Anacondas

Culebras, Capybaras, and Caiman.

Other than catching hundreds of what is the world’s bulkiest snake, people often ask me what did I enjoy the most about living in a remote region of the tropics, and how could I stand it with no hot water, air conditioning, email, or internet?

Capybaras

Capybara nursing

At home in the U.S. I am no Luddite; but in Venezuela I lived in an extremely remote, wild area, without phone, TV, or internet. Instead of feeling disconnected or isolated, it was incredibly liberating.

Because I had little access to the trappings of modern society I had the freedom to spend a lot of time doing what our forebears did: explore, observe, and connect with the environment and all the things that go with it; you know, those things we pay good money for; fun, excitement, surprise, danger, adventure, extremes, the fulfillment of physical challenges met, silence, peace, new discoveries, and incredible beauty.

Frequently asked questions about my research on anacondas:

1. Weren’t you afraid of them? No. Neither am I a snake whisperer (which would be rather pointless, as snakes are technically deaf) that cuddles up with them at night. I respect their power and single-mindedness, but you can’t catch and study an animal day in and day out while being paralyzed by fear. I do find it ironic th475924-R1-E083at I was asked this question only about a billion times more often than my male research partner was asked. It is amazing just how prevalent stereotypes are regardless of what country you are in; apparently small women by default are supposed to tremble at the suggestion of snakes; yet the most snake-phobic individuals I met were the young, male members of the Venezuelan National Guard, all carrying AK-47s, all day long. Anacondas are much more than fear-inducing, they are  unique to the individual, surprising, mysterious, a bit primordial, and sometimes, simply put, rather awesome. (The photo is of my friend and photographer for National Geographic being a very good sport.)

2. Did they try to bite you? Yes, and a few managed to succeed. They are wild animals, after all, and don’t appreciate being abducted by humans, even temporarily, no matter how careful and non-invasive we tried to be.  They are nothing like hand-raised captive snakes, and like any wild animal that sees us as a predator (or at least, a nuisance) they are not cuddly nor do they long to be scratched under the chin, approached, or handled for any reason.

3.  Are they poisonous? First let’s get the vocabulary right: if something injects a toxin into you via fangs, or barbs, they are venomous. If you ingest or inhale something and it makes you ill, it is poisonous. I never ate any anaconda, but some tribal people do with no known side effects (other than a bad taste in their mouth), so they are not poisonous. Nor do they have venom, so they are not venomous. They do have a total of three rows of teeth, so they have no problem biting, lack of venom notwithstanding.

4. What was the biggest one you ever caught? The longest was a bit under 5 and half meters, the heaviest was about 210 pounds. We did see tracks of one that was close to 6 meters long. The big ones are always female, and the largest females we caught gave birth to  between 40 and 80 live young. If there were 6 meter long snakes where we studied, it was unlikely we’d have been able to catch them easily, as they would be hanging out and hunting in water deeper than the shallows where we did our research. Once detected, the aquatic anaconda can swim out of our range in a heartbeat, often unseen in the opaque, cappuccino colored waters typical of Driving anaconda1the wetlands where we did our research. This is why most of the ones we caught were on land, in the mud, or in very shallow water. Occasionally we got lucky and found them without having to look hard, such as when crossing a road…or driving our Toyota, but that was a rare event.

5. How did you find/catch them? When we started we were told by all the snake experts it would be ‘virtually impossible’ to find and catch anacondas, being cryptic aquatic animals. So we started looking for them the best way we could, by not only looking for them, but feeling for them. We would walk through the shallow, swampy areas covered in aquatic vegetation, hoping if not to see one, to at least step on one (that’s me, below, in the orange t-shirt, searching in prime anaconda habitat). As sit-and-wait predators, they can hang out under water for a long time, so it was not uncommon to searching in hyacinthfind them this way. The wetlands where we were had soft, muddy bottoms, so if we stepped on something other than mud, there were typically three things it could be: a turtle, a caiman (cousin to the alligator), or an anaconda. All that was necessary was to reach down and determine if it felt smooth and hard (turtle), scaled and bumpy (a caiman), or scaled and smooth like an inner tube (anaconda). We always made sure to shuffle our feet when doing this, however, as these areas were full of fresh water stingrays that could give you one wallop of a sting. I did step on my share of caiman, too; luckily they are neither as big nor aggressive as crocodiles. Had these waters been inhabited by crocodiles (who prefer deeper, vegetation-free waters), we would have found another area to to do our searching. There was, however, that one time that I stepped on a large sleeping, wayward Orinoco crocodile….but you’ll have to wait to read that whole story when my book is published.

