In December, I had the opportunity to visit La Mica Biological Station and Parque Nacional Omar Torrijos in El Copé, Panama and in the vicinity of Parque Nacional Corcovado on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. The goal of this trip was to explore the habitat of two Bushmaster species (Lachesis stenophrys in Panama and Lachesis melanocephala in Costa Rica), scout out potential field sites for The Orianne Society’s Bushmaster program, and meet the local partners that will be instrumental in our efforts to conserve the species. We picked these two areas because of past Bushmaster observations, but Bushmasters are extremely difficult to find in any area, and we did not observe any individuals. This certainly demonstrated the challenges that come with attempting to conserve a top predator; in many ways Bushmasters may be more similar to a species like a jaguar than many other snakes. Despite this, I consider the trip to have been a great success: I experienced the primary rainforest that is the realm of this snake, saw many amazing creatures, and met many people whose enthusiasm and support for snake conservation will certainly help make our efforts a success. Below I provide some snapshots from the trip that represent some of the aspects and species that I experienced. And for more information on the Bushmaster program in general, please visit the Bushmaster page on the Orianne Society website.
I had never before been to the neotropics and my first experiences with primary rainforest were both fantastic and overwhelming. Like the Grand Canyon, I found trying to represent the primary forest through a photograph to be somewhat futile – no image matched what I actually saw with my own eyes. That being said, I like these photographs. The first is taken from the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica – it demonstrates some of the tree diversity and the forest appears to swallow our field crew as they descend further into the forest. The second, from Parque Nacional Omar Torrijos in Panama, shows the complete canopy cover extending across multiple mountain ridges. It can be a disorienting place to navigate (I got slightly turned around a few times) and I probably lost a gallon of sweat some days, but it is probably the most wonderful natural environment I’ve ever personally visited (and the perfect place for a giant viper to hide).
These two photos represent the types of places where we would look for Bushmasters: within tree buttresses and in burrows. Of course, luck is with you if you see a Bushmaster in this microhabitat. More typically, Bushmasters are probably hiding deep within burrows or under large logs that are difficult to access. That is why one of our future project goals is to use cameras to help us search in burrows or under logs.
A Snake Ambassador
As with most places in the world, snakes are often killed on sight in Central America. That’s why it is really inspiring to meet people who are changing attitudes about snakes on a local level. In Panama, Julie Ray (director of La Mica Biological Station) has educated many people about snakes and has helped to reduce persecution of many snakes in the surrounding communities. For instance, during a guided hike in Panama, we found an eyelash viper (Bothriechis schlegelii) and our guide was enthusiastically snapping pictures on his cellphone. Later we found out from Julie that the same individual used to kill snakes, but no longer does. Supporters of snakes on the Osa Peninsula sometimes have the help of Chiquita (pictured), a “pet” eyelash viper. Chiquita was rescued from a school and now usually spends her time in a plant at one of the local lodging areas. Visitors are able to see a viper up close, and when Chiquita needs to be moved (ironically, she doesn’t like rain), she is gently moved with a long stick to a sheltered place. The snake stays around on its own accord and is a perfect symbol for the beauty and gentleness of many snakes, including venomous ones.
Of course, when people think of venomous snakes of Central America, the Terciopelo (also called the fer-de-lance;Bothrops asper) immediately comes to mind. This is a snake that many people fear, with a reputation for being extremely aggressive and dangerous.It is certainly a dangerous snake, responsible for most venomous snakebites in Central America. Yet it is also not waiting to attack people, as this individual demonstrated to me. I saw this snake walking on a transect looking for Bushmasters and the snake was right in my path coiled exactly as pictured. I was able to see it a couple of strides ahead and so the snake was not disturbed. The snake was not oblivious to our presence, as it made slight movements of the head in our direction. Yet it remained in its coil. And when we captured the snake temporarily (we were measuring all snakes we found), the snake did not try to attack us, but rather tried to flee. It only struck when we restrained its body with a hook to get it in a restraining tube to be measured. In other words, it acted as though we would probably act ourselves – avoiding conflict when possible and self-defense when there were no other options. Terciopelos are certainly a real health concern for people in Latin America, but they are certainly not the villainous creatures they are often depicted to be.
