For the Love of... Herps?

My second week here in Malaysia began much the same way as the first ended. Sitting on the edge of the road, camera set up and trained on the little birds nest just inside the forest. After three more long days of surveys, as much as I was fascinated by the potential new discovery that we were recording with the two female Black Naped monarchs brooding the nest, I was ready to get back to Merapoh and start preparing for the special weekend ahead!

As some of you that have followed Life Gone Wild for a little while may have picked up, while I love aaaall animals, I do have a particular passion for herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians). My previous experience in Merapoh had yielded a grand total of 1 snake and a few species of frogs. Effectively nothing. So it was with great excitement that I prepared for the arrival of Dr Teo Eng Wah (Known as Vince in the photography world) and Muhammad Khaidhir Ariff (Boy), an excellent herp photographer and a snake handler (who apparently is able to free handle a King Cobra!). They were coming to help us kick off a new project looking at the herpetofaunal biodiversity of Merapoh and the Sungai Yu Forest Reserve. To say that I was hoping to increase those earlier numbers exponentially would be an understatement.

Vince doing what he does best! Photo by Jordan Curzon. Find more of his terrific photos at  www.jordancurzonphoto.com

Vince doing what he does best! Photo by Jordan Curzon. Find more of his terrific photos at www.jordancurzonphoto.com

On Friday night we headed out for our first survey with a team of about 8 or 9. Too many, realistically, but people were interested in what we would find, particularly with Merapoh being known for ‘not being a very snakey area.’ We were surveying along a small river that we were very familiar with here at the Malayan Rainforest Station, as it runs through one of our camp sites that we go to regularly with the Bateq (the ‘Orang Asli’ or the indigenous population in the Merapoh area).

We probably ended up spending nearly 2-3 hours wading through the relatively shallow stream, headlights searching to try to pinpoint the sources of the various frog calls we were hearing. This can prove to be surprisingly difficult, and this particular evening was no exception! At times we had three of us sweeping the river bank with our head torches, cocking our heads to try and locate where exactly this little frog was calling from. with Vince taking incredible macro shots of every new species that we located. By the end of the night, we’d come across at least 10 species. We were relatively pleased with this, but I think we’d probably hoped for more.

The Striped Stream Frog (Pulchrana Signata). Photo by Dr Teo Eng Wah, Vincent @Vince Adam. Find more of his incredible photos here -  https://www.flickr.com/photos/65586506@N04/

The Striped Stream Frog (Pulchrana Signata). Photo by Dr Teo Eng Wah, Vincent @Vince Adam. Find more of his incredible photos here - https://www.flickr.com/photos/65586506@N04/

The lack of snakes though was leaving us a little dispirited, but just before the end of the night our luck finally changed. Right before we turned around and headed back, I finally spotted our first snake (and only my second in Malaysia). Our determination paid off with a Red-Sided Keelback Water Snake (Xenochrophis trianguligerus). While we didn’t manage to get a quality photo of it, as it darted straight for the river, quick as a whip, we saw it for long enough to be able to identify it. Hopefully this was just the beginning of adding some serious numbers to our new database.

The things we do! Wading through one of the rivers in the Sungai Yu Forest Reserve. Photo Taken by Dr Teo Eng Wah, Vincent @Vince Adam.

The things we do! Wading through one of the rivers in the Sungai Yu Forest Reserve. Photo Taken by Dr Teo Eng Wah, Vincent @Vince Adam.

For the most part though, Friday night set the tone for the weekend. We went out herping morning, evening, and night with mixed success. Saturday morning we found a couple of frog species in Taman Negara, but we also found two gorgeous little Jasper Cat Snakes (Boiga jaspidea) hiding in a spiny palm, which made for a nice little surprise. These are slender snakes, with mottled browns, reds, oranges, and blacks making for one very pretty species. It’s their large eyes that give them the ‘cat snake’ moniker, as they have vertical pupils (like a cat) that help them to see in the dark.

We waded through rivers (sometimes up to our chests), trekked through forests, and chatted with locals. This last tactic was definitely our most successful approach. We added at least 10-15 new snake species according to what we were told just by talking with some of the locals cutting grass on the side of the highway, including several species of cobra. Little did we know that one of the species that they told us about, we were going to have a VERY close encounter with that night!

On Vince and Boy’s final night in Merapoh, we made the decision to go back to the river near the Bateq village. So far this area was hands down the best spot for herps we’d found. We came across our first geckos of the weekend (of the not house gecko variety) and several of us were taking photos of these cute little guys. Boy had walked on ahead to the river, and suddenly yelled out “Krait!” We raced to find Boy sitting on the edge of the large log that crossed the river, and a huge (2m+) Red Headed Krait (Bungarus flaviceps) slithering our of the water. It moved to the centre of the camp site and curled itself up, its head underneath one of its coils.

The gorgeous, but intimidating Red Headed Krait (Bungarus flaviceps)

The gorgeous, but intimidating Red Headed Krait (Bungarus flaviceps)

We slowly inched forwards, doing everything we could to NOT scare it off or anger it. Vince managed to take some incredible photos as this snake ended up being surprisingly docile. It’s bright red, almost orange, head stayed ‘hidden’ underneath the the coils, providing some gorgeous contrast between the head and the dark blue sheen of the rest of its body. I even got to film a quick video, though I definitely made sure not to get too close! This highly venomous snake could do some serious damage should it have bitten one of us.

Let’s delve a little deeper there for a moment. Snake venom is a truly remarkable substance and can have a whole range of different impacts depending on the snake. Take this Red Headed Krait for example. This species has neurotoxic venom, which means that it attacks and destroys nerve tissue within the body. It prevents communication across neuromuscular synapses (which tell muscles when to contract), leading to paralysis and eventually death by asphyxiation… because the victim is simply unable to get their body to respond when trying to breath. Damn, nature is metal! If you want a full run down of the impacts of this snakes venom, or any other snake venom for that matter, Wikipedia is a great place to start.

To have found this snake less than 12 hours after first being told it was in the area was incredible, as was being able to film the most dangerous animal that I’ve had yet on Life Gone Wild! Keep an eye out for that video coming out in the future.

The first two weeks back in Malaysia have been FULL of incredible experiences. A massive thanks to Vince and Boy for coming and helping the Malayan Rainforest Station team learn about herps and herp photography, and for providing me with people that were passionate about reptiles and amphibians.

I cannot wait to see what this new project brings, and what other new and exciting opportunities are coming up during my time here at the Malayan Rainforest Station!

The Herp Gang (and some extras!) (L to R) Syafiq, Bawok, Jordan, Angus, Izereen, Ariff, Vince, and Boy

The Herp Gang (and some extras!) (L to R) Syafiq, Bawok, Jordan, Angus, Izereen, Ariff, Vince, and Boy

Cover photo by Jordan Curzon