So, I found myself in stupid Alabama, recently divorced, and starting grad school at the ripe age of thirty-six. Life generally sucked. I needed something, anything to keep me from turning into a drunken, whiney, pathetic pile of self pity. Luckily, one of my lab mates needed an extra set of hands on a research project and I was the only one available. He asked me to go to Costa Rica to catch crocodiles. I’d been to the Central American country before, but it was on my honeymoon, and I didn’t get to explore the wilderness like I had always dreamed. Despite feeling like the last chubby kid picked on the playground for a dodge ball game, I wholeheartedly accepted the invitation for high adventure.
The weirdest two weeks of my life began with me leaving my passport at a Costa Rican bank. It’s cool, though. I realized it at a random checkpoint thirty miles down the road. I was determined to be helpful, nay, useful, and my very first action was to almost get arrested in a foreign country. Way to go, genius. Thankfully, the people of Costa Rica are like a bunch of Boy Scouts and considered me their good duty of the day. No matter how badly I blundered, they happily helped me out at every opportunity.
But, this being a wildlife blog, you want to hear about the animals. Let me first tell you about the two beasts I tagged along with. You may have seen them on the show ‘Gatorboys’. Thankfully, there was no camera crew following them in Costa Rica. Chris Murray (a Ph.D. student and lab mate) and Mike Easter (his gator-wrestling buddy from Florida) were my wolfpack. Granted, I was more of a basset hound, but they were definitely wolves. They had youth, muscles, experience, and as far as I could tell, were fearless. The roles had been established and the adventure was on. Chris was the leader. Mike was the tough veteran. I fell into my usual role of late as the mascot, the goofy sidekick. Our destination was Palo Verde, a dry forest located in Guanacaste, arriving there at the end of the dry season.
We were excited to explore the forest, so we went hiking that very night. About a half-mile (or kilometer--we are scientists here) into the forest the first rains of the season hit us like a tsunami falling from the sky. Lightning, thunder, wind and blistering rain pummeled everything. Much to my amusement both Chris and Mike turned into eight-year-old bed-wetters walking into a boogie-man convention when lightning was close. What’s a few hundred-million volts of electricity between friends, right? So our fearful leader decided to get the heck out of there. We didn’t make it ten meters (science!) before the creatures began to emerge.
If you ever get the chance to experience springtime in Central America, take it. I had dreamed all my life about the rainforest, the jungle and all its mysterious wild things. Finally, there they were, surfacing by the hundreds. We came across a spring-fed stream and followed it to a small pool. Marine Toads (Bufo marinus) the size of pineapples stood around the parameter like warty gargoyles. They had no fear of us, and we often had to step around them. Then we found our first serpent, the Blunt Headed Snake (Imnatodes gemmistratus), creeping along a low-hanging vine. They look like spaghetti with eyeballs. Even though we were making some great finds, the (scaredy-sissy-pants) men were still concerned about the thunder and lightning. We headed back to the dirt road connected to the field station.
Upon cresting the hill, Mike yelled, “Snake!” Which is like ‘Gooooooooooal’ to a herpetologist. We spotted the kielbasa-thick brown snake crawling into a hole along the side of the road. The snake turned out to be a Mexican Burrowing Python (Loxocimus bicolor). It was one of the only identifications I helped with. I had previously worked with the gentle critters, and never expected to find one. Score!
My first night in the jungle (I know it was technically a dry forest, but jungle sounds more adventurie) and we’d already seen two snakes. We walked back to the field station, finding a few more critters along the way. One was what I called a Hi-lighter Toad (Anaxyrous luetkenii). It was unbelievably bright yellow and would have been one of the coolest creatures I had ever come across had I not stumbled upon eight thousand of them shortly thereafter.
We spotted an amplexing (frog sexy time) pair of Mexican Burrowing Toads (Rhinophrynus dorsalis). If you melted a hockey puck into a puddle and sneezed on its back, you would have a Mexican Burrowing Toad.
