A Herper’s Glossary

ATM: (acronym) About To Molt. The state a snake is in a few days before shedding its skin, when it is mostly blind, itchy, and especially cranky. Careful, she’s ATM and likely to bite.

Bag ‘n Tag: (v) To quickly and efficiently identify, capture, and store a herp in a labeled container for later release, either for scientific study or public safety. (NOTE: not to be confused with simply “Tag”, see below)

Barehand: (v) to capture a herp without any tools.

Corwin: (n) A semi-professional herper who often hams up Bag n’ Tag for attention, but has little academic background and is kind of a poser. 

Dance, The: (n) The process of trying to safely capture an excited and dangerous snake, often in front of a crowd of horrified students. Well, I flubbed the hook, so now we start the dance.

DBD: (acronym) Dead by Daylight, a reference to the myth that dead snakes do not fully die until the next morning, but really does refer to the long-lasting death reflex that can still cause fatal bites. Don’t pick it up yet, bro. Remember DBD.

Dundee: (n) A herper with no academic background, but has plenty of practical background and skill. He Barehanded that python, he’s a real Dundee.

GIS: (acronym) General Impression and Shape. Used as a reason or excuse for a vague identification. Alternate meaning: Goddamit, I’m Sure. How do I know that was a Leaf Frog and not a Tree Frog? GIS.

I know frog GIS. And this thing has frog GIS all over it.

Herp: 1.  (n) short for “herpetofauna,” reptiles and amphibians, evolutionarily distinct but often included in the same study for functional or historical reasons. Often autocorrected as “Herpes,” with disastrous results.

I went out with the guys last night and we all caught herps together.

2. (v) to search for, catch, study, or observe herps. See: Herper, herpist (obsolete). Conditions are good, so we’re going herping this weekend.

Horse Juice: (n) Antivenom, which is–seriously–made from horses. I got tagged, hit me with the Horse Juice.

Hook: 1. (n) The Snakehook, the herper’s trusty tool consisting of a long rod, usually stainless steel, with a short blunt hook at the end. Used for capturing snakes. Also doubles as improvised weapon, walking stick, staff of office, and back scratcher.

2. (v) to catch a snake using the hook with a simple scooping movement.

Irwin: (n) A professional herper who hams up Bag n’ Tag for attention, but has the academic background to back it up and is probably a really cool guy.

Kit, the: (n) Snakebite kit. Notorious among professional herpers as a generally ineffective placebo.

Phobe: (n) Short for Ophidiophobe: one who is afraid of snakes. Make it a quick Bag n’ Tag, there’s a phobe in the audience.

If you’re a phobe, you probably stopped reading a while ago.

Pollywog: 1. (n) regional slang for tadpole, frog larvae

2. (n) regional slang for intern, graduate student larvae.

Tag: (v) to bite a human (if you are a snake). She tagged me, bro! Get the kit!

WWSID: (acronym) What Would Steve Irwin Do?

Missed Information

As a naturalist and guide, I like to know (or at least appear to know) a little about everything. To have something to say about anything I might find in my particular habitat. My goal is to be able to, off the top of my head for any given plant or animal, rattle off the name, general classification, ecological role, and a couple of cool facts. For those IDs, one out of three should include personal anecdote or story. For those stories, two out of three should include some kind of bodily horror.

Coati…related to the raccoon…omnivorous and diurnal…once bit me on the ass.

But sometimes I get utterly stumped. It happens. Sometimes a client or student or I will stumble across a creature or plant that I have no idea of. No frame of reference. No clue. And when it happens I can lose my mind.

Now, I am not above uttering my 3 least favorite words (“I, Don’t, Know”). I am perfectly fine swallowing my male academic pride and admitting defeat in the face of identification. And I even relish a little challenge in investigating, trying to pin down an ID of a new encounter.

But in those first few moments, as the confusion sets in? I can get a little dramatic. Especially if it’s something I feel I should know. Or if I run into something I was simply not prepared for. Below are a few of those moments, as I remember them.

