I have captured a frog!” and the laughter at my expense (the loudest coming from me!) started up again and the second find of the night was made. Pristamantis cruralis are interesting because their development process includes no tadpole stage nor metamorphosis. The female builds a foam nest by secreting a sticky substance and then whips it into a foam by frothing it up with her legs. She then lays her eggs in the nest which a male fertilizers and the eggs later hatch directly into tiny little froglets.
About fifteen minutes later and a little further down the trail, Tim Kalf, Lisa Oor and I, who had been left behind a bit, found something truly bizarre hanging from under a leaf on the side of the trail. Unfortunately they left the program for back home in Holland before being able to give me a photograph of the strange creature so I will try to describe it. It looked like an alien! It was a translucent white and it appeared extremely soft and delicate and it had it had wet paper like wings hanging from it and it was very large for an insect. It glowed like an apparition from another dimension in our flash lights and the three of us were completely transfixed by how utterly weird it was. It seemed to be hanging from an insect which on closer inspection was hollow and it looked to me like what we were looking at was an insect that must have, moments before, emerged from its previous exoskeleton which it had just shed but the shell was much smaller than the alien creature dangling precariously from it so my theory wasn’t supported by Tim and Lisa. None of us were able to identify it and the group were too far ahead to call back for an opinion and it wasn’t a reptile or amphibian anyway so it will forever remain an anomalous mystery to us which, due to its’ other worldly strangeness, I kind of like. Sometimes not getting an answer makes an experience all the more magical and this was certainly the case in this instance.
By the time we caught up with the group, we had arrived at a small stream. Earlier, as we were getting ready for the walk, some of the group had decided that they wanted to see a caiman so Dylan agreed that we would explore the stream a little bit before we forged ahead to the study area and Maya Klem was the first to find something. Sitting on a leaf on the river bank as she was entering the stream, she spotted an Amereerga trivitata or Three striped poison frog. As she was bagging it, she felt an unexpected movement on her hand and on closer inspection, she discovered a whole bunch of tadpoles to which she exclaimed, “This frog is giving birth on my hand!” and then hesitantly, “But that doesn’t make any sense.” This caused laughter! After a brief moment of enjoying the happy chaos, I drew upon my knowledge gained from watching nature documentaries and reluctantly suggested that the mother frog was transporting her tadpoles in her mouth. Luckily for my pride, I was right and Dylan confirmed my theory and added that she indeed wasn’t giving birth and was, in fact, probably moving her young from a phytotelmata or any other small body of water down to a larger water source which, in this case, was the stream. Another unusual event that is seldom seen.
Almost immediately afterwards, after we spread out up and down the stream, Dylan heard a splash and followed the sound to catch a frog. His mind was blown to discover that it was a renegade Crested forest toad! He’s been in the jungle doing biological field work focused on herpetology for over two years now and he has never seen this species swimming in the water and was very excited by how unusual the event was. Unfortunately, the likely explanation is rather mundane. It was probably not a renegade disregarding all the rules of its species after all, but had almost certainly been sitting on the river bank away from the water like a good little Crested forest toad and it had been disturbed by Dylan and had jumped into the water by accident. It was still pretty cool though for Dylan to see one of these guys in the water for the first time.
Then it was my turn again! My second sighting and capture! For a city boy like me, the thrill of scanning vast areas of forest for hours on end and seeing nothing but a small circle of artificial light containing a billion leaves and a million branches and thousands and thousands of tree trunks and then finding myself knee-deep in a small stream in the Amazon jungle and suddenly have a beautiful little creature burst into full glorious view right before my very eyes is a truly indescribable experience! Don’t get me wrong though. Walking through a place like this is still extremely fulfilling and enriching. The jungle at night is a truly mystical place! Seeing animals is just a bonus. But when one does emerge from the leaves and mud like a jewel, the feeling is a genuinely special one. And Hypsiboas geographicus or Mapped tree frogs are truly pretty little things. I’m from Africa and it’s a part of Africa that doesn’t have tree frogs. Our frogs back home are mostly rather boring and standard looking little things. I guess it’s possible that I’m of this opinion because I am just used to seeing the types of frogs you are likely to see in the Western Cape in South Africa and that to someone not familiar with them, they would seem as exotic and as exciting as tree frogs seem to me so before I announced my discovery to the group, I secretly enjoyed a quiet moment alone with my tiny new amphibian friend and for a moment, as I gazed at its picturesque skin and into its remarkably beautiful eyes, I let myself believe that the gorgeous little creature was enjoying the abduction as much as I was.
