Ghosts of Alligator Snapping Turtles

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Skull of an Alligator Snapping Turtle

When Carl Franklin calls, you know there’s going to be something cool happening as a result. This time, today, it was the skeletons of two Alligator Snapping Turtles that could be salvaged for the university – did I want to come along? Well … sure! The two unlucky turtles were beside Catfish Creek in Anderson County, and we were soon making the hundred mile-or-so drive southeast of Fort Worth and Dallas. (It was a plus that the skeletons were supposed to be pretty clean; if he had invited me along to salvage a couple of rotting corpses, the decision might have been different.)

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Carapace (upper shell) of one of the turtles

The Alligator Snapping Turtle is a behemoth; it has a carapace as long as 29 inches and weighs (in the wild) as much as 175 pounds, according to Carl’s Texas Turtles website. In addition to that large upper shell, it has a long tail and very large head, making it the largest freshwater turtle in the western hemisphere. This turtle is found in bayous, rivers, sloughs, and lakes in east Texas (and follows the Trinity River drainage up to the metroplex), and it spends so much of its time underwater that people may not see it, even if it is living in their midst. People also may not see it because it is generally not common and in many places it is declining due to things like poaching. It is legally protected in Texas, but taken by poachers in unsustainable numbers.

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The carapace includes fused spine, ribs, and other bones (a view underneath the carapace)

It also may be killed, as these two turtles probably were, by fishermen who consider them a nuisance or believe that they could deplete the fish they are trying to catch. The Alligator Snapping Turtle does eat fish, though not in numbers that should worry any angler. They also eat lots of other things including acorns that drop into the water, plant material, mollusks, frogs, smaller turtles, and perhaps an unwary nutria. They are fairly well-known for the little fleshy part of the tongue that is wiggled in the floor of the turtle’s open mouth like a worm – a lure to attract a fish or maybe a crayfish or mud turtle. Whatever comes to the lure may cause those enormous hooked jaws to slam shut, and then the predator becomes the prey.

Although, as probably the most passionate turtle researcher in Texas, Carl might have been able to bring us straight to these specimens by sniffing them out or detecting their auras or something, we had GPS coordinates to go by. And so, we found them easily, discarded beside a place where people go fishing. One had a bullet hole in its carapace, and each had an apparent bullet hole in the skull. After we took a few photos, we carefully placed each carapace into a plastic bag and added skulls and other bones that were still present, along with a number of scutes. These specimens will add to the documentation of this species in Anderson County.

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The mushrooms in lowland habitats were pretty

Before heading back, we took a drive through Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area, which is not too far away. Clint and I visited there in early March, and it’s always a good place to visit. As we drive through it, we saw what looked like a chunky brown line stretched out along the edge of the road. It was a Northern Cottonmouth, an unsurprising and a welcome find. We hopped out of the car to get some photos, and the snake responded to our approach with some good old-fashioned mouth-gaping. The snake got its “cottonmouth” name from this bluff display, which it often uses instead of attempting to bite. It simply gapes its mouth, exposing the pale tissues lining the mouth. This one’s fangs were clearly visible, along with its several rows of teeth (including two rows down the center of the roof of the mouth, the “palatine” teeth). This little cottonmouth never actually tried to bite. It simply sat there, sometimes closing its mouth but responding when we moved by gaping again, or widening the gape.

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Northern Cottonmouth, gaping. The fangs are folded and sheathed, extending back to about the eye; the rows of palatine teeth on the roof of the mouth should not be mistaken for fangs

After several photos, we wanted to get the snake off the road so that it would not be run over. This was a little problematic, as neither of us brought a snake hook. Carl handed me a windshield shade with which I gently poked the snake. It neither turned to leave nor struck at this object. We did eventually pester the snake until it left, and it never attempted to bite. This sort of encounter always makes me think of a well-known study in which Whit Gibbons and Michael Dorcas found lots of cottonmouths out in the wild and tested their defensive behavior – some might say “gently pestered” them – and found that for the most part, cottonmouths either try to get away or bluff and often do not attempt to bite. Of course, fair warning, you should always treat a cottonmouth with the respect it is due and assume that it would bite if pestered.

Gibbons, J.W., & M.E. Dorcas. 2002. Defensive Behavior of Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) Toward Humans. Copeia, Pp. 195-198.

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A pond near where the cottonmouth was seen

Texas Field Notes – October Issue

The October 2018 issue of Texas Field Notes can now be downloaded and read from the Texas Field Notes page. Not only does this issue explore the Lower Rio Grande Valley, but it includes contributions from Marianna Trevino Wright and Andrew Brinker. Marianna writes about the biological as well as cultural and social impact of the border wall whose construction seems imminent. Andrew writes about the turtle survey he and his Paschal High School students have been conducting on the Trinity River in Fort Worth.

Texas Field Notes Oct-2018Over the course of several visits, the Lower Rio Grande Valley is becoming one of my favorite places, along with the Big Thicket of southeast Texas and the Big Bend region. The Valley has such an amazing diversity of habitats and wildlife species, many of them found nowhere else in Texas or the U.S. Between the chain of fast-growing cities like Brownsville, Harlingen, McAllen, and Mission, and the conversion of land for agriculture, we are lucky that there is any native habitat left in the Valley. But the places that do remain are real treasures, worth working hard to save.

In the struggle to keep wild places and wildlife as meaningful parts of the lives of Texans,  we all acknowledge that young people and kids are crucial. Unless more young people grow to love the land and its communities of plants and animals, nature will be left with no one to advocate for it as old-timers and their memories fade away. Andrew Brinker is doing the kind of work that is priceless and necessary, getting high school students out in the river trapping, measuring, and studying the turtles in the Trinity River. These are no superficial outings where the kids see something cool and then forget about it. They are doing real biological work, and generating data truly worth sharing. Thanks for all you’re doing, Andrew!

So please download and read the October issue, and let me know what you think. I can pass along any comments to Marianna and Andrew, too.

Prairie on the Plains

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Over the past few years the prairies, forests, marshes and deserts of my beloved Texas have provided me with countless natural treasures and memories in the field in pursuit of material for the upcoming book, Herping Texas. I have enjoyed sharing some of these and other adventures with readers, but the time has come to move on, and I am hereby ceasing all connection, contributions and affiliations with the Great Rattlesnake Highway blog and Texas Field Notes. I will also cease publication on my accompanying blog, Coleopteraholic. I have several reasons for this decision, one being the pursuit of an education in Biology. I have enjoyed a good cruise down the Great Rattlesnake Highway, writing about my adventures afield and sharing them with an unparalleled audience of naturalists. Thank you all for your time, advice, comments, readership, and loyalty.
I would not feel justified in the aforementioned changes without contributing one final article, so I have written on Crotalus viridis, the prairie rattlesnake, which has always been one of my favorite snake species, and was the reason I first headed down the actual Great Rattlesnake Highway all those years ago. That transmogrified into a symbol for herping Texas, and I felt there would be none better to conclude with. I hope you enjoy it.
This being said, I won’t draw out these goodbyes any longer than necessary. Thank you all again. Enjoy and appreciate your own great highways, wherever they may take you. Happy herping.

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Prairie on the Plains

A full, late moon hung low in the sky like a glowing orb, governing the mesquite-dense  hills of Haskell County. Darkness engulfed the land, but my headlights cut through it with twin cones of illumination that fell upon the tubular form of a serpent on the highway. It was unexpected to see anything out and about in the grip of this relentless high pressure-laden drought that plagued these dog days of late July. The air was hot and arid, the ponds and stock tanks reduced to concave depressions of red clay, cracked and peeling in irregular squares.  The yellowed mesquite tops and dried stalks of Indiangrass, their withered heads bent in submission to the heat en masse, like a congregation of tormented mourners, provided a testament to the area’s dire need of some serious rainfall. The mercury had soared to 104 degrees Fahrenheit earlier, another day of baking, indifferent sunshine. I had been cruising down the Great Rattlesnake Highway at a low rate of speed, hoping to attract Palo Verde root borers (Genus Derobrachus) to the headlights, which is an easy method for collecting this largest of North American longhorned beetles. I had not seen a snake in several weeks, and had assumed everything had gone underground to estivate until the cooler weather of fall was in the air.
I spun the truck around and doubled back, and when the snake came into view I noticed it was not a western diamondback (Crotalus atrox)  as I had suspected due to the species’ incredible abundance in this region, but something else. Western diamondbacks are instantly recognizable in the beam of the headlights by their brightly banded black and white tails, which, like most species of rattlesnakes, they typically hold aloft while crawling. I couldn’t see any rings on this one, which narrowed the possibilities down to either of the two other species native to the rolling plains, the western massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus tergeminus) or the prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis). The massasauga, while not as common as the diamondback, is nevertheless quite prolific here, although it is a comparatively diminutive serpent, rarely exceeding twenty-four inches in length. The snake in question was around three feet long, and while I occasionally come across massasaugas of this size, it is rare enough to make it highly unlikely, especially on this hot, dry night under a full moon when nothing else seemed to be moving.
As I put the truck in park and exited the vehicle with flashlight in hand I noticed the distinct dark-hued basal segment of the rattle, which is yellowish in western diamondbacks and the same color as the other segments in massasaugas. I could also see the raised supraocular scales above the eyes that seem to somehow give this species a permanently angry scowl. I didn’t need to get close enough to locate the three or more internasal scales which meet against the rostral plate that distinguishes the prairie rattler from all other Texas rattlesnake species. The aforementioned characteristics, coupled with the oblong, slightly irregular chestnut-brown blotches edged in cream and fading to a series of pallid bands toward the tail was enough for me to know exactly what I was looking at.

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The prairie rattlesnake is one of North America’s most widespread serpents, ranging across most of the central-western United States, from Montana south into Wyoming, eastern Colorado, and most of New Mexico. It is the predominant rattlesnake species on the Great Plains to the east as well, from southwestern North Dakota, Nebraska, western Kansas, and the Oklahoma Panhandle. In Texas it is found in grassland habitats, from the high plains in the panhandle, south to the isolated desert grasslands of northeastern Brewster County in the upper Chihuahauan Desert region (Stebbins, 1966). It is quite cold-tolerant, enough so to occupy such northern latitudes as eastern Alberta and western Saskatchewan, Canada, an area where few other snakes are able to survive. Here, it congregates in winter hibernacula in large numbers, although in Texas it is more prone to gathering in smaller groups in abandoned mammal burrows or in the broken, heat-cracked labyrinths on the eastern slopes of canyons (Savage, 2004). In my earliest days of snake hunting post-high school, the prairie rattlesnake was at the top of my bucket list of hopefuls, especially after learning of its occurrence in the form of a handful of museum records at the eastern end of its Texas range, in the shortgrass mesquite and prickly pear dominant rolling plains of Haskell and Throckmorton Counties (Werler & Dixon, 2000). So I set out for the open road, and spent countless nights cruising the blacktop with red eyes and iron will. Eventually I chanced upon a DOR (dead-on-road) specimen in western Throckmorton County, and this served to goad my fanatical search into overdrive. Over the coming years I would find many prairie rattlesnakes in Texas, my first half-dozen or so around the Lubbock area some two hours to the west, and a few more in the Trans-Pecos east of Alpine, but it would be over a decade before I would finally find my first live Haskell County viridis. After that blessed, long-awaited day, I turned up a DOR in neighboring Stonewall County, which ended up being a county record and is now floating in a jar of formalin somewhere in the bowels of the University of Texas at Arlington’s Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Center. The current snake in front of me was my second Haskell County specimen, and one of only four that I have ever found east of the Lubbock area.