While we didn’t see a Bushmaster, we still saw some rare animals that most people normally don’t see. The White-tailed Hog-nosed Pitviper (Porthidium porrasi) shares the same general distribution as the Black-headed Bushmaster, with its range centered on the Osa Peninsula. When Guido Saborio (one of our collaborators on the Bushmaster project) found the first individual, it was the first time he had seen that species despite the many hours he spent in the Osa rainforest. In fact, he told me that next to a Bushmaster, this was the best species he would hope to find on our trip. Right after he said this, Bryan Hudson (an undergraduate at Piedmont College who joined me for the trip and has worked on Orianne Society projects in the past) called out that he had found one. And as we were leaving the area to get back on the trail, I saw one trying to slither away. All of these individuals were juveniles and were about the same size, so we are assuming that they were all members of the same litter. Still, we counted ourselves lucky to see so many of this species.
Another animal that is seldom seen and many people have never heard of is the caecilian. The caecilian may resemble a snake, but in fact it is a legless amphibian that spends its time underground or in rotting logs. Caecilians are only found in the tropics, and it was an animal that I wanted to see badly, but figured I probably wouldn’t. Amazingly, we saw three, one in Panama and two in Costa Rica. Two of the caecilians Bryan pulled out of rotting logs, but this individual of the species Dermophis occidentalis was out on the surface after a heavy rain.
Of course, it is hard to imagine the rainforest without frogs, and I was lucky to see quite a few. However, where we were in Panama, frogs recently have been very hard to come by. In fact, if you follow tropical herpetology, the name El Copé might be familiar because of extinctions. This site is one the best documented areas for amphibian declines due to the devastating chytrid fungus. In fact, I was told that just a few years ago, it was extremely difficult to find a frog and the night forests were quiet. Today, many species are still missing (such as the famous Panamanian golden frog) but frogs appear to be making a bit of a comeback. On our night hike through the forest we heard and saw numerous frogs. The frog pictured (top photo), a member of the genus Pristimantis (probably either in the cruentus group or possibly museosus) is emblematic of this decline and slow recovery. And shortly before my visit, Atelopus varius, a similar species to the golden frog and devastated by chytrid, was found in the area by another group. Let’s hope the frogs continue to recover!
Poison Dart Frogs are often a symbol of neotropical frogs and in Costa Rica, we were able to see three species of these fascinating little frogs, including the Golfodulcean Poison Frog (Phyllobates vittatus). Its name comes from the Golfo Dulce, which is the water body separating the Osa Peninsula from the mainland, and this frog has the same limited distribution as the Black-headed Bushmaster and White-tailed Hognose Viper. This poison frog species is listed as endangered by IUCN because of habitat loss in its range. It is also the most toxic of Costa Rica’s poison frogs. Earlier in the day, we had handled the green and black poison frog and then just washed our hands. When I tried to use my hand to stop the Golfodulcean poison frog from escaping, my Costa Rican companions yelled at me to not touch it! The frog is toxic enough that you don’t even want to chance having a small scrape or cut that the secretions could get into to.
The Neotropical Chameleon
Like frogs, lizards are a common sight in the tropical rainforest. The vast majority of lizards in Panama and Costa Rica are anoles, a group that is represented by hundreds of species in the tropics (one species is native to the US, the green anole). However, my favorite lizard photograph was a species that used to be considered a type of anole, but is now in its own family: Polychrus gutturosus, commonly known as the Neotropical Chameleon. This species is not related at all to true chameleons, which are restricted to the Old World, but they have a number of similar characteristics: they live in trees, they can change their color to some extent, they have a long tail (although it doesn’t curl), and they move in a slow deliberate fashion from branch to branch. And that’s what this guy is doing in the photo. It looks like he is conducting a symphony, but actually he is moving his arms in the air trying to find another branch to grab. Doubtless anyone who has kept a true chameleon for a pet has seen the same behavior of hind legs anchoring the lizard while the front limbs swing around wildly for some new perch!
One Last Photograph
I’d like to leave you with one of the small pleasures of waking up from a platform high up in the Osa Peninsula rainforest, this view of the Golfo Dulce and surrounding forest as the mist slowly burns off.