Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Tree snake >> Skink >> Surprise!

Croc Bank was hosting a zoo keeper’s training program on ‘Captive management of reptiles’ for all South Indian Zoos. A couple of days were hosted at the Chennai Snake Park Trust; ‘Snakes’ and ‘Lizards’.

Previous day was quite fun especially because snakes are my favorite animals and I took all the lectures and practical sessions. I worked hard till late night after coming back from the ‘snake day’ to prepare for the ‘lizard day’.  I have to convince myself “this is close to what I want”, till then I consider the work incomplete. This takes a long time and I rarely impress myself.

Anyway, so I was coming back to my room from the office at around 01:00am (yeah, that’s how long it takes!) and I saw something shiny crawling in the grass outside Akanksha’s office. “Snake” – is what I would have loved to see… but wait a minute… that’s a…. FISH!?!  A snakehead fish! Suddenly, I wasn’t sleepy any more.

Snakeheads are found locally and we keep a few in our water filtration tanks. They are so cool. Once, while emptying one of the filtration tanks for cleaning I saw one big snakehead leap out of the water and cover around 15 feet! It sadly landed on land with a thud and then started vocalizing! I put it back in water with no physical injuries. I love them. They are awesome.

A snakehead in the underwater gharial filtration tank

I knew Channids breathe air with their suprabranchial organ but do they cover distances on land? I remembered the instance of the climbing perches last monsoon. That was so crazy! Here is the video.

This snakehead was at least 20 feet away from the filtration tank and was heading towards the opposite direction of the tank! So many questions popped up but most of them ended up with the same “why?”

I started listing the environmental factors that may have triggered this behavior. Everything seemed fine for a predatory fish living in a planted tank, except for one thing may be. This is summer; low water table in natural ponds. If these fishes do actually travel on land in search for other water bodies may be then it does make sense, especially because the fish stock of this particular filtration tank was freshly acquired. I would assume that the instincts might have made them take the decision to crawl out in search of other water body. But then in that case, the tank is that water body; nice, deep, planted and lots of food fishes!

I keep saying that we often assume things in the field of natural history but the reality is more often completely different (but always logical). In my experience, all predatory animals are extremely smart. The best logical explanation that I could derive out of this behavior is that the fish knows it was caught by a ‘potential predator’ and is now kept in an enclosed environment where it can get caught again. The first reaction to captivity - is escape, be it a bird, a mammal (including humans) or a fish. So was the fish smart enough to figure out that humans are not around at night and thus is the best time to escape? But then what about the other predators? May be the fish doesn’t know about them yet. By this time I reached my room. That was a very thoughtful 2 minute walk after releasing the fish back in the tank. Most of the questions still remain unanswered.

So where are the tree snake and the skink?

Well, they come in action the next day morning. The breakfast was arranged at Jade resort, about a couple of minutes drive from Croc Bank. After breakfast, I had to collect some stuff from the Croc Bank on the way to the Chennai Snake Park. Patrick, Gowri and Akanksha were also to accompany us from there. While we were coming out of the gate between the Yacare caiman and Arrican dwarf crocs exhibit, I saw a Bronzeback tree snake Dendrelaphis tristis shoot down off the wall of the dwarf croc enclosure. The snake was partially visible to me with a Neem tree obstructing the visibility. To me, it looked like it was escaping from us. Just then Patrick exclaimed “Hey, it’s hunting something!”

Sure enough, we saw a Brahminy skink Mabuya carinata rush out of the plantation.

Skink (Mabuya carinata) on stone wall

It climbed the wall as fast as it could and they are good climbers, but so is the Bronzeback! I could not believe the speed at which the snake climbed. There was like a 10 – 12 cms gap between the two when the chase was on. The skink smartly entered the dry coconut leaf wall touching the wall with all hopes of losing the snake, and it did work, for about 30 seconds. That was the most active snake that I had ever seen. It was super alert, constantly smelling the air and the leaves, reacting to every vibration (every time the skink moved in the leaves) and had the most watchful eyes. We all were stationed trying to guess what will happen next. At the beginning we thought the skink will obviously get away but now looking at the snake’s determination and its physical capabilities, may be not much of an escape for the skink. But who knows? The skink was fast too and was running for his life.

The skink was climbing up and down the leaves trying to confuse the snake but snake was following the scent trail so efficiently, and was also gaining speed every minute. For once they both disappeared. The skink came out first but without the tail! Did the trick work? Couldn’t see the snake anymore. The skink now started climbing the leaf wall. It suddenly looked alert and then jumped from a height of about 8 feet!

