Puerto Ayacucho, Venezuela 2007

By Carl J. Franklin

In March of 2007 I accompanied Coleman Sheehy III to Puerto Ayacucho in departamento Amazonas in an effort to collect live specimens of the snail eating snake Sibon nebulata as well as collect a series of voucher specimens from the region and to collect a specimen of a locally occurring species of aquatic coral snake.   March is the dry season for much of northern South America and this expedition provided a stark contrast to the wet and lush rainy seasons I have become accustomed to.  In fact the area was so dry that much of the forest was burning and the sky was always overcast due to a constant haze of smoke.  Never the less, Coleman and myself continued to brave the fires, potential conflicts with indigenous groups and the ever growing presence of the Chavez military.  We were graciously hosted by a German transplant Axel Keleman who I highly recommend as a host and guide should anyone decide to visit the region.  Later we were joined by our Venezuelan colleagues herpetologists Tito Barros and Gilson Rivas. 

As our plane prepared to land in Puerto Ayacucho Coleman and I got our first glimpse of the area.  Notice the dry conditions and burned areas on the ground.  The land across the Orinoco river is Colombia.

Due to their cryptic appearance, leaf litter toads (Bufo margaritifer) were most frequently noticed when they moved.

Piaroa mask

We met with a local insect collector Antonio and his family just outside of Puerto Ayacucho.  Antonio is of Guajibo descent and his wife is Piaroa.  Given their indigenous heritage in the forest near Puerto Ayacucho they were both skilled experts regarding many of the regions fauna. Also in addition to speaking Spanish they spoke indigenous dialects as well.  Antonio is an avid beetle collector and occasionally sells his specimens to collectors.  The following photos depict only some of his wares.

A large Cerambycid always leaves a distinct impression.

A shining example of a large Buprestid.

How about a jar filled with Megasoma?

This juvenile calico snake (Oxyrhopus petola) was found as it actively patrolled the ground at night in a section of forest alongside a river.

This mature specimen of a calico snake was also encountered during a tropical forest night hike.

This brown-banded water snake (Helicops angulatus) was found submerged in a shallow pool alongside a river.

Shallow pools were also a location where froglets such as this Hylid were found.


This smooth sided toad (Bufo guttatus) was also found near one of the pools.  This was the first specimen I encountered outside of an old growth secondary or primary forest.

Given the dry conditions we continued to search the streams in hopes that most herpetological activity would be concentrated in areas containing moisture.These marine toads (Bufo marinus) were found in a shallow pool in an otherwise dry creek bed.  They were also noticeably skinny which possibly was a side effect of the dry season influencing the abundance of food.

This Tree boa (Corallus ruschenbergerii) was encountered by Antonio during one of his nighttime forays.

After being dropped off at a collecting locality and then returning to the car we encountered this red vine snake  (Siphlophis compressus) on the side of the highway.  Unfortunately it had just been hit by another vehicle.

With attentive eyes and a trusty flashlight, Coleman spotted this handsome specimen of an adult male Chironius carinatus as it slept in tree branches.

This species is active during the day alert and challenging to approach.  They are visually oriented predators and are known to consume small reptiles, birds and mammals. The specimen depicted here was a medium sized adult.

Like many other reptiles in the wild, this specimen also carried ticks.

Another ubiquitous leaf-litter toad

The small craters are the dried out remnants of the nest constructed by gladiator frogs (Hyla boans).

Males prepare the nest in such a fashion that water remains inside after the levels begin to drop thus forming an isolated pool free of aquatic predators in which the eggs can hatch and the larvae develop. Pictured here are some recently hatched eggs.

Males call from the nest sites to attract females.  When another male comes within the territorial reproductive location of another male a fight ensues.  Although somewhat difficult to see in this photo, the male shown in this nest bears two scars on its back from a previous fight.

Male gladiator frogs possess prepollical spines located at the base of their thumbs.  These concealed weapons are covered in skin and come out as soon as a fight ensues. This often causes severe injuries as the frogs will cut and scrape the flesh and even stab eyes and tympanum.  Males are not only territorial of their nest, but the eggs and tadpoles within.

Pictured here is a female approaching the nest of a vocalizing male.

These are sizable tree frogs and sometimes holding them in this fashion will result in being stabbed by the spines.

A tiger-monkey frog (Phyllomedusa hypochondrialis) was found at night walking amid vegetation alongside a forest stream.

After finding this ctenid spider consuming a frog I decided to grab the prey with forceps and an epic tug of war ensued.  However as a testament to the potency of the ctenid's venom the frog was reduced to little more than a small pile of mush 5 hours later.