#1 Praying-crick-roach

Check out this bug! It’s got the back legs of a cricket, middle legs of a cockroach, and the front legs of a mantis. That’s nuts! It’s like someone glued together three different bugs. An insectoid chimera. A bug manticore. Bugticore?

It’s just so wrong. There’s too much going on her, too many parts on one body. It’s 50% cricket, 50% roach, 50% mantis, and no I did not do that math wrong. 150% of bug. That’s too much bug. Three Orders in one.

Update: I still have no idea what this is.

#2 Blow-Up Frog

What a cute little frog! Never seen this species before. It’s like, 3 centimeters long. Man, there’s so many different kinds here. This is tough. Need to check its feet. Gonna poke it…

Oh my god, he just puffed himself up rose up on his legs as a threat display! Like a tiny wrestler. That’s adorable! You go, little guy. Look at you, all tough and stuff.

Update: Still not sure what this is, but since it came from the Amazon, not Costa Rica, it could be one of hundreds of species.

#3 The Katy Perry Bird

This one has no photo because I never got a visual ID on it. Rather, I heard its call. And it sounds–and I mean really sounds–like the chorus riff from the Katy Perry song Dark Horse. If you know the song, you can hear the call. It’s spot-on. Uncanny. And the fact that I’ve never been able to actually see this bird calling is maddening. Plus, every time I hear the call it puts that song in my head, just like this paragraph put it in yours. Sorry.

Update: Still haven’t IDed this, but friends suggest some kind of antbird.

Other Update: No, I don’t generally listen to Katy Perry. Why do people keep asking me this?

#4 Red-Touching Black Snake

(OK, obviously I knew this was a snake, but the lack of specific knowledge led to a critical incident)

Ok, my PI just handed me a snake. This day rules. I wonder what species it is. I don’t usually handle snakes I can’t ID, but this guy knows best, right? I mean, he’s an entomologist, but should know better than to pass around unknown snakes. He’s got a PhD after all. I’ll ask him…

What do you mean you don’t know what kind of snake it is? It could be a coral snake! What’s that, boss? “Red touches black…?” That rhyme doesn’t work in the Tropics, you bug-loving maniac! Some coral snakes are red and black. You could’ve gotten me killed! I’m never trusting you again.

Update: It was a harmless tree snake.

Other Update: I never trusted him again.

Wunderbaer

The first word I learned in the German language was the word for coati: nasenbaer. Part of the reason it stuck with me is that it means, literally, “nose bear.” How great is that?

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Side note: there are no coatis in Germany, and no bears in Costa Rica. How’s that for weird?

Apparently many German animal names work this way. The kinkajou is the “honey bear.” A sloth is a “lazy bear.” Delightful. It’s almost genius in its simplicity. Name = adjective or notable trait + bear. But this has led me to an odd thought.

I have never been to Germany, but seeing that they apparently use the bear as their sole reference for new animals, I have to conclude that the country is populated exclusively by bears. Bears everywhere. Just bears. And when Germans travel abroad, they can only interpret foreign wildlife through the lens of the only animal they know, that is: the bear.

So as a service to any potential German travelers out there, I would like to offer this helpful Costa Rican bestiary, which I hope to publish one day under the title A Field Guide to Costa Rican Bears (German Edition).

Willkommen to Costa Rica!

Costa Rica is a beautiful and lush tropical country known for its proud history of conservation, and for its wide variety of native bears. This guide will provide a brief description of the many bears you may see during your visit.

Some of the most striking and most popular are the feathery wing bears, many of which are endemic to the country. Because of its geography, Costa Rica hosts a great number of bear species as they migrate across the isthmus, and many bearwatchers are drawn here to add to their lifer bear lists.

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With some experience, you may be able to identify a bear by its song.

Of course, at night, the little flappy wing bears come out in spectacular diversity, with Costa Rica supporting several dozen species. Here, you may find wing bears that have specialized to eat fruit, nectar, insects, fish, and even a few blood-drinking vampire bears. Don’t worry—they very rarely feed on humans.

