Authored by Amy Mattox
I started on creepy crawlies young: first it was herding pill bugs, then a too-big collection of pinned insects, then watching transfixed as Carolina Anoles changed their skin from green to brown, tomato-red dewlaps drumming. Then catching them. Then books about snakes and chameleons and alligators, working at the zoo, pleading with my parents to keep anything reptilian in the house. By the time I got to college, I knew I wasn’t cut out for hard science (having a geneticist father who brought home vial after vial of Drosophila melanogaster as placeholder pets left its mark), but I also knew I would always find ways to be involved with wildlife, especially herps.
I know that science is interdisciplinary by nature, but the last thing I expected to hear while looking for snakes in the mountains of Panama was an obscure reference to Vladimir Nabokov. When the herpetologist sitting next to me cracked a joke about the possibility of falling victim to a parasitic botfly, that’s what I got. “If any of us do get a botfly,” he said, lounging on a picnic table in the tropical afternoon heat, “we have to name it and keep it. Name it Botkins or something.” I was floored. The only time I’d ever heard the word Botkin was in a university literature course—it appears in Nabokov’s Pale Fire as the name of the novel’s parasitic narrator, who is symbolically referred to as a “king-sized botfly.” And here I was, hearing about Nabokov’s Botkin in the middle of a Panamanian rainforest, a 20-minute hike from electricity and running water, with a crew of field biologists.
Two and a half months before arriving in Panama, I frantically drafted my first email to Dr. Stephen Spear, Orianne’s Associate Conservation Scientist. I was finishing up my freshman year at Wesleyan University and had a summer enrichment grant from the environmental studies department. The grant wasn’t given because of any particularly academic devotion to biology; it was based mostly on a summer volunteer job I’d had in high school at the Houston Zoo’s reptile house. I’m a prospective English/studio art major currently, so receiving the grant was unexpected and exciting—getting funding for wildlife conservation work hadn’t seemed like a possibility once I decided to study within the humanities. But I had the money; the only problem was where to use it. I tested leads for herpetological field work all year and sent emails upon emails, but after a period of spectacularly bad luck in early spring, I found myself out of options. Eventually I reached out to a herpetology zookeeper I’d worked with at the Houston Zoo, and she graciously sent out a slew of emails to her professional listservs. Somehow my cause ended up in Dr. Spear’s lap. I searched the Orianne Society online and found myself racing through blog posts about Hellbenders and Costa Rica, reading project and event descriptions, and eating up the surplus of photographs. I was hooked. I loaded up my dad’s car with sheets and boots and convertible hiking pants, and we drove eastward for Georgia.
The first survey I worked on wasn’t what I expected. Steve was sick and out of commission for field work, so he drove me straight up into the Smoky Mountains, introduced me to another biologist and left me to it. The wet suit they gave me was too small, the water was freezing and we didn’t find any Hellbenders, but it was wildly fun. We snaked through the water at each site, picking our way upstream and pausing to overturn oblong submerged boulders. I’d drop awkwardly below the lifted rock, sticking in an arm, then two, then a masked face into the cool cloud of silt while feeling for a moving body in the dark. After a few weeks of nothing, we pulled three huge salamanders from a river in the Cumberland Basin in Tennessee. The animals are bizarre—thick brown skin radiating sunlight, an even layer of mucus on top, wide flat mouths and long uneven bodies—but they are fun. I sat holding one for a few moments on a gravel spit by the water, watching as another was carefully measured and then dipped in water, then swabbed and dipped in water, then posed for a photograph and again dipped in water. It opened its pink mouth wide, upset at the commotion. We returned it to the rocks.
Panama was different from the relative calm of Hellbender surveying. We arrived in the early hours, overpaid for a cab and slept on neat cot beds. The customs agents at the airport laughed about our destination, but La Mica biological station was a magic place anyway. The structure we slept in was rotting out in parts—its most questionable floorboards were marked with silver duct tape x’s. I slept in a cloud of mosquito netting and woke daily to the human smell, the calling birds and the new morning tropical heat. We hiked up into the mountains at 7:30 a.m. each day up river drainage or in through the nearby Omar Torrijos National Park trying to access primary forest in our search for Central American Bushmasters (Lachesis stenophrys). We didn’t find much in the Bushmaster realm except a promising snake-like depression in the dirt. Despite the relative lack of results, we did get to see a wide gamut of neotropical herps—snakes with exotic features and coloring, frogs perched happily beside your boot. The growth was thick and tangled, and the trails were often not trails at all. It was mystic with everything at least two levels more saturated in light and color than they are stateside.
Besides tagging along for surveys and trying not to slow everybody down, I went to a couple of events that TOS held over the summer, one for private land owners in South Georgia and one for families and kids at Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta. I also went one day to scout out a Timber Rattlesnake site where a livecam was later installed. I learned to use a snake hook with maybe an ounce of coherence.
I got to spend the summer looking for and interacting with herps and with the people who work so hard to save them. It was an unbelievable summer and one I never expected. Writing this from a college campus in Connecticut, I can’t help the overwhelming urge to go back, the desire to just find stuff. I’m in my sophomore year now and I’m still going to be English major, but I’ll be an English major with an itch to lift up each damp rock and turn over every suspect pile of leaf litter. I know I’ll be thinking about Panama in my Nabokov classes, and I know I’ll always seek out ways to get back to those wilds, those forests and rivers, and the animals that inhabit them.