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lunes, 26 de agosto de 2013

Not-So-Dangerous Snakes of Laguna Blanca

Paraguay has a very diverse range of snake species. The reason for this is because there is a wide variety of habitat types within its boundaries. Only a few of these snakes can be considered dangerous to man. Most of the time these fascinating creatures will avoid humans, but as our population increases and habitat destruction continues, more dangerous encounters occur. Fortunately protected havens can be found for these threatened reptiles. One of these havens is Reserva Natural Laguna Blanca. We have approximately 35 species recorded to date, and only 4 of these are considered dangerous to man. These are the Neotropical Rattlesnake (Crotalus durissus), Urutu Lancehead Viper (Rhinocerophis alternatus), Painted Lancehead Viper (Bothrops diporus) and Southern Coral Snake (Micrurus frontalis). There are a few mildly venomous species such as the “Racers” in the genus Philodryas that can give a nasty bite, but in general the symptoms are mild and medical attention is not required. The Green Anaconda (Eunectes murinus) has no venom, but can reach a very large size. Even though this could be considered a threat, these snakes are elusive and critically endangered within Paraguay. In the last few weeks we have encountered some of these fascinating creatures and I would like to share our experiences with you. Annie was on her way back to the station after an evening searching for bats in the transitional forest, when she came across a big snake on the path. She ran back to the station and woke me up. Ryan and I jumped out of our beds and were on our way to see if the snake was still in the area. Fortunately for us it was a chilly morning, and the snake was sluggish. We got to the site to see a massive female Rattlesnake slowly moving down the path. What an adrenaline rush. These beautiful Vipers are widespread in South America and can be found in a variety of habitat types. They have a lethal venom that effects the nervous system and the brain. They use this strong venom to immobilize their prey. Rattlesnakes and Lancehead Vipers from the Americas and certain species of Vipers from Asia, have pit sensors near the front of the head, and are commonly referred to as “Pit Vipers”. They are excellent ambush predators that use these sensors to distinguish their prey from other objects. A single rapid bite with their large fangs is all it takes to kill its victim. They don’t hold on to it because of potential injury that can be inflicted by the prey, so they release it and let the venom take effect. It doesn’t get far. The snake uses its strong sensory organ tongue to track down the dead rodent. Unfortunately human encounters with this snake are common, and because of their sluggish behaviour, they are often stood on. It was great to see such a large female in the reserve. Large snakes like this are rarely encountered because of human encroachment. After a few photographs we let her be on her way. A few days later I went for an evening walk to look for frogs near the seasonal pond. I decided to check a new trapline that we had recently installed. Success. An adult male Painted Lancehead Viper sat in one of the buckets. He could easily get out, but he sat there, probably waiting for an unlucky rodent to fall in. These snakes are common throughout the reserve and can be encountered crossing a pathway or just basking in the early morning. There has been a lot of discussion on what species of Bothrops occur in the area because of all the taxonomical changes of late. For now we have two species, the other being the Urutu Lancehead Viper which is restricted to wetland areas. Bothrops have a potent venom that is similar to the Rattlesnake, with the addition of a tissue destroying venom. These snakes are the cause of a lot of snake bites in South America. They are often found near human habitation because we provide the perfect components for their existence, food and shelter. Last week we were called to a local fishermen’s house as he had captured a large snake in his fishing net. We arrived in the hour to see a 2.1metre male Green Anaconda sitting at the bottom of a hole. My heart was racing. A life-long dream fulfilled. He was a gem, very calm and didn’t once attempt to bite. Anaconda’s are widely distributed in South America, and live in fresh water systems. They reach their southern most limits in the North-East of Paraguay, and are nationally threatened due to human degradation, pollution and over-fishing. These snakes have no venom and use their large size to constrict their prey. Females are much bigger than males, and have been recorded at over 6 metres in length. Their eyes are positioned towards the top of their head, instead of the side like most other snakes. This allows the Anaconda to be great ambush predator. They peer just above the surface of the water, waiting patiently for an unlucky victim to stray to close. On the reserve there is an abundance of prey items for our Anacondas, including fish, reptiles, birds and mammals. We were delighted to release this magnificent male into the lagoon to join our resident population, and hopefully we will see some juveniles in the near future. Check out the video on this little beaut. https://vimeo.com/71165802 Fear is the main reason why snakes are seen in such a bad light. At the reserve we are teaching the local community to respect them and to try see them in a different way. I am confident that our hard work will pay off, so we can co-exist with these fascinating creatures long into the future. Visit our website below if you would like to help us track down rare and endangered creatures in this amazing part of the country. www.paralatierra.org Until next time, JP