 

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In Situ photograph of my first live Crotalus viridis, taken in May of 2003 in Garza County east of Lubbock
All this talk of isolated records and localities is hardly reflective of the species as a whole. In fact, generally speaking, it is one of the most abundant serpents across much of its range, especially in the Great Plains, where it has been reported to outnumber all other large snake species in some areas. Here in Texas, though, prairie rattlesnakes are only locally common at best, and even then only when the habitat is optimal. This particular population clings determinedly to the eastern margins of its shortgrass habitat, encircled by ever-expanding acres of cotton and winter wheat. These areas are comparatively easily occupied by the prairie rattlesnake’s cousin, the western diamondback, which I have found as consistently in cultivated areas as I have unaltered landscapes. It seems that, while able to withstand and survive seemingly inhospitable temperature extremes the western diamondback is incapable of, the prairie rattler is much more susceptible to habitat alteration. It needs its prairie, and when the prairie is gone, it undoubtedly will go as well. Unfortunately this habitat is disappearing at an astonishing rate, and prairie rattlesnakes are not the only species being affected. In the 2016 Plowprint Report by the World Wildlife Fund, the statement is made that temperate grassland ecosystems are offered less protection than any other biome in the world, and that their destruction affects species on a level equivalent with rainforest loss, as well as the unique services they provide, such as carbon sequestration, which stores carbon dioxide and slows atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases (WWF, 2016). According to the report original grasslands have been reduced to fifty percent of their former size, with over fifty million acres put beneath the plow for cropland in the last decade. (Gaworecki, 2016).

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The eastern edge of the Rolling Plains, taken on one of my first trips to the area in April of 2003

On what remains of the High and Rolling Plains in Texas, prairie rattlesnakes continue to survive in the looming face of “progressive” expansion. They are highly evolved, formidable predators of mammals and birds, from small mice and kangaroo rats to larger species such as prairie dogs and young quail and pheasants (Werler & Dixon, 2000). Lizards are also fair game, especially in the case of younger snakes, whose smaller girth restricts their mammalian diet to only the youngest rodents. In fact, Werler and Dixon refer to several field reports of almost exclusive lacertilian predation by neonate and juvenile prairie rattlesnakes (Hamilton, 1950; Hayes & Duvall, 1991).
The darkness was all around, save for the blue-white glow of my flashlight, which fell upon the prairie rattlesnake some six feet in front of me. It lay motionless, stretched out in the rectilinear fashion typical of rattlesnakes, with the high yellow grama and bunchgrass all around it, the crumbling red clay soil and interloping black asphalt beneath, and the endless plains sky above. I took a moment to observe the intricate aesthetic details that make it unique: the closely-spaced, elongate russet blotches on a mottled beige background, beset laterally by alternating spots of light and dark brown. I caught a glimpse of the nuchal blotch behind the venom-swollen cheeks, ending in a point shaped like a crude arrow; I thought of the potent cocktail of proteins and peptides within, a concoction which is reported to be two and a half times more toxic than that of the western diamondback, although the venom yield is only roughly 1/7th that of the diamondback (Klauber, 1956). I admired the chocolate brown stripe that ran diagonally from behind each eye, their margins traced by the same cream-white that bordered the pattern on the body. It was a truly remarkable and amazing work of creation, admired by some and loathed by many others, but demanding respect regardless.
As if to remind me of this, the snake sprang into sudden action, as most prairie rattlers are eventually prone to do if not promptly left alone. With rattles whirring it threw itself into a twisted coil, full of electricity, its tongue curled up over its nose in a smooth, menacing gesture that left little doubt as to its intentions should I advance any closer. Prairie rattlesnakes are like badgers. They put up with little provocation and display an almost characteristic pugnacious form of self-defense, showing no quarter. While western diamondbacks, massasaugas, and all other species of rattlesnakes I have encountered over the years tend to display a variable range of personality, from placid to aggressive, every prairie rattler I have crossed paths with has exhibited this same line of behavior. They sit still for a minute or two, then suddenly spring into hyperdrive, exploding into restless, sinuous coils, with rattles buzzing, always facing me, daring me to come closer and reap the dire consequences of my foolishness.

According to a statistical study conducted at the University of Florida based on hospital records of snakebite cases, pit vipers were shown to give “dry” bites (bites where one or more fangs punctured the skin but did not deliver any venom) 20-25 % of the time (Johnson, 2012). It would be interesting to break this down even further to species level, as nothing about the demeanor or suggestive body language of a prairie rattlesnake has ever given me the insinuation that they were considering the possibility of dry-biting. In fact, several years ago an acquaintance of mine who regularly handles prairie rattlesnakes in the Lubbock area was accidentally bitten on the pad of the thumb with both fangs by an adult specimen and described trying unsuccessfully to shake the snake loose while watching both venom glands expand and contract, pumping the full load of venom into his system. As reported in Werler & Dixon, he experienced many of the typical symptoms of envenomation by this pit viper, including the metallic taste in the mouth and tingling sensation in the digits, face and tongue. The venom contains a complex blend of both hemotoxic and neurotoxic properties, which can vary between populations, with certain localities being “hotter” than others. Cardiotoxins have been identified in prairie rattlesnake venom as well, and in some populations these combined with significant neurotoxins can lead to paralysis and heart failure. While fortunate in this regard, my acquaintance did lose his entire thumb after a week-long hospital stay and acquired several hundred thousand dollars in medical bills.
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While definitely not seeming to entertain the idea of either fleeing or putting up with any guff, the irascible prairie rattlesnake posed defiantly as I took pictures, a subject worthy of a Gadsden flag emblem and a doubtless testament to its ability to survive for thousands of years in an ecosystem dominated by large herding ungulates, be they native bison or today’s cattle. If it was having any thoughts of turning tail and fleeing it was doing a good job of disguising them. With no hook available in which to move the rattlesnake to the safety of the roadside grass (remember, I had been looking for beetles, assuming snakes were out of the question) I simply backed away slowly and left it to the deserted highway to resume its nocturnal business. I wished it well as I flicked off the flashlight and its form was swallowed up in darkness, the rattle still singing that melancholy death song that has struck fear in the hearts of man and beast for so many centuries. In the dark of the night it sounded even more sinister and foreboding.
“Good luck you little devil”, I told him. “Try to find you a nice place to hide before the sunrise. It’s supposed to be another hot one.”
I closed the door of the truck and put it in drive, leaving the prairie rattlesnake to the rolling plains, and headed back down the Great Rattlesnake Highway, eager for the next adventure.
BIBLIOGRAPHY

Stebbins, Robert C.; A Field Guide to Western Reptiles & Amphibians; Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston, 1966
Savage, Candace; Prairie: A Natural History; Greystone Books D& M Publishing; 2nd Ed; 2011 (orig 2004)
Werler, John E. & Dixon, James R.; Texas Snakes; University of Texas at Austin Press: 2000
Klauber, Laurence M.; Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories, & Influence on Mankind; Vol. II, 3rd Edition; University of California Press; 1997 (orig. 1956)
Rubio, Manny; Rattlesnake: Portrait of a Predator; Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998
Hayes, William K. & Duvall, David; A field study of prairie rattlesnake predatory strikes; Herpetologica Vol. 47, No. 1 (Mar, 1991) pp. 78-81; Allen Press
Murphy, B.P., Andersen, A.N., & Parr, C.L. The underestimated biodiversity of tropical grassy biomes; Phil. Trans. R.Soc.B; 2016
http://www.canadianherpetology.com
http://naturalhistorymag.com
http://uta.edu
Gaworecki, Mike; Grasslands in U.S. Great Plains are being destroyed at an “alarming rate”; 2016; http://news.mongabay.com
Plow print Report (World Wildlife Fund); http://www.worldwildlife.org
http://ccsassociation.org
Johnson, Steve A.; Venomous snake FAQs; Department of Wildlife Ecology & Conservation; University of Florida; 2012; http://ufwildlife.ifas.ufl.edu

Treasures in the Trans-Pecos

This past Monday found my family and I, along with Michael Smith, staying in Alpine, Texas in the upper Chihuahuan Desert, and it was here, on a walk from the hotel pool to the room, I stopped to pick up a small yellow-orange scarab that was lying on the ground by the entrance door. It was Euphoria castleberryi, one of the rarest beetles in Texas. Few naturalists have ever heard of it, and far fewer have laid eyes on one. It is so uncommon that an image search on bugguide.net will show only three specimens, all found in neighboring Jeff Davis county. The included literature states that 21 specimens occur in collections from the month of June, “plus a few July-August records”, with the type reference dating back to 1937. It also states that “Texas Parks & Wildlife considers this to be a species of greatest conservation need.”

While I was aware of the beetle’s existence here, I had never dreamed that I would actually get to see one, let alone stumble across one without even looking for it on an otherwise insignificant walk to change out of my swim trunks. It is moments like this that can turn even every-day, mundane activities into moments of wonder for a naturalist: a bird that has somehow escaped years on your lifelist suddenly winging its way from one place to another as you glance up at the sky in the grocery store parking lot; a rare orchid growing at trailside on a hike in a place you have visited a hundred times; a tropical migrant butterfly on a bloom in your flowerbed. Trips can be planned and sightings predicted by scrutinous study of habitat, season of peak activity, and habits of the species desired, but it is little spontaneous moments of unexpected discovery that really add flavor to a naturalist’s life.

Ironically, I could have made reservations at the Davis Mountains Resort (the sited locale of the few specimens of Castleberry’s flower scarab previously collected), hiked across the landscape in the heat of the day, poring over flowers with my eyes burning and squinted, attempting to pick out their inconspicuous pattern, repeating the process for days, with my chances at success minimal at best, and most likely walked away still not having seen a single one. Heaven knows I have planned entire week-long trips searching for other creatures in just such fashion. Yet the random decision to take my son for a swim instead of going hiking at all brought me into direct contact with one, and in a hotel parking lot of all places.

Euphoria castleberryi, Alpine Texas

On the other end of the spectrum, the evening found us hiking the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains, with my compulsive desire to locate two additional species of scarabs now in full swing after the Castleberry’s discovery. The higher elevations of the montane regions of Texas provide a specialized habitat where certain species of organisms exist that do not occur on the desert floor. These areas, collectively known as “sky islands”, typically enjoy a cooler, wetter, and more verdant isolation from the typical dry heat and aridity of the desert. Conifers such as pinyon pine and alligator juniper thrive in these conditions, as does a particular species of beetle that feeds on them. This is Chrysina gloriosa, a member of the genus of Ruteline beetles known as jewel scarabs. It has been described as “the most beautiful beetle in North America” in Simon & Schuster’s ‘Insects of the World’, and is highly sought by collectors for both its beauty and localized distribution. I had found its cousin, the larger and fluorescent green Wood’s jeweled scarab (Chrysina woodi), on several occasions in the Davis and Guadalupe mountains to the north, but never had I laid my eyes on a gloriosa.

Montane habitat on the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains

But today I was determined to change that. While I hadn’t included them in the original itinerary when planning the trip (we had actually headed to the Trans-Pecos after abandoning the lower Rio Grande Valley of south Texas due to an extensive drought that had made wildlife viewing dismally meager) they had certainly come to mind when deciding where we should hike earlier that morning. After all, it was June, their peak season, and the Lost Mine trail was prime habitat. So while Michael took his typical leisurely stroll along the trail, taking advantage of the benches and birdsong, Amber and Zev and I climbed toward the summit, scanning the outer branches of the trailside junipers for the elusive glorious scarab. Amber possesses a particularly keen eye for detail, as well as some type of supernatural ability to find uncommon species, and in a very short time she had picked up a couple of pieces of some glorious scarabs that birds had left over from breakfast on the trail. These were the worst of teasers, but they atleast confirmed the beetles’ presence here, and served to further goad my search into top gear.

