Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Snakes Eat Fish

Last week I highlighted a picture of a Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon) eating a catfish (on right) that went viral and freaked a lot of people out. Many refused to ever enter the water again. I mentioned on that post that watersnakes eating things that live in the water, like fish, really isn't that big of a deal. Animals need to eat to live, you know? Fish are even the primary prey for several species of snakes. But you don't have to just take my word for it, I put out a call for more photographic proof and a few folks came through:

Here's a picture of another Northern Watersnake 
eating a catfish in Georgia (photograph by Will Bass).

Here is a Diamond-backed Watersnake (Nerodia rhombifer) eating a catfish from the Tensaw River in southern Alabama (photograph by Jim Godwin).

Here is a Northern Watersnake from Cleveland Ohio eating what appears to be a darter of some sort 
(photograph by Marty Hout).

Finally, here is another Northern Watersnake eating a catfish in Bankhead National Forest, Alabama 
(photograph by Joe Jenkins).

Update: Jason Folt provides this photograph of a baby Northern Watersnake chowing down on...well, I'm not sure what this is.

You see? Snakes eat fish. You don't need to be scared. Do you have a picture of snake eating a fish (preferably a catfish)? Share it below!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Viral Picture of the Week: Why You Shouldn't Swim in Rivers

    This picture has been popping up a lot lately, sometimes the location is Alabama, sometimes it's Tennessee (and probably some other places that I have missed), but the message is typically the same: Can you believe what's in the lake! I'm never going swimming again!

    Here's the thing: this is a Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon), a very common species on the East Coast of the United States, and the snake is eating a catfish (looks to me like some sort of Channel Catfish). Watersnakes tend to eat things that live in the water, like fish and frogs. So, this is basically a picture of a common snake eating something that they normally eat. This kind of thing happens around us all the time and especially when we're hanging out around the water. We are just not often lucky enough to see it!

    If a watersnake eating a fish is enough to keep you out of the water, then I am sorry to tell you that you are going to have to stick to swimming pools from now on. But, I hope you will realize that a picture of a snake eating a fish is not something to be afraid of and is no more terrifying than a picture of me eating lunch (perhaps less so).

    I think I can trace this viral photo to a couple of Twitter accounts: @TerrorStory and @Unsolved_Scenes. Both of these handles just tweet pictures with dubious explanations but without much in the way of context (or photographer credit). If you check them out, you can see that these accounts have hundreds of thousands of followers between them. The picture of the Northern Watersnake has now been retweeted over 10,000 times with the title, "Why you shouldn't swim in rivers" I suggest an alternative headline, "Why Twitter shouldn't make you scared of native and harmless wildlife".

Friday, September 19, 2014

Friday Roundup: The Week's Wildlife Links (September 19th, 2014)

First of all, did you catch Jonathan Hakim's awesome four-part guest post series this week about python conservation in Bangladesh? You must. Start here.

Chinook Salmon spotted above Giles Canyon, Washington. First time seen in Upper Elwha River in over 100 years.

The Axolotl is still hanging on, but it's not out of the woods/water yet.

National Geographic has a revolutionary approach to science television: not making $#%$t up.

Florida man poaches six Gopher Tortoises for the dinner table and law enforcement only charges him for possession of one because, the officer doesn't see this often? Please someone explain why that's a good excuse for leniency.

Did I miss something interesting? Let me know below.


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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Pythons and the Land - The Bangladesh Python Project Part IV --Guest Post--

By Jon Hakim

Make sure to start at Part I.

“Snake call!  It's the python.  Are you up?  We got a call for the python.”

The words were almost the same, but I woke up to see that Caesar's face held a grimace.  The call he feared had come. 

Let's back up to the night before.

In the last post I left you in a moment of triumph.  Kanai had led four of us right to our target species and a fantastic snake-eating-snake scene. 

But while we were enjoying the successful hunt, Caesar and Swapon were out with other team members, radiotracking the pythons and tortoises. Everything was going fine until they began to track Chaity, a nearly 9' male who in recent weeks had begun moving towards Radhanagar Village. Tonight the radio signals led the team even closer in the village's direction.  And every time they stepped nearer to the village, the beeps got louder...until they tracked Chaity to a spot right behind someone's home.

Here was the dilemma.  The primary purpose of Caesar's radio-tracking study is to gain a better understanding of python biology, especially their home ranges and activity over time.  The worse thing he could do to interfere with the study results would be to move the pythons.  But here was the python practically on the doorsteps of someone's home, where little good could happen.  Do you capture and relocate the python, thereby interfering with the study, or do you let the python keep doing its thing?  Do you risk the likely result that it will encounter the villagers?  Caesar and the tracking team chose to leave the python there and returned to the dorm that night with worried looks on their faces.

