by Mark Herr
Bushmasters have every characteristic of a mythical creature. When someone describes a bushmaster, they describe a giant, secretive, dangerous snake which lurks the shadows of only the darkest forests. They aren’t mythical beasts, though; they are real – but very rare. This rarity has resulted in the completion of very few studies concerning their natural history, and as such they remain quite a mystery to science. This mystery is all the more dramatic given how impressive and well known they are – bushmasters are the longest vipers in the world and the only vipers in the new world to lay eggs. What’s more, females brood their eggs, guarding them until they hatch – a behavior that’s quite rare among venomous snakes.
What is known about them? We know that they are mammal eaters, with studies suggesting that they specialize on eating spiny rats. We know that there are three species in Central America, with another (possibly two) in South America. We know that bushmaster bites are a particularly severe medical emergency – although I’ve heard independently from a number of herpetologists that they are behaviorally quite docile. What I think is most interesting is that we know they are restricted to virgin rainforest. Virgin forest is forest which has never been cut, or at least hasn’t been cut for so long that it’s reached the final stage of floral succession.
Why are bushmasters confined to virgin forest? There are theories, but the fact is that nobody is sure. The question could have interesting implications to ecology or conservation, especially given that primary rainforest is being cut at an alarming rate globally.
In order to explore this question and simply gain insight into the natural history of bushmasters, The Orianne Society has recently initiated its Bushmaster Conservation Project. The project’s goal is to study bushmasters in their natural habitat and document important aspects of their natural history, with the objective of learning how these rare snakes might be better conserved. So it was with this project and these goals that I went to Panama with Steve Spear of The Orianne Society and 3 other biologists this July.
The project is still in its early stages, and in order to begin studying bushmasters, you need to find them. That was really our goal for the trip, we were to evaluate the study site to determine whether or not enough bushmasters could be found to begin a field study. Our target area was the primary forest in and around General Omar Torrijos Herrera National Park near the town of El Cope, Panama.
Would we find our target? Bushmasters are unbelievably rare – I want to make sure you got that. At the World Congress of Herpetology in 2012 I heard Harry Greene (one of the few to have ever studied bushmasters in the wild) say that for his study, it required approximately 400 jungle hours to catch one snake. We had five biologists, one local guide, and would be in the field for 7 days. If we worked 10 hour field days that would be 420 jungle hours. We could do it.
Or maybe not. We never found a bushmaster. I wish I could give you some explanation, but in the end they are simply that elusive. The trip was a phenomenal experience for me. Not only did gain insight into tropical ecology and the biogeography of Panama (where I had never been before this), I also learned to have some serious respect for the energy that it takes to study rare species in the wild. It’s an unreal task. If anyone is up to that task, though, I’m absolutely confident that it’ll be the folks at Orianne.
I’ll leave you with a set of photos from the trip. We ended up with ten species of snakes in 7 field days, plus a bunch of other herp species.