Meeting with a Snake

Today we left early to start our trail walk. Greg and I are going to work on the squirrel traps while Jackie walks a long trail census route on "Harvard Trail." We need to clean the traps, be sure they are working properly, and have them ready to use in the months to come. This doesn't mean that the squirrels are trapped and kept in captivity. We use these traps to catch the squirrels, put collars on them, and afterwards we let them go free in exactly the places where they were caught. You might want to see the showing how we put necklaces on squirrels.

This marking technique allows Jackie and Greg to study more about the squirrels' behavior, to count and keep track of them. For example, from this information we know that squirrels may live eight years or more on BCI.

As Greg and I work on the traps, we have a chance to look at different animals that are feeding around the trees. The forest is quiet. I really enjoy the silence because I can hear better the animals that move around. We got off the trails to get to the traps that are usually on the low branches of trees and in the lianas that hang from them. Suddenly, I hear noise. Something is moving in the dry leaves. I turn around to look. I expect to see a squirrel, or a coati, or maybe an agouti. But it isn't any of those animals, no! It is a long black snake with white rings around its head. For a second I don't know what to do. In a flash, many thoughts cross my mind. What was I supposed to do? Stay still, run, yell, be quiet?? All these thoughts come very fast. At last, I yell: "A snake!" Greg asks me: "Where did it go?" As I point in the direction, he runs after it. Unfortunately for Greg, the snake is very fast and moves away, probably hiding under the dead leaves. It takes me a few minutes to get myself together. This is the first time I have seen a snake in the wild. I like to see them in the zoo, where they are far away from me. As you can imagine, after this, every noise I heard made me jump. From then on, I stayed on the trails afraid that another snake was going to be around.

This incident made me think. Why I am scared of snakes? What is it about snakes that people are so afraid of? If we think about these reptiles we can see that they are actually quite pretty. There is a great diversity of species. They have different colors, shapes, sizes, textures, and even killing techniques. They are highly specialized and efficient hunting machines. Some of them are poisonous but many are inoffensive. Many species eat mice and rats and slugs, animals that we often consider pests. Snakes are fascinating creatures. They have different behaviors and live in a variety of habitats. So, why am I, like many other people, so scared of them?

The more I think about this matter, the more I realize that a lot of the negative feelings we have about snakes come from lack of knowledge or not receiving the correct information. How many times have we seen movies where snakes are attacking people just because they are passing by? How many times have we heard that snakes are just hanging from trees waiting to kill humans? Before I came to the tropical forest, I thought I was going to face a snake every time I turned around. It is true that snakes can kill humans. It is true that many snake species are dangerous. It is also true that people have died because they have been bitten or sometimes (very rarely) strangled by snakes. But this happens when snakes are scared or they fear danger. As a matter of fact, this was the only snake I saw during the time I stayed in the forest. I got to the point where I didn't even think about snakes until this day that I saw one. The snake didn't bother me at all. I think she was as scared as I was.

Later on I found out that the type of snake I saw is called a Racer. They get their name because they move very fast. This species of snake eats small mammals such as tree rats, squirrels, and climbing mice. They can grow up to about three meters long (10 ft). The one I saw was about 2 meters (6 feet) long and has the scientific name Spilotes.

Honestly, I don't know what I will do the next time I get to see a snake. But, I can tell you that I know that snakes won't attack me without a reason and certainly they are not going to stop me from coming back to the rain forest. (See a gallery of snakes. For further discussion of snakes, click here.)