viernes, 16 de agosto de 2013

Fighting fires, freezing and friends – That’s life at PLT

July was a busy month of coming and going at PLT. We said a sad farewell to Annie, Charlotte and Kasper. Hello and goodbye to Brooke and Rebecca, two devils from New Orleans and hello to Emma, a general volunteer from the UK and Anna, another monkey person from Ireland. I left for three weeks to go back to Edinburgh and Karina finally returned from two months away in Geneva, Glasgow and Mexico. When in Scotland (where the weather was hotter than I have ever known it to be!!) I spoke to the people who were still at Laguna Blanca and was told over and over again how cold it was. So as I prepared for the long journey back to Laguna Blanca I dressed for the cold – boots, jacket, the works. And I stuffed my suitcase full of warm clothes including a thermal monkey onesie making Anna, our new primate volunteer very jealous!! When I finally arrived back in Paraguay I got off the plane to blazing sunshine, and definitely feeling a bit silly with all my winter gear on! Then on the hottest day, with temperatures soaring to more than 35 degree Celsius we were faced with an emergency. Over the tops of the trees Jorge spotted a column of black smoke rising upwards. The guards went to investigate and about half an hour later we received the call – a fire was burning inside the reserves Atlantic Forest fragment. Time to round the troops, load the truck with spades, thermo’s full of ice and water, rakes, machetes and go fight the fire!!! It didn’t start well with some misunderstanding on my part we ended up hauling a lot of very heavy stuff down a long trail at the wrong end of the forest…woops. Then when we got to the right end of the forest we had to machete our way to the fire. When Joe, JP, Ryan and myself got to the flames we realized our mistake - the fire was HUGE. The forest was also very dry and the wind was to strong so it was time to beat a hasty retreat and enter the forest through the other side where we finally found the Paraguayans. By this point they had got the fire in the area under control and were moving further down the forest, so we all headed back to the truck. However, when we got there and were deciding whom to send home for food we heard shouts from the forest. Grabbing shovels and machetes the boys and I ran back into the forest to help. The heat was intense and it was an awful sight to watch the tiny fragment of burning. We fought it as best we could, throwing sand onto the small flames and beating the larger ones with green leafy branches. Too often we were forced back as large trees lit up like torches and the heat became too intense. After more than 5 hours of fighting the flames we got the fire under control and covered in ash and scratches and exhausted we headed back to the station for much needed showers and well deserved cold beers!
Autumn is winter down here in Paraguay and the rain and the cold weather struck back with a vengeance two days after the fire. The cold weather does have an upside. When it isn’t raining one fun way to escape the cold and warm up is playing volleyball. The games begin and tend to continue until we can’t see the ball anymore as it gets dark. Things can get pretty serious – especially as the testosterone kicks in and the boys get competitive but it always hilarious to watch Ryan’s flying dives for the ball or me and Janine hit the deck whenever it comes near us!!! As the nights close in around 6pm we eat dinner and light a fire out the front of the house. There is nothing quite like sitting round a fire with good friends while the incredible Paraguayan stars sparkle overhead. On nights when we don’t light a fire the whole group snuggles down under piles of blankets and hot water bottles in the boys’ dorm to watch movies. One of the best things about spending time at a remote field site like PLT is the chance to meet people from all over the world, and even though you aren’t spending a very long time with them they become your best friends. And even after you leave chances are you have met people that will be your friends forever! Come join us and see for yourself!! Until next time Becca