October 5, 1997
RESEARCHERS ROUND UP REPTILES FOR RISKY REPORT
Voices cry through the woods at marsh's edge.
"On the move!" "Yeah, HERE!"
The cries come from a dozen directions, and they find the ears of Peter May, intent on a metal-clad notebook.
Some shout numbers. "Heading 55 degrees!" "32.3 grams!" Some shout descriptions. "Leaf litter!" "Yellow tail!"
One yells: "Got a new one!"
"Sex it!," May shouts back, a rallying cry if ever there was one, but strictly in the service of science. To a muted mumble he yells, "WHAT?"
These Stetson University students of biology and their professors are looking for what common wisdom might call trouble.
They are looking for snakes. And they are finding them, too: rattlesnakes, the pygmy called Sistrurus milarius barbouri with the nice little poisonous bite.
They do this dance with danger two or three times a week, collecting data on the pygmy for publication in journals and on the Internet, working to expand knowledge of the snake's habits and habitat.
Out in this wooded marsh drained by the St. Johns River in western Volusia County, (which remains unspecified so as not to alert poachers), biology professor May expects a banner day. Serpents, he says, are starting their most potent season.
From September through December, the snake mating urge is on and the action is up. An article he co-wrote for Reptile & Amphibian Magazine earlier this year flashes the headline "Live FAST, Love HARD & Die YOUNG: The Ecology of Pygmy Rattlesnakes."
The sensationalized headline makes a working scientist laugh. "Sounds exciting, right?" May says. "Well it is, but not for the reasons you might think."
A reptilian bad rap
This weekday, late afternoon, May sits in prime hunting ground, and the biggest snake crew in years -- nearly a dozen Stetson students and interested graduates -- has joined him and fellow biology professor Terry Farrell for an exercise in jungle-tunneling and eye strain. "We could find 30 or 40 snakes today," May says. They found 66 once, during a flood, some sliding down from trees. Nobody seems worried that the snakes could find them first.
Florida is fairly writhing with the scaly reptiles all year. It might be America's snake pit, or, at least, its serpent garden, with more than 60 species, from cottonmouths and diamondback rattlesnakes to garter and mud snakes. And this area, in the flood plain of the St. Johns River, is hammock, seasonally wet marsh and woodland that's a welcome mat for reptiles.
All too many people, May says, seem to think snakes are looking for THEM. "So many people seem to have the attitude that if you see a snake, you kill it," he says. "They see a snake within 50 feet of water, they think it's a water moccasin. If it's not near water, they think it's a rattlesnake."
Still, most of the reptiles awaiting this group ARE rattlesnakes, and the pygmies still qualify as pit vipers, a reference not to fangs but to heat-sensing pits on either side of the snout.
Farrell sounds like a sadistic counselor from somebody's camping nightmare when he calls, "Stay OFF the trail!" He is first to jump into the undergrowth.
The others scatter among the cord grass and sawgrass blanketing a woods of cabbage palm, live oak, red maple and slash pine.
The mix of snake hunters and interested others includes Marcello Largo, Alex Aycrigg, Stacey Charny (who's hunting for chameleons and box turtles), park ranger Mark Campbell from Blue Spring, Michelle Holliker, Jackie Shoppa ("I don't touch them, I just find them"), Joe Cheatwood (who's exploring parasites in snake poop) and Bill Richardson II, with the rakish hat and the odd electrical gadgets.
They search tree bases and leaf piles, heads down and eyes scanning side-to-side.
In seconds, Farrell calls from underbrush, "Pygmy rattlesnake right here, on the move! Somebody wanna give me a hand?"
He emerges with a tiny black coil in his gloved hands, displays the little rattle at the tail tip, calls, "Five, not broke!" stopping to point out that rattles add a bead whenever a rattlesnake molts. As if on cue, Stacey Charny steps onto the trail with a filmy, crackle-dry skin.
These snakes are, they say, ambush predators. They might sit a week or more waiting for frogs or small mammals to wander within range. They are not likely to find a human foot appetizing. They might strike it, though, if it strikes them first.
"Alex has a snake!" Joe Cheatwood cries from deep cover. Farrell hustles over with his kit, which he lugs in a tackle box. He calls to May, "323611, F-9, no prey, 259 (grams) . . . ." Then, taking the snake behind the head, Alex Aycrigg pins it under Plexiglas and traces its coiled outline, to be recorded later with a scanner. That, he says, is a better way to measure, since a snake will stretch when straightened.
Routine rattler research
In answer to a question, Farrell recalls when a pygmy rattler, on an especially good launch from the base of a tree, bit him right through a denim and leather welder's glove.
The bite, his only one in about 10,000 encounters with pygmy rattlers, didn't scare him. "More like a bee sting," he says, "usually."
The bodily response, though, was vigorous. "My hand got real red and started to swell, and I realized I was allergic to the venom." By the time he reached a hospital, he was gasping for breath. He recovered, and he carries with him, now, in his tackle box, a snakebite kit and an antihistamine, to keep his air passages open.