Chris had a day or two of preparation before we went for the crocs. He had spent some time there the previous summer and scouted a canal he wanted to explore. He begged, borrowed, and possibly stole a boat. By boat, I mean an aluminum can cut in half lengthwise, with three benches. It was the only floating thing available and we were glad to have it. Also, it fit nicely into the back of the field station’s truck, so at least we didn’t have to carry it to the site.
On our first trip we were dropped off as far down the canal as the truck could go. While driving along I saw several crocs sunning themselves on its banks. Needless to say, the adventure bug gnawed on my mind. We unloaded the whaler and as we packed our equipment into the floating filing cabinet, Chris was taken to the side by Solomon, the driver of the truck. Of the three of us, Chris was the only one that had the local dialect mastered. By ‘mastered’ I mean he knew the swear words and was pretty good at hand signals. Luckily, Solomon had watched some American television from the early ‘70s.
After a few minutes of explanation we were told to tie the boat to a tree downstream so we didn’t have to drag it back to the field station every night. It sounded reasonable. There was one catch, though. To prevent it from being stolen we had to chain it on the other side of the canal. No one was crazy enough to cross the crocodile-riddled waterway to steal a crappy skiff. That meant we had to cross said canal on our way back, in the dark when the crocs were most active. I’ll get to that later.
Solomon and Oscar, the other guy who dropped us off, wanted pictures with the ‘crazy gringos’ before we left. We agreed to meet them at the same spot at four in the morning for a ride back to the station. As the current slowly pulled us downstream, away from the truck, Oscar and Solomon began singing the theme to “Gilligan’s Island” in broken English while waving goodbye. I have a particularly fond memory of the line, “… a three-hour tour…”
Our first nightly adventure had begun. The boat motor consisted of a paddle. Yes, one. It was a two-inch-thick piece of possibly petrified hardwood cut into the shape of a paddle, weighing approximately forty-seven kilos, give-or-take (that’s more than forty-seven pounds). Luckily, Chris lost it within the first hour to the depths of the croc-filled canal. Too bad AAA didn’t have a canoe service. We floated on, not worrying about how we would get back upstream later. There were monsters to conquer!
The word crepuscular had always been one of my favorites. It refers to animals that are most active at dawn and dusk. The crepuscular wildlife of the canal consisted of swarms of insects. I personally believe these creatures spent most of their life cycle in a pond of crystal meth, bath salts, and steroids. They chewed through mosquito netting like it was a Snickers wrapper and lapped up DEET like college freshmen at a jello-shot convention. The best thing about the bugs is when you squished eight or ten of them on your face (because you couldn’t just kill one at a time) they emitted a wonderful, blistering acid solution.
Luckily, we were mostly too excited to be chasing the wild crocodiles to be overly concerned with the insects. We caught dozens of hatchlings and a few larger, but nothing over two meters. Chris and Mike dug up a couple of nests (the focus of Chris’s research on this trip) to find the eggs had already hatched. My job was to stand on the other side of the canal and yell if I saw mama coming for them. I might have just been bait. Thankfully, she never attacked, even when we had handfuls of babies pulled from the reeds, yipping for her. Though we did see several large crocs (over three meters) in the canal, we never got our hands on them.
I continued with my attempt at being helpful. Eventually, the guys left me straddling a one-and-a-half meter croc with no tape for its mouth or any other way to restrain it. They wanted to take some measurements but saw another one close by. So they went in pursuit before it escaped, leaving me to hold the little guy. It didn’t seem like a problem until the swarm came and both my hands were wrapped around the crocodile maw. If anyone could see through the cloud of insects it would have been quite a vision. I looked like a hyperactive and twitchy maniac being electrocuted while dry-humping an angry log. Sometime during my blister-acid induced freak-out I referred to the canal as the ‘Devil’s Butthole.’ I’m proud to say the term stuck and the locals still use the name. I really enjoy being able to give back to the community like that.
We went as far as we could go with the meager tools we possessed and had to get back upstream with no paddle. This is when I became my most useful of the trip. I hopped out onto the bank and pulled the boat with the rope attached to the bow. It worked as long as another person in the boat pushed the front away from the bank with a stick. The action prevented getting stuck in the razor shrubs I had to walk through. It was fine, though. The sharp plants ripped away any and all swollen, itchy skin left by the bugs.
