Kevin in China, part 6 - The Mystery Snake

Kevin went to another place and kept catching a snake he cannot identify. Read more under the fold....

Pinqian Report
(pin - tchin)

The Pinqian trip is a fairly short and concise trip. The trip guest starred Vanessa Reynolds for about half the time. Prior to this trip, her China experience had been the mega-cities (and Muyu). I was very pleased later in the trip when I had asked her about the time spent in Pinqian and she said it had been the highlight of her China experience. I am the opposite, I have not really spent any time in the mega-cities except for a few days in Beijing, and I did not get to see any really splendid sights while there (hopefully in September I will) - that does not mean however that any of this has not been the highlight of my trip, as of course it has.

24 June

The next three days had called for rain, according to the report Linsen had viewed. The morning was a tad chilly. With the help of Vanessa, I was up by about 8:15am. Linsen arrived around 8:45am, we hired a taxi, and hit the road. I wanted to stop by Dalongtan so we could release and photograph the tree viper and the toad.

As usual with Chinese, the first thing on Linsen's mind was food. So before we got down to the photography, we had lunch. The Dalongtan station is a bit different than the other stations, far more rustic and appears to be one of the first stations established. I had been very surprised with the quality of most of the stations. In Dongxi, for example, in many locations the road was horrible, sometimes it wasn't possible to cross in a vehicle, other times you would have to move obstacles out of the way. Very rough, and when wet, extremely muddy; small, dilapidated houses spotted the countryside, and then all of a sudden the dirt road turns into an incredibly smooth concrete slab, where an immaculate building sits. Inside the floors are some sort of marble-like stone. It is just very out of place and obvious that it was built with more than sufficient funds. The field station at Dalongtan, however, looked like it was one of the first stations built, before the reserve had so much money. I thought it was a very nice little place and I very much want to spend a week there.

Lunch consisted of eggplant, some fish stew, rice with corn meal mixed into it, and the always tasty cucumber dish (cucumber = huang gua). After lunch we finally got to photograph the animals. One of the staff members there, Zhang Yuming, was really interested and was following us around. He seemed very eager to learn English and knew quite a bit of phrases. I took several pics of the Protobothrops (tree viper), because I was not sure how common the species would be and if I would see another one or not. As I was taking my multiple shots, Vanessa and I started joking around and referencing Austin Powers when he is having photo shoots. I start yelling stuff like "no! no!" Shouting at the snake. Vanessa says "be like a tiger!" What a thing to say in front of an impressionable Chinese person trying to learn English and watching a westerner with a camera...

I was able to get a few "decent" pics, nothing that really stands out though. The toad was nice as well. As of this writing, I received the amphibian ID book today, and I cannot find this toad in it. The book is entitled The Atlas of Amphibians of China and unfortunately it primarily relies on drawings as opposed to photographs. I have been able to ID four of my frogs, but still cannot ID Frog B, and if Frog F is not a variation of Frog E, then I cannot ID it either. I think more drastic measures will be called for in those situations.

Anyway, after photographing and releasing the animals we started to head back to the taxi, but before we left, Zhang Yuming wanted some pictures of Vanessa and I with him. Most people know my dislike for smiling in photographs. As the three of us are standing there, Linsen is taking the picture and Zhang Yuming says "be like a tiger!" And I just had to smile. It was quite funny.

As we headed across the mountains I had Linsen stop at one of the more scenic sights on the top of the range, so Vanessa could get a chance to see some more scenery. Luckily it was not cloudy that day and the skies were beautiful. We didn't spend near as much time as we had spent the last time I was there - a couple hours worth; she'll have to do that some other time.

We arrived at Pinqian at about 3pm or so. After dropping off our gear and establishing our rooms we started hiking. There was a stream close by and I basically just wanted to walk along the stream. I immediately loved Pinqian. I have not had such an immediate impression on any of the other field stations so quickly. In the driveway of the station was a DOR toad - bad that it was dead, but at least it showed that they were here (too old to ID). And the fact that the river was in such proximity was great as well.

As we walked, most of the ground was flat, a rare sight for me. Up until this point and aside from Dalongtan, nearly every place I have been to consist of a trail two feet wide with a huge embankment towering above me to my left and dropping off steeply to my right. Not a lot of walking room other than back and forth. Here at Pinqian I could walk left, right, back, forward, any direction I wanted with ease! Isn't that amazing?! I thought so.