"Got one, E-2!" somebody calls from 20 yards away, and Farrell hurries over. One of his first tasks will be injecting a "PIT (passive integrated transponder) tag" under the snake's belly skin. The tag features a pattern like a bar code picked up on a portable scanner that flashes a number assigned to each snake. He inserts the tag without a tremor.
Though they have counted 27 species here, snakes seem a minimal worry to the group. "Hope you're not allergic to poison ivy," Stacey Charny says. "I can tell you how bad THAT is, and it's all over in here." Several recall the joy of walking face-first into the aerial web of a large golden silk or banana spider. Despite all the roar about insect-borne encephalitis, nobody even brings up mosquitoes, though they whine at every ear.
Not that they're competitive, but Peter May notices that Alex Aycrigg is having a good day. They've been known to wager a few quarters on who finds the most, and they apply a quaint nickname for someone who doesn't spot a single snake: moron.
May usually likes his own chances, partly because of his trained eye and partly because of his view, nearer to ground. He hunts from a wheelchair.
At age 16, in a house back in his native Virginia, a friend brandished a gun for show and, in May's words, "tried to see if the safety was on by pulling the trigger." The bullet left May paralyzed from the waist down, putting him in a wheelchair but having no effect on his love of nature.
His kind of chair, a standard production model, is guaranteed for life. He'll use one up in a year. The mud of this woods is furrowed with wheel tracks from his recent visits. No matter how tedious his bookkeeping might seem, he says, every visit brings a new mystery.
This one offers a ribbon snake, lying dead in the middle of the trail. "That's bizarre," May says, looking closely at the stiffened relative of the garter snake. He sees no obvious wound. "It's unusual for a healthy one to die because there are so many frogs around for feeding."
"No necrotic tissue," somebody says, meaning dead stuff, as others close in. Like love bugs floating overhead in seasonal formation, the scientists and students seem to get livelier in company.
In fact, May and Farrell are such good friends that, even for first-timers, one of their snake hunts seems lifted not from a horror movie but from a buddy movie. "We're both still like big kids, out in the field," May says.
Six years, 10,000 snakes
In foraging in deep woods in the remaining heat of summer, they are the few, the proud. "You don't get many people in here, this time of year," May says. "Usually you see people come in here, get 15 meters down the trail, start slapping themselves and leave."
The afternoon is cloudy and, in the woods, disorienting. The searchers rely on a grid, mapped out on previous trips and marked with nubs of PVC pipe, and on years of experience. Even so, they sometimes find themselves calling south for north and looking to one of their compasses for guidance.
He and Farrell first entered this woods, May is saying, in 1991. Farrell had been a marine biologist, May an ecologist specializing in insects and birds. Snakes charmed them into a new specialty.
"Terry used to come out here looking for animals and stuff, and he started to find a lot of pygmy rattlesnakes," May says. "At first it was just kind of a novelty. Then a couple of my friends from Gainesville came down who were herpetologists, and when we brought 'em out here and they realized how many snakes there were, they said, `You gotta do something with these. You gotta study 'em!"'
"We realized there was so much to learn about the lives of snakes. We're finishing our sixth year and approaching our 10,000th snake observation in the field. As it turns out, for a snake biologist this is almost unprecedented. Snakes are mostly hard to find and hard to relocate. Here we can find them, collect data and learn things you couldn't normally find, movement patterns, rates of growth, reproductive patterns. Nothing that's going to shake the earth, but a new understanding."
Just then a voice calls, "Pig, rattles two broke, number 876617! No prey."
"Gimme a weight!" May shouts.
Like most of the snakes, it's an old friend. "Haven't seen him since 1994," May says, consulting his records.
"Pigmies are doing so well in most parts of the range that conservation isn't a priority," May says. "But it turns out that they're closely related to another species of small rattlesnake, the massasauga, which IS endangered. So we might learn something from pigmies that can apply to them.
"For us, though, this is mostly basic science. It hasn't been documented, hasn't been studied thoroughly, so nearly everything we learn about them is new."
Ribbons of sunlight split the crowns of cabbage palms as the hunters find the wider path back to open ground, and then twilight slowly closes on them.
A crimson sun hangs above the line of an earthen berm, separating sections of swamp, and, as the sun sinks, it appears to draw around it a cloak of purple-black cloud. Thunder grumbles, still distant. Clouds thicken, rain spats.
To the west, a tapering column of heavy showers looks eerily like a funnel cloud. Lightning zigs. The scientists seem dauntless. They take a last turn along the berm, and two snake spottings bring the evening's total to 25. Alex wins with eight.
"If we were getting the big bucks for some applied research, you might question what we're doing," May says. "Basically, this tells us more about snake biology that's not known. And it provides students with a real good opportunity to actually do science, in the field, to publish papers with us, to design their own experiments, to be in the natural environment."
On this day, their souvenirs are mosquito bites. Not a single hunter, though, shows so much as a slither-burn from the dreaded rattlesnake.