Sapo minero, or the yellow banded poison dart frog (Dendrobates leucomelas) was another common denizen of the rainforest floor.  Many of the specimens found near Puerto Ayacucho had greenish finger tips.

In one location 13 specimens were found crammed together in the crevice of a granite boulder.  This location was near a section of forest that was burning.

Mysterious knife fish (Gymnotus sp) were present in the remaining pools of water in seasonally dry streambeds.  The presence of this fish species roused our enthusiasm that we might find our target species the aquatic coral snake.

Another leaf-litter toad

Andenomera sp.

Bone headed tree frogs (Osteocephalus taurinus) were common throughout most of our trip.  Coleman spotted this specimen peering from beneath a blanket of leaf litter.  It was perfectly concealed, yet betrayed by the reflection of its eyes.

Although it was during the dry season, many tropical amphibians are opportunistic breeders as evidenced by this recently metamorphed Osteocephalus.

Horrifically large amblypigids are always a fun challenge to capture.

Unaware that he is part of a photographic subject, Gilson diligently inspects the accumulated leaf litter between the buttresses of this tree in hopes of finding a newly discovered species of gecko.  In fact, the discovery is so recent that the description of the species has not yet been published.

Here is a male specimen of Gonatodes sp.

Here is a female specimen of Gonatodes sp.  Notice the eyelash-like supra-ocular scale.  Like many other gecko species, the female portrays a more subdued coloration.

Although it appears mostly green the forest was largely dry and in the lack of rain fires continued to spread.

The evidence of fire was everywhere.

Fire also directly affected the fauna in the forest.  Pictured here is Coleman capturing a Chironius.  What we didn't know until the specimen was in hand is that it was injured from the fire. In fact the extreme left side of the snake in this photo you can see some grayish skin.  In this area the snake was literally cooked.  This specimen died minutes following its capture.  On another occasion we found a completely charbroiled Chironius.

This stunning rainbow boa was collected by an acquaintance of mine in Puerto Ayacucho in 1999.

Although we didn't see any in the field there were lots of red foot tortoises maintained in chicken pens.

The quantity of large tarantulas we found every night was amazing.  Dozens of these huge arachnids could be seen on the banks of creeks no more than 1 meter apart.  This is a species of bird-eating spider that was described in 1991 (Theraphosa apophysis).  Identification of this specimen provided by tarantula expert Rick West.

Due to their abundance it was easier to understand how these arachnids could wind up in the diet of the Piaroa.  Pictured here is Antonio's wife capturing a live specimen.

She was definitely one of the best spider handlers I've witnessed!

Another common occurrence were the Mapanare or Fer de lance (Bothrops atrox).  All of the following photos were taken en situ and often resulted in the snake fleeing the area after my camera flash went off.  In some stream beds very little effort was required to find them.  I often wondered how many were missed (or stepped over!).

Pictured here is another Bothrops atrox with a leaf litter frog.

In case you couldn't find the leaf litter frog in the previous photo here is a close up of the snake.

I almost stepped on this one!

With perfect timing, this moth shared the photo with this female Hagmann's water snake (Helicops hagmanni).  The bulge is due to a recently swallowed fish.

This turnip tailed gecko (Thecadactylus rapidicauda) did not live up to its common namesake due to a skinny tail.  Perhaps it had relied on much of its fat deposits during the dry season.  Notice how this specimen is attempting to tear its flesh and break its tail in an attempt to escape.

This forest racer (Drymoluber dichorus) was found hunting Gymnopthalmid lizards in the leaf litter and although it was treated gently the specimen died approximately 2-3 minutes after capture.  The heart could be seen pounding from under the skin followed by rapid and deep breathing.  Sometimes the stress of being handled is enough to make some reptiles suffer greatly.

This bright-eyed inhabitant of the leaf-litter strewn forest floor is Leposoma hexalepis.

A tree frog belonging to the Hyla geographica complex resting among exposed roots.

As previously mentioned one of the primary purposes for the trip was to secure a specimen and tissues of Micrurus nattereri.  Although long since considered a sub species of Micrurus surinamensis there are strong characteristics that indicate this is a distinct species.  One night we dropped Antonio off at his home and did not see him for 2 days.  During that time he called and informed us of a coral snake he had collected.  However, the military inspections were pretty ridiculous that day and we decided our time in the field was better spent away from the military.  At the time Antonio called the snake was alive and we went to his house the next day.  When I got there he shrugged his shoulders and said "I don't have the coral snake, it died".  My heart sank and I asked him what he did with it.  "My daughter went and buried it".  So we went to the spot where she placed a small crucifix and began digging.  Soon we had one of the most important specimens of the trip in hand.  Despite having been dead for about a day there was no sign of decomposition and the specimen was intact.