In addition to this flat ground, the landscape was littered with big and flat rocks. Another excellent sign. And then of course the proximity of the river and stream (river to the left, stream to the right, land in between and land bordering either side) made it all the better. I was exclaiming to Vanessa how much I already loved this place. I don't think she quite understood the reasoning. We hike for an hour or so and turned back. Saw lots of green, lots of mossy, slow moving streams. It was a gorgeous area. We didn't see any snakes though. Since Vanessa was new to the whole herping thing, I was explaining a lot of the tactics and told her that we probably would not see anything because it was mid day and very hot and that early morning, evening, and night were far better.

We made it back to the station and I told Linsen we would wait until dinner and then go out again afterwards. Linsen went to talk to some villagers about what we were doing and if they had seen any snakes and received a positive response almost immediately. He said that they had killed two snakes earlier that day. Vanessa and I headed over across the street and into a dried stream bed where the bodies were.

One was a snake jerky form of Achalinus spinalis, it looked like it had been killed several days ago, but they said they killed it that morning, so I suppose the sun just burned the snake to a crisp. It is unfortunate; the museum does not have a good specimen of this species. They have two specimens and both specimens look just like this one. The animal still counted as a locality and positive ID though, and it was a species we hadn't seen before.

The other snake they had killed at 12:00pm. I did not recognize it at all. It was fortunately in good enough condition to become a specimen. The species looked like a mini-yellow ratsnake. Slightly yellow with four primary dark stripes down the body. It actually looked a lot like some glass lizards I've seen. One Chinese species in particular, Ophisaurus harti.

I photographed the Achalinus (if you need a common name attached, I believe the "accepted" common name is Common Burrowing Snake - I usually am all for common names, but many of these Chinese common names are not very well organized... I'm not sure if I already discussed this or not, but I will go on another tangent just in case. In the US, there are attempts to make standard common names. Most birds have standard common names. Snakes, however, have several common names. One person may call a snake a black snake, someone else may say it is a pilot snake. Other names could be "black ratsnake, black pilot snake, or chicken snake." However, progress is being made at extinguishing many of these slang terms, at least within the scientific community, and for the most part everyone recognizes the species of Elaphe obsolete as "Black Ratsnake." But, one difference with the Chinese setup, is that a common name may cross genera. In the US, if you say "ratsnake" you are referring to a species within the genus Elaphe (or a species that used to be classified as Elaphe). In China though, several different genera have the common name "ratsnake" or "keelback" or "water snake." While looking up a frog, I came across one frog named "Dorsal Striped Opposite-fingered treefrog." So for all of these reasons I have been trying to just use the scientific names. Sorry for the ramble.).

After photographing the snakes, one of the station officers pointed to some rocks and said that there was a snake under them earlier in the day. He took his finger and started flicking the small chunks of gravel left and right and then pointed and said it was right there. I was extremely surprised and jumped down and grabbed the little bit of tail that was still visible. The snake had winded itself through an entire series of rocks that made up this gravel road (the road was basically a pile of gravel rocks, about 10 ft tall). I started ripping rocks out, trying to get to the head of the snake. I would imagine many people were not very pleased as I was kind of destroying the road, which was held together by some weak cement.

The fellow that had pointed the snake out to begin with started helping me clear rocks. I was having troubles with clearing rocks and then having more rocks fall on my hand and the snake. I eventually cleared enough to see where the snake was going. He had successfully anchored his head within the asphalt portion of the road (the gravel road was adjacent to the asphalt road). By this time a great chunk of the population was surrounding me, about 20 people or so. I felt bad, because I knew they wanted to see the snake captured, but the snake was anchored in the stone and the only way to get him out without hurting him would be to just tire him, which since he was anchoring himself means he wasn't using a lot of muscles and could probably sit there for a long time.

I told Linsen that this would take a long time and that I may have to sit here for the next 30 - 45 minutes and that everyone may want to go because it is going to be pretty boring. No one left. The snake gave up far sooner than I expected, within 5 minutes or so he started budging, and with each inch he budged, it was that much easier to pull him out. So after a few minutes I finally had the snake removed. The snake was the same species as the lined one that was killed earlier.

This next part was pretty horrifying and I thought about simply leaving it out. After catching the snake and starting to walk back, everyone was happy, and children were running around - well one child ran to the opposite side of the road. I am sure you have heard my stories about the drivers in China. Well as the kid, about 6 or 7 yrs old, ran across the road a motorcycle came speeding through at about 35 - 40 miles per hour and clipped the kid on the face with the handle bars. Had he not swerved at the last second it would have been a complete hit. It is very common for everyone to speed past people on the road. Some of the taxis I have been in would pass workers, or people playing in the street at 40 or 45 mph without swerving or slowing down the least bit, or even pulling to one side to give them some room.