“What the…… !“

And in the same second I saw the Bronzeback strike in air but obviously missed. I have seen this with rat snakes before but for the first time I saw a Bronzeback jump from the same height and almost land next to the skink!

“WHAT THE…… !!!”

It was a rough landing for the snake and took a few seconds to recover. These few seconds were crucial for the skink and it wasted no time. It was back in the leaf wall in a flash and now on the stone wall on the other side, relaxed for a bit. I could see its tiny heart pumping real hard. Phew, those were some adrenaline filled moments. I was so excited! Everything was happening so fast that I didn’t really get a chance to photo-document anything. May be now I should take a photo of the winner in the battle of survival today. I take my camera out, try to focus on the exhausted skink. Just then the skink starts running again!

It tries to jump off the wall but this time it's a bit too late..

The Bronzeback caught the skink in mid air!

M I D   A I R!!!

Adrenaline was overflowing now. WOW! That was amazing; the best hunt ever!

The skink was trying to bite the snake but all in vain. I could see the venom was working fast as the skink was becoming more and more lethargic in its struggle.

Skink now losing hope

Now the snake was a bit wary of us. This was typical of most predators after a successful hunt, less often seen in snakes though. Bronzebacks are a bit different. They carry their catch in a safe area and then swallow it. I had once seen one that fell off a tree with a small evening bat in its mouth. It then carried the bat to the safety of the cactus fence and swallowed it. Swallowing a bat takes time especially when the spread-out claws keep getting stuck in everything. This happened right outside the round-house in Croc Bank.

This snake was also carrying the skink in its mouth and now started to move towards the cactus fence where it will swallow the hard earned catch.

Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis) carrying the skink away

Finally it all ended…

… or did it?

A male Garden lizard Calotes versicolor was patiently watching all the action. It was on the same side of the wall where the snake was heading to. The calotes climbed the stone wall and confronted the snake with open mouth!

Calotes versicolor confronting the Dendrelaphis

The snake tried to ignore the situation and tried to sneak past it but the calotes had other plans. He attacked the snake, bit it on the neck and tried to snatch the dead skink away! The snake freaked out and jumped off the wall and landed on our side. It let go of the skink and escaped in the bush. The calotes was not confident enough to come and get the skink in our presence and so he retreated. I felt bad for the snake. After all that, it finally didn’t get anything. Patrick spotted the snake again and aimed the dead skink close to the snake. No response.

We were getting late and had to move. No clue who took the skink finally. I bet the garden lizard did see us throw the skink and I’m pretty sure he would have claimed the booty! But who knows if it ended at that..

What a start to the day! Awesome!



Dhara said...

Hmm! I can see all of this as a video in my mind :)

Anonymous said...

Awesome indeed you lucky person! :)

-Andrew Routh

Sathya Ram said...

awsome keep up the good work

Raman Narayan Das said...

The buffy (local name for garden lizard in Coimbatore)looks quite big in the photograph. Typical movie like ending - Too late the hero, heroine, and the villain.

Ankit said...

WOw.... I didnt loose my interest at any moment buddy... WHat a sighting..

Bharti said...

Whoa! Whoa!

Kaushik said...

Wow!! Really cool experience !!! :D

usha nath said...

you write so well...we love reading these stories...they seem to come alive...and make us wish were there with you...aren't you lucky! about compiling them into a book? I can help...remember us to akanksha.
-Raj & Usha Nath

Vikram Jit Singh, The Times of India, Chandigarh said...

Fascinating account. Enjoyed the simple anecdotal style of the encounter. Makes the species more accessible than those accounts which are technical and heavy on bookish detail. A story of a wildlife species opens it to more people than just the `preaching to the converted types'. Best wishes.

Unknown said...

Cool story soham. It's never a dull moment at croc bank that's for sure.

maliha said...

i love the way you recount stories in so much detail!"what the!!!":) great photographs too for everything that happened so fast!

3B's said...

What luck and Drama!

Unknown said...

Awesome explanation Soham, felt like seeing a live video clip of the same :) Awesome moments. Thanks for sharing.

Mittal said...

Superb sighting and what a story.. Gowri had told me this when it happened and I could imagine the whole thing but with your pictures and narration it makes everything sound fantabulous..

Rachelle Andra Caplan said...

Your story is one of the best I've read in quite a while. What an amazing experience! I didn't realize that a Calotes versicolor could be so aggressive. Very interesting Thank you for the post, Soham.

Shivan said...

awsome work sir

Shweta said...

What an adventure!! For the snake, for he skink.. and for all those who read it, I'm sure! :) Wonderfully narrated!