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  • Writer's pictureChris Kirkby

My day with the “Herp Team" (by Ian Paul Markham, Coordinator)

24 July 2017

My day with the “Herp Team” fittingly began at night, since their quarry “Herpetofauna” (a fancy-sounding term for reptiles and amphibians) are mostly nocturnal. The current “friaje” —a front of cold, dry air drafting up from Patagonia settling over the jungle— makes it tougher to find many of the frogs and snake one typically finds on a normal, steamy night in the jungle. Yet it provides a rare opportunity to catch canopy-dwelling snakes and lizards forced to retreat from the drafty treetops to the comparatively warmer understory layers of the forest. So we set out after dinner around 8 pm uncharacteristically bundled in sweaters and warm hats with lights and collecting bags.

As we wended our way down the forest trails the distant bark of a Bamboo rat ( echoed through the trees. The forest was indeed unusually quiet, with no frog calls and only a dim chorus of crickets. Nonetheless, beside the river, we soon stumbled upon a few juvenile Cane toads. Quickly snatching one up, Herp-team coordinator Dylan Singer explained that they were one of the very few amphibians we could not collect to take measurements on during an opportunistic survey like the one we were engaged in tonight. When stressed they ooze a potentially deadly toxin from their parathyroid glands behind their eyes as this youngster proceeded to do on Dylan’s fingers. If we were to collect them overnight in a bag to take the desired measurements the next day they would drown in their own poison. So we let the little guy go and carried on our way.

Spotting the eyeshine of a wolf spider perhaps 6 cm from toe to toe, a newer volunteer remarked in horror at the size of the creature. Dylan took a quick look at it and cheerily laughed saying, “let me show you a big spider!” A ways further down the trail he cut a small twig and crouched beside a burrow appropriately sized for a large ground squirrel. Tapping the twig within the mouth of the burrow a massive set of hairy legs sprung forward to seize the intruder before disappearing again. They belonged to an Amazonian bird-eating spider of the family Theraphosidae, this one apparently about the size of his hand! Her head appeared briefly. He patiently tapped and prodded to try to coax her further out but she soon wised up to his game and retreated deeper into the darkness of her hole.

Collared tree-runner (Plica plica) (Photo: Ian Paul Marham)

Further along the trail we stumbled across a large Turnip-tailed gecko (Thecadactylus rapicaudus) tucked into a crevice in the tree. Deep in her hideout, she proved too elusive even for the skilled reptile wranglers, so we carried on, still empty-handed. But we didn’t have to go far for our first success. Just as predicted an arboreal lizard, the Collared tree-runner (Plica plica), often found high in the canopy, sat waiting for us on the trunk of a tree no more than a meter and a half from the ground.

Laughing at Pedro's non-plussed expression (Photo: Ian Paul Markham)

Herp-team volunteer, Maya Klem was particularly pleased to find this species as a bit over a week ago she had made a special friend of the same kind. Her beloved lizard friend “Pete” had been quite taken with her and for much of a day happily sat with her leg or tucked in her pocket with his little head poking out observing the comings and goings of the day.

All in all, we caught three more Plica plica (naturally, they were given the names “Pete II”, “Pedro”, and “Benjamin”), as well as a small Bolivian sheep frog (given the name for the surprisingly loud bleating call it makes from the forest floor). The largest of our lizard findings was only captured with a team effort with volunteer Paul Kriedemann gallantly boosting Dylan up an extra half body length where he could snatch it from the tree. With lizards in bags, ready for measurements to be taken the following day, we returned to camp, entering the clearing to enjoy a flawless view of the Milky Way above our thatched roof.

The Milky Way shining bright above our cabin (Photo: Ian Paul Markham)

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