|Giant Horsefly, Tabanus sudeticus, New Forest|
|Poison Ivy, Dallas, Texas|
As a naturalist, reactions to danger can be less healthy than those of other humans. I well remember being in the Pamir Mountains in Uzbekistan when a member of the party I was leading shouted up to me that he had spotted an Asian Cobra. My immediate reaction was to rush down the hillside, and I was rewarded by seeing the snake as it slid off into the undergrowth. On another occasion, my party was stranded in Tashkent. Our transport onwards to Kirghizia was delayed as senior soviet officials had purloined all the seats on the flight we were to have taken. We had a day that was fallow, and the local organisers of our trip wondered how to keep us amused. We were taken to a zoological institute, and shown cabinets full of bird skins. This did not keep us occupied for long. Then someone had a brainwave. Would we like to see the snakes? We were taken to the relevant part of the building and ushered into a rather small office. In the corner was a cage. Between us and its contents there was nothing but a layer of chicken wire. I was at the front of our group, and to say I was uncomfortable when the cage was opened would be an under-statement. The inhabitants of the cage reared up, fanning their heads as our host pushed his hand towards them. They were Asian Cobras. “They’re quite harmless,” our host explained, “Rearing up like that is all show. You really have to positively persuade a cobra to bite you.”
For the next stage of the visit, we were ushered into laboratory where a taciturn scientist was handling a Soviet species of pit viper. The most poisonous snake in the Soviet Union, he told us. He held it behind its head, and pushed its fangs into a beaker. Two jets of a colourless liquid squirted into the beaker, and these would be used to produce anti venom.
“Do you ever make any mistakes?” a member of the party asked. For answer, the scientist held up his hand. One of his fingers was missing, and he explained that he had to decide whether to use an axe lying close to him, or die.
|Silk-moth caterpillar, with poison spines, from Ecuador|
There is a certain thrill that many humans, and probably many naturalists have in close encounters with dangerous plants and animals after they have got away with the encounter. On one occasion, a local guide told me of an eyelash viper behind a vine on a massive rain forest tree in western Costa Rica. I went down to investigate and failed to spot it.
“Your eyelash viper has gone,” I told the local guide when I saw him later.
“When was that?” He asked
“Oooh, about an hour and a half ago,” I replied.
“Well it was there twenty minutes ago.” He assured me. After he told me exactly where it was, I went back and sure enough, looking obvious it was very much still there. I shuddered when I remembered that I had looked for lichens with a handlens on that tree when I thought it was safe to do so.
|Eyelash Viper, Costa Rica|