An Afternoon, Evening, and Night as a Herpetologist in Cusuco National Park
Lunch at 1200. Expect something packed with carbohydrates (i.e. herping fuel). Almost every lunch includes pasta, potatoes, beans, or some combination of the three. If you are on transect for lunch you have your packed lunch of baleadas (a traditional Honduran dish composed of a flour tortilla folded in half and filled with refried beans and cheese, often mixed with a bit of scrambled egg).
The hours between lunch and afternoon coffee at 1800 are more or less your own. If haven’t picked up on the pattern yet, your day is pretty much organised around meal times and the availability of coffee; also the times of peak activity of herps, but mostly it’s the food and coffee. Because herps are typically less active in the hottest part of the day, you tend to have a bit more freedom in your afternoon schedule. There is always something to be done, be it data entry, preparing for the next herp survey, checking pitfall traps, helping in the genetics field lab, having a game of soccer with the locals, climbing a tree with the Canopy Access team, or helping the other science teams. If you’ve had a particularly strenuous morning transect, you might take it easy with a nap, some reading, or spending some time getting to the know the other fascinating folks you are living and working with.
In addition to the long-term monitoring, some of the science staff also perform their own research projects in pursuit of a Masters or PhD. For example, in 2019, the Herp Team had two University students; George, whose project I mentioned in Part 1 of this post, and Lauren, who is a Masters student from Georgia Southern University in the U.S. exploring the ecology and evolution of mimicry in the snakes of Cusuco National Park. She uses modelling clay, shaped and coloured to resemble snakes, to test whether looking like a venomous coral snake provides non-venomous snakes any protection from potential mammal and bird predators. Follow the link for more information about Lauren’s research.
It’s 1800 and that caffeine headache is starting to peak, but you can smell the coffee brewing in the kitchen, so you and everyone else in camp start to migrate to the common area to wait for 1900. After drinking your fill of strong black coffee and having a chat with your team leader about the plans for the evening, it’s just about time to join the queue to wash your hands and grab your dinner. Dinner fare isn’t all that different from lunch, but there are a couple crowd-pleasers that you will start to look forward to during the weekly rotation of meals. A couple of the standouts are ‘plato típico’ (refried beans, rice, and fried plantain topped with ‘mantequilla,’ a sort of salty sour cream) and ‘pastelitos’ (a meat and veggie-filled pastry or turnover, similar to a British pasty).
With a belly full of coffee and carbohydrates you are ready for another survey. The night surveys, starting around 2000, capture the other peak of herpetofaunal activity. During these surveys, which mostly consist of slowly walking a stream section of 200-300 metres, you are more likely to observe the diverse assemblage of amphibians and their nocturnal predators. The air temperature, especially at the higher camps, drops quickly and sometimes significantly after dark, but you can still feel the high humidity…perfect conditions for amphibians. While walking slowly upstream, you search the vegetation on the banks or overhanging the stream for eyeshine (the reflection of the light from your headtorch off the eye of the animal) or the movement or outline of an amphibian or reptile. All but the venomous snakes are captured and measured as described in Part 1. For most of the amphibian species, we also perform a disease swab, designed to test for the presence of the amphibian chytrid fungus. Swabbing is a simple and non-invasive way of collecting a tissue sample that, if infected, will also contain fungal spores. Basically, a long-handled cotton swab is used to scrape skin from the legs, arms, and belly of each amphibian. It doesn’t hurt the animal as amphibians naturally slough their skin to ensure it is doing its job as a permeable membrane allowing the exchange of oxygen, water, and other chemicals. The river transect surveys can last a couple of hours or more depending on how many animals you encounter and need to process. It’s not until you reach the end of the 300 metre transect that you realise just how tired you are and that you still need to walk back to camp, put away your equipment, brush your teeth, and fall into your tent while trying not to wake your tentmates who need to get up before dawn for bird surveys.
Each day in Cusuco National Park was exciting and different, but this is more or less a typical afternoon, evening, and night. Overall, the work of a Herpetologist, or any of the other biologists working with Opwall at Cusuco, is physically demanding and requires stamina to keep pace for 7 or 8 weeks, but it is also incredibly rewarding. Your physical endurance will improve as the season progresses; by the end of the summer you will be a machine.
I’ve put together a 2020 Wall Calendar featuring some of my favourite photos from Honduras. I made it as a gift for those who donated to my GoFundMe campaign, but it is now for sale in my new Shop. Have a look at the new photos I’ve posted in the Honduras Gallery. You can also follow me on Instagram (@mccallwildlifephotography). The photos I post on Instagram come with a fun fact or short description of the species that don’t usually make it to the website.
Please feel free to ask questions in the Comments section below or send me a message via the Contact Me page.