Meanwhile, a mild frenzy was slowly developing upstream from where I was having my intimate encounter. I was a little distance downstream from where the group was quickly gathering to gawk at another anomaly! This time it was a frog Tim had found. It was another Mapped tree frog but this one had a parasitic worm clearly visible in its back and there where shrieks of “Oh my god!” and “Eew! Gross! That is SO weird!!!” coming from the group. “WHAT!?!? I can see it moving!!!” That was it! I had to go and have a look! I recorded the position where I had found my tree frog and the habitat type it was on and went to see what all the commotion was about and there, clear as day in the middle of a circle of budding young scientists and their headlights, was a poor little creature with a worm stretching the full length of its back and then some, just below the surface of its skin, and yes! It was actually moving very slowly around! Some of the group expressed pity for the unfortunate little beast and there was a discussion about the possibility of cutting the worm out but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the parasite that was under so much fire from people sympathising only with the host. I mean, surely the worm has as much right to be allowed to eek out a living, as any of us do?
Speaking of parasites, some of us had slowly begun to become more and more aware of tiny little flying insects trying their luck biting into our skin. As knowledgeable as Dylan is, he wasn’t able to tell us what the little bugs were that were slowly becoming really annoying. They didn’t inflict the most painful bite in the world and most of us agreed that our biggest worry was how we would all be affected the next morning. There is no shortage of biting insects here in the jungle (the sand fly being by far the worst in my experience), so adding one more to the list of things that would result in a few days of frenzied scratching, was the last thing any of us wanted so despite not having seen a caiman, we decided it was time to move on.
Already feeling like we’d had an unusually eventful evening, we finally arrived at the first transect trail. The pace slowed right down as it always does on transects and the group quietened down and we began the task of methodically searching all the micro-habitat types for our little subjects. As usual, it was Dylan who found one. It was an Adenomera andrea which is one of the very common little brown terrestrial frogs that live in this area. It turned out to be the only find on that particular transect.
On the second transect, the general vibe of the group was rapidly crashing. The swarm of bugs we tried to escape from in the stream had followed us and they had become a real nuisance. It was late and we were tired and we were being relentlessly attacked by a tiny, invincible enemy and to make it even worse, the second transect gave up none of its secrets and we found absolutely nothing, whcih sometimes happens. The highlight was probably a group of early twenty years olds seeing a forty year old man – me – float over a big tree that had fallen across our path and present the youngsters with a tricky obstacle, with the nimble and dextrous skills of a mountain goat in the prime of its life. But after the second transect was complete and Dylan announced that we would do one more, the group had had their fill and it was only Dylan, Maya and myself who had enough left in the tank to brave the swarm and forge on.