A wing cover from the illustrious beetle in question, found along the Lost Mine Trail

As the trail began to ascend to steeper heights, I saw a glimmer of blue flash from a bush in the setting sunlight, and soon had another spectacular species of scarab in hand. This was Euphoria fuscocyanea, a frequenter of fermenting fruit that we had found with some regularity on this same trail last year. While some entomologists consider this to be only a color variant of the more common Euphoria fulgida, others consider this localized montane variety as a separate species. Whatever the taxonomy, it was a welcome find.

Euphoria fuscocyanea as viewed in situ and in hand in optimal sunlight

Eventually the sun fell behind the mountaintops, and we turned back and headed down the path in an attempt to make it back to the trailhead before it got completely dark. We continued seeing wildlife, even more so as dusk took over, and stopped to observe southwestern fence lizards and birds among the trees and rock scree. At one point Zev and I sat atop a large boulder overlooking the valley below, where the mountains of Mexico stood in the distance, their silhouettes enshrouded in the foggy haze of light brought on by the setting sun. We offered up a prayer of gratitude to the Creator for this place and moment and time, and I think I remember throwing in something about finding gloriosa as well, if it wasn’t too much trouble.

We found Michael sitting on a bench some distance up from the trailhead, writing in his notebook and enjoying the solitude. By this time it was past nine o’clock, and I was scanning the juniper branches by aide of flashlight. Fifteen minutes later the trail began to wind back down towards the parking lot, and as we rounded the last bend my truck came into view. I had all but given up hope when I saw a flying beetle circle lazily around the lower branches of the very last juniper, flashes of silver and emerald glinting from its extended wing covers in the dying afterglow of the sun.

“Gloriosa!” I shouted. “Get the aerial net!”

I know. I know. It is frowned upon, ill advised, and probably not entirely legal to sweep a beetle out of the air with a net in the Big Bend National Park, but I really didn’t see much harm in it. It wasn’t like I had toted the net along on the trail. It just so happened to be in the back of my truck, and Amber and Zev were already there. I hadn’t come all this way and done so much searching just to see a glimpse of a gloriosa, so I threw caution to the wind and netted the beetle easily out of the air. Before I could fish it out two more appeared from the surrounding foliage and circled around the tree. It was a gloriosa bonanza!

I reached down into the net and my fingers closed at long last upon the “most beautiful beetle in North America.” It had been on my life list since I was in elementary school, and now here it was in the flesh, the bright green exoskeleton striped with indented vertical strips of silver that literally looked indistinguishable from highly polished metal. It was even more magnificent in real life. Everyone crowded around this remarkable, unmatched jewel of coleopteran perfection, marveling at its beauty before taking photos. Then Zev and I took it back to the juniper tree to rejoin its brethren.

Chrysina gloriosa, diamond of the Lost Mine

From an unplanned encounter with the rare Castleberry’s scarab to a first class ticket to a gloriosa party around the juniper tree at the trailhead of the Lost Mine, it had been an exciting day in the Big Bend region of Texas, an area that never fails to provide the naturalist with moments of elation and discovery.

Black Lights Matter

As we pulled down the driveway that led up to the Darling House in Harlingen, which was to be our home away from home for the next few days, the sun was setting to our west, bathing the lower Rio Grande Valley in the dusky hue of late evening. A waxing crescent moon was still nowhere in sight, but the shadows of the pecan and live oak trees had fallen in long, accentuated slants across the yard, and the resident harvester ants were scurrying about our feet, wrapping up another hard day’s work of lawn maintenance and seed gathering. All about us the day life was winding down to make way for the night crew, and I had been anticipating our arrival at an early enough hour that I could set up my ultraviolet lights to advertise for nocturnal flying invertebrates.

The word “vacation” is a broad term. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as ‘an extended period of recreation, especially one spent away from home or in traveling.’

In that context is where my wife and I possess different opinions. I tend to focus on the ‘away from home or in traveling’ part, while she places emphasis on “recreation.” The term “recreation” refers to ‘activity done for enjoyment when one is not working.’ Just how my ‘vacation’ can provide ‘recreation’ (aka enjoyment) in the form of setting up massive lighting systems to attract bugs (the construction of which often takes an hour or more to build), then getting up every half hour throughout the night to see what has shown up, then getting up early the next morning before the birds pick the sheets clean before tearing the whole thing down, only to repeat the process nightly for the duration of our stay, is beyond her. Tedious, time-consuming, and monomaniacal, she would likely agree with. But recreational? Hardly. Nevertheless, we had arrived later than I had expected, and what should have been my chance to finally relax and unwind after a ten-hour drive south to the Valley had now turned into a high-speed, nervous rush to get everything set up as quickly as possible. So while Michael put on some 9:00 coffee, I dug through the back packs and duffel bags and suitcases like a madman, searching for tools and other items necessary to employ this oft-used strategy in the world of entomological eccentrics.

Things went wrong from the start, as they tend to do whenever I get in a hurry. I misplaced the flashlights, the clothes pins for the sheets, and then the wrenches I needed to get the framework connected. After all this had finally been found, I was faced with the task of selecting a choice locality in which to place the sheets. The wind was blowing, seemingly from every direction at once, which caused the white bedsheet I was trying to fasten to the frame to flap like a sail. I tried to pin one up to the clothesline, draping the blacklight over the top, but then it bumped against the vibrating sheet. The cord was about three inches too short, and couldn’t be stretched a millimeter. I had a fifty foot extension cord, but it was reserved for my new 275 watt mercury vapor lamp. So I just hung it like it was and ran a loop of wire through the cloth in the sheet’s center, then tied it back to a nail that was protruding from the exterior wall of the back deck. This left the light to dangle freely about a foot away from the sheet, illuminating it ideally.

Mercury vapor light setup on the veranda of the Darling House

Feeling like the MacGyver of bug nerds, I then proceeded to the mercury vapor light, which held in store for me its own can of woeful worms. I got the framework set up quickly enough, even with the aide of a hand-held flashlight and a motion light that kept going out just about the time I would get a grip on the next bolt. But then the extension cord was too short for where I wanted to set it up. It seemed that every good place that would successfully buffet the sheet from the wind would hide the light behind a bunch of foliage, or would be too close to competing lights shining out through the windows of the house. But by this time the better part of an hour had passed, and I could see Michael and Amber sitting at the dining room table through the window, drinking coffee. I wondered if he was giving her advice on marital counseling, and so I just stuck the setup by the kitchen window, plugged in the vapor lamp directly to the plug on the side of the house, and washed my hands of the mess, for better or worse.

Makeshift blacklight setup on the back porch

For all this toil and trouble I was eventually rewarded for my efforts. The wind kept the bugs at bay until midnight, but I stayed up and snuck out of the house after everyone else was asleep, and in so doing feasted my eyes at long last on the veritable beetle bonanza I had gone to such obsessive lengths to bring in. I selected a few of the most notable fruits of my labor for my collection, and photographed the rest. By this time it was nearly one o’clock in the morning, and we had to get up bright and early to hit Boca Chica beach and then the Sabal Palm sanctuary, so I turned in at last and called it a night, leaving the lights running strong to keep bringing in the bugs until morning, when I would rise before the rest and set about deconstructing my setup until the next evening. Vacation indeed.

Unicorn mantis, a border specialty

Eburia stigmatica

Enaphalodes mimeticus

Phaneropterine katydid

Temnoscheila acuta

Repipta taurus

Delirium & Dehydration at Colorado Bend State Park

‘Our nature hikes have become grim death marches’

– Lisa Simpson

Amber and I found ourselves at Colorado Bend State Park last week, in the middle of a high pressure heat wave that had long since driven all sane people and animals into their air conditioned houses and subterranean shelters. But we were made of stronger stuff. True grit. or so we told ourselves upon setting out.

The original day’s plans had not included a hike at all. We had driven down to Lampasas to partake of some fine spinach enchiladas as can only be found at Alfredo’s Mexican Restaurant off Highway 281, after meeting Dr. Jesse Meiks at Tarleton State University to discuss rattlesnake research, a topic we are both equally passionate about. In all honesty I had a summer mycology class to attend at one o’clock, but the pull of those enchiladas was too strong, and it was only an eighty-five mile drive from Stephenville…

Needless to say, the myco class was a student short that day. I’m not sure what mycorrhizal fungi tastes like with beans and rice, but I highly doubt it compares to spinach enchiladas. As we pulled out of the parking lot of the restaurant, our hunger satiated once again at the expense of obligation and responsibility, I spied with my little eye a sign that beckoned me to turn left should I fancy a detour to the Colorado Bend State Park.

“You want to go hike Gorman Falls?” I mentioned to Amber, trying to sound casual, knowing we had no water canteens, no sunscreen, no bug spray…

“If you want,” she replied. And that was all it took. A mere forty-five minutes later and we turned off of the gravel entrance road to the park at another sign that directed us to the trailhead to the falls.

“Are you sure this is safe?” Amber questioned as we stepped out of the truck and into the sweltering afternoon sun. “You’re not supposed to be in direct sunlight between 2 and 5 you know.”

“That’s a myth,” I assured her.

“Especially without water,” she added.

“Well we’re already here,” I said. “Plus we just had two huge glasses of water at the restaurant, and some salty enchiladas for electrolyte replenishment. The hike is only 1.5 miles. That should hold us off for that long. See how I always think two steps ahead? I’m so good at it I do it subconsciously.”

Amber only rolled her eyes and headed for the porta-john. “Wait for me,” she instructed. “Don’t go chasing off some bug. I’ll be out in a second.”

As she entered the restroom I noticed a large, rotund orthopteran clinging to the wall in the shade. It was a beautiful leaf green, and its craftily concealed outer wings even mimicked a leaf to a tee, right down to the venation. It was a Central Texas leaf katydid, a species formerly considered to be a Lone Star endemic until a population turned up in Oklahoma (thanks, Brandon Woo @ inat for both the identification and the information). I had barely had time to snap a quick pic of this amazing insect when I heard a distinctive retching sound echoing from inside the restroom. A second later Amber came flying out shaking her head violently.

“No way,” she said, her face wrinkled in disgust. “That restroom is filthy. People are pigs. Pigs, I tell you. Let’s just get on with the hike.”

We should have taken the unkempt porta-potty as a bad omen, but I was eager to break in the last day of May in style with some hill country hiking, 100 degrees or not. As we left the parking lot behind, heat waves shimmered over the open prairie, above the withered heads of Mexican hat and coneflowers. Mesquite cicadas droned their shrill warning for us to take heed and turn back, or else abandon all hope. A sign placed along the trail warned travelers that rugged terrain lay ahead. ‘Bring Water’ it suggested. We passed it without a word between us. ‘Mountain Lions are known to inhabit this area’, the second sign read. ‘Use caution.’

“Mountain lions, great,” Amber muttered. “After we tire and weaken from thirst we’ll be hunted down like lame deer.”

“Nonsense,” I assured her. “Mountain lions are way too smart to be out in these conditions.”

And so we walked on, down the dusty trail devoid of shade and hope and potable water, with the cicadas singing our deathsong and the turkey vultures circling above us impatiently. Overhead, the cruel sun stared down at us with timeless indifference.

In the beginning everything seemed fine. The heat was nothing more than a minor discomfort; I began to sweat and could feel a slight burn on my exposed arms and the back of my neck, which I remedied by pulling my shirt up over my head through the hole and securing it over my forehead, like Beavis, whenever we crossed a patch of shadeless prairie, which was often. The trail to Gorman Falls consists of wide open spaces of prickly pear, Ashe juniper, honey mesquite, agarita, and various grasses growing from limestone-rich soil, with mottes of Texas live oak and scraggly elm trees that offer dappled relief all-too-sparingly. I insisted on checking every live oak tree with scarred bark, as this is the breeding medium for the large buprestid beetle Polycesta elata. Unlike Amber, buprestid beetles seem to enjoy the heat, the hotter the better, and can be found basking in full sunlight on exposed portions of the bark scars. There were plenty of these here, and in a surprisingly short time I spotted one. While many buprestids are quick to take flight upon approach, members of the genus Polycesta are not too wary, and can easily be caught by hand, as this one was.

