Friday, October 4, 2013

Suizo Report -- To Gus, With Love

Howdy Herpers,                                                         10/3/13

“And when I die, and when I’m gone, there will be one child born in a world to carry on, ......to carry on.” Blood, Sweat and Tears, Columbia Records, 1969

We’re going to go Hollywood with this report. At times, the snakes on our plot demonstrate drama on that sort of scale. We witness sex and violence, interwoven with epic struggles to survive in a land that has barely enough to scratch out a living. Paradise is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. They have no choice but to make a go of it.

We focus on two snakes with this report. Both are Black-tailed Rattlesnakes (Crotalus molossus). One is a male, CM11, “Gus,” and the other is a female, CM17, “Ms. Gus.”
The slithering duet has much in common, as far as snakes go. They’re both the same species, occupying the same patch of ground. They eat the same prey items, and seek similar shelters. Both have overcome astronomical odds in order to survive to adulthood.  And they both have exceptionally fat heads. Their fat heads are what make them the ideal couple.
 Gus first came our way on 17 September of 2011. At the time, we had little use for a skinny male molossus with a fat head. We’d been there, done that, and had next to nothing to show for it. Hence, he donated some blood, received a PIT tag, and then came the customary unceremonious dump back to his place of capture. He was not even Gus at that point in time. As far as we were concerned, that should have been the end of him.



But then the recapture transpired. On the evening of 3 August 2012, Gus was bagged again. A wave of the PIT tag reader told us who he was. By this point in time, our mission was to put a transmitter into any and all molossus that crossed our path. For whatever reason, our surgeon, Dr. Dale DeNardo, took compassion on this snake. He felt compelled to name this snake after his fat-headed dog, Gus. One must, at times, go to great lengths to take care of the hands that take of them. In short order, Gus was in the game, performing great deeds of Gus-dom. For a scrawny, fat-headed snake, he really got around!  

On 16 September of 2012, Marty Feldner led the field class of Wolfgang Wuster on a Roger-less outing. Gus was found paired with a female­ the future Ms. Gus. The first glimpse of Ms. Gus inspired Marty to comment: “Yegads! Her head is even fatter than his!”  At that point in time, we were out of transmitters. Ms. Gus was left alone that night. As soon as I got wind of the pairing, a rush order for a new transmitter was placed. And the directive was that until we got the transmitter, we were to leave the pair alone. If we were to ever get reproduction of the species on our plot, mating had to ensue.



My first visual of the pair was on the evening of 28 September. They were in a miserable snarl of a packrat midden that was packed into the root system of a particularly sinister and sprawling catclaw acacia. The thorny hell hole was nicely accentuated by a ring of chest high prickly pear which all but blocked the view in. Much blood was lost in trying to get a visual of Ms. Gus. When I finally did see her, I also was inspired to say: “Yegads! Marty is right! Her head is fatter than his!”  

The game of cat and mouse between the fat-headed snakes and their fat-headed trackers continued until the evening of 5 October. That night, Marty and I had split the tracking duties, and Marty had Gus on his route. At 8:09 PM, Marty summed up what he saw nicely by flatly stating on the datasheet: “It is good night to fornicate!” (He didn’t actually write “fornicate.” He used the foo foo word! Cussing on a datasheet? Shame on you, Marty…….)



Despite the rather abrasive start to the words Marty scrawled on the page that night, the rest of the description is as fluid and smooth as the action he witnessed. He wrote:

“CM11 is in coitus with a female (equivalent to his size and maybe heavier) at the edge of a staghorn cholla midden constructed in prickly pear. When first seen, CM11 was head jerking and chin rubbing along flank of unknown female. He continued this behavior on and off for 8-10 minutes until female moved to investigate me. This is when the tails became exposed and I could see for certain that they were locked up. Female dragged him by his wang so they were stretched out in opposite directions, weaved through the prickly pear over the next few minutes. CM11 worked his way back to female and resumed chin rubbing flanks and dorsum, taking breaks periodically to lie motionless and enjoy contemplating which hemipene he was using. Tongue flicking accompanying most chin-rubbing motions.”

Did you guys catch these words?

“FEMALE DRAGGED HIM BY HIS WANG? TAKING BREAKS TO ENJOY CONTEMPLATING WHICH HEMIPENE HE WAS USING?”

How you talk, Feldner!

But just in case, that would be the right hemipene, Gus. Does he know his right from his left? I’ll bet he did on this night!



All joking aside, Marty’s write up of this incident was pure artistry. Working at night with nothing but a headlamp, a clipboard, a pen, a vivid imagination, and a blank page to fill is an arduous process. And the lure of what comes next is always strong with many animals on the list to check. To his credit, he stayed with it.

And so did Gus! The next morning, Mr. Feldner and I did not let any grass grow under our feet getting back to the spot where the action was transpiring. We arrived at 7:55 AM to see that the pair was still “locked up.” This is where our scruples might very well have been in the way of gaining a new study animal. My rules for capture of a new snake do not allow for breaking up a couple that is fu, er uh, fornicating. We were prepared for a long wait. They had already been at it for 12 hours, and could easily go another 12 before it was over. 

