A Giant Typhlops! (by Brian Crnobrna)
12 November 2010
There are some herpetofauna transect samples that are totally boring because you find next to nothing despite the careful searching. On most transects, you find a few common species and then move on to the next (trying to do 2-4 per night). Then there are transects when you see truly unique and amazing animals. Still, other transects are plagued with so many little problems that it threatens to derail the whole data collection process. This transect on this night was a mixture of the last two.
It started off with a couple of normal observations on other transects within one of the two 1-ha plots we had set up at Tambopata Research Center (TRC). The mosquitoes were bad enough that I actually put on the leather gloves I carry around to protect against the toothy bites of boas (the mosies don’t stand a chance with those on!). Then we were confounded by escaping specimens (ones we were unable to catch). I picked up some eye-shine off deep among the trees. My assistant, Michael, and I spent about ten minutes locating the shine, then following its source, then relocating the eyes only to get lost again – all to no avail. At this point, we were nearing the end of the transect and I just wanted to finish it off and move on to the next. Within the last five meters of transect Michael took the lead ahead of me. We approached a large buttress-rooted tree that marked the end of the line. Michael disappeared around the side of the buttress. In a low whispered tone he said “Giant armadillo.” At this point, I’m happy because we get a chance to view one of the most elusive of the charismatic mega-vertebrates in the forest, but it's worth noting that even at that point we had not finished the transect – we still had a couple of meters left to go.
After finishing, I make my way towards the beast that Michael has spotted digging out its burrow just off our plot. As I slowly tip-toed past the buttress trying not to make any noise, I see out of the corner of my eye some movement inside the buttress itself – something squirming out of the matrix of earth underneath the entire structure. On instinct I reach in and grab the snake-like creature – lucky I had my gloves on; it was amongst a mess of ants in a nest. Pulling out the specimen I lost all track of the previous events and simply yelled, “what is it!” This must have been quite the annoyance to Michael, who was whole-heartedly stuck into sneaking up on the wild Giant armadillo to take a nice photo. Still, I somehow convinced him that it was a reptile or amphibian of some kind, and he joined me in rejoicing on this new capture: which on closer inspection turned out to be a rare and secretive blind snake of the genus Typhlops. These guys have no external eyes and spend almost all of their time underground where they devour unwitting ants and termites. On the rare occasions when they venture above ground they are rather clumsy and confusing to would-be predators, who they will aggressively stab with the pointed tip of their tails. What would have driven this individual to the surface in this instance may have been the giant clawed behemoth a few meters away, for despite all our herpetologist’s revelry in capturing one of the elusive subterranean (fossorial) species of the Amazon rainforest, the Giant armadillo carried on with its business of digging at the base of the same tree, basically ignoring our presence. Having noted the specimen's vitals (length, weight, etc.) we put it back down and it promptly slithered below the leaves and into the soil, vanishing like a ghost.