It's not like this hadn't happened before.  Back in March, big Asha was caught by irate villagers with a duck in her belly and four dead ducks lying around (her predator instinct was so strong that she killed ducks faster than she could eat them).  It had taken an effort to pacify the local villagers, who blamed Caesar for the duck losses because the python was “his” python.  In the end, the forest department agreed under pressure to reimburse the villager for his ducks.  But he didn't exactly walk away happy.  Caesar relocated Asha about 1.5 km from the village she had invaded, forcing him to start a new set of data points from scratch.  And month-by-month, Asha seemed to be moving closer to the village again.  But she still had a ways to go when the team tracked Chaity to the verge of the very same village. 

Fast forward to today.

Caesar had received the snake call just after dawn.  Sure enough, a python had gotten into the ducks...again.  Caesar, Swapon, and I jumped in a car and went to check it out.  Before we even reached Radhanagar Village we were met on the road by an angry crowd with a large bag.  They thrust the bag at us.

Sure enough, it was Chaity.  The young male python, surprisingly, was unharmed.  The same could not be said for the duck, which the villagers also helpfully placed in the bag for us.

The man who gave us the bag went off on Caesar and Swapon in Bangla.  Low and behold, it was the same man whose ducks had been taken by Asha the previous time!  I asked Caesar what the man was saying.  Caesar couldn't maintain a straight face as he translated for me:

“He's saying that it's our fault the pythons are coming to the village.  He says that we put the radio transmitters inside of them, and now they want to go to the village.  He's not making any sense at all.  I tried to explain to him, but he was angry and wouldn't listen.”

As we returned to the dorm with Chaity to do a health check and new measurements (he stretched out to 8'11”, showing nearly a foot of growth since October), Caesar went back and forth over his options. They weren't particularly good.

Do you leave the python until the last possible second, or do you proactively relocate it whenever it gets too close to a village?  Relocating the python interferes with the home range data and displaces the python from its territory, but if the python takes prey from the village, then someone is going to catch it and force the relocation anyway.

Do you reimburse the villagers every time a python takes a duck, or do you work out some other long-term solution with them?  Reimbursing the villagers may help keep them from seeing the pythons' meals as a negative impact on their bottom line, but it also reinforces the notion that their ducks belong there and the python doesn't.

Do you tell the villagers that this is the natural behavior of the python and convince them to find a way to coexist with typical python behavior, or do you try to find a way for pythons to exist within the villagers' current framework?  It's possible that asking the villagers to switch from ducks to chickens would be an effective compromise – ducks frequent the water where the pythons prefer to hunt, and chickens tend to stay out in the clearings that the pythons avoid.  But would the villagers agree to such a life change, and would it even work if they did?

Behind these practical questions are deeper ones. Can major predators like pythons still survive in parks like Lawachara? The big cats, wolves, and wild dogs are already gone. The largest terrestrial predators left are a few pythons, the rare king cobra, jackals, and occasional small cats which may not be permanent residents.  Is it possible that there's just not enough space preserved here for predators and people to get along? That's the greatest question that Caesar has to answer – whether or not there is enough land in Lawachara for these incredible creatures. How much land does a python need? 

After 9 days in Lawachara, our team shifted to the other side of Bangladesh for a fantastic 3.5 day trip to the Bangladesh Sundarbans (you can read about that trip here).  The time we had spent with Caesar, Rashid, Animesh, and the people and animals of Lawachara made a lasting impact on us.  Dean Lambert has considered returning to Bangladesh in December to help CARiNAM with a Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) survey, the first such survey in the Sundarbans.  

I am planning to return to Lawachara next monsoon to do an intensive month of survey work alongside Caesar, especially focusing on frogs, caecilians, and fossorial snakes. 

Scott Trageser and Ash Wisco will come back to Bangladesh with another team next year, to again lend more funding and manpower to Caesar's work. (Queries about the trip should go to Scott Trageser) Some of us also hope to again join Animesh in his village next to the swamp forest and spend some days with him and his frogs. 

But we all know that the ongoing survival of the plants and animals of Bangladesh, like the ongoing survival of all ecosystems, depends not on the scientists who study them but on the men and women who live alongside them.  There are 160 million people in Bangladesh today.  It is not an easy place to live.  When I think of those people, I think of the miles and miles of rolling hills I saw covered in tea plantation, and I wonder who brought the tea there and who buys it.   I think of the garment factories that we passed on the highway on the way to the forest, and I wonder how the workers inside those factories live, and who buys those clothes and how much they pay for them.  I think of the old ships brought to their coastline to be torn apart for scrap, and I wonder what toxins were left inside and what impact the toxins and other hazards will have on the boys who tear the ships apart, not to mention the ecosystems the chemicals leach into.  

In a nation as small and highly populated as Bangladesh, with as little true resource regulation as Bangladesh, the only reason any natural areas survive at all is because the people live in poverty, with only a tiny amount of land and resources taken up by each one.  I think about how much the other side of the world is profiting off their poverty, and doubt that the situation is the least bit sustainable.