Even though the child was barely clipped he still went sliding along the ground and of course everyone went running over to him. Luckily he was crying, I would have been far more concerned had there been silence. There were some scrapes on his left cheek and right above his eyebrow. In addition he had some nasty gashes on the back of his head. Being in China I had no idea what to do. I asked Linsen if we needed to call an Ambulance or if I should notify someone at the station that could take him to a hospital or what. I didn't really get a response. The child's mother took him to her shop and just sat there holding the crying kid. One of the kid's cousins came up to him and asked him if he was alright and he didn't know who was talking - he couldn't see. That wasn't good. Linsen told us to continue along.

Leaving the scene, Vanessa, Linsen, Xiang Cing (the fellow that had pointed out the snake in the rocks), and I started walking along the stream bed. There were occasional puddles filled with a bunch of tadpoles - another good sign. Vanessa eventually had to head back because she was in sandals. We walked a semi-good distance and then decided to head back. When we got back to HQ, I downed a Pepsi, filled it with alcohol and plopped the striped snake inside.

As I started looking through the Sichuan book, maybe 15 minutes had passed before a farmer came up to the station and said there was a snake in his garden. Xiang Cing and I headed over. All I took with me was myself, no bags, no hook, no clamp. As we approached the garden he said "yo du." I said "ok" not fully confident in his ID, but I was mistaken, it was another Jerdon's Pit-viper (Protobothrops jerdonii). I got a bamboo stick and broke it in half and used the two pieces to bring the snake out in the open where I could pin it.

The snake was opaque. Around this time Linsen and Vanessa showed up, but neither had any bags or gear. I didn't need the snake, but I wasn't sure how my pics from Dalongtan had turned out and just in case I wanted to hold on to this snake until it shed and take some more pics. So I had to walk back to the station with the snake pinned. A cautious eye was constantly watching the snake.

No sooner had I placed the snake in a bag, and jokingly told Vanessa I was going back downstairs incase there were "any more calls," had I gotten downstairs and someone yelled "she" outside. I couldn't believe it. Again, I just picked up and ran, didn't grab anything. Upstairs, Vanessa luckily heard the commotion and grabbed my clamp and a bag and followed suit. I ran to the road where some villagers had one of the striped snakes pinned. I told them "mei yo du, bu yao ren" (non-venomous, doesn't bite people) and waved the stick away.

The snake was slightly injured, had some blood coming from its mouth, but I think it was basically alright. The snake was a lot larger than the previous individual. I got GPS data and took the snake back to HQ. It was now around 7:30pm. The cooks had been waiting around for someone to show up. Normally we would have eaten around 6 or 6:30pm. 7:42pm rolls around and another shout outside. I couldn't believe how awesome this place was. I ran and the snake was again at the very same location as the one just minutes before. The location is in the middle of town, in between two buildings with nothing but filth and trash in between the buildings. The snake was a Rhabdophis nuchalis, the "groove-neck keelback" that was found at Guanmenshan right before Linsen and I left for Dongxi. So this one location now had three striped snakes (one dead, one in rocks, and one active), a Rhabdophis, and an Achalinus.

I thanked them and headed back to the station. When I got back I told Linsen that we had to start walking now and if we were late to dinner then oh well. As we started heading out the door, some guys come up with a snake in their hands, pinned. I smiled and presented them with an open bag. It was another Rhabdophis nuchalis, I told them that it wasn't venomous and doesn't bite. The guy still insisted on holding it by the head and after releasing his grab, quickly withdrew his hand. Vanessa, Xiang Cing, and I headed south along the road and Linsen headed north. We didn't see anything else. Linsen brought back a DOR Rhabdophis nuchalis, so we went to get GPS data on it and then headed back to the station. Dinner was finally ready.

Oh man... As usual with every place I go to, everyone wanted to give me multiple toasts. I had told Vanessa that I was worried I would be getting a lot of toasts, and that because the terrain here wasn't as intense as any of the other locations, I wasn't sure if I would be able to sweat out the alcohol afterwards. Vanessa has a weird failsafe system when it comes to alcohol, she doesn't drink carbonated beverages, she says it feels like her "nose is falling off." The only thing she drinks is wine, which isn't really found in China.

I really don't remember much from that evening. I remember one of the older gentleman making me a lot of toasts and that everyone considered him the "yan jing she" (the cobra, aka, leader) of the group. Though this was unofficial, as he wasn't the director. Another form of respectful toasts involved the toaster taking a shot, then refilling the glass, giving it to the toastee, who of course takes the shot, returns the glass. It is then refilled again and set aside. Maybe they were celebrating the eight snakes we had found that day. After dinner, the only thing I remember is walking around in the dried stream bed and it being so cool that I could see my breath, so that didn't last long. The next day I refused many drinks.