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It’s a well-known fact that these bears sleep upside-down. Some, even under leaves.

Look up in the trees of the rainforest for nasty tail bears. Always iconic of the tropical forest, they are amusing and fascinating to watch as they socialize and forage. However, for your safety, please do not ever feed the bears.

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For their safety as well as yours. Some human diseases can spread to Tropical bears.

While you may be concerned about long scaly deadly bears, most of these are shy and rarely encountered. But be sure to keep your eyes out! Most of the ones you will see are only long and squeezy.

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Some very long, and very squeezy.

Around the rainy season you will see and hear plenty of slimy jumping bears, which come out to sing and breed when conditions are wet. Make sure to look and not touch, as many of these bears are toxic.

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Green-and-back poison dart bear.

It’s my duty as a guide and naturalist to accommodate all peoples and as many languages as I can. If you are German, I hope this has been helpful. I hope that you will keep Costa Rica in mind when COVID is over and you can leave Germany, where you are currently isolating, no doubt surrounded by bears.

This Month in Snakes (Already)

The fact that it’s been barely a week into June and I’m already doing one of these should tell you something.

I live on the ground floor of a three-story apartment-like building. The stairs are outdoors, connecting balconies to the patio. As I stepped outside one day, I narrowly missed getting beaned by a shoe that dropped out of the sky. Several more followed. Even in rainy season, shoes are a bit much, so I investigated, calling out if everything was alright. I was answered by the grandmother of the family who lives onsite and does the cooking and housekeeping, calling from the top floor. “Come help me deal with this snake!”

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What snake? Oh, this snake.

A young rat snake (Senticolis triaspis) had crawled onto the landing of the top floor, effectively trapping the old lady. She was flinging her shoes at it to get it to move, to no effect. I stepped in, and later used the snake for a quick snake-handling lesson with some of the other staff.

This little fella’s a Roadguarder (Crisantophis nevermanni), although something’s snipped off the end of its tail. These are venomous, but the venom is very mild and their fangs are short. I’ve never been bitten, and this one didn’t even try.

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He did musk me, though.

I’ve been seeing so many cat-eyed snakes (Leptodeira) out at night that I’ve stopped documenting them. I just hope no one mistakes them for something dangerous. Also unphotographed: an oriole snake (Spilotes pulatus) that crawled right past my window while I was in a video call. I can’t make this stuff up.

I admit this one’s from a while back, and I forgot to ever post it. I just today found the photo on my phone. I’m not 100% sure, but I think it’s a coffee snake (Ninia maculata) a very small and discrete species that are often uncovered by farmers working in coffee fields.

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Thus the name, in case you were wondering.

And we’ve got fer-de-lance #20 (only counting ones on the property that I had to catch and relocate), this one found right outside the clinic within spitting distance of where we work. As in, less than an arm’s length from where people had their actual arms. God knows how many long it had been there. I only spotted it when I happened to glance up as I was leaving. I called everyone in for a morbid game of Eye Spy, then performed the smoothest capture in my career. Hook—box. The snake was perfectly calm and cooperate.

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Imagine playing this game like your life depends on it. 

Can’t see it? Here’s a closeup.

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You lose.

It’s probably the rains that’s causing all these snake encounters. I remember last year around this time we were averaging several snakes a day, and a viper every two weeks. Rising water and flash floods fills in burrows and sends ground-dwelling reptiles for dry cover. Wet Season, y’all. Frogs are also a good food source for some species, and the rains tend to wake them up.

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Frogs, and other sleepy amphibians.

But we’ve got a major storm cell headed our way. The last few days have been absolutely tipping down. So if weather is any indication, we’re going to be getting a whole lot more of these.

Naturalist Dudes’ Night Out: When Herp Nerds Bro Down

While this blog is supposed to be anonymous, you’ve probably picked up by now that I am male, outdoorsy, and rather eccentric. To put it mildly. I generally prefer the company of animas to people, nature to civilization. I don’t do well in large groups. Or small groups for that matter. And I never properly mastered the technique that is known in our society as “male bonding.”

