What price science?
By Jack Ashby, on 5 May 2011
A delayed account of zoological fieldwork in Australia – Part 14
From April 2010 I spent about five months undertaking several zoological field projects across Australia. I worked with government agencies, universities and NGOs on conservation and ecology studies ranging from Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease, the effect of fire, rain and introduced predators on desert ecology and how to poison cats. This series of blog posts is a delayed account of my time in the field.
Weeks Sixteen to Nineteen – part 3
In the last couple of weeks I’ve been describing the final field project on this trip, joining ecologists from the Australian Wildilfe Conservancy (AWC) on a full faunal survey of their sanctuary on the Arhnem Land Plateau in the Northern Territory. During this one month expedition I encountered more snakes than I had throughout my whole life previously. Snakes on field work is the topic of this week’s post.
As everyone knows, Australia has a frankly ridiculous amount of deadly snakes. As such, appropriate care must be taken when you have one in a trap. Large snakes can quite easily find their way out of both pitfall traps and funnels, so it’s worth trying to keep your distance when handling the trap (obviously they can bite through the thin mesh of a funnel trap too).
The tricky thing is that in order to successfully complete a biological survey, proper identification of the species is necessary, and ideally some measurements should be taken. Some snakes are easy to ID without getting too close because of strong markings, but as it happens many of the really deadly ones are just plain brown.
After successfully emptying one of the world’s most deadly snakes from a funnel into a large sack (this is done by putting the whole trap in the sack, and unzipping the funnel with a long piece of wire, then gently coaxing it out of the funnel with some gentle shakes), you have to ask yourself the question “what risks am I willing to take in order to identify this to species level?”. The furthest I went was to sticking my hand into the sack to photograph the detail of the scale pattern on a western brown snake’s head (one way of identifying them). The AWC ecologists, it seemed, were willing to go further for their scientific cause. Needless to say – don’t try this at home – it requires a significant amount of training to go anywhere near venomous creatures.
Certain whip-snake species can only be separated by counting the number of belly scales they have. So these individuals had to be removed by hand from the sack. This is the hard bit. Obviously you can’t just stick in your hand and pull it out. The head needs to be secured and out of harm’s way, so an appropriately trained person can get a hand in to grab hold of it. This was done by trapping the snake’s head in the corner against the ground with a stick, then uncurling the sack until the head is accessible and it could be gripped behind the jaws so it couldn’t strike.
Then one person would hold the head in the air, body hanging down, while another counted every scale on its underside – over 100 (snakes are born with the same number of scales as they have throughout their lives). Obviously the person doing the counting is at more risk should the head-holder lose their grip. A large amount of trust is inherent in this process.
I was rather lucky with two accidental snake encounters on this trip. I didn’t spot a small orange-naped snake as it was curled around the wire frame of one funnel trap, and when I unzipped it to extract a cockroach the snake calmly slithered up to my hand. Another time I scooped a load of sand out of a pit (checking from tiny frogs) and was shocked to find a small shovel-nosed snake in the palm of my hand. Neither of these snakes are deadly had they struck, but still they could have made me quite ill in a remote location.
Encounters with snakes, scorpions, spiders, camels, leeches, crocodiles, ticks, cassowaries, buffalo, feral pigs, stinging trees or even overly territorial donkeys on field trips did make me wonder what risks people are willing to take in order to get their science done. Afterall, if doing a cost/benefit analysis on identifying a whip snake to species level, when the potential cost is so high, you would really have to value the fact that it was a Greater whip snake in order to risk identifying it in this way. With a team of young gung-ho field scientists around, you have to wonder to what extent the risks are taken in order to impress (yourselves or others).
Next week will be the final post about my 2010 trip, but I’m back with the AWC at the end of May on an ecological survey of another of their reserves in the northwest.