25 June

I did not have breakfast and as I had feared, I did not get rid of the alcohol in the hunt after dinner. So my morning was still a bit of a "not-quite-all-there" mind frame. We started walking the road. Xiang Cing took us to a location where some snakes had been seen before. Walking around he started picking up these white strawberries and handed them to Vanessa and I. They were awesome. I can't really describe them. I had had a raspberry-like berry in Xiagu, and some blackberry-like berries, but these had a different taste. They looked like the wild strawberries you see all the time, the small red ones, except they are white. Speaking of eating berries and "trail food" another pleasant reminder every now and then has been honey-suckle. It looks, smells, and tastes exactly like the honey suckle I had as a kid. Occasionally I also see Palmetto. When these two plants are combined, of course I think of SC.

Walking around, the four of us split up. I saw a huge flat rock, and as always, had to flip it. Underneath coiled up in the ground was a skink. I quickly seized a huge chunk of ground all around the animal to ensure its capture. Finally some success with a lizard! The skink looked very much like North American skinks, like a dull Five-lined Skink. I later IDed the species as Eumeces capito (Yellow striped Skink).

From here we walked down to the river bottom, found some Frog A's - which now have an ID thanks to the book, and it's not a very surprising species either; Rana chinensis. We walked back to HQ for lunch. At lunch I was looking at the Sichuan book still trying to ID the striped snake. Some of the officers were looking over my shoulder so I started showing them some snakes. When I flipped to Pseudoxenodon ("Big-eyed mountain keelback") and they saw the picture of one with its neck flared out, they mentioned a place where one had been killed two days before. So this was our next destination.

When we arrived Linsen said they had thrown the body in the river, so I couldn't photograph it or be sure of the ID. We took a trail into the mountains. The trail was so incredibly beautiful and some of the areas rivaled some of the scenes in Xiagu. Many locations that had piles of moss covered rocks with small streams of water pouring in and around them. Trees would tower the stream and lean in towards the water like placed pillars. The scene reminded me a lot of Ridgeland with the live oaks and their limbs towering over the road, just in my situation, the road was replaced with a stream (and there wasn't any Spanish moss L), but replacing a road with a stream was a nice touch. Unfortunately I was unable to capture the beauty on "film." Walking along the trail, we did not find any snakes. I explained to Vanessa that this was normal snake hunting; walking in habitat for hours and not seeing anything. But I told her that the "other sights," the scenery, the flowers, the butterflies, always made it worth it.

We had a short lull in hiking for awhile, when I had realized my mini-tripod had fallen off my backpack (which Xiang Cing had insisted on carrying). Linsen and Xiang Cing went back to look for it and told Vanessa and I to just sit and wait. This didn't really make sense to me, as I would have been pleased to walk back and help look, not only for the sights and to help, but at the chance at seeing a snake of course. Oh well.

I searched the area around the field where we were waiting. I ran into a Sphenomorphus skink ("Brown Forest Skink"). The same species that had escaped me in Jiuchong and had escaped Ming and ZongXu at Xiagu. I ran around the rocks for awhile trying to corner it. It finally made a dash around the back side of one of the Chinese nettles. The plant it chose was a giant one at that, about 6 feet tall. But, because it was so big, there were very few leaves at the base of the plant, where the lizard was waiting beside.

I figured I should take a lunge and would probably scrape against the body of the plant but would be able to avoid the leaves - and that there was a possibility I would clear the plant entirely. So that's the course of action I took. I learned another feature about the nettle that I should have known based on the KS species, which is that the body of the plant, not just the leaves, has the same stinging spines. The lizard escaped and left my hand full of tiny little hairs like when you grab a cactus (which I have done as a child chasing anoles in a friend's yard). So I spent the next couple of minutes picking out all the individual hairs and making my way over to where Vanessa was to see what she was up to. She told me that she had a snake for me, but that it was dead. I headed over, and on the ground, right where she had sat down, was a dead Achalinus spinalis. The only thing I can think of was that someone accidentally stepped on it. The specimen may not have been salvageable but I still had some more locality data.

Linsen and Xiang Cing finally returned with the tripod and we headed for home, taking a different route of course. There were many times when the trail would fork and Linsen and Xiang Cing would talk about which way to take. A couple of wrong turns as well. But, not fairly surprising, some of these wrong turns eventually led to some snakes.

