Friday, July 26, 2013

King for a Day

Tuesday was definitely one of the most exciting and eventful days I have had since arriving in Thailand. I got to tag along with the King Cobra research team here at Sakaerat for a day, and I got a pretty good idea of what it’s like to walk a kilometer in their boots. I was able to take a break from working with our research team because we were still waiting on the rain (it’s here now!) to get started working full-time with the frogs. The night before this little excursion, the skies opened up and gave us the rain we've been waiting on for so long. Thankfully this didn't cancel my plans, as Sheila still allowed me to go as long as I was ready to go out to the ponds with her that evening. It was going to be a long day, but I was too excited about possibly catching a glimpse of my first wild King Cobra to let that bother me.
This was the goal
The day started bright and early at 6 am. We met in the dining hall and then headed out to check “plots” – randomly chosen 50 square meter chunks of Sakaerat that were being used by Colin Strine to survey the types of critters that can be found in the various different habitats here. I rode in the back of the truck with Colin while Eric, one of the other field assistants, drove us up the main road in Sakaerat towards the tropical evergreen forest. On the way, Colin explained to me a few of the characteristic plants that help determine the difference between the dipterocarp and evergreen forests.
Traveling through the dipterocarp on the main road through Sakaerat
It only took a few minutes to get to the plot, and when we arrived… Eric pulled out an iPad that was used by the team to record data. We noted the time that we entered the plots, and then headed towards the traps that Colin designed and installed to catch the various arthropods and herpetofauna that lived in this neck of the woods. The traps are essentially long pieces of thin mesh about 2 feet tall stretched in two different “Y” shapes on the ground, known as arrays, with the mouth of the Y’s facing away from each other within the 50 sq meter plot.
Amateur Sketch of the layout
The mesh fences are held up with bamboo stakes and firmly covered with dirt at the base to keep them in place and to prevent animals from going under them. When an animal such as a snake or a spider runs into this fence, it is then forced to travel along the mesh, and in the attempt to get around it, the animal will go straight into a wire trap made with 2 consecutive funnels that are easy to enter but nearly impossible to pass back through, similar to the design of a crab trap.
Colin checking the traps for critters
Because we got such a heavy rain the night before, most of the snakes were still sheltering and we didn't find any in the traps. We did find a bunch of tiny scorpions which must have hatched early that morning after the rain, along with an assortment of other arthropods and a few frogs.
Calluella guttulata - Blotched Spadefoot Frog
After checking the evergreen forest plot, we then drove down to the dipterocarp to check out a plot there. We waded through lots of wet grass on our way, and unfortunately we didn't see any snakes in these plots either. We did find something much scarier though… lots of evil centipedes. These wicked creatures are capable of killing vertebrates such as snakes and lizards with ease. In fact, unlucky vertebrates are their primary prey. One of these monsters in the traps is bad news because if a snake or a lizard gets caught inside alongside a centipede, that’s a cage match that will certainly end in their demise. 
Centipede of death

Because we encountered so many scorpions and centipedes that morning, checking the plots took considerably longer than usual given that we had to be sure to avoid getting stung or bitten. We finished up around 9 am and then headed back to the station for breakfast. When we got back, Colin’s wife greeted us and told us that the Cobra team was on TV as part of a special done by the Thai television show: The Navigator. There were two episodes filmed at Sakaerat actually, the first one had aired the day before and focused primarily on Sakaerat in general and the educational program run here. The one that aired on Tuesday was focused on the King Cobra team specifically, and they caught some awesome footage of the team in action. They even caught one of the cobras “hooding up” on film! 

