by Becky Friesen
For the past three summers, I have worked on a conservation project in northern Honduras. Despite Honduras’ unflattering reputation as being plagued by violence and poverty, it boasts pristine Caribbean beaches, incredible Mayan archaeological sites and vast tropical rainforests teeming with life. Cusuco National Park is a small patch of cloud forest home to giant fern trees straight out of Jurassic Park, a handful of villages populated by the most hospitable coffee farmers you will ever meet, and our seven research camps made up only of tents and wooden furniture fashioned from what we find in the forest.
One of the most fascinating aspects of conducting biodiversity monitoring work in the tropical montane cloud forest of Cusuco is the impressive variety of wildlife. Given this impressive variation within the park, even halfway into my third field season actively searching for snakes and frogs to add to the park record, I still hadn’t seen many common charismatic species. In particular, I was dying to see the bug-eyed and impossibly cute Blunt-headed Tree Snake (Imantodes cenchoa) which, being small, nocturnal and well-camouflaged by its big, brown blotches, had eluded me during my first two field seasons in Cusuco.
In the final weeks of my third field season, a particularly disheveled group of high school students arrived following a long hike from another camp where they hadn’t had much luck in the way of wildlife encounters. Despite this, they mustered the energy for a herpetology survey that night like true field work champions, so we, together with the camp herpetologist, set off for the river shortly after nightfall. We spent the hike to the river chatting about their trip so far, their ideas about wildlife work and answering their questions about the camp’s local wildlife.
Suddenly, about halfway to the river, we heard yelling and scuffling coming from a small house nearby. “CULEBRA!” they yelled in Spanish, sounding so terrified that I could only assume that a girthy and lethally venomous Fer de Lance or Emerald Palm Viper had snuck into their home. The herpetologist and I jumped up the small bank separating the path and the house and leaned in through the half-open front door looking for the snake, but saw nothing except a young couple and their son looking horrified back at us and pointing towards the door. Looking down, we saw a long and slender snake curling itself around the inside latch of the door. Its calico beige coloring and giant orb-like eyes were unmistakable – a Blunt-headed Tree Snake!
The herpetologist quickly untangled it from the latch and after explaining to the family that it was harmless, we brought it back to the group of students anxiously waiting on the path below where the students then helped to take body measurements, followed by hundreds of photos. We all stood entranced for at least 20 minutes watching the snake wrap the strong lower half of its body around the branches of a small bush and extending its entire upper half seemingly effortlessly into midair (a behavior often referred to as “telescoping”), flicking its tongue to taste the air. We were all hypnotized that night by that feeling of awe, of reverence for nature that all scientists seek through their work.
I couldn’t contain my excitement at this (surprisingly) rare find neither in the moment that we caught it, nor for days to come. The visiting students weren’t the only ones who got to share this unique experience with us on the survey. I brought the snake back to camp and the following morning I showed it to the local Honduran elementary school students and their teachers. Despite the fact that snakes are very common in the village, children are taught to keep their distance which makes a close encounter with a snake a rare and thrilling experience for them. I talked about the snake’s ecology and conservation and how to differentiate it from a viper, and they could hardly contain their squeals of excitement as I brought the snake around to each of them and explained how to identify it using a local field guide.
Snakes are seriously misunderstood in the community, and harmless species are often understandably mistaken for one of seven local species of venomous coral snakes and vipers. Nearly all snakes found in the village are fated to death by machete. For this reason, bringing snakes into local classrooms is one of my favorite parts of doing field work in Cusuco. Under the supervision of a professional, both local and foreign students are free to get close and learn more about these misunderstood animals, hopefully helping to improve attitudes towards their conservation in this unique corner of the globe.
Becky Friesen is a Canadian field biologist with research experience on seven projects in four countries in the Americas and is currently carrying out her Masters thesis work on Lepidoptera response to uncontrolled forest fire in the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range of Northeastern Mexico. She loves the sublime interactions with nature that field work offers, and believes passionately in the importance of conservation science to the advancement of modern society. Follow her on Instagram to keep up with her research and field adventures: @becky.outside.