While walking along the trail, near a stream, discussing animal behavior studies with Vanessa, there was some movement down and to my left and I saw a brown tail heading toward the stream. It was another Rhabdophis nuchalis, I jumped on the snake. The snake had a gorgeous pink belly, far more pink than any of the individuals from the other night. We took some photographs on the spot and bagged the snake to get measurements back at HQ. Linsen and Xiang Cing took the lead from here. Continuing along the way, Vanessa and I round a corner, and in a small puddle right next to the trail is the striped species. I yell to Linsen and Xiang Cing, "there's another snake back here!" Bagged her as well, took GPS data of course. I had a few ideas about the species and I wanted to collect as many individuals as I could to compare variations and size differences.

Lingsen and Xiang Cing eventually had to ask a local farmer for directions. We made it back to HQ fairly tired. I told everyone at dinner I was only having beer - pijiao, and didn't want any alcohol, hejiao. My throat needed a chance to catch up. After dinner, I went back to the books to try and figure out this snake. I went through every species in the Sichuan book (58 non-venomous species) and couldn't find it. Then I pulled out the Atlas of Reptiles of China, which unfortunately has a lot of illustrations, but some pictures. I went through every snake species listed in there, and again came up with nothing.

About that time I got another call from Linsen that there was a snake. At the time I was in my socks. I tried fitting some sandals real fast and started running down the hall, but they were too small. I shook them off and headed downstairs and outside. I didn't bring a flashlight and I painfully made my way over to the street where a little girl was standing by a street light, in front of the store that had the five snakes on the day before, there coiled up on the road was another striped species... Linsen, Vanessa, caught up with some lights and a bag. From here we went walking, me still in my socks. The night was cool, in the mid-60s. The stars were out and Vanessa made the comment that the stars in New Mexico took the cake in comparison. I certainly agreed. Mountain stars are nowhere near as spectacular as desert stars. I haven't been in desert environments much, but I do remember one time and being able to look in 360º and being able to see nothing but stars, here your vision was obscured by the adjacent mountains. I suppose the stars would look nice if you were on top of Dashennongjia...

After walking for about 30 minutes I hear Linsen's "oi" as he flashes his light down at my feet - he did not know I didn't have shoes on. When he said there was a snake outside, I had no idea what species and if it was fast moving, or sitting still on the road, I had no concept of how much time I had to act in, so I just moved. We eventually caught up with Xiang Cing and one of the girls that was cooking for us, and the five us started walking. They eventually flashed their lights at my feet and also started wondering. After Vanessa explained, they said that I liked snakes too much.

We walked for quite a distance, I was pleased. Walking along the street I saw the head and neck of a Rhabdophis nuchalis sticking out onto the road. I silently walk up to it and pick it up, trying not to cause a commotion, as the girl that cooked for us was fairly scared of snakes. The snake had a weird color, unlike every other Rhabdophis nuchalis I've seen, this one had a green belly with a medial black stripe, exactly like Rhabdophis tigrinus lateralis. Bagged him as well to photograph and get stats on. That was all the night produced.

26 June

It was time for Vanessa to head back today. My original intentions was that she'd be able to hunt with us in the morning and could take a taxi back around 2 or 3pm, putting her back in Muyu around 4 or 5pm, but apparently one of the girls was heading back to Muyu that morning, so if she went with her she wouldn't have to pay for a taxi (the taxi to Pinqian was 200 Yuan). So she stayed back and Xiang Cing, Linsen, and I headed out.

Our destination seemed somewhat random. As we started walking I immediately noticed that the day was far hotter than the previous days. My hopes were not terribly high for our morning - afternoon hunt. We did, however, find four DORs, so at least we got more localities and species data. It is really weird. Pinqian is loaded with this striped species of snake and Rhabdophis nuchalis. The two would fight back and forth for the most common snake rank, much like the pigmies and the scarlets fight back in the sandhills.

The first snake was a DOR striped snake (what I have been calling lineata for short), then a DOR R. nuchalis, then a DOR lineata. This 2nd lineata was a little bit weirder though. As we were walking along all we saw was the tail of a lineata sticking out of the ground. What it appeared, is that during the last rain storm, the snake was covered in mud by a passing vehicle, which I guess hit enough of the snake to kill it too, and then over the next couple of days the mud dried up, leaving the snake in the present condition. As we finished our round for that day we came upon a snake skeleton. At first I thought it was too old to ID, but there were a few lateral scales that made the ID a positive R. nuchalis.

After lunch I went out to photograph all of the finds. While walking around looking for a place to take pics, we came across another Eumeces capito lizard. As I was photographing one of the R. nuchalis, Linsen went off on his own. I shifted gears and started photographing the lineata species. I heard Linsen making his "whoop"ing noise (the noise he makes when he wants to know where someone is). I yell out my location and he walks up with a R. nuchalis by the head. I was very pleased, his first capture.