Polycesta elata

On the other side of the tree was a large section of bare bark that had been split by lightning, its surface pock-marked by the emergence holes of various borers, both the rounded ones made by Buprestids and the slanted, slightly ovate ones made by longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). A fine example of the latter of these was sitting in the middle of the scar, its two-inch long burnt orange elytra standing out in sharp contrast against the bonemeal grey-white of the dead bark. At first glance it resembled a tarantula hawk wasp (Pepsis) in both size and coloration; this was precisely the point. The creature was a tarantula hawk mimic, the black pronotum and head equipped with thin black slightly curled antennae and the elytral apices tapering to resemble the abdomen of its dangerous lookalike. This was Stenelytrana gigas, a common (though seldom seen) species. Normally a high flier in the crowns of various hardwoods, it typically only ventures in the lower canopy to either feed at sap flows or lay its eggs. This one may have just emerged, for it was simply sitting on the trunk of the tree above eye level. It certainly wasn’t laying eggs, for the antennae were long enough to identify it as a male, and there was no sap coming from the tree. Maybe it had been burned by the intense sun and fallen to Earth like Icarus.

Stenelytrana gigas male on live oak

The trail began to ascend, becoming steadily more rocky, with jagged, porous granite boulders rising up from the crumbling thin layer of topsoil. A lone Texas kidneywood tree was the only thing blooming. It stood in the middle of a grassy clearing in full sunshine, its tiny white clustered flowers attracting a multitude of pollinators. I had been introduced to this delightful leguminous plant last fall, on a trip to La Sal de Rey in the Rio Grande Valley with Michael, and had spent a good half hour perusing among the blooms looking at bees, butterflies, and beetles that had been drawn in by its pungent aroma. This plant had been growing by itself as well, with no others like it in sight.

While Amber moved on ahead in her usual restless, impatient manner, I stopped for a minute to once again see what invertebrates were doing their part in the pollination process. The air was alive with the buzzing of wasps and bees, and the distal tips of the blossoms were being kissed by many juniper hairstreak butterflies (Callophrys gryneus). Nearby, a wheel bug (Arilus cristatus), a member of the assassin bug family, waited for one to venture too closely. But the star of the show was a huge tarantula hawk wasp, its copper colored forewings glinting in the sunlight, the bright metallic body reflecting turquoise.

Tarantula hawk wasp on Texas kidneywood

The tarantula hawk’s name says enough. Most species of spiders must contend with some form of predatory wasp that hunts it, paralyzes it and drags it away to be stuffed in some underground catacomb for its larvae to feed on. It is only befitting that the tarantula have a nemesis large enough to balance the scales as well. Tarantula hawk wasps are known for possessing one of the most powerful stings in the insect world, and it ranks among the top painful stings a person can experience. Luckily the genus is quite placid unless physically handled, although I have only met one man with enough nerve and alcohol in him to attempt this, and the end result ensured he wasn’t foolish enough to repeat it.

I left the wasp to continue taking its pollen bath undisturbed, and by the time I had caught up with Amber she was nearly to the end of the trail. By this time over an hour had passed, and we were beginning to feel the effects of minor dehydration. My mouth had become dry, and I was sweating profusely. I could only imagine how my wife felt, in her black long-sleeve shirt and blue jeans she had donned in an attempt to thwart the sun and ticks. Beneath her wide-brimmed straw hat she gazed out at the Colorado River below us, where a shady grove of huge elm trees grew above the fern-skirted crystal clear pool formed at the base of the falls. The comforting, consistent rush of the falling water over moss-slick rocks whispered for us to descend into this lush utopia, situated less than fifty feet below the prairie. A handrail rope to our right aided us on our way down, preventing a nasty fall on the boulders worn slick from years of humidity and foot traffic. At the trail’s end we enjoyed a brief rest on a bench on the wooden platform, where the increased humidity and accompanying mosquitoes went largely unnoticed as we enjoyed our break from the oppressive afternoon sun. After resting we walked part of a small trail that ran parallel between the river and the cliff face from which we had descended. Amber noticed several more Stenelytrana gigas females ovipositing in a massive half-dead live oak, and we were able to approach these quite closely for some good shots.

(panorama of Gorman Falls)

S. gigas female in hollow live oak

“I’m getting low on energy,” Amber announced as my camera snapped away at the busy beetles. “My skin is dry in spite of the humidity. I think we had better leave now if we’re going to get out of here alive. We have a long hike back ahead of us.”

I couldn’t argue. My skin was dry as well, and the left side of my head had developed a serious pulsing ache, the telltale signs of dehydration. We left the beetles behind, with a large female buzzing around my head, looking even more like a tarantula hawk in flight, and we ascended the steep cliff face, pulling tightly on the rope-rail with the muscles in our legs groaning and cramping.

It was four o’clock, and the sun was beaming down so brightly and intensely that it obliterated the path in front of us. “Ten feet at a time,” Amber mumbled to herself ahead of me, amid my own exasperated sighs. As we broke forth from a crop of closely-growing junipers I felt my head began to swim. My vision grew suddenly hazy, and I stopped in what little patchwork shade was available.

“I can’t stop,” Amber said. “If I stop I don’t know if I will be able to start going again.”

I knew what she meant all too well. The ground looked suddenly tempting, soft and alluring beneath a bed of juniper needles. It would be easy to just lay down and sleep.

But that would prove deadly, a voice assured me in the back of my mind. No, my wife was right. We had to keep going. “Just ten feet,” I muttered, adopting her survival method as I roused myself from between the shaggy juniper trunks with some difficulty.

But the worst part was yet to come. We still had that wide open treeless savannah to trek across, with the radiant heat from the piping hot granite boulders baking our legs while the sun cooked us from above as if we were in a giant oven.

“I feel chills,” Amber said.

“We are on the verge of total collapse,” I replied. “Heat exhaustion. This was a dumb idea.”

“How far to the truck?”

“Just a few thousand more yards,” I replied, but my humor was lost in the fact that we were in the red zone of hyperthermia.

To my right the Texas kidneywood loomed, its blossoms still bustling with arthropod activity. For some stupid reason I stopped to see if there were any longhorn beetles in the bunch, but found it hard to focus in the blinding light, so I staggered over to the shade of a dying live oak tree. My breathing had become laborious, and when I looked up into the canopy a bout of vertigo engulfed me. Something buzzed loudly by my head, sounding very buprestidesque, but on the verge of total mental and physical shutdown I was past bug-hunting at last.

When I focused my attention back to the trail I found that my wife was nowhere in sight, but I could hear her cracked lips croaking out my name, presumably with her final dying gasps. I mustered up my last bit of strength and jogged around the bend, where I found her plodding onward across the last section of baking chapparal.

“The truck is just ahead,” I told her. We pushed forward on sheer fortitude and willpower, dredging up the last bits of our energy reserves, my mind reeling with thoughts of snowcones, iced tea, frosty mugs of Shiner drafts, and water…glorious water…

Eventually the high stone wall that marks the trailhead came into view, its substance shimmering as I subconsciously rooted through the pocket of my shorts with shaking hands, the fingers cramping from severe dehydration.

“Thank God,” I said aloud as our feet at last touched the gravel of the parking lot.

“We made it,” I stated. “That was a nice hike!”

“You’re insane,” Amber replied.

“So what, you’re saying you’re not down for a walk along the Cedar Chopper Loop after we find some water?”

“We’re leaving. Now.”

And without further ado we left the Colorado Bend State Park behind, to burn and dessicate in the hateful late spring drought. We had defied all odds, and came out alive and breathing (if barely) on the other side. We had lived to tell the tale, a tale of why one must NEVER go hiking in such conditions without being well-prepared.

“Don’t let me do that again,” I told Amber as we sat in the parking lot of a gas station back in Lampasas among bottles of Ozarka and Gatorade.

“I won’t.”

“In fact, I insist on your accompaniment in my future adventures afield, just to keep me from doing anything so dumb…or dumber, if that’s possible.”

“For bugs,” she mumbled, staring out of the window of the truck with glazed eyes. “We nearly died to find bugs.”

“Find bugs…good idea,” I said, my own stinging eyes falling on a dead post oak whose upper branches were

stretching upward above the roof of the Citgo.

“I’ll be right back,” I said. “But I’m taking my water with me.”

Needless to say, I went unaccompanied.

Ornate tree lizard (Urosaurus ornatus) photographed along the Gorman Falls Trail, just before dehydration made the transition to hyperthermia and coherence withered up and died

Challenge Accepted

The SWNP City-wide Nature Challenge

The late afternoon sun shone down over a wildflower-rich grassy clearing at the Southwest Nature Preserve in Arlington, between the gnarled, lichen-covered branches of post oak and blackjack, their trunks flanked by saw greenbrier that sprouted amid a carpet of fresh shoots of poison ivy. I was here for the city wide nature challenge, a day-long event in which citizens attempt to record the most species.  It was a great opportunity to get out into the field, and to contribute some data as well. 


The rays cast metallic jade shards of light off of the elytra of beetles zipping and darting about in a delicate rosy-white bed of evening primrose. They caught my eye, and I veered from the trail and knelt among the flowers to observe them. At this closer level I could identify them as far as the tribe Agrilini. These beetles emerge from the bark of various trees in late spring after spending many months as larvae, where they feasted on the fibrous tissue beneath the bark. 

The buprestids weren’t the only invertebrates moving on this warm Saturday on the tail end of April. A rotund black and white scarab with dense golden setae was rolling around in the center of one of the primrose blossoms like a drunken bee. It was a Texas flower scarab (Trichiotinus texensis), a common species this time of year. It detected my presence and buzzed away on veined amber wings. The bright contrasting colors of black and yellow and white were suggestive of a bee or wasp, which the beetle mimics quite splendidly whether in flower or flight. 


Another nearby insect also watched it go, somehow wise to its true identity, for had it been an actual bee the creature would have followed. This was a bee assassin (Apiomerus spissipes).  In spite of its small size, it is a formidable predator, as its name suggests. Dressed in a mosaic pattern of maroon, yellow and dark brown that, when viewed from above, somewhat resembles a tribal face, it is well-concealed among the grasses and flowerheads. This is a member of the true bugs, and it is usually an ambush predator, perching in sunny patches in open areas, concealed amid the blooms of wildflowers as it waits for a visiting pollinator. The bug’s proboscis acts as a hypodermic needle, injecting a paralyzing venom that slows the victim’s movements before converting into a vacuum tube and sucking up its juices like a grim smoothie.


Eventually Michael and the group of contributors arrived, and we met with Nic Martinez at a pond near the front of the property. The goal was to drag a sein through the murky brown water in hopes of turning up some of its hidden aquatic denizens, but the mud was deep and thick, and it was instead decided that we dip from the shoreline with mesh nets intended for such purpose. In this manner we turned up robust, mud-mottled dragonfly and tuft-tailed damselfly naaids, as well as cricket frogs, tadpoles, and fairy shrimp. Behind us the newly emerged adult dragonflies tried out their new wings over the pond surface. One of them, a common whitetail, perched on a reed at water’s edge. 