But in the rare occasions that I find myself in like company, my inner bro emerges. And if conditions are right, the shenanigans increase exponentially. Think the Hangover, only with more monkeys and everyone is Zach Galifianakis. Adventure ensues. Legends are born. All of it acceptably macho, emotional but no too emotional, and also extraordinarily exaggerated with each retelling.

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See: this entire blog.

Last night was, by comparison, relatively tame. But a proper case study nonetheless. It began with four of us, some of the last sanctuary staff stuck isolated on the campus, throwing back beers and just chewing the fat well into the late hours (read: past 9pm). Then someone brought up snakes.

We started swapping stories about the great ones we’d caught and the ones we’d lost. Pics were demanded and phones whipped out. We creeped on each others’ Facebook and iNaturalist accounts, trying not to act jealous or competitive. More beers were had. Every sentence ended with “dude” or “mae.”

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“It’s always the best ones that get away, mae.”
At that point, a night walk was inevitable. There was no way any of us could say no, even if we’d wanted. So we grabbed boots and flashlights, grading and recommending the specs on each others’ gear and strode off into the jungle, strutting a perfect line four abreast.

The night did not disappoint. Within the first 15 minutes we found a coral snake crossing the path, and I recounted in grisly detail the effects of its venom. One guy edged closer for a photo, but we held him back. He told us he “totally had this” but we kept him away. Convinced him it wasn’t worth it, man.

Later, we came upon several cat-eyed snakes, a horde of litter frogs, and even a rare casque-headed lizard. We rattled off common names in English and Spanish, and even a few scientific names when we could to impress each other. Near a creek we found a turtle, and then this toad that I’m ashamed to say I could not identify. It’s probably a Giant Toad, Rhinella horriblis, but with that head crest and bright orange color? Help me out here.

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Seriously, help me out here. An Amphibian I don’t know? This will keep me up at night.

The night was crowned by our true unspoken goal, the one thing that is always on a young herpetologist man’s mind: large deadly snake. As one guy joked out loud, “fer-de-lance, where are you?” one appeared right in front of us, as if by magic, curled in the middle of the trail. Further attempts to likewise summon a jaguar were unsuccessful.

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This is the only time a selfie stick isn’t just appropriate, but recommended.

Who knows how long we would have remained out there, stomping past frogs and terrorizing night life, but we heard thunder moments before it started to pour and we decided to call it a night. Because, like, we didn’t want our boots wet for work tomorrow. Not because we were scared or tired or anything.

So the night ended well, and didn’t escalate into a caiman hunt or a trip to the hospital. No one climbed a tree. And all of us enjoyed proper male camaraderie in the presence of scaly or slimy creatures. A tremendous success. Probably because we stuck to beer and didn’t get into the real jungle hooch. Either way, that’s enough socialization to last me another year or so.

I Finally Freaked Out an Australian

While most foreign guests can generally be relied on to have a terrible fear and respect of all the horrible and dangerous things in the Costa Rican jungle, this is not the case for Australians. Australia might just be the least human-friendly continent on the planet, or so I can presume from its tourists abroad, whose reactions to my stories of deadly snakes and hungry crocodiles illicit–at best–boredom, or–at worst–mirth. They’re some tough blokes, is what I’m saying.

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“Eh, she’ll be right.”

But I have found their kryptonite, their one true fear, their Achilles heel: Giant Toads.

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“She’ll…not be right.”

Not just any large toads, mind. But Giant Toads, widely known as Cane Toads or formerly as Marine Toads until someone wisely split up the widespread species with more logical names. The ones here are Rhinella horriblis, an appropriate name for a generally unpleasant-looking animal, all brown and warty and bloated. I’ve mentioned them before. Slightly toxic, they are usually fairly aloof and bold and inflate themselves when threatened when they aren’t grudgingly hopping out of the way. And they were introduced to many countries including Australia to control Cane Beetles (thus the former name) where they have caused an out-of-control invasion.