He didn't have to pin it, but I was still pleased that he caught the snake. I had enough snakes for data and said we would just take GPS data on it and could release it right then and there (it wasn't pretty enough to photograph either). I turned back to my lineata species. This species is really weird. The species exhibits sexual dimorphism in both color and size. The males are easily identified as being smaller, and grayish-olive in color. The females are much larger and are more yellow.

The males are also very... ummm....virile? They do not have the least bit of stage fright and do not mind performing in front of an audience. The first time I put a male in the bag with a female, he immediately started rubbing his chin all along the length of the female, and this was the day before. I figured he would have gotten it out of his system by now. I took the male and female out of the bag to photograph them side by side to show the difference and the male starts rubbing all over the female again. Oh well, I was still able to get the pictures I needed and got some interesting behavioral pics. I just found it strange that here it was 26 June and the snake was still trying to mate. Most people recognize corn snakes as being a fairly easy to breed snake, but if you introduce a male corn to a female corn in the middle of the summer, they aren't going to try and mate with her.

Shortly after my photo session clouds started piling up and the rain started pouring. I took this time to look up some more info on my mystery snake. One thing that was really frustrating me was the fact that not only could I not ID the species, but I couldn't even ID the genus!! I was able to narrow the species down to three likely suspects. But the closest genus still had four differences in scutellation.

After the rainstorm let up, some of the officers wanted to take me to a place where I could check my email. On the way back we stopped by a little shop so I could buy a Pepsi. The owner of course invited us to sit down and have a rest. He offered me "mijiao" and I told him no that I was done with alcohol for the day. One of the officers waved his hands and kind of said, "no no no, mijiao is ok, not like hejiao (liquor)." So I gave in and told him just one cup. He brought over a frosty-white colored beverage. I took a sip, not knowing what to expect. The drink was some sort of fruity alcoholic beverage, but you could barely taste any alcohol. I imagine it is probably pretty weak and more of a tasteful drink. I gave him a thumbs up and said that it was good. The officer said "chi fan, mijiao, yes?" Basically meaning, tonight at dinner, will you drink mijiao instead of hejiao. I told him that I was completely fine with mijiao.

I went walking around before dinner. It was drizzling and I had a thought that I would find a certain species... Come 7:35pm, stretched out in front of me, on the dry rock stream bed was a lineata snake. It only makes sense right? The day started with lineata, then Rhabdophis, then lineata, then Rhabdophis. Up to that point the two species were tied, then Linsen had found another Rhabdophis at 4:47pm that afternoon, therefore the lineata HAD to make itself present that night. That's my scientific reasoning at least.

Dinner that night was very good. As promised, the officer brought out the mijiao. He said I should have four cups. Xiang Cing had already poured me a shot of liquor. The one officer advertising the whole mijiao concept was telling me - through body language - that if you drink four cups of mijiao you will be drunk. He bobbed his head around as if he was drunk, etc etc. I said, "no" and pointed to the shot of liquor and said "four of these will make you..." and then bobbed my head around. And I pointed to the mijiao and said "four of these is fine." Then pointed to the shot of liquor and said "strong" and pointed to the mijiao and said "weak." He didn't quite understand and kept explaining something. I am thinking, what he was meaning was that since the alcohol was so hard to taste in the mijiao and that it tasted so good, you are more likely to drink a lot of it and not realize how much you are drinking and then before you know it you're drunk. The mijiao that night was a different type than the one earlier. This one was flavored with cantaloupe. The one earlier was flavored with some sort of berry I think. The rest of the evening mainly consisted of my pouring over scale diagrams and various heads of certain species trying to nail down the lineata species.

27 June

I was loving Pinqian, in three days we had found 19 snakes, but 16 of those were the same two species (8 lineata, 8 Rhabdophis). For the most part I felt like we were done here. So come 9am or so, I rolled over and told Linsen that I thought we could head back to Muyu today.

I had a lot of pics I wanted to organize, reports to write, Dr. Li, Dr. Stanford (and his family), the student from England, and Xue were all going to be in Muyu in a couple of days, and plus I had a lot of figuring out to do with this lineata species. Linsen was fine with this plan. He made some calls and said that one of the police officers had left for Muyu earlier that morning, the fat officer. The fat officer was quite a character, whenever I was drunk he always wanted to teach me dirty words such as "mimi."