About three minutes after the others went back to the lodge, the sudden and terrifying sound of a tree falling very close by shattered the night time calm and there was a moment there where Maya, Dylan and I, were paralysed by fear and couldn’t decide which direction to run! It turned out to be far enough away to not present any actual danger, but Dylan rationalised our reaction by explaining that tree falls are one of the most dangerous events in the forest. The rooting soil is very shallow here in the Amazon, so the giants around us are not very well anchored and when they go down they do so with a surprising amount of unexpected violence. But this time we were lucky and the forest spirits had merely given us a warning so we returned to the task at hand and Maya and I listened while Dylan amused us with an anecdote of his experience with dengue fever as we tried to ignore the swarm of miniscule biters and continued slowly down the transect and then it happened…
At 11:51pm Dylan yelled, “HOLY F*%K!”, interrupting himself and was followed almost immediately by Maya exclaiming with serious intent, “OH MY GOD!” It took me a moment to see what they had seen and when I did, I wasn’t entirely sure exactly what I was looking at but a burst of adrenaline instantly heightened my senses and a concoction of adrenaline and fear rose through my body like a wave of the strongest drug imaginable and I instinctively knew that it was something very dangerous! I clearly saw that it was a reptile. I was about three or four meters away and I could see black and creamy white scales and a short section of a massively thick body in glorious, high definition, adrenaline enhanced clarity. And I knew it was big. Really big! So big, in fact that it took me a moment to recognise that it was a snake. All I could see was a massive chunk of something truly monstrous through the undergrowth. Only a short piece was visible to me through the fallen tree concealing it and the rest of the giant creature was completely obscured. It’s strange how the mind works in extreme situations like this. I ran through a series of thoughts in an instant, the first being that I knew it couldn’t be an anaconda because firstly, it was the wrong colour and the area we were in was too dry for anacondas and in the pictures and footage I’ve seen of them, they have a smooth appearance. What I was looking at had the scales of a dragon! They were large and heavily keeled and very rough - huge overlapping triangles that seemed to stick out from the beasts’ body. I then began running through images of boas I’d seen because this was the only other snake in the area I was aware of that could possibly get this big but I knew it couldn’t be one. It looked more like it had the scales of a puff adder or maybe a rattle snake but this thing made the biggest puff adder I have seen look like my pinkie finger! It didn’t even occur to me that it could be a venomous snake. I mean, it was just too big! Venom in a behemoth like this thing would just be the most ridiculous case of overkill in the history of all things unnecessary. All these crazy thoughts happened in a second and then I joined in the astonished shouting by saying, “WOAH S%#T!” as it started moving and gave us a glimpse of the rest of its mighty body. Maya and Dylan were talking in extremely excited tones about what we were seeing but I was way to captivated by the giant serpent to consciously hear any of it but eventually my brain managed to register one of the words they kept using… bushmaster!
Now I am South African and far from an educated Amazon fanatic. I’m just a guy who wants to be a part of a conservation effort in a biologically rich part of the world which, unfortunately, is well known for being hard hit by mankind’s “progress”. I know very little about the South American continent in general which is in fact, why I am here. Well that and getting visas here for South Africans is easy compared to most other parts of the world but the point is, the legend of the bushmaster just isn’t a thing to the average South African. I’d heard the name for the first time being bandied around at the Collpas Tambopata Lodge, “Aw I hope we see a bushmaster!” and, “You have to see a jaguar, a tapir and a bushmaster!” and, “The three best snakes to see are an emerald boa, a western striped forest pit viper and a bushmaster!” but somehow, this way too cool sounding new name hadn’t really made an impression on me and I hadn’t bothered to find out what all the fuss was about but, what I was suddenly face to face with, certainly made a significant impression indeed!
So there we were. Three people and an actual, real life monster in the middle of the night in the middle of the Amazon jungle! The dengue fever conversation had certainly come to a very abrupt end and the bity swarm, although still very much there, no longer existed to us! Maya and I were understandably cautious and kept our distance but Dylan had turned into a little boy who had just opened up Christmas present and found that it was the very thing he had been dreaming of for the entire year. He’s a very charismatic and expressive person but this was different! His excitement and enthusiasm was palpable as he dived into the undergrowth (exhibiting expert control and an impressive amount of responsibility) with the huge snake to try to bring it out for a better look using his snake hook and trusty pin stick. On top of my own personal reaction of awe and wonderment, I knew from his reaction that what I was a part of was something truly special. The conversation was frantic and there was a lot of astonished, nervous laughter happening between the three of us while Dylan seemed to be doing the craziest stuff I have ever seen as Maya and I stood back and watched in amazement. The usual thing to do when coming across a creature on a transect is to capture it to take back with us so we can measure and weigh it but I knew as soon as Dylan began struggling with the monster snake that this wasn’t going to happen. I was genuinely concerned for his safety! He knows what he’s doing though so it wouldn’t have surprised me at all if we did end up carrying it back to camp with us but it seemed obvious to me that this beast wasn’t going to allow it. For now this wasn’t an issue yet though. We were totally caught up in just enjoying being in the presence of such an impressive animal but like I said earlier, it’s strange what kind of thoughts go through your mind in extreme situations and trying to process this monster like the harmless little frogs we’d caught earlier, is one of the things I was thinking about as Dylan was engaged in one of the most intense wrestling matches of his life!