 

The awful little bastards breed rapidly and outcompete whatever native species they aren’t stuffing into their mouths. Towns are now suffering literal Biblical plagues, only Egypt didn’t have frogs this ugly. They’ve earned themselves a disgusting reputation in Australians’ hearts, which are already pretty hardened by killer snakes, crocodiles, sharks, jellyfish, octopus, and whatever else that country can throw at them.

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I say this with respect, mind.

But here, they’re perfectly at home in our ecosystem and outdoor patios, where they hop along in search of large insects and smaller frogs. They’re more of a curiosity than a menace. Kids grow up playing with them, and dogs have learned to avoid them.

Last night during a night walk to a nearby river we stumbled across a few hundred of them breeding in a little lagoon. The water was full of writhing bodies and sticky strands of eggs. We watched as egrets and night herons plucked them from the pools and mud, choking them down whole. Not even I had seen so many at once.

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Apparently, egrets are immune to the toxins in their skin. Either that, or we witnessed Natural Selection in action.

And the one Australian in our group? Couldn’t stop shuddering. I tried not to enjoy my victory. Not too much, at least. Although I did point out that all the eggs meant we were in for a few thousand more in a few weeks, all just hopping around like the they belong here. Which they do.

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See you soon.

Whatever’s There

“What are you looking for?”

It’s a question I get asked a lot, usually as I’m walking past an outdoor seating area in my rainboots, flashlight and camera in hand. People see me peering between roots, gazing up into the trees, and shuffling my feet through dead leaves. Curious, they ask this simple question, but for me the answer isn’t so easy. Nor is it satisfying for them. I usually answer: “whatever’s there.”

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Pictured: whatever.

The thing is, I’m not looking for anything. At least, I don’t have a specific target in mind. I’m not so much searching as I am, in technical terms, “pokin around.” I’m not a predator on the hunt, I’m a dog with its nose in the dirt. A cat staring out a window. I’m just flexing my senses, observing my surrounding, and relying on the jungle not to disappoint. Which it usually doesn’t.

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Like this: King vulture spotted just outside our center. See? All I had to do was look up and there was giant bird with a head made out of giblets.

That’s not to say some times I don’t have expectations. And there are some times I’m deliberately checking likely spots to see specific animals, even individuals. I’ve had birds return to nests at regular hours, or lizards that pick the same sleep site that they’re practically neighbors. And snakes, well, it’s fair to say I’m never not looking for snakes.

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Like this guy, who I named “Mr. Sixteen.”

I know to stake out water holes for frogs, or fruit trees for monkeys. There are patterns here once you know what to look for. And you don’t have to go far to find something interesting, not out here. Hell, sometimes people will catch me patrolling the outsides of buildings or garbage bins in the evenings for nocturnal wildlife. And if they ask, my answer is always the same:

I’m looking for whatever’s there.

The Big Fool Said to Push On

The night started innocently, as most of my nights do:

“Hey guys, wanna go catch a caiman?”

I should back up a little. My idea of a good time usually involves a short romp through some remote location and a brief tussle with a large scaly animal. It’s a habit of mine and I can’t help it. I have, however, been trying to curb this behavior around decent company and coworkers, but they tend to generally ignore me anyway.

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Although sometimes the large scaly animals ignore me too.

But this night was different, in that several members of the group were pushing my buttons and lamenting the lack of large wildlife they had experienced in Costa Rica. One even went so far as to call out my stories of snakes and crocodiles and the like in the surrounding forest. And I cannot stand being called out. It’s another habit of mine. So maybe it was the challenge, maybe it was the testosterone, maybe it was the full moon, and maybe it was the bottle of wine we had all been sharing. Whatever the reason, someone actually took me up on my offer of a caiman tour. The rest kinda got swept up in the moment, I suppose.

Word got around, and soon I had assembled before me about a half-dozen vets, volunteers, and various interns all with boots and headlamps who had been promised caiman. Knowing of a nearby swamp where I had recently seen suspicious eyeshine, I led them into the jungle night.

Problems arose almost immediately.

