Three Snakes
Chris Maser

     In 1963-64, I took time off from graduate school to join a prehistoric archeological expedition to Nubia, Egypt, under the auspices of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. As the vertebrate zoologist, my task was to collect and preserve specimens of amphibian, reptiles, birds, and mammals for the Peabody Museum. Two of the animals I best remember were a cobra and a sand viper.
     To prepare specimens for a museum's scientific collection, one must not only capture the desired animals but also kill and prepare them. Under normal circumstances, I killed snakes with an overdose of ether, but the Naval Medical Research Unit in Cairo only had chloroform, which cases snakes to twist into awful contortions from which their bodies cannot be relaxed, untangles, or straightened out. To prepare specimens of excellent quality, therefore, I had to put the snakes in cloth bags and drown them--something I hated doing, but for which I had not viable alternative.
     Thus came the day I has a six-foot-long Egyptian cobra in a cloth sack submerged for two hours in a tub of water to drown it. At length, I poked the sack with a stick--no movement. I poked it a second time--no movement. I poked it a third time--no movement. Feeling sure the snake was dead, I carefully retrieved the sack from the tub--still no movement.

The cobra of which I speak

     Upon opening the sack, however, I found myself face to face with a highly indignant cobra wanting nothing more than to strike a lethal blow to its tormentor, or so it seemed to me. For me part, I dropped the sack, grabbed the cobra by the neck, and pissed in my pants--all in one simultaneous nanosecond! In dealing with poisonous serpents, this is known as "multitasking!"

The short, immobile fangs through which the cobra wanted to "intoxicate" me with its lethal cocktail.

     I also learned about sand vipers during my sojourn in Egypt. Sand vipers are nocturnal, like many Egyptian desert animals. Moreover, the vipers not only blend into the sands when on the surface but also bury themselves in the sand to ameliorate the intense heat of the desert's day, when the surface of the sand can reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit by noon. When so buried, the only thing that gives a viper's position away is the ending of its "side-winder" trial and a pair of eyes peering about the sand's surface--eyes that are virtually impossible to detect.

An adult sand viper.

      Unlike the cobras, however, vipers have long, mobile fangs, which fold upward against the roof of their mouths when not in use. And unlike cobras, vipers truly strike, with erect fangs that puncture and drive the venom deep into the wound, whereas cobras raise themselves upward, "lunge" forward, and chew their venom into their victim. Although the adults vipers can be somewhat pugnacious, it was a baby that almost did me in.

See how well the sand viper blends into its surroundings.

     It was a hot day in late April, and I was few miles north of the Sudanese border (relatively speaking) at our field camp, which consisted of two houseboats moored along the eastern shore of the Nile. On that particular day, I was hunting for black scorpions, which spent the day's heat sequestered under rocks along the edge of the river. Finding the black one, however, required time because the greenish scorpions seemed to greatly outnumber the black ones.

Note the long, mobile fangs used to deliver a deadly bite.

     After several hours of hunting, I came across an area with particularly inviting rocks--if only I was a scorpion. Time passed as I searched under this rock and that.
     Suddenly, I saw a flat rock under which I just knew there was a black scorpion. As I started to lift it, something from the shadows underneath deliberately hit me. Jerking my hand back, I saw fluid oozing down my thumb. Being close to the river, I leapt to my feet and rushed to wash it off; albeit I had no idea of what it was.
      When I was sure my hand was cleansed of the fluid, I return to the rock with a stout stick, and flipped it over. There, in a small depression, was a baby sand viper ready to strike.
     All I could figure out was that my thumb had been so close to the little viper's mouth that its fangs had not been fully extended when it struck me--much to my good fortune because we were many mile and long hours from any medical help.
     The third snake that periodically jogs my memory and brings forth a chuckle was a gorgeous Great Basin rattlesnake in southeastern Oregon, where I was employed as a wildlife scientist by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, with the charge of conducting a wildlife survey of 5.2 million acres of high desert steppe.
     One day, while out with a group of "wildlifers" and Art, a District Manager, I had the driver stop the vehicle at the edge of a rocky ravine because I wanted to see if it might be a good denning site for rattlesnakes. Unbeknownst to me, as I got out of the vehicle, Art decide to follow me and see what I was up to.
     As I began walking into the ravine, I heard a "buzz" under the overhang of a large rock next to my left leg. Stooping, I look under the rock, and there was a big rattlesnake, relatively speaking. As I reached under the rock with the stick I was carrying, an exceedingly nervous Art almost shouted: "What in God's name are you doing?"
     "Pulling the rattlesnake out from under this rock so I can see what kind it is," I replied absently. "See, it's a Great Basin rattlesnake. And it's a beauty. What do you think?"

An adult Great Basin rattlesnake.

     No answer. Looking up from my examination of the snake, I turned toward Art, but he was nowhere in sight. Thinking he had gone back to the vehicle, I looked for him among the other men, but no Art! Then, I happened to glance across the ravine, and there stood a panting Art on the opposite rim.
     So, I walked down into the ravine and up the other side, following the same trail Art had taken, counting the rattlesnakes as I went. By the time I reached Art, who was still showing signs of wild-eyed bewilderment and panic, I had counted 40 rattlesnakes through which he had run in his desperate bid to get out of the ravine. Moreover, I thought he was going to faint when I told him what he had just done.
     He stayed so close to me, as I led him back to the vehicle, that it felt at times like he was trying to crawl into my back pocket. Well, Art survived the day, but may have gained a gray hair of two from his experience.

© chris maser 2006. All Rights Reserved.

Protected by Copyscape Web Copyright Protection