kw: book reviews, nonfiction, herpetology
An expert is someone who's gotten away with something risky a few times too many. D. Bruce Means is an expert on venomous snakes, someone lucky to be alive. He has been bitten twice by rattlesnakes, as he tells us in his recent book Stalking the Plumed Serpent and Other Adventures in Herpetology. He has also handled the two Taipan species that are the two most dangerous snakes in the world, with venom that is fifty and ninety times as potent as rattlesnake venom. Good thing he avoided their bites!
The book is a series of disjoint episodes drawn from the last thirty or more years of his explorations, scientific and otherwise. While the focus of his expertise is the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, he is fascinated by "herps" of all kinds. Herpetology is the study of both reptiles and amphibians, and the chapters give almost as much space to frogs and salamanders as they to to snakes, lizards and turtles. One short chapter presents the Cotton Rat, the main prey species, not just of eastern rattlers, but of hawks and owls, skunks and opossums, and every kind of snake big enough to engulf one.
The title chapter concerns his trek through Maya country in southern Mexico in search of the Tzabcan rattler, the snake that he thinks is the model for the "feathered serpent" or Quetzalcoatl / Kukulcan. In some inscriptions, the feathered serpent has a rattle and diamond markings, and some Mayan artwork has a diamond background pattern that probably harks back to the snake's markings. There are other rattler species found in southern Mexico, but the Tzabcan is the most impressive.
If you get "out there" enough, you're going to discover something. Dr. Means's discoveries are indeed significant. Many years ago he determined that a population of king snakes in Florida was distinct from others, and the Apalichicola Lowlands King Snake was subsequently named for him: Lampropeltis getula meansi. He was the first to document, in Queensland, Australia, cases of tree frogs that eat young bats…bats usually are the eaters of small frogs. And he discovered the biodiversity hotspots atop tepuis (very high mesa-like prominences) in South America. These are hard to get to, hard to document, and at the moment, equally hard to persuade anybody like National Geographic or the Discovery Channel to film. (By the way, tepuis provided the model for Doyle's The Lost World, which in no way resembles later writing by Mike Crichton).
He also determined the source of the "aggressive" reputation of the Cottonmouth, which many people claims will chase right after you. If you get between one of these snakes and its water hole, it will threaten you, then head right for its hideaway. If you back off, it will seem to follow you. But if you jump to the side, it will continue straight to safety. If you manage to stand your ground (be sure to wear thick knee boots!), it will crawl right over or past your feet to get to its safe spot. Other snakes exhibit the same behavior. I suppose they expect you to be momentarily frozen.
Late in the book, where he is writing about his adventures in Australia, the author gets rather boastful. Some of his adventures were as boneheaded as anything I have read. I can't imagine someone of his experience, having barely survived two rattler bites, going unaccompanied to handle—by hand!—the Fiercey. It beggars belief! Every three or four years I read of an experienced herpetologist getting a fatal bite, sometimes right in the zoo where he works (I've not read of any female herpetologists getting killed thus). If you've read the book of Proverbs, you know that it uses the word "fool" about a hundred times. Ninety of those, the Hebrew word really meand "over-confident". Bruce, you dear fool, take a friend along, OK?