Bushmasters (Lachesis muta muta), while being notorious for hurting and killing a lot of people with their hemotoxic and cytotoxic venom in Central and South America, are known to be quite calm. They are inactive snakes that sometimes remain in or around the same spot for days at a time. This one though, was anything but! It is possible that it was an incubating female because they sometimes become more irascible but whatever the reason, it was presenting Dylan with counters to everything he could throw at it. But suddenly he achieved his goal and with a heave of excursion, he managed to lift it up out the fallen branches and he presented it to Maya and I and we both nearly fell over backwards at the sight of the giant suddenly appearing in the air right front of us on the end of Dylan’s straining sticks. As we nervously backed away, I joked to Maya that if it came down to it, I would probably instinctively push her out of the way if I suddenly had to save myself and run! There was lots more terrified laughter and joking as we took photos and videos and very carefully revelled in this incredible encounter. There were moments where I felt that we were in danger. I had premonitions of Dylan being bitten but I also sensed that he was in total control but a part of me still felt like we needed to simply leave it alone and get the hell out of there! Millions of years of evolving alongside monsters like this these have created a very special place in the human subconscious and it is a place of pure unbridled fear and despite the thrill of the encounter, the fear was very real for me throughout a large part of the experience. I never voiced these thoughts though. Dylan was in control and that was obvious to both Maya and I and the sheer enjoyment of facing a fear and observing such a potentially deadly animal at such close quarters is a strangely alluring thing. The primal part of me wanted to save myself and run but the curious scientist in me wanted the moment to never end.
The next time Dylan had the snake off the ground right up in Maya’s and my faces, my warning of pushing her out the way earlier to save myself took an ironic turn as I felt her hand forcefully on my back as her survival instinct kicked in and, as she tried desperately to move away, she pushed me! We both immediately burst out laughing as we realised my warning had become reversed and luckily for me, I had so much adrenaline coursing through my veins that her push might as well have been on an immoveable object because I hardly even felt it! It’s strange how fear and pure and enjoyment are so similar. I mean there we were, eye to eye with an animal who’s bite would result in almost certain amputation of the envenomated limb had treatment not been administered within the first three hours and death within three days and we were laughing uncontrollably at how our bodies took on minds out their own to save themselves and, in this case, unintentionally put each other at risk.
Another example of minds going weird in the stress and sheer enthrallment of the moment is when I thought it was my turn to have a photo taken of me with the basilisk like creature and when Dylan was giving me instructions, there was much confusion regarding how I reacted. I reluctantly and enthusiastically walked off in what I understood to be the right direction and both Dylan and Maya had no idea what I was up to. I was so caught up in preparing myself for being closer to the immense and deadly snake than I had yet been, that it took multiple attempts of clarification and redirecting me “left and right and no, backwards, forwards, no Paul we need to be over there!”, from Dylan and Maya to get me on the page and then I suddenly realised what was actually going on and said,” Oh! You want me to take the picture!” They laughed so hard in a way that seemed to be questioning my sanity that I had ask myself if I, indeed was losing my mind.
