Herpetological Highlights from Venezuela 2006

By Carl J. Franklin

In the summer of 2006 Dr. Eric N. Smith and I visited several field localities and scientific collections in Venezuela.  The purpose of the visit was to collect coral snake tissues, specimens and examine specimens and record data from several museums.  Overall the trip was very successful.  The generosity and hospitality from our herpetologist colleagues in Venezuela made it possible to examine almost every preserved coral snake in the country.  Venom researchers and zoological curators contributed greatly to the endeavor by allowing us open access to specimens in their care.  During our three week stay in Venezuela we drove throughout most of the eastern third of the country and made every attempt to collect additional specimens whenever the opportunity presented itself. 

The following images are some of the highlights from the trip.

Found throughout most of Venezuela yet rarely seen, the worm-lizard (Amphisbaena alba) is specialized reptile that is highly adapted for a subterranean existence. The skull is solidly built which facilitates burrowing and the eyes are reduced.  Chemosensory functions are important for this reptile and undoubtedly help with locating food and mates.

Like many lizards, amphisbaenians also possess pores near the cloaca.

Amphisbaena fuliginosa Estado Bolivar

Ventral aspect of Amphisbaena fuliginosa

During our visit we heard stories of a miraculous cure-all drug made from amphisbaenians.  This remedy was touted as a cure-all for broken bones, flu, colds, sore throats, diarrhea, upset stomachs, cancer and AIDS.  Called morona (which is also the common name for an amphisbaena), all that was necessary to prepare this concoction is a live amphisbaena and some white sugar cane alcohol (rum).

The amphisbaena is either killed and then placed into the rum or allowed to drown in the alcohol.  After the amphisbaena dies 24-48 hours are required for the concoction to be ready.  Should you suffer from any of the aforementioned ailments then simply drink 2 tablespoons of the morona solution and all will be better!

Eric Smith, Gilson Rivas and myself  visited a mercado in Ciudad Bolivar and found a vendor selling the morona.  Apparently our bottle of curative wasn't prepared with the elegance we were hoping to find.  The specimen contained within our bottle still had dirt adhered to its skin as well as a very ripe smell.  Despite having discussed the possibility of sampling the concoction one whiff is all that was needed to convince us otherwise.  Fortunately the specimen was in good condition and tissues samples were gathered.

One of the facilities we visited was the research station Rancho Grande in Estado Aragua.  Pictured here is Gilson Rivas holding an extraordinary specimen of a red foot tortoise.

 

Saul Gutierrez is the director of Serpentario Parque del Este in Caracas.  Asides from having a functional serpentarium for the public he also manages an extensive breeding facility for red foot tortoises.  Hundreds are bred each year and exported for sale to the United States and other countries.  Pictured here is a hatchling that just left its egg before using up its yolk.

Driving at night in estado Bolivar's escalera region led us into wet cloud forest and some colorful encounters such as this false coral snake (Anilius scytale).  This specimen was found on the road just after being hit by another vehicle. 

A ventral view of the false coral snake (Anilius scytale).

After we stopped to photograph the false coral snake, Gilson noticed movement in the leaf-litter and found this specimen of Stefania scalae with an attached cluster of eggs.  This photograph was taken en-situ.

Leptodactylid frogs are known to demonstrate a variety of reproductive modes including this foam nest created by a species of Physalaemus.

A foam nest builder Physalaemus sp.

While visiting the Rancho Grande Biological Station in Maracay we had the pleasure of meeting with several fellow herpetologist and one mammologist. From left to right: eric N. Smith, Ramon Rivero (curator and collections manager at Rancho Grande), Gilson Rivas, Marco Natera (curator and collections manager at Universidad Nacional Experimental Romulo Gallegos), Fransisco Bisbal (mammalogist) and Tito Barros (Professor at Universidad de Maracaibo).

A DOR Mussurana (Clelia clelia) found on the road near Rancho Grande.

Although drably colored, this stream dwelling frog (Mannophryne collaris) belongs to the family Dendrobatidae which includes the colorful poison dart frogs.

Henry Pettier National Forest is located near the Rancho Grande field station and as Venezuela's oldest national forest provides  a retreat to hikers and nature enthusiast alike.

                           

Much like other tropical forest, giant buttressed trees provide areas that collect fallen detritus and leaf litter.  These specific locations provide excellent habitats for various reptiles.

                             

One such reptile found within the buttresses is Riama achleyns.  This tiny lizard is found no where else but within the old growth rainforest near the Rancho Grande biological station.

The specimen in this photograph is a female and two eggs can be seen from this ventral view.

                                                                   This female Pseudogonatodes manessi also utilizes the same microhabitat as the Riama.

                                                               

Juvenile cat-eyed snake (Leptodeira annulata).  This species was commonly encountered throughout most of our trip.  It was especially abundant on rainy nights that coincided with high activity rates of frogs.  It was also found scavenging dead frogs from the roadway as well.

Elachistocleis ovalis from estado Bolivar.

Adult cat-eyed snake (Leptodeira annulata)

Norops chrysolepis Bolivar, Venezuela

Gonatodes annularis Bolivar, Venezuela

 

Leposoma sp. Bolivar, venezuela

I was able to photograph the following snakes due to the courtesy of Dr. Luis Scott of Santa Elena de Uairen, Bolivar, Venezuela.  Dr. Scott is currently preparing a venom research institute and graciously allowed us the opportunity to not only visit his personal snake collection, but provided us with great information regarding several great collecting locations.