Anyway, the bad news was that he had left and if we were to get a ride back we'd have to take a taxi, another 200 Yuan for me. While we were waiting around for a taxi a bunch of the regulars came up in a couple of cars. Most of these guys were the ones I remember from Pinqian lunches past. Instead of using terminology such as the "head head head guy" I'm opting for the much more professional title of "super duper head guy." So the super duper head guy showed up as well. Last time I was at Pinqian, when Linsen and I were passing through on our way to Dongxi, this leader was having lunch at Pinqian. I had also seen him around the reserve cafeteria as well.

Lunch this time was one of the spectacular spreads like I had had in the past when we came through Pinqian, I'm thinking now it maybe had something to do with the super duper guy. There was one dish that consisted of some kind of root that was very good. Another dish had bamboo shoots with thin slices of beef, peppers, and garlic. There were two different styles of tofu in the big boiling pot and another orange-colored tofu dish mixed with green beans to the side. I was hoping they were going to prepare one of these types of spreads while Vanessa was here, but I guess it just wasn't in the cards.

The taxi finally showed up and Linsen and I started to load up our gear. When the super duper head guy saw this he yelled something at Linsen and Linsen started removing all the luggage, then the taxi drove off. Isn't too hard to read that message. The super duper guy was obviously going to give us a ride back to Muyu. He was traveling in some kind of nice coupe, I forget the make, but it was the nicest ride to date so far.

While we were waiting around for the super head guy to finish his inspection of various aspects around the field station, I went out and about to look around again. Not too long afterward an elderly woman comes up to me and tells me there is a snake at her house. I follow her and we walk into her backyard and she starts scanning the base of her house, which is made up of a rock wall held together with concrete. I start scanning the crevices too and see the familiar face of a female lineata snake staring back at me. It was quite impossible to catch but I told her that it wasn't venomous and that it didn't bite so she was fine.

I had another thought, since nearly every lineata find was close to water, I would imagine the species either eats amphibians, fish, or both. So I started collecting tadpoles out of the river bed. As I was doing so Linsen calls my name and tells me to come over there. I start running and he tells me to slow down. I look in the direction he is staring and see a Sphenomorphus indicus skink sunning itself on a rock. I tossed my tadpoles to the side and slowly dropped to my knees. As I inched forward I kept my hands wide apart from one another. I got close enough to where I thought I could grab it and made a lunge with my left, the skink took off, which I followed up with my right and pinned it. I had finally caught the species. I was pleased. I told him we'd take her back to photograph and then release her (the museum already had some specimens).

It was finally time to go. More clouds were forming and it started to rain right as we were leaving. The ride back was nowhere near as beautiful as you could barely see a thing. By the time we reached the top of the mountain we were out of the rain, but there were still lots of clouds.

We got back into Muyu around 5pm. I called Vanessa and updated her on the remaining herps. I met her at the museum because I was planning on checking my mail. Mr. Yu was there, he would be classified as the "super head guy." He had asked about what snakes I had found and after telling him he asked if they could have some film guy follow me around and film some of my finds and take some pictures. Of course I didn't object, after all, this was the head guy, saying no would be pretty rude. I asked when, and he said how about now? I didn't really understand. Apparently (with the help of Vanessa), they wanted to get some stock footage of some of the snakes that lived in Shennongjia and just wanted me to put the snakes in the woods and pretend to catch them. I felt ridiculous. Basically just like the TV clowns Irwin, Corwin, and Austin. Oh well, a job is a job.

So we got the snakes and walked to a very small natural area immediately off the shoulder of the road. They cleared out some trash and I dumped the Jerdon's Viper out. They got some footage of the snake slithering around, but the area they picked was horrible. Lots of vegetation, the snake was usually covered, and you only had a few feet of working space before I had to recapture the snake so it didn't get away. We caused a traffic jam as everyone and their cousin wanted to know what was going on. At one point there were like five cars stopped on the road and people taking pictures of me with their cell phones. After the viper they wanted to film some shots of the lineata species.

After the entire ordeal was over with, Mr. Yu wanted to take everyone out to dinner. We went to a new restaurant I hadn't been to yet. The Shennongjia photographer wanted to take all these pics of me leaning against poles with corn in the background and all sorts of ridiculous stuff. Afterwards I told Vanessa that this was not my sort of thing. The one thing I was pleased about was the fact that the photographer was using an old, manual, Minolta. I loved hearing the sound of the shutter, followed by him winding the film to the next slide. I wanted to start shooting my old Canon again. There was one dish at the restaurant that was awesome. It was a type of eggplant dish. I am not a fan of eggplant but this dish was incredible. It tasted almost like the eggplant was covered in some sort of syrup yet the accompanying sauce was very liquid and nowhere near the consistency of syrup.

