Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tucson Reptile and Amphibian Show 2010

Saturday, September 25, I had to choose among several nature-oriented events around the Tucson area. My selection was the annual Tucson Reptile and Amphibian Show at the Expo Center in South Tucson. While the overwhelming majority of participants were vendors of live reptiles, arachnids, and terraria and other products related to keeping pet “herps,” the educational exhibits were quite enthralling.

The Tucson Herpetological Society featured several live reptiles native to Arizona, including this Great Basin Rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus lutosus.

I just looked up the scientific name for that serpent in the book Rattlesnakes of the United States & Canada, authored by Manny Rubio. I purchased that outstanding reference at the Reptile Show as well, and Manny was on hand all day signing copies.

The most impressive exhibits were furnished by the Phoenix Herpetological Society. This organization even runs a sanctuary for unwanted reptiles. I suspect that some of the more dangerous specimens were probably seizures in raids on drug-smuggling rings since trafficking in narcotics and exotic pets often go hand-in-hand. Macho dealers often want pets symbolic of their toughness, and/or dangerous pets to guard their stashes of illegal substances, cash and weapons. In any event, the animals the PHS brought to Tucson were truly amazing.

I am not readily intimidated by reptiles, but one specimen had me a little nervous and totally in awe. It was a Reticulated Python, Python reticulatus, raised from a hatchling by the gentleman standing next to it at the exhibit. The snake is now seventeen years old, just shy of 19 feet in length, and weighing in at 260 pounds. I estimate the snake’s head was at least as large as my size 7 ½ shoe. The snake’s name was “Tiny.” No, I’m kidding!

The python was in a compartment on a long trailer that included many other snakes and lizards. Among them was this gorgeous albino Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox.
Aberrations like this don’t usually survive long in the wild, but they make excellent ambassadors for their species in an educational venue.

Most of the animals in the show were in plain enclosures that facilitate easy cleaning and optimal viewing by the public (no place for the reptile to hide). This did not make for the best photo ops, but I was happy to get some of the results I did given the obvious “in captivity” look, smudges on the glass from countless children’s noses and hands, and often poor lighting. Still, a King Cobra, Ophiophagus Hannah, has an overwhelming presence in any setting.

A couple of small crocodilians and an enormous Alligator Snapping Turtle complemented the snakes, but it was the vipers that I found most amazing. Take this Mangshan Pit Viper, Trimeresurus mangshanensis, for example. Found only on Mt. Mang in the Hunan Province of China, it is literally “something you don’t see every day.”

Likewise, this bright yellow example of an Eyelash Viper, Bothriechis schlegelii, is best encountered behind glass in a nicely-landscaped terrarium, as opposed to wrapped around a branch at eye-level along a jungle trail in Central or South America.

There are more images of other snakes over at my Flickr photostream. I’d like to thank my friend Leigh Anne DelRay for reminding me of the show to begin with, and sharing the experience with me last Saturday. I encourage everyone to visit their own local reptile show and take a friend or young person with them. It can make a lasting impression to come face-to-face with native and exotic wildlife at such events.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Shooting the Messenger

Monday, September 20, Malaysian government officials announced that they will not proceed with a planned release of genetically modified Yellow Fever Mosquitoes, Aedes aegypti (pictured below, on *me*), in rural and wild regions of that nation (source: Malaysia Today.com). The mosquitoes have been “engineered” to produce short-lived larval offspring. This is obviously an attempt to prevent delivery of the disease-causing organism by eliminating its vector. What I find ironic is that there are concurrent efforts being made to engineer malaria mosquitoes (genus Anopheles) that are non-lethal to the insects, but prevent them from being viable intermediate hosts to the malaria parasite Plasmodium. Quite a contrast between the two strategies.

It can be argued convincingly that anything curtailing widespread mortality in “Third World” nations should be a high priority that will also aid in eliminating poverty. It can be argued that with current trends in climate change, tropical diseases will make significant inroads into temperate areas thus far free of such epidemics. It is also a fact that disease-causing organisms are developing resistance to antibiotics at an alarming rate. Why not shoot the messenger then: Attack the vector organisms responsible for ferrying those protozoans and other microbes.