Lyophis typhus

Spilotes pullatus

Oxyrhopus petola

Chironius exoletus

Pseudoboa neuweidii

This emerald tree boa (Corallus caninus) was found at night in a lone pine tree in an otherwise barren field in the town of Santa Elena de Uairen.

During a night drive following a thunderstorm we encountered this leptodactylid frog.

This specimen of Leptodacctylus rugosus conveniently landed in a small patch of carnivorous sundew plants to have its photo taken.  This frog is a common inhabitant of the Gran Sabana.

Driving north from the Brazilian border through the Gran Sabana we encountered a number of amphibians crossing the road including:

Hyla crepitans

Phrynohyas venulosa. Often referred to as the milky tree frog this species exudes a noxious and sticky substance from its skin when disturbed. 

The secretions from Phrynohyas venulosa are copious to say the least and extremely sticky!

This green tree frog (Hyla granosa) was found calling from a roadside pond. en situ

Sinax sp.

Another milky tree frog (Phrynohyas venulosa)

As Eric, Gilson and I continued driving northward through the Escalera region we were not only stopped by several military inspection stations, but also the call of nature. During one of our bladder inspired stops I walked in front of the truck and Eric walked towards the rear.  Then I looked down and spotted the first (and only) coral snake specimen of the trip!  The specimen had been run over earlier in the evening, but was better than nothing!  Dead or alive, it's not everyday that you can find a Carribean coral snake (Micrurus psyches).  Needless to say the find was exciting and at 3 am provided a much needed jolt of enthusiasm.

 

As I walked back to the truck I not only found the remaining portions of the coral snake, but this DOR baby red foot tortoise (Geochelone carbonaria) as well.

Then I noticed a loud chorus of frogs coming from just beyond a tree line next to a fence.  I crossed the fence and made my way to a pond where I was rewarded with finding some interesting amphibians such as the following specimens

                     Hyla minuta.(en situ)
                     

This amplectant pair of Scinax en situ.

and several specimens of the Trinidad monkey frog (Phyllomedusa trinitatis) en situ.

The bliss of finding these frogs was soon erased as I noticed the lights of a truck stopping next to our rental truck.  I heard some voices and then finally Eric said "Carl, could you come out for a minute?  The military is here.".  I came out just in time to find seven young soldiers with their Uzis aimed at Eric.  However, by the time I arrived the scene had mellowed out considerably and the guns were being lowered.  We explained why we were on the side of the road at 3 am, showed our passports and permits and the soldiers left.  With the soldiers gone, we decided the best thing to do was continue collecting!  After all he had been through Eric deserved to witness this amphibian hotspot for himself!

Back in Caracas we visited various herpetological collections ranging from academic collections to live collections in public serpentariums. Pictured above is the Caribbean coral snake (Micrurus mipartitus).

Ventral view

Scale clips were taken for DNA and venom samples were also acquired.

Visiting various collections allowed us the opportunity to photograph various species from Venezuela such as this Venezuela forest pit viper (Bothriopsis medusa).

and this Venezuelan lancehead pit viper (Bothrops venezuelensis).

One Sunday morning Eric and I left Caracas for a bit of collecting and exploring.  Upon entering departamento Miranda we soon found several vendors of bromeliads, heliconia and orchids.  Most of the specimens for sale were mounted in a naturalistic and ornamental fashion with craftsmanship suitable for the most discriminating of horticulturist.  Most specimens were priced between $5-10.  

Soon we arrived in the deserts along the coast of departamento Miranda

                                    

After finding a a road with little traffic and ideal weather approaching we headed out for some road cruising.

We couldn't resist inspecting the margins of a roadside puddle for signs of amphibian activity.  We soon caught the attention of a local resident who assisted us in capturing several recently metamorphed frogs and toads.

After moving a log or cover object the tiny frogs were not readily seen until they started jumping.  This made for some challenging collecting efforts.  Seen here are metamorphs of Pleuroderma and Bufo.

We were soon on the road again and by dusk snakes began to make their appearance.  That is when we found this neo tropical rattlesnake (Crotalus durissus) crossing the road.

   

 

     

We saw several but could were only able to capture one specimen of Troschel's pampas snake (Phimophis guianensis).  This fast moving day active snake is an effective hunter of lizards and other small invertebrates.

Another desert find was this male striped gecko (Gonatodes vittatus).  This specimen was discovered after looking under roadside trash.

Just north of Caracas lies Colonia Tovar.  This location contains some remnants of cloud forest and is the primary location for another Venezuelan endemic the tiger anole (Anolis trigrinus). This specimen was photographed en situ at night as it slept on a branch overhanging approximately 10 feet over the highway.  The flash from the camera eventually awoke the specimen.

This Lansberg's pit viper (Porthidium lansbergii) from Isla Margarita was photographed at the Instituto de Medicina Tropical Universidad de Venezuela courtesy of Dr. Louis Fernando Navarrete.

Although we spent a great deal of time in habitat known to have and suitable for bushmasters the only ones we saw on this trip were in the form of skins.

Herpetologist at Fundacion La Salle in Caracas maintained this interesting albino clouded snail eater (Sibon nebulata).