28 June

Vanessa called me early this morning and said that Pong Lin Pong wanted to treat us to lunch and that we were meeting at her hotel (about a 1 minute walk from my hotel). Mr. Yu was there as well. We were meeting up with two students from Beijing that were visiting Shennongjia for the day. Our first stop was the same restaurant we had visited the day before. This time the owner of the restaurant ate with us. He wanted me to have a cup of "bijiao" - a new one for me. Mr. Yu would say in English "Chinese Whiskey!" and give a thumbs up. Never wanting to be rude, I said sure. It was quite strong, but more tasteful than the liquor at Pinqian.

The activities that followed involved touring much of Shennongjia I've already seen. At the top of the mountain there are two very popular sights. We went to both of those. At the second sight, as we started walking the "Secrets of Nature" trail some of the guys down at the mountain shop recognized me and started yelling "she." I turned around and headed down the stairs and asked if they saw a snake. He motioned for me to follow. On one of the tables, in a clear plastic jar was a Jerdon's Viper that they had just captured. I asked them if they wanted me to release it there, or if they wanted me to take it somewhere else. They wanted neither... they wanted to keep it. I have an idea of where that species ended up. I asked them to take me to the location so I could at least get some GPS points.

After touring the upper sights of Shennongjia, we headed back down to Muyu. That night, as I was typing up more info on the lineata species, I peaked in the bag to make sure they were alright. I wanted to set them up in a terrarium at the museum so I could try and record their diet. It appeared they only ate 1 of the 4 tadpoles I threw in the bag as we left Pinqian. I wanted to try fish.

As I walked over to the bag I saw some white clearly visible through the bag material. I thought "no way" to myself and opened the bag. Inside were 8 huge (for the animals that laid them) eggs!! Immediately removed them, put a bunch of toilet paper in the hotel ash tray, placed them inside it, and covered the eggs with some more toilet paper and then moistened it. I now knew that the species was oviparous, another wonderful piece of information would be an incubation time.

When I had witnessed the delayed mating behavior, I had wondered out loud to Vanessa that maybe the species was capable of double clutching or that perhaps it had a very short incubation period. Dione's ratsnake (Elaphe dione) for example can have an incubation period as short as two weeks! I was tempted to call Vanessa that night and tell her the news, but it was very late. I couldn't really sleep that night, far too excited. Around 5am I checked in on the snakes and the female that had just laid the eggs was copulating with one of the males. But, many species are known to retain sperm, so maybe they don't double clutch and just mate whenever they get the chance. Who knows?!? I still have yet to find out what species it is, or even what genus.

29 June

Not much going on today. Finally got a chance to catch up on emails. I went to the museum to photograph some of the scutellation of previous specimens I had yet to find, such as Sibynophis, so I could compare to the lineata species. I met Xue Chong, from California, Dr. Stanford's student studying the golden monkeys. Vanessa, Xue and I went out to dinner. It was mainly a getting acquainted dinner with Xue. Dr. Li, Dr. Stanford, and Emma were all coming into town tomorrow evening. Xue was purchasing extra tents for everyone. Dr. Stanford's wife and three children were also coming along.

That about does it for Pinqian and a few remaining days in Muyu. Dr. Li, Dr. Stanford, his family, Emma, Xue, Vanessa, Linsen, and I will all be going to Qianjiaping for all of next week hopefully. Xue says that Protobothrops are all over up there and that he sees several every day. He also mentioned seeing Pseudoxenodon, so I can't wait. His arms were also chewed up with mosquito bites, so we'll see how that goes as well. I still have yet to get bit since coming to China. Once again, I hope all is well back home. Best,


More pictures on Photobucket

Previously in this series:

Snakes On The Plain: Kevin in China
Kevin in China, part 2: Three Kinds of Natural Beauty in Jiuchong
Kevin in China, part 3 - The First Westerner in Town
Kevin in China, part 4 - Snakebites as a Daily Hobby
Kevin in China, part 5 - His Legend Preceeds Him!

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"One was a snake jerky form of Achalinus spinalis, it looked like it had been killed several days ago, but they said they killed it that morning, so I suppose the sun just burned the snake to a crisp. It is unfortunate; the museum does not have a good specimen of this species. They have two specimens and both specimens look just like this one."

Could rapid drying be some characteristic of the species?

By David Harmon (not verified) on 05 Jul 2006 #permalink

its possible but kind of unlikely. i think the rapid drying was just characteristic of the size of the snake (small, maybe 10"). plus the location was on a gravel bed rock completely exposed to the sun, no shade at all, so I'm sure it got fairly hot.