A flash of Halloween black and orange caught my eye, and I watched as a Monarch butterfly winged its way across the clearing, soaring over the top of an ashe juniper. If it were a female it was likely in search of a milkweed, the species’ host plant, where it could deposit its eggs. In a few weeks the sausage-shaped, tiger-striped larvae would be munching on the toxic leaves, absorbing the cardenolides and rendering themselves poisonous as well. 

At the edge of the meadow I slipped into the realm of woodlands, where the sunlight fell in warm bright patches across my face. A Texas spiny lizard scurried around the trunk of an oak in their “barber pole fashion” up and around in a spiral, its hooked toe claws allowing it perfect vertical traction. In a moment it was out of sight. 

Among the dried leaves and deadfall at my feet grew sugar hackberry trees with rough, wrinkled bark, stout post oaks with trunks the diameter of barrels, and blackjacks with their deep green, point-tipped leaves. The chaotic branches of gum bumelia could be seen like crops of untamed hair. A thick tendril of Virginia creeper slithered its way across the soil beneath, the characteristic quintet of serrated leaves standing out among tones of gray and sepia. In one place possumhaw grew at the base of a blackjack, and a little red weevil with a black snout sat perched on one of its leaves.   This was Homeolabis analis, a beast who goes by the more colorful name of leaf-rolling weevil. They are small, generally around 6 mm in length, and are usually found in association with oaks, so the presence of this one beneath the blackjack was not surprising.  Like the buprestids, adults pupate over the winter and emerge the following spring. In a complex process that is remarkably technical for such a tiny creature, the weevil picks a choice, soft leaf and measures it precisely, then selects a spot along the midrib, severing it to dam off the water supply to the leaf’s lower part. It then moves to the other side, where it repeats the process. After the leaf begins to wilt and lose strength the beetle notches the leaf on the bottom of the midrib,preparing it for a smooth, easy roll. The extending veins are then cross-cut in a determined, painstaking process where every cut is precise. The leaf is folded in half and then rolled. The female weevil then lays an egg or two in the center with her ovipositor and tucks in the flaps like a tortilla, to prevent unrolling (UF/IFAS).  


Among the deadfall I found another nibbler of oaks, the ant-mimic longhorn beetle, Euderces pini.  These are mimics of carpenter ants, and are similarly colored in bands of maroon and black. This, coupled by their comparative size, renders them quite inconspicuous among their armed lookalikes. As I watched a pair of them raced up and down the tangled, leafless branches of a severed post oak limb. 


I had brought along a canvas beating sheet, sewn around a wire hoop in the form of a basket and suspended on a wooden pole to make a sort of “net.”  With my free hand I gently rapped one of the branches of the overhanging oak, holding the basket as a catch-all beneath. The goal is to dislodge resting insects, which fall into the basket and can be observed, or, in this case, recorded for Inaturalist. This method works surprisingly well, and seldom fails to turn up a wide variety of insects and arachnids. On this day it would produce a little green stick insect, Diaphemorera femorata. The kings of mimicry,walkingsticks virtually disappear among the foliage of their choice. 


When night fell the team of naturalists met up in the parking lot of the preserve and geared up for a night walk. We headed out across the edge of another large pond, where we saw fishing spiders performing little miracles on the surface of the water, their eight legs splayed out, sitting atop the thin membrane of molecules above the water. In the nearby reeds, long-jawed orbweavers climbed across the strands of their webs like acrobats. Our flashlight beams played across the water and mud, where Zev and I found a young plainbellied water snake that cut across the shallow edge like a black ribbon in the late twilight. 

We traversed a small rocky hill, and in the middle of the sandy trail the beam picked up a black bug scurrying among the low grasses. This was a black corsair (Melanolestes picipes) another true bug related to the bee assassin that patrols the ground for crickets and small spiders. A bite from an assassin bug is incredibly painful, as I learned the hard way as a teenager, and can even leave the skin around the site of the bite numb for several hours. 


Another member of the party discovered a striped bark scorpion (Centruroides vittatus), the only native scorpion species to occupy the western cross timbers. In spite of its inch-long size, it bared its pincers and arched its tail, the curved sting on the end of the telson at the ready. We admired its bravery and then saw it to the safety of the trail’s edge to resume its hunt for small arthropods. 


We made our way through the woods, engaged in enjoyable conversations, and the night came to life all around us, with screech owls and chuck-wills-widows piercing the darkness with their pleasing calls. The night would end, but not before it had been thoroughly explored. Overhead the pale light of a waxing gibbous moon smiled over the preserve, a final witness to a memorable day at the Southwest Nature Preserve. 
Sources:

http://www.entnemdept.ufl.edu

http://www.nwf.org

‘Beetles of Eastern North America’, Evans, Arthur V. Princeton Press, 2014

Atrox, Antivenin, & Amputation Anniversary


Well, today marks the one-year anniversary of my snakebite, and I believe I had promised a first-hand account to you all, dear readers. A year seems like plenty of time and then some to get over the pain and bother of it, I suppose. Over the course of the last 365 days I have had to reteach myself to type, and I can no longer feel anything at the end of what is left of my ring finger (except, of course, when I bump it on something) but other than that I can’t complain. So without further ado, here is a memoir of my painful, educational encounter with Princess Atrox…

*DISCLAIMER: any insinuation of intentional sadistic ill-treatment, gross malpractice, or sociopathic barbarism in regards to the doctors or nurses that treated me is to be taken lightly; I experienced a high degree of kindness and professionalism at both hospitals, from the nurses, doctors, anesthesiologist, and yes, even the surgeon…*

BEWARE THE IDES OF MARCH

(A HANDS-ON LESSON IN HEMO-TOXICOLOGY)

 

 with thy sharp teeth

this knot intrinsicate

of life at once untie;

poor venomous fool,

be angry, and despatch

 – Cleopatra

– Act V

 

​It is past midnight. A brisk, violent wind has blown in from the wild western plains, piloting the way for a slow-moving thunderstorm that is soon to come rolling across the cross timbers on this warm, early spring. I am writing by pen, as the current physical condition of my left hand has left me in a disabled state unsuitable for life behind the keyboard. Occasionally I glance over at my crippled, bandaged left, and my gaze is naturally directed toward that odd, inch-long space where my ring finger used to be but now is not. It is not because seven days ago, for the brief span of what had to be less than a second, a juvenile western diamondback was firmly fastened to it, her minute curved hypodermic dentition embedded to the hilt, swollen venom glands contracting and expanding as they delivered a full load of potent hemotoxic cocktail into the soft pad of my fingertip. As quickly as she had struck the snake released her hold. But the damage had been done. The complex combination of proteins and peptides went to work breaking down the absorbent subcutaneous tissue just north of my wedding ring, and my nerves sent a bolt of hot, searing pain into my brain exclaiming something like, “Thirty-five percent of venomous snakebites are dry! Congratulations! Welcome to the majority!” And shortly thereafter came the most painful part: informing my wife that her idiot husband had gotten that part of his hand adorned with his symbol of devotion to her a little too close to the homing range of a rattlesnake’s heat sensitive pits, those chemosensory red flags of danger ablaze on the flickering tips of a violet-black forked tongue, signaling its reptilian brain to strike out with mouth agape, elastic jaws stretched, fangs unfolded from their fleshy sheaths and pointed forward in that age-old, sinless self defense mechanism devoid of malice but damaging all the same. It is one that works superbly well, accomplishing its intended purpose with a speed of which few other things can compare. Touch a red-hot pan and you drop it without thinking. Take a bite from a crotalid and you stop messing with it instantly, I can guarantee you. ‘Don’t Tread On Me’, her whirring caudal appendage continued to resonate as I secured her quickly in the lock box. Yes ma’am. Message understood loud and clear, thank you very much, and further accentuated with every pulsing throb of my fiery fingertip, from which twin pinpricks of bright red blood had begun to escape from their normal vascular course and make their way on a redirected route across my bare skin. There was an instant shout of some unmentionable phrase that I can’t quite remember, a slang crude version of, “fiddly-dee, this is going to require a trip to the emergency room!” Whatever was said, my wife heard it, and by the time I could secure the snake and get to the kitchen and explain, she had the car keys in her hand. I removed the wedding ring in order to avoid blood flow restriction, then turned on the faucet and gave the now-searing wound a quick rinse, marveling at how the rapid onset of tissue degeneration, intended to dispatch and begin breaking down the snake’s prey even before it has been located and swallowed, had already caused the outer edges of the bite marks to become awash with the dull, faded purple hue of smudged ink. 


​It is a forty five minute drive to the nearest hospital that I trust (the local so-called hospital in nearby Decatur has killed more patients than Jack Kevorkian), but my wife turned on the flashers and transformed 380 into the Texas Motor Speedway, so we got there in about thirty. The Denton Presbyterian Hospital had been called and notified of the situation en route, and they confirmed they had the antivenin on hand. Meanwhile, I am keeping the hand elevated and trying my best to document the finger’s digression with the camera on my cell phone in order to keep myself from chewing my seatbelt off at the shoulder. Thanks largely to Amber’s uncanny ability to mask her concern behind a fortified steel wall of collected serious calm, we arrived safely with no dramatic curb-jumps or two-wheeled grand entrances, parked and headed for the doors of the ER.

​The venom of hemotoxic pit vipers is a thrilling, exquisite joyride of almost unbearable, indescribable pain that can best be described as having whatever extremity one so happens to have the ill fortune of being punctured by struck with a red-hot ball peen hammer. The fact that this particular bite was to the highly sensitive pad of my fingertip, where all the delicate nerve endings were gathered, made it all the more enjoyable. Remaining calm is the most important issue at hand ( pun intended), keeping the heart rate from going into hyperdrive and exploding in the chest cavity like a party balloon in a cactus patch. It is not the easiest thing in the world to do, mind you, but it is vitally necessary, and so I buckled down and did it. While Amber handed over my insurance information at the desk I took a seat in the waiting room among the broken-boned, accident prone cohorts who were likewise having a problematic weekend, checking my pulse by counting the painful throbs in my finger. ‘King!’, I soon heard the nurse call out, and I made my way to the back, where hopefully that sweet, sustaining bottle of polyvalent had already been shaken and stirred and was waiting for me in an IV bag…

 ACT II

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the ER

 

Surely life is not intended to be easy, because if it were it would cease to be interesting and we would atrophy

-CJP Ionides

 ​Of course it wasn’t. After answering the classic “twenty questions” ( I would become so sick of repeating these to each and every personnel I came into contact with that I would begin to feel like one of those pull-string toys)… I was finally led back into an ER bed, where I was assured antivenin was on its way. Michael showed up a short time later, which was a real relief, seeing as to how medical personnel is much more willing to accredit the statements and opinions of a professional-looking person in regards to proper snakebite protocol than they are a long-haired unshorn type with bug tattoos all over him. It was a good thing too, for the ER staff, while courteous, professional, and definitely a far, far cry from the primitive treatments of my hometown docs, which still prescribe whiskey for snakebite and dancing the tarantella for spider bites, was admittedly inexperienced in the matter. I met with a few nurses and doctors who were nice enough to begin administering an IV of morphine for my pain (which at this point had accelerated greatly, graduating from the burning needle-points of immediate envenomation to the feeling of having my entire hand squeezed in a vice, with the burning still present on top of this, of course). The discoloration around the pad of my fingertip had now spread to include the entire fingertip, and the ink-smudge purple hue had darkened to a most unsightly blue-black as the hemolytic juice dissolved the tissue. Pain from a hemotoxic snakebite has been described as one of the top ten most intense sensations that can occur to the human body, related to the feeling of a subcutaneous third degree burn, which is sort of what it is, with the venom working like acid as it dissolves flesh, muscle, and nerve tissue. To add to this already excruciating experience, sometime later (usually within a few hours) such euphoric and delightful symptoms as nausea, vomiting, skin tingling, hives, itching, muscle spasms, drowsiness, profuse sweating, chest constriction, breathing difficulty, and disorientation are thrown into the mix. The end result is the very definition of misery.  