A few hours of expletive-riddled pulling got us back to the tie-up point. It happened to be about twenty meters from a spot where we shined a huge croc. Its eyes glowed red from the reflection of our flashlights before it disappeared into the inky water. They were about twenty centimeters apart, making the overall size somewhere around three meters. It’s all very technical and I don’t want to get into the ratios of eye-width to body-length, at least that’s what Chris said. Regardless, the thing was a monster, and we were about to swim through its living room.
Chris found a suitable spot to cross by poking at the bottom with a stick to see if it would move, take the stick, or was so big it wouldn’t notice being poked. In my mind, we found that spot. The black water lazily flowed at the bottom of a very steep bank. Images of African Nile Crocs bobbing for zebras ran through my head. I had been worrying about it not-so-secretly all night. It was time to cross the Devil’s Butthole!
Chris went in first, prodding and poking his way to the middle. He stopped to grab equipment and ferry it to the other side. I handed him a bucket and told Mike I would help him with a tackle box. The second my foot touched the water a jolt of adrenaline surged and I was on the other side. I had forgotten about the gear and might possibly have used Chris as a ladder. The two of them stared at me, open mouthed and amazed by my sudden burst of speed. Chris was still standing in the middle of the canal up to his armpits and soaked from my wake. Mike still held the box out as if to hand it to me, but I was gone.
We returned to camp to discover a meeting of herpetological giants. They were determining the conservation status of individual species throughout Central America. Most of the meetings were held inside. Few of the biologists had chances to get out and explore like they had all their lives. So whenever we came in from the field we were greeted with stories and alcohol. It turned out to be a great combination. Who knew getting sloshed and swapping stories with your idols of nerditude would be so much fun?
They taught us all kinds of stuff, like the number of times to poke a coral snake in the face before it will pose for you, and how to get bitten by a sea-snake.
I really did have the adventure I desperately needed, learned a lot, made some great contacts, and was somewhat useful if only by being a mule. My speedy canal crossing continued every night and morning for another nine trips. Each outing had its perils and victories, including several rounds of rock, paper, nut-tap (look it up but don’t try it), learning new swear words in Spanish, and how to MacGyver anything into a paddle. In the airport bathroom on the way home, Chris awkwardly asked if I would do it again. I took a few days to finish my shuddering sobs to answer. When I did I was high from four types of antibiotics and steroids. I jumped into his arms and said, “Let’s go!” He hasn’t invited me back…
Humans (but not in the canal, no one else was that brave/stupid)
Coatimundi (raccoons in need of a nose job)
Crab-eating raccoons (didn’t know there was a difference)
Cattle (drift fence stomping jerks)
White faced-capuchin monkeys (sneaky)
Howler monkeys (not sneaky)
Scinax staufferi (small tree frog looking critter)
Phrynohyas venulosa (big tree frog)
Hypopachus variolosus (narrow mouth toad)
Rhinophrynus dorsalis (Mexican burrowing toad)
Anaxyrous luetkenii (Hi-lighter toad)
Hemidactylus sp (house gecko)
Gonatodes albogularis (Badass Yellow Headed, Blue Bodied Gecko- at least the males)
Ctenosaura similis (Spiny Tailed Iguanas – most common reptile seen by far)
Imnatodes gemmistratus (Blunt Headed Snake)
Loxocimus bicolor (Mexican Burrowing Python)
Oxybelis aeneus (Vine Snake and personal favorite of the trip)
Leptophis mexicanus (Parrot Snake)
Sibon anthrocops (2 in the same bush!)
Micrurus nigrocenctus (found by someone else)
Pelamis platurus (Sea Snakes also found by someone else)
Tantilla armillata (little guy with a yellow collar)
About the Author
Michael P. Wines is an author, woodworker, and herpetology graduate student at Auburn University focusing on Eastern Indigo Snakes (Drymarchon couperi). He was a keeper at the Memphis Zoo and Aquarium for several years working with venomous reptiles, Komodo Dragons, some fish, and a few fuzzy things. His first kid’s novel, Stupid Alabama, was published by Ardent Writer Press and he desperately wants you to buy it, you can do so HERE