“You mean we’re going in the swamp?”

“What did you expect? They live and hunt in water!” I replied. That last part probably had them worried, though, so I reminded them that spectacled caimans are usually less than a meter long, and with a stick I showed the water was only about 20 centimeters deep.

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“It only comes up to here on the frogs.”

What I failed to take into account, however, was the mud under the water, which proved to be easily another 20 centimeters deep and counting. Or, rather, sinking, which I discovered by dropping directly into the middle of the swamp from a bridge into opaque water that rose to my shins, then my knees, then higher. “Ok, guys, hold on. I’m sinking, so maybe avoid this part” I told them over the sound of muck entering my boots and bubbles rising around me, releasing putrid air. I had also forgotten to take into account gas pockets.

But once I had somehow convinced the majority of them to follow me into Big Muddy, and agreed to form a human chain to avoid more sinkholes or “caiman attacks,” we managed to rack up quite a number of animal sightings. Frogs called from all around, birds blinked at us from short perches, and turtles darted around our legs. Then the frogs silenced themselves, the birds startled and took off, and the turtles vanished as people screamed, having mistaken them for crocodiles as they bumped into their boots.

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Although I take full credit for screaming at this Gray-Cowled Wood-Rail and waking it up, since this is the bird that wakes me up every morning by standing under my window at 5am and whooping loudly. Revenge was mine that night.

But for the most part, everyone handled themselves well. And the reactions got less and less dramatic as the night went on. And that was no accident. My behavior of leading the charge into a Tropical swamp after dark wasn’t just showboating, nor was my judgment impaired.

Thing is, most of their fear were of imagined threats. They feared the dark because they didn’t know what was out there. So we walked around with lights. They feared the caiman because it was a predator. I wanted to show that it was a small predator that mostly ate small animals and fled humans. They feared going into the water because their feet would get wet. I gave them my philosophy of, “Well, you only get wet once. Then you are wet, which isn’t so bad.” It was the anticipation that was getting to them.

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It’s the same philosophy for cold pools, doctor visits, and church services. Frog photo unrelated.

It was truly a test of comfort zones, and a good exercise in facing fears. Especially since we ended up having to detour around a fer-de-lance and one woman walked into–no joke–the biggest spider web I have ever seen. In fact, we probably could’ve lasted much longer if we hadn’t heard thunder in the distance and if I hadn’t made some offhand crack about flash-floods.

We ended up back home a little early, congratulating ourselves on avoiding rain and snakebites. We passed around phones, comparing photos. We finished the last of the wine.

Then someone had to go and mention that, in the end, we had not in fact seen a caiman.

 

I’ve Heard of Shared Bathrooms, But This is Ridiculous

A while back, some interns were talking over breakfast about a frog they had found in a third-story balcony bathroom. In the toilet, to be exact. They had extracted the poor thing before…well, you can imagine, and had passed it around while taking pictures. When I saw the pictures, I said, “Hm. That looks like a milk frog. They’re extremely poisonous. You washed your hands after handling it, right?”

The silence I got in response was worrying. Turns out, either they hadn’t upset the frog enough for it to secrete its toxin (which is pretty nasty), or they had in fact washed up before, say, touching their eyes and saved themselves a trip to the hospital.

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Do yourself a favor and assume that everything here that isn’t spiny is poisonous.

But Toilet Frog made regular appearances throughout the week, returning to the third story even after being relocated. Interns’ responses varied from curiosity to excitement to a lot of screaming. And I’ve now seen more milk frogs, giant toads, masked Smilisca, and litter frogs around the buildings, especially since the rains have really picked up.

See, milk frogs and many other arboreal species breed in water-filled cavities high in trees, laying their eggs in a safe, hidden space. An open-air, third-floor balcony toilet is an ideal substitute. The frogs were simply playing off natural instincts. Through design, our living space had unwittingly become a part of the ecosystem.