6. Did they ever try and eat you? A few of the ones we caught were certainly big enough to try. Out of the hundreds that we caught, however, only once did a big female attempt a predatory strike on a human without us even detecting her presence. In other words, in this one unique instance (published in Herpetological Natural History), the snake was not trying to defend herself from these precocious humans who were trying to catch her while minding her own business, as was the typical scenario if and when they tried to bite us. The larger anacondas would resort to trying to bite us – defensively- only after they realized we literally had them by the tail and weren’t about to let go.

One unique instance was different. A female that had never been previously caught by us was hiding (as anacondas do) beneath the water hyacinth in the shallow water, unobserved by my research partner and three cameramen when we passed right by her. (You’d be amazed at how a 15 foot anaconda can go completely unnoticed by hiding under floating wetland vegetation, the only part of her girthy body exposed being her nose.)

Oddly enough, a cameraman filming for the Discovery channel was lagging slightly behind us, and he watched as this large female seemed to appear out of nowhere, raised her head about a foot above the vegetation, tongue-flicked in our direction, and curled her head back in the typical “S” curve snakes make just before they strike to bring down prey. Her target was Ed, another cameraman next to me (he is several inches taller than me, and weighed about 55 pounds more).

As the Discovery cameraman saw this unfold in the course of a few seconds, he yelled, warning “hey, there’s a snake right behind you!” My partner turned and dove to grab her right as she struck at Ed, and luckily managed to keep her from actually reaching her intended prey. Meantime, I watched Ed easily tie for a record in the Olympic high jump. Once we caught and subdued her, we could see she was indeed a large,skinny, and presumably hungry anaconda who had decided humans may be a worthwhile meal. Anaconda prey includes adult capybaras, adult white tailed deer, and full grown spectacled caiman; consequently, a prey as heavy as myself, or possibly Ed, is within the range of prey sizes that a snake as large as this one could take. The best part was that our cameraman got it all on video. Ironically Discovery decided not to air the piece, claiming the footage was not of satisfactory quality or clarity. Go figure.

Below are some clips of the video; you can see Ed’s leg, the snake inspecting him, and then curving back to strike.

For those of you who have the entire DVD collection of the “Anaconda” movies, keep in mind these few facts:

(1) There is no documented, verified case of an anaconda eating a person, even though they may be capable of the deed.

(2) Anacondas do not ‘often reach over 30 feet in length’ as many anecdotal stories and even some academic institutions claim. No snake in the history of the world has been documented and verified to be 30 or more feet long. If one such exists, and it may, it is a wise old snake that is very good at hiding from humans. If you still don’t believe that, keep in mind that until recently the NY Zoological Society offered a handsome cash reward to the first person who brings them a live, 30 foot snake of any species for their collection. The reward remains uncollected, even though is was a standing offer for close to 100 years.2anac1

(3) Don’t believe everything  – anything? – you see in the movies about big snakes, whether you’re watching a Hollywood production or Animal Planet. Anacondas do not eat people primarily because people do not wander around in swamps and rivers waiting to be eaten. Anacondas are sit- and-wait predators, they do not characteristically slither into houses (or onto boats) in search of young actors for lunch, they do not chase their prey, they do not care for or defend their young once they are born, and they don’t appear to hold lasting grudges. And even if one did manage to eat Jon Voight in one sitting, it would need a couple weeks to digest before it made room for Jennifer Lopez.

A life of critters and cameramen.