But then Ms. Gus did us the ultimate favor. Upon seeing us looming large above her, she panicked, and began sprawling pell-mell toward the entrance to the Neotoma midden that Marty described. Poor Gus was still in her, so to speak, and was haplessly wrapped like an anchor about the prickly pear. Ms. Gus began a series of jerking motions, (yehaw!), trying to get free, but she only gained an inch or so. (Gus’s “wang” also likely gained an inch or so in the process). With a powerful surge, Ms. Gus broke free, literally hanging Gus out to dry in the process.

With Ms. Gus now unconnected, Roger’s rules for breaking up a couple no longer applied. She was snagged and bagged, and female CM17 was now in the game! That’s the end of that story ­and the beginning of the next.

We of course had to take Ms. Gus home with us for a couple days, in order to line up and perform a surgery. This left hapless Gus to smoke his after-sex cigarette alone, and maybe get “righty” back into its proper moorings. After that, he was off to the races. There was no need to be hanging around. The pencil necks had just taken his fu, er uh, his forn, er uh, his mate. No sense in waiting on whatever would come of that flandickery. He bombed across Suzio Wash, and made a major shift along the southern flank of the Suizo Mountains. While there were occasional signs of settling in at a couple places, he never actually hibernated. He stayed on the go throughout the winter, and eventually had moved further north and east than any other animal on our plot. The dude was a machine!


By the time we got Ms. Gus back to her capture spot, Gus was long gone. While it is unlikely that she was pining for her man, she remained at her site 1 for what seemed like two for evers. Finally, on 4 November, she had jetted across the wash, and was near the top of the extensive southwest ridge of the Suizo Mountains proper. She eventually went over top, and dropped into the lower bowels of Tim Canyon. She was viewed surface-active until 4 December. She was very thick in girth at that point. With the next tracking session, 8 December, she had slipped into an impressive and extensive west-facing boulder structure. It was here that she hibernated, and was not seen again until 11 March of 2013.


The author of this epic report decided that a thorough description of the hibernaculum of Ms. Gus is in order. This is not because your author is so fond of typing that he wants to aimlessly go about whittling his fingers to the second knuckle describing a rock pile with a cold snake in it. (Although that is certainly reason enough for the effort). No, this hibernaculum is to play a big role in what follows with this report.

Two paragraphs ago, mention was made of a place called Tim Canyon. This canyon is the southernmost of three different slot canyons that drain the western side of the Suizo Mountains. As one approaches the canyon from the west, it rumbles gently upward in eastward fashion for a distance of about 300 meters. The canyon then bends abruptly, steepens in aspect, and heads upward and northward as one continues the ascent. It eventually peters out, and becomes a steep, south facing flank of the third highest point in the Suizos.

Ms. Gus chose to hibernate at the point where Tim Canyon makes the bend. She was 30% up the east flank of the adjacent slope. The granitic bedrock structure that she selected is roughly three meters tall and nearly perpendicular to the slope, by perhaps three meters wide, and roughly forty  meters long south-to-north. The top portion of this site is actually imbedded in the soil, but the bottom has many crevices and soil holes that lead eastward into its embrace. Lush vegetation grows just west of the bottom of this structure. In short, it was a good place for a fat-headed molossus to be.  


Upon emerging from hibernation, Ms. Gus made a series of mini moves that at first led us to believe that she was going to leave Tim Canyon. She seemed to be retracing her autumnal movements. But once she got to near the top of the southwestern ridge, she began to slip back down again. By 29 June, she was back at her hibernaculum. Marty was able to get two visuals of her in July. With each of these visuals, he commented on how thick she had become toward the rear. 

I did not see her again until 3 August. Up until 3 August, she had remained at her hibernaculum. But with what turned out to be pure serendipity on my part, I found that she had moved about 30 meters northward, along the lower edge of her structure. She was found coiled in a shallow soil escarpment at the northernmost reach of the structure. I had time to squeeze off one photo of her coiled in situ. Then, she bolted into a hole that was just behind her. I squeezed off two more shots of her hefty rear flank before she could slip out of sight. She was, without question, a very pregnant molossus. And this was to be the last time we saw her pregnant. 

By 7 August, she had made a ping pong move back to her hibernaculum. She was not visible, as usual. Two days later, the ever lucky Marty Feldner discovered a male neonate molossus out crawling on top of one of the boulder stacks, less than two meters from where she had hibernated. In short, her hibernaculum was the same place as her parturition site! While this is a common occurrence with many species of rattlesnakes at higher elevations, it is an absolute first for us. This out of 12.5 years of observing birthing with three species of rattlesnake!

Marty and I had not discussed what to do if we encountered any neonates. Hence, on 9 August, he made the executive decision to collect it. His rationale was one of getting DNA from the little fella. There was no hot surge of joy when, on the morning of 10 August, Marty showed me his little prize. I was of course stoked that we had our first birthing incident with molossus, but I had these dreams of seeing piles of babies hanging out with mommy. If we went wading in and removing them as we found them, no such thing would happen. 