There are plenty more obvious examples. Leave food out, you get ants. That one’s a gimme. But others are indirect. Leave a light on, and you’ll get swarms of beetles and moths, followed by hungry geckos. Leave small gaps or cracks in walls and soon you’ll have a hive of happy bees. Neglect cleaning, you get roaches, but those in turn bring scorpions.

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Not an ideal roommate.

And frogs are cool, but here they bring snakes. Like, a lot of snakes. I usually don’t complain, but this is getting crazy. Even by my standards. Usually, we get harmless Cat-eyed or Parrot Snakes that come to snack on the little treefrogs, but we also get my old friend from a few posts back: Terciopelo. The fer-de-lance. There have been several more encounters over the last month, including one someone found in a bathroom. Jesus, do these animals have some kind of a human fetish? At least this one was on the ground floor.

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Cat-eyed snake, the poor little guy who’s often confused for the terciopelo. I try not to get too cranky when someone calls me to remove one of these.

The frog-handling interns got lucky. So did the poor sap who found the snake. So did I, when I had to go catch it. Hell, so did the snake, who could’ve crawled into a less-friendly bathroom. But I’m adding a new chapter to my ever-growing safety tropical safety guide: the animals live here. We’re just visiting.

But a greater point is that we don’t live in a closed system. Boundaries are fluid, if they even exist. And at this point, we may be better off just shitting in the woods.

The Salamander Enigma

As I’m writing this, our little sliver of jungle is being blessed with the first true rainfall of the year. It’s no rainstorm–not even close. It just doesn’t have the staying power. But it’s a real, good-‘ol tropical downpour that has all the poor volunteers scattering for cover and the ones who were planning a beach day cursing their bad luck. Me? I’m chuckling to myself. Mostly because I work indoors now.

But also because rain means wet, and wet means amphibians. We’re sure to fall asleep to the operatic chorus of millions of frogs in a few days, as they come out of Dry Season dormancy and begin their courtship. Soon, they’ll come out of the holes and hollows and collect around bodies of water, from streams to ponds to tiny little pockets of bromeliads.

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Singin’ in the rain.

In fact, it’s almost like they’ve been expecting this to happen. I’ve been seeing an usual amount of frog activity lately, as if they’re preparing for the big party. What’s even more strange is another group of amphibians who have consistently made their appearance: tropical salamanders.

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These.

Anyone from Central California or the East Coast may be confused. Up North, Salamanders aren’t really unusual, and actually quite diverse. But salamanders and newts (Order Caudata) have the distinction being perhaps the only Clade of any living thing where species diversity is generally lower in the Tropics than in the Temperate zones.

Take birds, for example. For every species of hawk, or pigeon, or hummingbird, chances are there’s at least three times as many species the closer you get to the equator. Same goes for rodents. Or reptiles. Or plants. Forget about plants.

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Don’t actually forget about plants.

It’s a good biogeographic rule of thumb: Tropics equals abundance equals niche diversity equals species diversity. Add a little intermediate disturbance and multiply by species packing. Don’t forget the migration factor. It’s basic math. There. I’ve just given every biologist and mathematician reading this an ulcer. But you get what I’m saying.

But salamanders are the exception. Why? There are theories. Some say that they’re outcompeted by frogs and lizards, who have over-specialized in microhabitats. That with their short little legs, salamanders don’t operate as well in a complex environment. That they don’t reproduce fast or successfully enough to adapt. That they’re stupid and no one likes them.

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That last one’s not true. I love these guys.

Whatever the reason, neotropical salamanders remain relatively rare and poorly diverse. I’ve only ever seen one before coming here, and I spend a lot of tiny looking for little slimy things. Which makes it all the more unexpected to see so many here, in the peak of the Dry Season, some right out in the open perched on leaves and slow to crawl away.

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You. You’ve had millions of years of evolution. Would it kill you to have articulated digits?

Funny little guys. Like someone was trying to build a lizard and gave up halfway through. The ones here are probably some kind of Worm Salamander, with primitive limbs and terrestrial lifestyle. Probably slightly toxic, which would explain the sluggish behavior. But still special to see. And with the rains beginning, we’re sure to see more.