The questions of 1st-world consumption based on 3rd-world production, of wealthy nations who consume far too much and impoverished nations who have far too many consuming, and of wild spaces that get further and further encroached on every year, are extremely difficult ones.  Our two weeks in Lawachara National Park gave us a glimpse into the lives of the people and the wildlife there, and a strong impression of how vital it is that those questions are answered.  What steps can we take to ensure that the people and the fauna of Bangladesh will both have a productive future?  I recall Leo Tolstoy's brilliant short story on wealth and greed, “How much land does a man need?”  Once we learn how much land a python needs, will we be willing to face the question of how much land we do?

If you would like to support the Bangladesh Python Project, please contact Shahriar Caesar Rahman via the Bangladesh Python Project Facebook page.

About the Author: Jon Hakim

Jon Hakim got his love of snakes from his father, who frequently took him on long days in the woods herping and observing wildlife in rural Oregon. He went to school to work in biophysics, but has found his meaning in professional life as a science teacher and community development worker. Jon has worked extensively in citizen science with the North American Field Herping Association, and the Herpetological Education and Research Project”. He currently lives in a slum in India with his wife Rose, learning Hindi, teaching kids to read, and herping whenever he can. You can read his field guide and herping adventures with Thailand's reptiles and amphibians at Bangkok Herps.

The following papers give more information on the snake assemblage found in Lawachara National Park.

Rahman, Shahriar Caesar, & et al. (2013). Monsoon does matter: annual activity patterns in a snake assemblage from Bangladesh The Herpetological Journal, 23, 203-208

Rahman, Shahriar Caesar, et al. "Composition and structure of a snake assemblage in an altered tropical forest-plantation mosaic in Bangladesh."Amphibia-Reptilia 34 (2013): 41-50.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Stubborn Students and Kanai's Krait - The Bangladesh Python Project Part III ---Guest Post--

By Jon Hakim

Make sure to start at Part I.

“My name's Dean and I'm a wetlands ecologist by training.”

“My name is Hasan and I am the president of the Green Explore Society.”

“My name is Max and I'm a wildlife photographer and environmental consultant.”

“My name is Mehedi and I am the chief of GES-Studio.”

The Green Explore Society is a student-run environmental group at Shahjalal University of Science & Technology.  They deploy an impressive membership roll of 300 students into research, media, and animal rescue wings.  Not many people are environmentally inclined in Bangladesh, but GES is actively trying to change that.  One of the group's co-founders, Animesh Ghose, is an ecology student and frog enthusiast who has been studying the frog assemblages at Ratargul Swamp Forest, the last remaining swamp forest in Bangladesh.  Animesh interns with the Bangladesh Python Project and was our constant guide and advisor in Lawachara.

Halfway through our time at the national park, Animesh brought fifteen of his fellow GES students to our dorm. Scott Trageser and Ash Wisco led them in a workshop on wildlife photography, with a practicum where the students worked on macro shots of spiders and distant shots of gibbons. At night we split up the group and took them on trail transects, python and tortoise radio-tracking, and road cruising surveys. But the highlight of our time with GES was when we convened for a group experience-sharing session. 

The first to share were the foreigners.  We each had a story we hoped could inform or inspire them – wildlife impact assessments we had worked on, citizen science projects that had resulted in land being conserved for native species, even snakebite experiences.  Then someone asked if the students had any stories they would like to share.  Hasan and Animesh gave us this:

“In Dhaka there is a festival every year called Ratha Yatra, one of the auspicious programs of Hindu Religion. For several years we had visited a fair related to this festival and were surprised to wild birds sold right in front of the police camp - birds like Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis), Jungle Myna (Acridotheres fuscus) , Hill Myna (Gracula religiosa), Spotted Dove (Spilopelia chinensis) , Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto), Baya Weaver (Ploceus philippinus), Bronze-Winged Jacana (Metopidius indicus), Black Hooded Oriole (Oriolus xanthornus), Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio), and several parakeet and finch species.  

Many of these birds are protected under the Bangladesh Wildlife Preservation Act and also in Bangladesh Preservation and Security Act. We also found some other birds which are rare and uncommon residents in Bangladesh. We tried to take action through the police camp, the regional office of the Bangladesh Forest Department, and the Bangladesh Police and Rapid Action Battalion, but got no response.  

In 2013, the Green Explore Society organized from the beginning of this fair to contact with Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (a national environmental organization) and PRADHIKAR (a student based organization of Sylhet Agricultural University working for animal welfare). We then sat together and planned for stopping this illegal activity. We decided that from our three organizations we would submit a letter of concern to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, the Divisional Forest Officer and the Deputy Commissioner of the District Council.  We submitted this letter and watched for any change but unfortunately the things were going on as usual. Then we decided that we would made a raid on the fair together and we would call police for help.