Although we were in a place of very low human density, for one reason or another we were always meeting new people (someof them tourists from a neighboring tourist station), and entertaining film crews (National Geographic, Discovery, Animal Planet, BBC, among others), research ‘helpers’ (a.k.a. snake-o-philes who wanted to get their hands on a big anaconda), and gueRenee and Scotty juv smsts (planned and surprise visitors, both human and non-human alike) in our tiny cement-floored tin-roofed house.Filming with BBC's Nick's Quest

What we lacked in material stuff we made up for in community. It wasn’t always warm and fuzzy community, but there was never a dull moment, and always entertainment in the form of stories, music, interesting (and truly crazy) characters. Speaking of warm and fuzzy, we had a parade of orphans – baby anteater, giant otter, 7-baby-bottles-a-day-drinking capybara, white-tailed deer, crab-eating fox, and silly feral pup who preferred d rice and beans over beef. For those occasions where visitors were scarce, there was a contentedness and energized peace that I find to be an extremely difficult commodity to come by in the short attention span, technophilic rat race of modern society.

I’m not saying that to experience all the truly marvelous moments that wildness has to offer you must live in a tree, be a hermit in a one-room cabin, or become a Nobel prize-winning activist.  However, you do have to disconnect regularly from the phone, the noise, the TV, the deadlines, and all the other monitors and gadgets to make enough space in your reality to reconnect to what truly supports us all, not just physically but also very much psychologically and spiritually:  Mother Nature. It’s the best reality show around.

green-cay-wetlands-sunse

Responses

  1. Great stories about the snakes going after your colleagues! Were these as frightening as they sound in the retelling? Had the snakes been able to successfully attack either person, and been able to coil around him/her, could this have become a life-threatening situation? It seems that it would have been relatively easy to kill the animal but how complicated a task would it have been to release the victim before they suffered serious injury?

    • Ah ha, someone asking the right question! When a large female attempted to catch our cameraman (for the purpose of eating him) who was walking past her in the water, oblivious to her presence, we were lucky enough to spot and grab her just in the nick of time, she was mid-strike when we yanked on her. That got me thinking quite a bit about what the outcome could, would have been. Certainly we would not have had to kill her, it would probably be just as easy/ hard to pry her off our cameraman live as it would have been to kill her, which isn’t necessary if you aren’t afraid of man-handling a snake’s mouth.

      In actuality when a anaconda is ‘molested’ or messed with while trying to constrict or eat prey, they more often than not let go as a defensive behavior. But with the speed and strength of a predatory strike followed by the snake wrapping instantly around the body of her prey as they do, the cameraman at least could have suffered broken ribs, or possibily cracked vertebrae. If it had been me, alone, considering my size and weight, I hate to say she could have easily killed me. That was a sobering thought, and reminded me just why I never went out on snake surveys alone. Uh, mostly. But hey, it was never a dull moment, and don’t think that cameraman will ever again jump as high as he did that day.

  2. Thanks for the quick reply, Renee! You have a story that rises to the level of a Tarzan adventure story! Or should I say, a Jane adventure story. 🙂

    When you say man-handling the snake’s mouth, do you mean that you would actually do something to its mouth to make it release its coiling? I’m envisioning something vaguely akin to that old cartoon scene where the croc is about to chomp down on some hapless victim when the quick-witted hero wedges a stick vertically into the croc’s mouth, preventing it from closing.

    I’m glad, too, to know that it would not likely be necessary to kill the snake. I had a rather grotesque mental image of using a very large knife to free its victim. Ugh.

    Thanks,
    David

    • Hi Dave,

      Yes, we place a stick in the snake’s mouth…then wait for the safe to drop on Wile Coyote’s head. 😉 No, actually, it would involve some less-than-graceful prying open the mouth if we had to, its possible. But as I say, if you pester the snake enough, even the big ones make the decision that lunch isn’t as important as fending off some pesky attackers. Food is important, but if the snake feels like it has to defend its life, it will let go; either with the intent of retreating or fending off its attacker.


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