While we were eating breakfast and watching Colin track down a King Cobra on TV… Jacob and Matt, two of the other field assistants, returned and told Colin that the King they had been tracking that morning had moved from its previous location. The team has been tracking 3 Kings for quite some time until recently when one of them was found dead and mostly eaten by the lower dam pond behind our house. They are unsure what killed this snake, but the suspected culprit at the moment is a hog badger. 
Wanted: King Killer
With only two cobras left to track, it is very important for Colin’s research to keep close tabs on where these snakes spend their time. After this news, Jacob smiled at me... “Looks like you’re gonna get to see a King Cobra today, man.” Totally wicked! I was excited. Colin urged us away from the computer screen that we were all huddled around while watching the Navigator episode so we could get back to work. Before we could head out to track the cobra though, we had a few other things to handle. One was the giant scorpion found in the dining hall and the other a monitor lizard in a box back at their house.
Imagine this in your Fruit Loops
The scorpion was unplanned, and an easy fix. The black ones with big claws are harmless, and rarely sting. These were the same kind we found in the traps earlier that morning. Colin simply picked him up and put him outside, away from the building. The monitor lizard was a random catch Colin had made a couple of days prior while driving to one of the plots. The plan with him (or her- very hard to tell with these lizards) was to simply take a small clipping from one of his claws and his tail, to analyze for stable isotopes, and then release him later that day.
Calmly awaiting his pedicure
Thankfully for the research team, Monitor Lizards use playing dead as a defense mechanism… so this guy hardly moved the entire time he was laying on the table. In addition to clipping his toenail and taking a tiny slice off the end of his tail, the team made a few measurements of his snout-vent length and overall condition. For the most part he seemed quite healthy, and Jacob kindly removed a few ticks from his underside to put him in tip-top shape.
Getting his ticks off without getting him ticked off
 Before we could take the monitor back to his home though, we had to go get the Cobra and bring it back to the house. This was the moment I’d been waiting for! We grabbed some snake hooks, tongs, heavy duty gloves, a few machetes, a couple snake bags, and most importantly the tracking device… and then headed for the truck.  
We're off to see the Wizard... err, King
The drive up was fairly short, just past the Upper Dam Pond where we do some of our frog surveys. We walked along an established trail for a while, until the transmitter’s signal led us off the beaten path. We veered off and followed Jacob and Matt, who had tracked the cobra to his current location earlier that morning. Welding machetes, the gang hacked their way through the undergrowth towards the King. Along the way we encountered a Northern Forest Crested Lizard, and stopped to snag a few quick photos.
Calotes emma alticristatus