As per our plan, we went to the spot on the evening of July 12th. We tried to convince the traders to stop these things but they did not pay any attention. On the spot, we decided if we did not stop this trade at this time then it would be our failure. We called the Metropolitan Police for help and they sent a police force with three members!!!  With them we started to stop the wild bird selling but some traders of this fair had already hidden the birds, and others escaped right in front of us.  When we picked up a few cages of birds some traders came along with bamboo sticks to hit us!!! 

A policeman tried to reconcile the dispute but failed.  After some time the “conveiner” of this fair tried to arbitrate.  He apologized for the incident and he promised that from next day on any kind of wild bird trade would be prohibited in the fair. We told them that if we saw any wild birds on the next day then we would again cease them on the spot.  After that we released all the wild birds which were recovered from the fair. After that day, there were no wild birds or any other wild animals in the fair premises.  This year we found only Common Mynas there, and when we complained for that to the fair authority they stopped things again.  

We think this was a success story for Green Explore Society on the conservation effort. This success story is not only from our part, this one is from our three organizations who work for nature conservation.”

This is Bangladesh, a country in which Walmart claims that it is powerless to stop the deaths of hundreds of workers in its own production factories, and where local governments claim that they are powerless to stop the poaching of the remaining trees and wildlife from their protected areas.  Yet a handful of university students were able to shut down a significant bird market with no personal authority other than their determination that it needed to be done.

It wasn't the only story the students shared.  After Hasan finished the bird market account, Animesh launched into a description of the group's Snake Photography Exhibition.  Under the auspices of an art exhibition, the group displayed local snake photographs in a university common space for six days, with detailed information on the ecological benefit of snakes.  The university's vice-chancellor inaugurated the exhibition, over one thousand students left notes in the exhibition's feedback diary, and GES reports that they've seen a visible change in their fellow students' attitude towards snakes.  

We had something to learn from these students indeed.

After the GES students' visit ended, our group turned our focus back to the field. 

In retrospect, it was a strange setting for a group herping expedition.  Kanai Das brought four of us down the dirt road that led to Fulbari Village.  We nodded at the plantation security guard as we entered.  Fulbari, like many of the villages within the park, is actually a worker settlement for one of the tea plantations which fill an area much larger than the forest land preserved in the park.  These tea workers work long and hard hours picking tea leaves while living in poverty on the outskirts of the fields.

A Brown Fish Owl (Bubo zeylonensis) the height of a toddler stared at us as we entered the village's rice paddies.  We explored the area around simple homes, locals looking away from Italy's World Cup soccer game to stare at the foreigners with their flashlights.  Our light cones cut into the darkness behind huts and into small fields.  Many herps in Lawachara can only be found in relatively older cuts of forest, of which there is precious little left.  But the Banded Krait (Bungarus fasciatus) feels most at home right in the middle of these rice paddy villages.  And Kanai was hoping to guide us to a krait tonight.

Kanai Das grew up in Lawachara and has been working for Caesar full-time for three years (Swapon Das, another local villager, is also employed in the project).  While wearing many hats on a day-to-day basis – radiotracking, outreach, dog and equipment care, etc. - Kanai has a special role as community liaison.  He is the primary contact for the snake calls that form one of the basic ways in which residents interact with the Python Project.  

The constant staring of the villagers would have made our search awkward if we hadn't had Kanai there to lead us.  He greased the wheels wherever we went, chatting it up and even getting a couple of men to join us in our search.  The Bangladeshis spoke to each other in Bangla, while the Westerners communicated to each other in English, with Kanai and I occasionally switching to Hindi in order to speak with each other and then translating that out to our respective cohorts. In this manner we poked and prodded the ditches and huts and fields, hoping to find a snake that no one else in the village wants to come across.

After 1.5 hours of searching, we had made our way to a fallow rice field on the outskirts of the village, well out of earshot of the villagers cheering Italy's loss.  As I crossed the field my eyes caught a striking black-and-yellow pattern intertwined with the grass.  “Krait, there's a krait!” I yelled.  And even better yet, “It's eating a wolf snake!”  Not only had we found our krait, but it had a still-moving Indian Wolf Snake (Lycodon aulicus) in its jaws.

The four of us white guys watched in wonder as the krait first tried to carry its prey away, then settled down and finished its meal.  We were in awe of its beauty, its venom, and its boldness.  Kanai stood alongside us with the two friends who had joined the search, proud as could be that he had led a successful hunt.  Here we were, seeing an awesome species continuing to do its thing right alongside the people who lived here.  For a night, it felt that all was right with the villagers and the snakes and the herp lovers.

Of course, the next day the proverbial feces hit the fan.

Don't Miss Part IV (The Conclusion) Tomorrow.