After being with the gross exaggeration of a venomous snake in a heightened state of excitement for about half an hour, the four of us had calmed down enough for Dylan to feel it was safe enough for Maya and me to touch the snake. It had its head safely tucked away on the other side of a fallen branch with its vast body stretching out on the forest floor for what seemed like from here to eternity and we both hesitantly moved forward to where its tail lay harmless and exposed on the ground. My first impression on touching it was that it felt as crazy tough and as rugged as it looked. The keeled scales where rough and hard and seemed to protrude with intent. Dylan had, after-all, looked in the direction of snake when it first appeared because he heard the keeled scales on its huge body rustling through the leaves. This indeed was an animal not to be taken lightly! Even though the situation seemed controlled enough, actually being skin to skin with a monster brought on another rush of adrenaline and once again I was extremely grateful to be there. And then I noticed the very tip of the snakes’ tail. What I saw couldn’t have surprised me more. There was what appeared to be a sharp, tiny bone pocking out the end of the scaled flesh. When I asked about it, Dylan explained that, like its close relative the rattlesnake, it uses a similar technique of shaking its tail to warn undesirables of its presence. Unlike the independent sound made by the dead scales on the end of a rattle snakes tail, the tiny bit of bone on the end of the bushmasters’ tail, bumps up against whatever happens to be lying on the ground with it to produce its warning sound.
It’s a shame we weren’t able to bring the big bushmaster back to camp with us to take its measurements because having some figures for you, dear reader, would have, no doubt, impressed you almost as much as being in its presence impressed us. There was a moment when Dylan had its tail up in the air way above his, and he is a tall guy, and quite a long portion of its head, neck and body was still on the ground. We guessed that it was somewhere between two and half and three meters long. When he had it up on the sticks, the metal snake hook bent and strained under its weight and Dylan estimated that it weighed at least ten kilograms. He heaved every time he lifted it! It wouldn’t have been the biggest bushmaster ever recorded, which is three meters and fifty two centimetres, but it was big! It was certainly the biggest one Dylan had ever seen until then. We will also never know its sex. One this size would have been around about thirty years old so about a full decade older than both Dylan and Maya. It would have been a tiny little bushmaster slithering its way into the start of its life in the logging boom that gutted the forests of its big hard wood trees in Peru in the 1980s’.
There was a notable moment where Dylan had managed to manoeuvre the bushmaster into a relatively clear area of the cluttered forest floor and the three of us were positioned like a three pointed star around it and it scanned the area and looked at each of us directly in the eye and seemingly into our souls too! It was a potent display of intelligence and awareness. It is not often that I have looked into the strange distant eyes of a reptile, which seem to have a consciousness so far removed from our own, that I have felt that we share a moment of mutual recognition and respect for one another. Usually, all I see is an eye that sees a different realm of reality to the one I exist in. It’s an eye of a mind that is simply not at all like mine. One that perceives reality in a way that we used to way back down the evolutionary chain but all three of us felt a little chilling connection with a consciousness we remembered from a more primal and reptilian phase of our evolution.
Eventually, the all-consuming involvement of our encounter began to wear off and the swarm of bity bugs started to creep back into our field of awareness. By this stage, we had been bitten a thousand times and had swallowed and inhaled many of the little terrors. There are moments in the videos we took where our coughing can be heard because we’d just breathed in an insect but, like Dylan had said, we had achieved a zen-like state where it was only the four of us and the bugs didn’t matter but they were becoming a nuisance again and we started considering that it was time to leave. We looked at the time and found that what had felt like ten minutes, had in fact been over an hour! It was late and we still had a transect to complete. We had found the bushmaster twenty meters into the transect and we still had eighty more to go so, like how so often happens with adventures of epic proportion, it was time to simply and anticlimactically end it and just walk away. Dylan did one more fist pump while exclaiming, “Bushmaster!” and that’s what we did.
The last bit of transecting offered up no more subjects but we did have a wonderful conclusion to our big night out. At the end of the transect there was another little stream and while having a quick poke around, I noticed a light out the corner of my eye so I switched off my torch to see what it was and I discovered that there were little grubs buried into little grooves emitting little green points of light in the eight foot high wall of the river bank. I suggested Maya and Dylan also turn off their lights and the whole river bank instantly lit up with what looked like a galaxy of bioluminescence. It was incredibly beautiful and seemed like a farewell from the forest spirits after a once in a life time experience with an icon of the Amazon Jungle made all the more special by its outrageous size. Oh ya! Then we saw a Brazilian Wandering spider on the walk back to camp where arrived at two-o-clock in the morning and sat around for two hours waiting for the adrenaline to ware off.
Photos: Tom Ambrose, Paul Kriedemann