 We quickly resumed tromping through the forest, following Matt as he intently listened to the pings of the Cobra’s transmitter within the tracking device. We were eventually led to a pile of fallen logs, and the tracking device indicated the King had made his throne somewhere underneath them. We hacked away at the surrounding vegetation, taking pictures beforehand to document the habitat type. It was important to clear the working space, in case something went wrong and the King got loose… it would be easier to chase him down and handle him within a cleared out area.
In case you were wondering, the whole reason we were so intent on capturing this cobra and taking him back with us wasn't just for fun. The two snakes that Colin is tracking both have transmitters implanted just beneath their skin that run on batteries that last many months. So every so often, they need to be captured and have their transmitters replaced. That’s why we were capturing the King today, his transmitter would only last another week or so, and they couldn't risk having it die and losing track of him. The brush pile was quickly but cautiously cleared away and slowly but surely we got closer to our target. Eventually, Cowan got a visual on the snake, and he quickly used the tongs to hold him in place.
Tracking the King to his log castle
 By pure luck, Cowan clamped the snake just below his head… allowing for an easy transition of moving in with a gloved hand to grasp his neck and therefore keeping his dangerous fangs from causing any damage. Once the snake was firmly and safely secured, I moved in closer to get my first glimpse of a wild King Cobra.
The King of the Jungle
This cobra was on the smaller side, but he still had quite a bit of body hidden beneath the logs that we had to coax out slowly. Steadily we removed him from his den, and then quickly put him in the snake bag… making sure not to catch his tail in the knot used to keep the bag closed.
Tag 'em and bag 'em
 We doubled bagged our feisty friend, and then started heading back out of the forest. So much excitement and it wasn't even noon yet! This day was definitely off to a great start. Cowan volunteered to carry the snake back, and before no time we were on the road heading back to the station.
Precious Cargo
When we got back to the station, the King was safely stored away to await his surgery. We were in for another treat when we arrived. Jimmy, another member of the team, had been out checking plots in a different area and found an adult red-necked keelback snake, a real beaut. These are one of the snakes we encounter around the ponds. This snake is one of the only snakes that is venomous AND poisonous. Its bite is venomous, and if you rub the back of its red neck, the spiny scales will deliver a painful poison. Just like back home, you can count on the rednecks here to have an arsenal of weapons.  
You know you're a redneck when...
At this point it was time to head out to check some of the farther plots, rebuild some plots, and release the monitor lizard. Since we were going quite a distance from the station, we wouldn't be heading back for lunch so we brought bagged lunches that the kitchen staff prepared for us. The road out to the plots was the same road we took to get to the King Cobra, except this time we wouldn't be stopping so soon. The road there was not exactly your average drive. In fact, it was some of the roughest riding I've ever experienced… which made for an awesome time. In addition to the tailbone shattering bumps that you had to brace for, we were constantly hitting the deck to avoid being wacked by low-hanging limbs and thorn bushes.
 The road continued on like this for at least a half an hour, until finally we surfaced onto a well-established dirt road. What was this?! We had emerged onto a Eucalyptus plantation. I was pleased to see this well-used road at first, but I later learned that these plantations were actually part of a government program that took land away from peasants and replanted them with the exotic trees under the guise of forest restoration and expansion of protected areas. In reality, it was a scheme to provide fast-growing wood products to logging companies. Thankfully, logging in Thailand was outlawed in 1989 and these plantations were vehemently protested by a forest monk named Phra Prajak who gained national attention and helped expose this government ruse.
The road through the Eucalyptus plantation
Even though there is no longer logging in Thailand, the damage caused by these plantations is still evident. The habitat is entirely different from what it would look like if it was left untouched. Most of the understory has been cleared away, leaving the forest very open and exposed. Once we broke on through to the other side… we stopped to have lunch at a small overlook along the plantation road. Colin pointed out that you could see quite clearly the difference between the Eucalyptus forest and the evergreen forest in the background.
View from our lunch spot
 Our lunch was not just your average PB & J… we got plastic bags of rice, steamed vegetables, two hard boiled eggs, and a whole fish along with a juice box to wash it down. I offered up my fish to Colin and went to town on the delicious veggies and rice.
Packed lunch... Thai style
After lunch, I headed off with Cowan and Colin to check a few more plots in the Eucalyptus plantation and release the monitor lizard, while Jacob, Eric and Matt got a head start rebuilding the fences in plot 8. We dropped off the monitor lizard first, nearby an old abandoned logging base and as soon as he saw the ground, there was no playing dead for him… he was off like a bat out of hell. This meant I wasn't able to snag any photos of him, but I did take a quick picture of the desolate logging station.
This deserted logging house is being reclaimed by the forest
A few more minutes down the road, and we arrived at the plots we had to check. Unfortunately we didn't find any snakes in these traps either, mostly just bugs of various kinds, one skink and a couple frogs.
A Heymonsi Butleri found in the trap
Checking the plots in the afternoon went much quicker than it did earlier that morning since we didn't have to deal with quite as many centipedes of death or baby scorpions. When we were done with the plots, we loaded back up in the truck and headed towards plot 8 to get our hiking and manual labor in for the day. 
Cowan driving our (t)rusty steed
When we got back to the trail head for plot 8, we had quite a hike ahead of us. We grabbed some bamboo stakes and started down the path. The majority of the trail was down hill, which meant coming back up was going to be lots of fun. It took us about 10 minutes to get there, and along the way we weaseled our way along steep ledges, through rock passes, down steep inclines and clamored over boulders… which made the trip there quite entertaining.
Kindly holding the rock for the man behind him
 Eventually we arrived at the site of the plot, and got to work. The other guys had already dug out two lines of one “Y” and were starting on the second array when we arrived. The idea was to dig along the lines about 6 inches deep or so, so that the mesh could be re-buried before the next sampling session started.