​The morphine, while definitely helping to curb the burning and crushing sensations in my hand, was doing little more than taking the edge off. Michael kept asking about the Crofab, where was it and how soon could they get it out of the bottle and into my veins? Prompt administration of antivenin is the number one issue of importance when it comes to reversing the above mentioned symptoms of envenomation, and I had errantly assumed calling forty five minutes ahead of time would ensure they had it in an IV bag upon my arrival. Unfortunately, antivenin is such an expensive commodity with such a short shelf life that most hospitals cannot afford to just go breaking it open immediately, as many snakebite cases are either dry bites (where the snake injects no venom) or are bites from nonvenomous species. Of all the questions I had to answer, the “are you sure it was a rattlesnake” was the one that perturbed me the most. “Well, I’m pretty sure. Between the fact that the snake had rattles and my hand being swollen up like a plum I’d say very sure, in fact. While we’re on the topic of certainties, are you sure the antivenin is coming?” We kept being told that they were mixing it, and that I could be assured that it would get there when it did, and that in the meantime I was just going to have to be a gentleman and writhe in the agony of my ignorance in the manner of such.  

​I jest, but in reality the doctors and nurses were very caring and helpful; I was just giving in to my impatience due to the effects of the toxin flooding through my system, which was no one’s fault save my own, but I would like to think in such dire circumstances a man can be granted a little irritability.  

​At some point Michael deemed it wholesome to document a few minutes of my suffering on video. This he did in a series of snippets between 1 1/2 and 2 hours after the bite, somewhere between the morphine and the antivenin, whereupon I described the sensation as it escalated:

cold chill. intense cramping. severe burning. shaking. itching around base of middle finger. intense pressure. cold. like having my hand slammed in a door. no nausea. increased pain to entire arm.

​A short time later the blessed serum finally arrived, around the time the symptoms that accompany the spread of the venom throughout the body began to manifest. Again, Michael recorded a few of my comments:

hives. itching. swelling. tightness in face. pressure in ears.

​I had already informed the nurses that I was going to need something to throw up in, so luckily there was a bag present when it finally hit my stomach. Shortly after this the headache/glandular soreness/rash/profuse sweating/chest constriction/difficulty breathing reared its ugly head, which caused the doctor to become concerned about my possible allergic reaction to the antivenin. An administration of Benadryl was added to the IV just in case, which helped to alleviate some of those symptoms, but when my platelet count dropped from around 450,000 to 36, my blood pressure plummeted into the ‘DANGER’ zone, and my finger continued to swell, the doctor came in and made the decision to Careflight me to a hospital that had more antivenin as well as a hand surgeon on duty. They had already given me six vials of Crofab (the recommended beginning dose) and very wisely had decided to take no chances. By this point the mind-debilitating effects of the venom mixed with the morphine had put me in a state of delirium, and all I can remember about my chopper tour of the metroplex was looking out of the window of the helicopter thinking ‘this is one expensive express lane to bypass I-35 construction backup’ and ‘wouldn’t it be ironic if I rolled out and plummeted to my death in a state of venom-induced delirium…now that would be a news headline!’ ‘WORLD’S UNLUCKIEST MAN’…


 

ACT III

 RATTLESNAKE ETIQUETTE

 

Something was obviously wrong with my technique.

– -CJP Ionides, Mambas & Man-eaters

 

 ​I suppose this is the point in my story where I should attempt to explain the facts and opinions surrounding the nature of how I caused my skin to come into contact with the business end of a western diamondback rattlesnake in the first place. I will start with a word to the wise from the formerly ignorant. If you must keep venomous snakes (as some of us feel they must) you will do yourself a mighty favor to keep them one to a box. Perhaps even more importantly, make sure that box is not a Vision cage, or any other type of cage that contains an interior rim where the snake can hide itself. While the rattlesnake(s) I had were only temporary captives (being rescues from a friend of mine who comes across them frequently on his property and wishes to have them relocated rather than killed), I had them stored in a 24 x 24, x12” locked Vision. There were four of them in there, all juvenile specimens under 18” in length. I was well aware of the interior rim of the cage, as the snakes like to tuck themselves into this space to hide. I neglected, however, to think the snakes would ‘climb’ up onto the top part of the rim. This was my first lapse in judgment; as the great snake man of Africa, Ionides, wrote, “one can never be sure with snakes”.  

​I was in the process of transferring them from the Vision to a snake bucket so that my wife and I could go release them when the second lapse in judgment, the use of an improper handling tool, brought down the subsequent rain of misery on my head.  

I own a pair of cage tongs which are around 18” in length, as well as a small hook of same size, that I use for the transferral of any venomous snakes I happen to be working with. However, on this particular day I had misplaced them and opted to use a standard 48” field hook instead. I grabbed the hook about halfway down to make up for the excess length, as anyone working with small, often flighty juvenile diamondbacks can attest they do not usually ride a long hook very well. I looked through the glass and could see three snakes, so I assumed the fourth was beneath the bottom rim, where it typically liked to hide. Not placing my hand inside the actual cage itself, I was able to successfully ‘hook’ the first two snakes with no problem. The third, however, crawled to the back of the cage while I was moving the other two. Taking care to keep my hand as far away from the bottom rim as possible, I brought the hook in at an angle from the top instead, with my hand upside down. As I did, the tip of my fingers entered the cage beside the top rim, where the little female, unbeknownst to me, had been coiled (as opposed to her usual place on the bottom). I saw the chunky, triangular head launch down and out from above, sinking both fangs into the tender, fleshy pad of my ring finger for only an instant before she released and drew herself back up into the recess of the top rim of the cage’s interior. I put down the hook, slid the glass door back into place, locked the two remaining snakes back up, made sure the other two were secure in the transfer bucket, and then double locked the snake room and entered the house to tell my wife the wonderful news. That’s what happened. I’d swear on a stack of field guides.  

 ACT IV:

 PEEKABOO, ICU…
 “You will not surely die, the serpent said…

-Genesis 3:4

 I can only vaguely recall my transferral from Denton Presbyterian to Harris Methodist; only that the denomination of the hospital’s foundry did not concern me in the least, provided they had more Crofab they could pump into my system. There were hazy flashes of nervous apprehension in the emergency room…I heard a nurse exclaim “I’d forget my head if it wasn’t attached to my shoulders” and Michael’s voice sometime later “someone left a full vial of blood on the bed”. I kept expecting a booming voice to reverberate, ‘Don’t fear the reaper. Come towards the light, my son’, but instead woke up chained to a tangled procession of wires that seemed to grow out of two uncomfortable places on my right arm. There was an intense throbbing burn in my finger…oh, yes, the kiss of the snake…I was propped up in a tiny room, with a beeping, blipping machine behind me that, if I turned my head just right, revealed that my condition had significantly stabilized. Michael was there, as was my wife, and yet another group of nurses I knew I was going to have to repeat what happened to.  

​“Did I get the antivenin?” I managed to stammer in a groggy voice from between numb lips.  

​“Yes”, the nurse said. “Two more vials, which makes eight total. So how did you manage to get yourself bitten by a snake?”  

​“Well, it all started with a federal jury summons I received in the mail. I suppose there are better ways to get out of jury duty, although it seemed like a good idea at the time.”  

​One thing I learned from my hospital stay is that people who work in the intensive care unit cannot afford much time for comedy on the clock, and thus possess a very vestigial sarcasm radar. What they lack in comedic discernment they more than make up for, however, in concern and care for their patients. One of the worst parts of the full snakebite experience is the continuation of the pain; it never lets up, staying with you in varying forms and stages, throughout the day and night, whittling away your appetite, pulling you out of sleep about once an hour or so, and causing you general misery heaped on top of misery as the hospital staff goes about the seemingly never-ending routines of drawing blood, changing bags, monitoring your vitals, helping you exercise, measuring your rate of swelling, and asking you more questions than an income tax form. Thus I was very grateful for the ICU’s willingness to administer pain medication to thwart my writhing agony without raising an eyebrow as to my sincerity when I assured them that the pain scale rating should contain a number higher than ten. Using Fentanyl, one of the most efficient and powerful (and also addictive) painkillers known to man, they did an excellent job of managing my pain to the best of their ability without turning me into an opioid zombie.  

​In due time I was introduced to David C. Smith, the physician on the ICU wing. Conversing with him provided some much needed humorous relief, as he seems one who can appreciate as well as dole out a generous amount of humor into otherwise serious and dire situations. Laughter may not be the best medicine, but it definitely runs a close second to Fentanyl. The good doctor was baffled that someone who knew so much about snakes and the nature of their venom would be dumb enough to put himself in such close proximity to their fangs. The suggestion that perhaps I would be better off getting any further knowledge from toxicology handbooks rather than first hand experience was something I said I would try to remember to take to heart in the future.

​The days went by in the intensive care unit like one long, indistinguishable period. My platelet count dropped once again to an unsafe level and thus required an additional two vials of antivenin to stabilize. The swelling went down and stayed down. The pharmacist came in and we got to talk snake venom vs. polyvalent some more. The nutrition team seemed totally unable to grasp the definition of a vegan diet, forcing me to subsist on fruit breakfasts and lunches and mixed vegetable dinners, with my only source of protein coming in the form of soy milk and that advanced and complex form known as ‘hemotoxin’ (To their credit the meals I could pick around were superior fare as far as hospitals go). My mom watched my son the entire week without compensation, bringing him along with my aunt to visit me. My wife made daily hour-long drives to stand by my side for hours on end, on top of prior obligations to getting my son to school and going to school full time herself, and even stopped on the road once on one of her daily late-night trips home from the hospital to take a picture of a timber rattlesnake for me in an effort to lighten my spirits. And Michael showed up or called whenever he got a chance, monitoring and following my progress and putting up with my nonchalant references to death, amputation and gangrene while ignoring my insistence on his accomplice in ‘unhooking me from these infernal machines and busting me out of this joint so I could go herping.’ My cell phone virtually stayed abuzz with concerned checks from more friends and family members than I knew I had, offering much-needed and appreciated prayers, thoughts, well-wishes, support, and humor. This was often to the chagrin of my nurses in the fact that my ring-tone is the slow, menacing buzz of an angry diamondback rattlesnake, which always caused them to shake their heads at my assumed lack of sanity. And then the surgeon came in for debridement, and I only thought I had known what pain was.


 ACT V:  

 A TALE OF TWO SURGERIES

 

Buy the ticket, take the ride.

– -Hunter S. Thompson
Dr. Maxim Pekarev entered the room, sliding back the glass door and curtain in a single motion. He is a meek enough looking man, dark-haired, with smooth, gentle looking hands that beguile his real disposition as a merciless butcher of fingers devoid of empathy.  
​“Hello I’m Dr. Pekarev. I’m here to do the debridement”, he said casually. 

​“Hello”, I replied, extending my oversized purple hand, the affected digit of which had by this time swollen to the extent that it more closely resembled a grotesque black jumbo grape skewered on the end of a purple magic marker. “Forgive me for not shaking hands.”

​“Looks like you’re in need of some relief from that swelling”, he said, to which I quickly nodded in affirmation. Without further ado he seized me by the hand and proceeded to “debride” me.


​“All the tissue looks dead”, he commented as several onlooking nurses who were new to snakebite entered the room to observe the process and began passing out like cult members at a Kool-Aid party as he reenacted scenes from the movie Saw.

​“This shouldn’t hurt a bit”, he said, which to his credit was honest. It hurt a lot.