Marty was off to other lands in the week that followed. This left me with the nest site of Ms. Gus all to myself. Poor me! There would be no more taking babies from mamma! Needless to say, I hit that rascal morning and night for the next week to follow. I became the invisible man at work and at home. I’d go out and stay out until midnight, get up the following morning at 4 AM and hit it again. While I was doing that, reports and images came trickling in from other parts of the country. In all, three other groups had nesting molossus, and all three got great images of mothers with babies. That’s right, I had these KIDS upstaging me! I was walking a mile a day, twice a day, to attempt to get what they had going on at their back porch. This would have been acceptable if only I got some of the action that should have been my reward.

Nope, when all was said and done, on 12 August, I found one neonate molossus that I had no business finding at all. It was found in a narrow vertical crevice just outside what was determined to be the preferred entrance hole to the nest. Mamma was viewed out basking at this entrance hole on 14 August. Back home, the neonate that Marty had collected shed his skin this day. I took him out to release him at the nest site on 15 August, and captured a Tiger Rattlesnake that was hidden in some trixis and prickly pear close to one of the nest entrances. (I never would have found this tiger were I not scouring the vicinity for neonates). By 16 August, Ms. Gus had cleared out of her nest site, and her birthing experience was behind us. There were to be no cool images of mom and babies hanging out together. No neonate shed skins were found in or around the nest site. While it could have all been worse, despite all the effort, our first molossus birthing experience was a rather lackluster affair. We had a fat snake that morphed into a skinny snake, and two neonates that proved the nesting experience had actually happened.



We did not track Ms. Gus again until 24 August. By this time, she had crawled out of the bowels of Tim Canyon, and was hanging around a wash just east of Iron Mine Hill. It was this wash that Marty first saw her and Gus together. Once she was in this vicinity, I knew it would only be a matter of time before Gus found her. We ramped up our efforts on these two animals accordingly.

For nearly a month, Gus showed no interest in tracking his lady down. They were about 200 meters apart on 31 August, but that was as close together as we saw them. And then, on the evening of 20 September, Dale DeNardo and I tracked Ms. Gus. We found her out crawling in a southerly direction, at the western base of a bump in the bajada that we call “Little Hill.” After tracking her, we joined Marty’s group just as he was finishing the write up of Gus. He was just south of Suizo Wash, close to the northern flank of Iron Mine Hill. He was once again around 200 meters from his lady.

The morning of 22 September found Gordon Schuett, Ryan Sawby, and me close to where Gus had been tracked a day and a half previous. Upon raising the antenna skyward, it was noted that his signal was leading us directly toward where Ms. Gus had last been seen. As we followed the blips, the route was taking us right to the west flank of Little Hill. He seemed to be heading straight for his bride. The flag for Ms. Gus waved in the breeze, just 30 meters to the south. Reunited? Hot diggity damn! Anticipation caused me to ignore the signal, and head for the flag. It was then that it all came to an abrupt end.

“Wait a minute, Roger!” Gordon sounded off from behind me. “Is this what we’re tracking?” As he made the inquiry, he deftly hooked a section of snake flank from out of a prickly pear. It was Gus, or rather, what was left of him.

The 600mm of flank that Gordon had flipped out of the prickly pear was upside down, on open, rocky bajada. Hence, my first glimpse was of the white belly scales facing up. Moderate sized black ants were working both ends of the severed corpse. There was no head or tail to be found in the vicinity, just the hefty mid flank. What remained was fresh, there was no stench, and the ants had barely begun the cleanup process. He had not been dead long.

Next came the photographs, the gut-wrenching mortality write up, and the wild speculation as to how this had happened. Gordon and Ryan heavily favored human predation. My own theory was that this was a natural event. A Harris Hawk was viewed perched high on a nearby mesquite. As we don’t really know for certain what got him, there is no need to belabor the point. What we do know is that a very favored subject of ours is no longer with us. We had grown quite attached to our skinny, fat-headed and randy molossus. You will be missed, Gus.
Meanwhile, in a hallowed drawer of my refrigerator, stowed in a sealed plastic bag is a 300mm plus long full shed skin of a neonate male molossus. Sealed within that bag is a notecard that refers anybody interested to page 19 of the DNA section of the official three-ringed binder of the Suizo Mountain Project for 2013. Page 19 contains all the vitals on this snake. And what the scribe did not capture, the camera did. We have nailed this lad nine ways to Sunday.

 Is this the son of Gus? He sure does have a fat head! This author thinks he is indeed the son of Gus. Will he “carry on?” Though the odds are against him, this author sincerely hopes he does. Will we get him back someday? Maybe!  Will we know him if we do get him? Maybe! Would we have any hope of knowing who he is if Marty had not picked him off from the nest site? No way! 


In light of the full developments of this tale, you done splendid, Mr. Feldner. Let’s hope that one of us lives long enough to see this all draw to a successful conclusion.

This here is Roger Repp, signing off from Southern Arizona, where the turtles are strong, the snakes are handsome, and the lizards are all above average.  






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