The world needs ditch diggers too
At first I wondered why they hadn’t finished digging the rest of the first Y before moving on… but it quickly became very obvious. There was a huge wasp nest right next to the last line… great. Cowan suggested to Colin that we might have to skip it… but Colin wouldn’t let anything stand in the way of his data. So we forged on. Having already gotten stung once earlier this field season… I knew how important it was not to anger the little devils.
Eyeing the black blob of wasps cautiously
We worked away slowly, always keeping one eye on the nest. Whenever we encountered a root, it was particularly stressful because we didn't want to disturb the nest with the vibrations while we hacked away. Everything seemed to be going just fine, until suddenly I heard Colin yell “RUN!” I looked up and saw the entire swarm leaving the tree and heading my way. I dropped the shovel and ran headlong into the forest, bounding over logs and ducking under vines like nobody’s business. Finally I stopped and looked behind me; thankfully no wasps were following me. I breathed a sigh of relief, and hollered out to the others to let them know I was fine. We slowly returned to the line and resumed work, being even more cautious this time. We’re still not exactly sure what set them off. We eventually finished digging the line and set in the mesh too, but we didn't finish until about 6:30… which was when the sun was setting.
Got the mesh in place just before sunset
So at last we shouldered our tools and started the long hike out of the jungle. When we got to the truck, there was still a bit of light left… but it didn't last long. Most of the ride back we were in the dark. This didn’t really matter to me since I was staring at the bottom of the truck bed for most of the ride anyhow. We got back to the station around a quarter past 7, woofed down some delicious food (coconut curry tofu and fresh steamed watercress) and then it was time for me to switch gears and get ready to go out that evening to look for frogs in the pond. The day wasn't over yet! 
The King Cobra team… a little dazed and confused after a long day in the field
I headed back to our field house and spent an hour catching up on some data entry and then got ready to go out with Sheila and Sara at 9 pm. On our way up to the upper dam pond, we stopped at the shed (formally known as Sheila’s Jungle Laboratory) and picked up a couple frogs that we housed for a few days to study closer and brought them with us so we could return them that evening. On the road to the pond, we encountered a green pit viper and hopped out to snag a quick photo before continuing on our way.
Green pit viper (Trimeresurus albolabris) found on the road
Unfortunately when we stopped we realized he was hurt… so we took a stick and moved him to the side of the road, sent some good vibes his way, and continued on towards the pond. When we got down to the pond we found a hansanae within seconds of entering the water. The heavy rain last night was exactly what they had been waiting for. We also saw TONS of amplexing microhyla heymonsi pairs.
Hey mon... sigh
We didn't see any females at the upper dam pond, so we left the male that we found and continued on to another pool, where we were dropping off one of the frogs from the shed. We believed the frog to be a Rhacophorus bipunctatus – the flank spotted Gliding Tree frog but since it was only a juvenile it was hard to tell. When we got to the small pool we were in for a real treat… Sheila spotted a Rhacophorus kio! These are also gliding tree frogs, but a bit bigger and very beautiful. They could easily be the poster child for the tree frogs of Asia. Unfortunately because they are so stunning, many have been collected for the pet trade or taxonomic purposes… so they've become quite rare.
You may now kiss the frog
But we didn't just see one, we saw bunches! The rest were mostly high above in the trees, looking down on us with wide eyes and yellow bellies. There were lots of other frogs here as well, but these guys definitely stole the show. 
A Rhacophorus kio in the trees
We wandered around for a bit longer, took a few more glamour shots of this awesome frog, then we let her get back to sleep and continued on to the lower dam pond. We were almost done for the day.
Sleeping Beauty
The lower dam pond just behind our house was the last stop for the evening, but it was no less exciting. As we waded through the pond listening to myriad of different frog calls, we scanned the grass vigilantly looking for hansanae egg clutches and females. The volume of the frogs had certainly increased after the heavy rain that previous evening. Then, about half-way through the pond survey we spotted… a hansane egg clutch, with an attending female!! This was our first of the season, and it was quite thrilling.
A proud mom, guarding her eggs
Sheila also found a gravid (full of eggs) female and a male… so we snagged both of them for experimental treatments in the shed, and gently put them in plastic bags. We marked the location of our first clutch of the season with a piece of field tape so that we could easily locate it in subsequent surveys.
Sheila admiring our first gravid female of the season
This was the icing on the cake to an awesome day! Christmas in July had come early this year. The rains were here, I got to see a King Cobra in the wild, and we had just found our first egg clutch of the season. It doesn't get much better than that. To sweeten the pot just a bit more, we saw a long tailed lizard on our way out of the pond. The picture doesn't do him much justice, but their tails are typically six times the length of their bodies!
Long-tailed Lizard – Takydromus sexlineatus
Before we could call this day quits, we had to head up to the shed to introduce the gravid female and her male counterpart to their new home for the next few days. Sheila prides herself on being an excellent frog matchmaker, so we expected this to go well. They seemed to settle in quite nicely, and we bid them good night after setting them up with some nice plants and a comfy rock.
This is where the magic happens
At last it was time to go to bed. It was about 1 am, and man was I tired. I snagged a quick shower before lying down, and that was all she wrote. It felt great to have accomplished so much in less than 24 hours. Almost like actually getting to be King for a day… although I’d take field work over sitting in a palace any day of the week. Peace Out!

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