​He extracted a scalpel and quickly sliced into the swollen grape thing, causing a spurt of black blood to shoot out across the sterile towels on the wheelie cart he had laid my hand on. True to his word, I felt no pain. Not yet, at least. The finger immediately deflated like a bicycle tire with a broken valve stem. The doctor then replaced the scalpel with a pair of wicked curved tweezers, and began plucking at the thick layer of dead skin, ripping it off in sloughed sections. This didn’t hurt either, until he ripped backwards into live tissue, and I jerked back instinctively.  

​“That hurt”, I said.  

​“That’s just fear”, he said. “There can’t be any pain. It’s dead tissue.”  

​“It’s not fear!”, I retorted. “I was born without that gene! Check my record! It’s a recessive mutation! There’s live tissue under there.”  

​“Let’s see” he said, and brandished the scalpel once again, pressing it against the finger somewhere between the nail and knuckle. He pressed down, cutting beneath the skin, and again a burning bolt of pain raced up my arm.  

​“Yeah that hurts” I said.  

​“Okay. We’ll get you some anesthetic.”  

​A nurse came in with a needle that looked like a grossly oversized prop in a 1970s Mexican sitcom, and a few minutes later I was watching in painless interest as Dr. Pekarev finished the debridement of the finger, sliding the scalpel down a full half inch into the lateral tissue to see if the entire thing was indeed dead. No blood came out, and so he pronounced it deceased. I was a little concerned about that bright red patch of freely bleeding skin just north of the middle knuckle base, but at the time it didn’t hurt, so I shrugged it off. The shocked, horrified looks on the rookie nurses’ wincing faces, and the way that my wife had retreated into the furthest corner of the room, shrinking back like a frightened helpless rabbit while I gazed on with a sheepish grin and the Butcher continued to play Freddy Krueger on what remained of my finger should have served as an indication that this could not simply continue on in painless bliss. But he finished, applied a sterile wrap, then bandaged the whole thing up in gauze.  

​“The pad of the finger is definitely dead, and I don’t hold much prospect for the rest of it either”, he said. “The possibility of further necrosis is very likely. I will have to do a surgery that will at least require removal of the preexisting dead tissue and possibly half of the finger. The fastest thing to do with the quickest recovery time would be a simple amputation, although we can try to save as much tissue as possible, which would probably mean additional surgery involving skin grafts. But we’ll give it some time, do a reassessment, and save as much as we can.”

​“Sounds like a plan”, I said. “After all, what’s a little tissue loss between fingers? I’d probably be inclined to opt for the quickest route out of here if it were up to me. It is the beginning of snake season you know.”

​“You’re very brave”, he commented, and exited the room, the wide-eyed nurses, whom I suspected were at this point in no hurry to eat lunch, filing out behind him. Thirty minutes later, when the Lidocaine wore off, I doubt he would have accused me of such bravado had he still been present.

​At first it was just a slight prickle, a tingling sensation as the anesthetic dissolved. Tolerable enough.  

​“It’s beginning to hurt a little”, I commented to Kevin, the day nurse who was going on his second afternoon of caring for/contending with the poor sarcastic snake-bitten fool with the Tim Burtonesque macabre sense of humor in the room on the corner.  

​“Do you need something for it?” he asked.  

​“Nah, I’m going to try to tough it out”, I responded. “I need to begin trying to wean myself off of that glorified opium before I get out of here.”  

​Five minutes later I was hammering on my ‘call’ button, begging anyone and everyone within earshot to bring me as close to overdose as they could without jeopardizing my life, or else strike me in the head with the most readily available blunt object until I was rendered unconscious. Good old Kevin came to my immediate aide with a shot of Fentanyl. This time it did nothing, however. So they gave me the most they legally could for my body weight and then supplemented with Tramadol. Still I begged for something else.

​ “I can’t give you anything else until the Fentanyl wears off”, Kevin said. “Although I’ll administer some morphine as soon as I legally can. On a scale of one to ten, how much pain are you in?”  

​“Somewhere between ten and ripping that scale off the wall, twisting it into a cord and strangling myself to death with it!”, I yelled.  

​My finger literally felt like someone had skinned me alive and then doused the wound with gasoline and set a match to it. It was so intense that I could hardly concentrate, with the entirety of my left arm being engulfed in a single throbbing, agonizing sphere of indescribable torture. In what felt like a week another nurse came in and announced that she could give me a little morphine now. A short time later I passed out or went to sleep or something and the next thing I remember Michael was there and my wife was recounting my experience to him. Within the hour a nurse came in with a wheelchair and I said goodbye to the intensive care unit for good.


 ​I spent two additional days in a regular room in the inpatient care at Harris Methodist. My platelet count had finally gone down and stayed down, suggesting the venom had finally been neutralized by the antivenin, and there was nothing left to do but lie in bed with my arm elevated, awaiting what would either be the second half of my surgical debridement or an amputation. During this time I was kept on a steady diet of vegetables, ice water, Norco and Tramadol, and after my most unfortunate experience with the first debridement I had come to reassess that pain scale, as nothing I have ever felt before or since even came close. The throbbing, burning, hot-hammer pain that continued from the snakebite was thus quite tolerable by comparison, and I complained very little of it, sometimes going six to eight hours before requesting another pill, which my nurse Kathy insisted was only ‘glorified aspirin’. The day before the surgery Dr. Pekarev’s assistant came in to take photos of my hand so the surgeon could deem it keepable or tossable, and as soon as she unwrapped it I knew it was going to require at least a partial amputation. While the skinned part between the middle joint and the nail was still very much alive and blood-red, the distal tip was a dull, flat black, bloodless and lifeless. A short time later Dr. Smith appeared, announcing my surgery was scheduled for the morning some time before noon, with Dr. Pekarev presiding.  

​“Have you given any thought to whether or not you want to try to keep the finger or are you just going to have the whole thing removed?”  

​“I’m not sure”, I said. “What do you suggest? After all, I’m the one who went and put myself in harm’s way and got myself into this mess, albeit unintentionally. Obviously I’m not a champion decision maker.” “

​I think you need to be patient and let God work it out in His time”, he said. “Sounds like good advice”, I replied. “Que sera, sera, you know. After all, it’s just a finger.”

​The next morning they loaded me up with an extra dose of potassium and wheeled me down the hall to the surgical unit on my gurney. Dr. Pekarev met with me for a short time before surgery. He entered the room with that same humble look on his face, although this time I thought I could see the corners of his smile suppressing the anticipation of the drawing of blood.  

​“What’s up Doc?”, I said, doing my best to not let that twinge of recoil that was creeping up my spine show in my own face.  

​“Have you decided on what route you want to go concerning the finger?”

​“Just go in and do whatever you feel you have to do”, I said. “Save what you can and cut off the rest. Just make sure I’m out of it before you start cutting.”

​This broke the humility or ice or whatever you want to call it.  

​“Oh, I will, don’t worry about that. Had you rather have an anesthesiologist or more of that lidocaine like I gave you the other day?”  

​“I believe I’m going to have to go with the anesthesia this time. That way I’ll either wake up late with the worst of the pain past me or not at all.”  

​The anesthesiologist, Dr. Nathan Walters, came in shortly and proceeded to hook me up to the knock-out juice.  

​“Snakebite, eh?” he said. “I used to do a bit of cottonmouth catching in the swamps of Florida in my younger days.”  

​“A man after my own heart”, I replied.  

​“Ok, I’m going to give you a little whiskey in your IV now. You’ll be out like a light in a short while.”  

​There was a sharp, instant pulse in the crook of my right arm as the thick mixture of Propophol, Phenobarbital, and everything else went into my system. I managed to maintain consciousness up to the point where they wheeled me into the prep room under the bright dome, and the next thing I knew I was waking up in recovery with a groggy head, slurred speech, and a little less finger than I had going in.


 ACT VI:

 THE LONG ROAD OUT OF HEMOTOXI-CITY

(Giving the Hospital the Finger)

 

The man who can caress a snake can do anything.

– -Isak Dinesen, ‘Out of Africa’

 

 Today is April 4, 2017. Two full weeks have passed since that lovely little rattler sank her fangs into my finger. Yesterday was a full day back at Harris Methodist for my check-ups. As I walked through the doors I couldn’t help but feel like a small part of me had been left behind there. The plastic surgeon’s assistant unwrapped my finger, or what was left of it, and I got to see it for the first time in 11 days. It was severed just a fraction above the middle joint, a dog-eared, folded-over flap of skin stitched across the fleshy stump where the distal tip used to be, but the regrowth of tender pink flesh and the absence of any black, dead tissue looked wonderful. I was given some basic maintenance instructions and then off I went to get the lab work, which was faxed over to the doctor long before I could hoof it there on foot. In a short time I was brought in, and Dr. Smith came into the room.  

​“We meet again”, I said.  

​“Yes, how have you been?

​“Much better than the last time you saw me”, I assured him. “How’s the blood flowing?”

​“Excellent report”, he said. “Platelet counts have gone back up to 250,000. All levels returned to normal. I’d say you’re in the clear.”

​“That’s the best news I’ve heard in a while”, I said.

​“Yours was one of the worst cases of hemotoxic envenomation I have seen in ten years”, he then added. “It is rare to lose a finger these days due to a rattlesnake, especially after ten vials of antivenin. That snake must have come from a population with a very high toxicity.”

​“Yeah it came from Thurber”, I said. “Out in the rolling plains. The Big Empty. The snakes don’t have anything to do out there but sit around and get hotter and hotter.”

​We conversed a while on the marvelous nature of pit viper venom, its biological makeup, and how certain populations of the same species within a given range possess varying degrees of hemo and neurotoxic components. “So, have you learned your lesson when it comes to messing with venomous snakes?” he asked as I was walking out.

​“I certainly have”, I said. “Never misplace your tongs.”

​With three appointments down, the only other place left to go was therapy. After an hour and a half of various hand exercises, Dr. Sexton, my physical therapist, pronounced my hand ‘well on its way to healing’. While the amputated digit was still stiff, as was the pinkie finger next to it, the rest of my fingers had gained full sensitivity and dexterity, and by the time I left I was almost able to make a crude fist. And thus the final prognosis was one of overall excellence, with no infection, tolerable pain, no further surgery required, and only one more therapeutic and surgical follow-up to go, scheduled for two weeks out.


​We pulled out of the hospital parking garage and headed for home. Outside the window, I could see the road stretching out before me in that mirage-like optical illusion that seems to shrink it down to a sharp, fine point as it touches the horizon. With a year of pain, nerve healing, at-home therapy, and keyboard retraining ahead of me, it was going to be a long one. I couldn’t wait to get back out in the field, in the company of my beloved rattlesnakes, with a slightly shorter finger, a reclaimed smile of satisfaction, and a nine foot long pair of custom made tongs to reach into my mailbox with and extract my medical bills.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With Spring Around the Corner

The waiting is the hardest part

– Tom Petty


10…9…8…7…6…5…4 more days until winter is officially a memory. Unable to hold off our anticipation, Zev & I took a bike ride down a trail that cuts through 80 acres of gently grazed prairie & post oak savannah in Wise County yesterday evening. Everything was in bloom, and the nice weather (if a bit windy, but hey it’s March…in like a lion & all that) coupled by an amazing sunset made us forget that it was technically still winter. The newly emergent buds & flowers never fail to jump-start me out of the winter blues. Mexican plum, crow poison, and flowering dogwood filled the air with their sweet aromatic fragrance, catkins of cottonwood fell to the ground beneath towering trees awakening from their long sleep, and the lime-green tips of elms and fluorescent, Dali-esque purple tips of redbuds shone in relative brilliance against the stubborn straw and brown landscape that would be green in a matter of weeks. 

Beneath the Bark


Sunday afternoon saw Michael, Zev and I ascending a sandy trail up from the black water and dense vegetation of a section of bottomland forest at the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area in Anderson County, Texas. It was a warm day (warm for mid-February at least) with the temperature hanging just under the sixty degree mark. While Michael is no stranger to the area, I had only visited once on a very brief side trip on the way back from the Big Thicket, which lies about 150 miles to the southeast. Zev had never been at all, and all three of us were excited to see what natural treasures the day had in store. After four months of cold it was nice to be out in the forest during this brief warm spell. Zev was hoping to see an eastern newt, and Michael was adamant about exploring the post oak savannah. I, however, had bugs on the brain as usual. After all, conditions were perfect for finding a plethora of overwintering species in choice microhabitat that just so happened to be all around us. It didn’t take much searching to find what I was looking for. A massive post oak stood tall and straight at the edge of a tannin-rich pool, its leafless black limbs reaching for the sky. In truth it was not unlike so many other oaks growing all around it, except for one little difference. The bark around the lower trunk was raised slightly, separated from the tree by a shadowy space where I knew a mystery grab-bag of invertebrates potentially lay in wait. I stepped to the side of the trail and gently peeled it back, trying to be mindful that this was many creatures’ home and therefore trying to keep the destruction at a minimum. As I pulled the bark, separating it from the base of the trunk, I was rewarded by a fine sight: a female southern black widow spider had constructed her infamous messy web here, where she now sat with her scarlet hourglass pointed at me, the globular ebony abdomen shining like a black marble. Around her, a quartet of tiny beige and black marked fungus beetles sat, waiting out the winter months on a bed of spongy white granular fungi that was smeared across the wood like paste. I snapped a photo as Michael ventured over to see what I had found. Afterwards I replaced the bark as closely to its original state as I could get, and we continued making our way upland.

A black widow (Latrodectus mactans) and fungus beetles (Ischyrus quadripunctatus) beneath bark

While winter is a time when many insect species see an end to their life cycles after the first freeze, and most of our lepidoptera are tucked away safely in their insulated cocoons, there are many species which ride out the long harsh days of ice and sleet beneath a thick layer of tree bark, where they enter a torpid state of dormancy until the call of spring ushers them back to life.  Some can be found communally, huddled together in odd clusters, while others tend to be found singly. From centipedes and millipedes to spiders, beetles, true bugs, ants and wasps, a little peek beneath the bark on a winter walk in the woods is sure to eventually provide one with a behind-the-scenes look at how arthropods (and even some vertebrates) spend their winter vacation.

A ripe stump in the Trinity River bottomland, awaiting exploration

We continued along the trail, where a prescribed burn had cleared away much of the undergrowth and allowed us easy access to the post oak savannah. Here, the charred black remnants of timber littered the sandy, nitrogen-rich soil. Bone-white tree trunks, their bases scorched and bark peeled back like finely shaved coconut slivers, were full of promise. Sure enough, we found not only invertebrates but a couple of slumbering prairie lizards in this area, and Zev learned about the bright turquoise patches on the undersides of the males of this species that can be used as a differentiation key between the sexes.


Fires, while generally considered to be destructive from our human perspective, are beneficial to ecosystems such as pine forests and grasslands, as they burn away sections of old growth and overgrown thicket so that new plants can start over in their place. The ashes of the burned wood that mix in with the soil are high in nitrogen and contribute to the nutritional medium the new plants spring up in. Without periodic fires (either caused naturally by such factors as lightning strike or intentionally set and maintained by the forest service) our forests and prairies would quickly be overtaken by brush and invasive grasses.

Michael & Zev walk the trail to a burned section of post oak savannah

After exploring the burned section of fringe habitat for a while, we moved even further upland, where a wide looping trail was bordered by a barbed wire fence. Here the brush had been cut back extensively, leaving a generous amount of deadfall in the wake of the dozer. We all began turning over choice logs and sheets of bark, and in doing so located a number of interesting creatures. The first was a southern yellowjacket queen, tucked neatly away in a crevice under a spongy section of oak. What many people call “yellow-jackets” are in reality paper wasps, a large genus of vespids collectively grouped under the name Polistes, whose familiar water-resistant nests constructed from plant fibers mixed with saliva are seen hanging from porch eaves and barn rafters. The real yellowjacket is smaller and nests underground, building a roughly rounded structure the size of a basketball. Yellowjackets are generally more aggressive than paper wasps, although this dormant queen seemed too snug and content to worry about us as she sat patiently awaiting the first warm days, whereupon she would set out to begin a new colony. It is for this reason solitary yellowjacket queens are known as “foundresses”.  Looking down at this one it was hard to believe she held the potential to build an empire of soldiers that, over the course of a few seasons, could expand to 100,000 or more individuals.

Foundress of a vast future empire: Southern yellowjacket queen

Polypleurus perforatus, a strange tenebrionid with densely punctate elytra

The trail eventually led back around to another section of open, sandy savannah, with post oaks and hackberries growing spaciously over some type of rough, woody growth that resisted the progress of our boots, forcing us to plow through it with some difficulty. Saw palmettos and patches of azalea mixed with greenbrier further inhibited our travel across this landscape. A small grove of oaks, their lower trunks showing signs of peeled, aging bark, beckoned to me from the trail, so I braved the undergrowth and walked out into the field to give them a look. Although it took a bit of time, the effort was well worth it, for this proved to be a popular brumation spot for inverts. The dried hull of a metallic wood-boring beetle of the genus Polycesta was found beneath the first sheet of bark, its head and abdomen missing but elytra and thorax still present, a relict of chitinous armor that spoke of the past summer, of a creature that had at one time possessed a set of mandibles powerful enough to chew through the heartwood of the oak but had now been reduced to minute bits of ant food. Still, the sculptured pitted elytral pattern gleamed in the late afternoon sun like pyrite, a testament to the profound beauty and intricacy of these remarkable insects.

Stand of young pines on the border between savannah & woodland, Gus Engeling

Not far away from it sat a huge assassin bug, Microtomus luctuosus, a tricolored beauty that is kin to the dreaded kissing bug, a vector for the potentially debilitating Chagas disease. Also known as American trypanosomiasis, it is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, and is transmitted to humans through the feces of the insect, which are involuntarily rubbed into the bite wound when the victim scratches the skin around the site of the bite. Chagas is a serious threat, especially in Texas, where a study conducted by Texas A & M found as many as half of the population of kissing bugs in the state to be carriers. Chronic complications from the disease include intestinal damage, heart problems, and can even lead to cardiac arrest in extreme cases.

Fortunately this was not the dreaded kissing bug (Triatoma sp), which also makes its home beneath tree bark, but a much more welcome and colorful member of the family. While it is larger than the kissing bug and capable of delivering a painful bite should one be so inclined to handle it carelessly, it carries no known communicable diseases. The species enjoys a wide range from central Texas south as far as Panama, where it is attracted to lights and feeds exclusively on smaller invertebrates.

Microtomus luctuosus

From the post oak savannah we followed the trail back downhill, where it led to a small pine grove flanked on all sides by water elm and sweetgum trees. Gradually we descended back into bottomland forest, and the rich earthy smells of organic mud could be detected on the breeze as we left the openness of the plain for the shadowy realm of the trees. In little time my eyes fell upon a dying pine. Unlike oak bark, pine bark tends to slough off in huge sections, and as I pulled the bark on this one back I couldn’t help but be reminded of a morning on the Louisiana border when I pulled off a great sheet of bark that broke off six feet above my head and rained an overwintering colony of imported red fire ants down on me. That had not been a serendipitous morning, but this pine tree would offer much better rewards beneath its flaky exterior. A small group of rough shield bugs (genus Brochypelma) were huddled up beside a few of the strangely rotund smaller shield bug Lineostethus sp.  Close beside them sat a cryptically marked click beetle, and several examples of the dull black tenebrionid, Alobates pensylvanica.  It was a true insect menagerie, a communal late winter gathering of mini-beasts, and a treasure trove of photographic potential for a student of entomology.

Shield bugs beneath pine bark

Click beetle

From the pine grove the trail wound back around to the vehicle, which was parked beside a bridge overlooking a small creek. From there we drove to a large section of bottomland where most of the forest floor lay beneath a shallow lake of dark water. At first glance the place looked as if a bulldozer had run amok through the woods, but upon closer inspection it proved to be the work of feral hogs. Feral hogs are notorious for working their way through patches of habitat, rooting and ripping and tilling up the ground and gobbling up everything they come across, leaving a trail of razed devastation in their wake. It did make for easy walking though.  The bottomland was replete with rotten logs and deadfall, and as we made our way along I knew it would only be a matter of time before I ran into more invertebrates.

Hemiscolopendra marginata

Solopocryptops sexspinosus

While Michael and Zev walked the edge of the waterline, with Michael photographing a basking redeared slider and Zev exhibiting his climbing skills across a felled tree, I resumed my pace, flipping and peeling bark, knowing that our time here was running short as the sun fell back over the treetops to the west. I found several centipedes here, as well as a handful of wolf spiders of the genus Hogna, and a pair of bess beetles as well. Also known as the horned passalus or patent leather beetle, this remarkable species is one of the few recorded types of beetles that rears its young. Bess beetles live in the pithy center of rotting logs and stumps, where they exist in communal family groups, with new generations growing up and “joining the family” to care for the next season’s progeny. They communicate through stridulation, whereupon they rub their wings against a special structure located on the underside of their wing covers, producing a high-pitched squeaking sound. While many species of insects are capable of producing sound in this way, bess beetles are unique in that their larvae “squeak” back by rubbing their legs together, demanding food like nestling birds. Bess beetles are important contributors to the breakdown of decaying wood in the forest, and their presence is generally indicative of a healthy ecosystem.

Bess beetle, in situ

From there we traveled upland, with no sign of Zev’s newts in spite of what felt like a thousand logs turned. “You’re not trying hard enough”, was his response when I asked him why he thought we weren’t seeing any.  “Dad has a metal ankle and a bad back”, I said. “Maybe they can’t be found because they’re good at not being found. That ensures their survival”.  But Zev would hear none of it.

At the day’s end Michael drove us up to another section of post oak savannah, and we tried out a trail that seemed to lead endlessly into dried bluestem sparsely dotted with small oaks.  As soon as we got out of the car I turned an oak log and found a pretty little black and white weevil that popped its head out from between the bark layers. It was Euparius lugubris, a first recorded sighting for Inaturalist.

Euparius lugubris

It had been a wonderful day of relaxation, an honorable day of rest. Aside from a throbbing back from rolling too many logs, I was glad to be back out into the field at the tail end of winter. As the air cooled and the sky darkened we said goodbye to the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area with plans for future trips already bouncing around in our conversation. It was back to the warmth of central heating to see me through until winter’s end.  We pulled back out onto the highway and headed for home, with the dense oak and pine rich forest all around us. Thousands of trees supporting a vast array of life through the winter, beneath the bark.

Bottomlands, Gus Engeling WMA

http://www.Animaldiversity.org

http://BugGuide.net
Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America: Eaton, Eric R & Kaufman, Kenn; Houghton-Miflin Harcourt; 2007

Whats biting texas? The hidden threat of Chagas disease”, Jennifer R. Hericks, 26 Jan 2016; The Houston Chronicle

Kissing bugs and chagas disease in the united states; http://www.kissingbug.tamu.edu; agriculture and life sciences, tx a&m university

http://www.Texastreeid.tamu.edu

http://www.Texasento.net

Beetles of Eastern North America; Evans, Arthur V; Princeton University Press; 2014

Recyclers in the Circle of Life: Bess Beetles; Michael J Raupp; http://www.entnemdept.ufl.edu

Observations on the life history of the horned passalus: LE Gray, 1946