The problems with killing off mosquitoes include a potential disruption of the food chain, whereby other organisms will be deprived of prey. Mosquito larvae also have their own role in filtering water. We cannot readily predict what the absence of mosquitoes would mean to ecosystems on even a local scale.

Interestingly, another article I read recently described how the “Brain tissues and the nervous systems of insects may provide the next line of antibiotic defense against emerging superbugs that have become resistant to drugs.” How do we know that the very cure for some of our human plagues doesn’t rest in the literal minds of mosquitoes? The point is that we haven’t examined all the possibilities. Before we assert a death sentence for a species, should we not mine it for all the “good” it could do? We are reticent to execute individual human criminals, perhaps in part because there might be something to be gained as a society by keeping them alive. We tend to be optimistic that way.

I tend to be optimistic about the most malevolent creatures we share the planet with. No creation, or product of evolution, is without some degree of merit, even if that grain of positivity has no direct bearing on human lives.

The “shoot the messenger” campaign has been seen before. Tsetse flies carry the trypanosomes responsible for sleeping sickness in humans, and “nagana” in livestock, especially cattle. Wild African mammals are immune to the disease, but serve as reservoirs for the parasite. Eliminate the tsetse flies and Africa becomes one big cattle ranch with no place left for wildlife. Is this an oversimplification? Perhaps, but the Law of Unintended Consequences factors prominently in cases like this.

We need to have meaningful dialogue about the direction that GM research is taking. The left hand needs to know what the right hand is doing, and profit from that information. I remain confident that we can overcome human mortality factors in a responsible manner that does not disrespect other creatures in the process. I still have faith that we can act responsibly in our own affairs of reproduction and population.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Once again I find myself apologizing for the relatively sporadic nature of my posts here lately. No excuses, really, though I have been working rather random hours at the Tucson Botanical Gardens, and consequently eating randomly, sleeping randomly, and writing randomly. Maybe I need to take a class on time management.

I also just concluded a project in which I reviewed chapters for a forthcoming self-published book on the natural history of Virginia Beach, Virginia, by Scott Bastian. He has been a delight to work with, and he will be turning out a pretty unique book that has a wealth of information stretching far beyond the locality of Virginia Beach. You'll hear more about this once it is off the presses.

A relative lack of rain this year in Arizona (except for the area immediately adjacent to the Mexican border) has meant that many insects have been lacking, or at least less numerous, than usual. Perhaps because the Tucson Botanical Gardens is heavily watered, I have found a surprising diversity of things there, and expect the trend to continue through October.

Best wishes to my readers for a fruitful fall of exploring, image-taking, and enjoyment of autumn colors.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


Yesterday we had what was probably the last big storm of the “monsoon” season here in southern Arizona. I haven’t quite gotten used to the idea that we have monsoons. This isn’t Bangladesh. I have to take the television meteorologist’s word that the summer weather pattern qualifies as such.

During May and June, the Sonoran Desert heats up to an almost intolerable degree. Literally! Temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. One year in recent memory we had a string of 39 straight days that were over 100 F. This simmering pattern sets the stage for what is to come. The winds change toward the end of June as low pressure replaces the fading high pressure, and moisture is drawn up from the Sea of Cortez. Rains usually follow.

Still, the definition of our Arizona monsoon seems to depend upon who you ask. Some say that when the dew point reaches 54 degrees Fahrenheit, it more or less marks the onset of the summer rainy season. The dew point is the temperature at which air becomes saturated with water vapor and that vapor begins to condense. Others simply assert that the average beginning of the monsoon falls on about July 7.

That is not to say that every monsoon is “average.” Far from it. Last year there was almost no rain at all, and this year has not been a great improvement. My immediate neighborhood has seen maybe three good storms with heavy rains. An average year would be more than double that.

The thunderstorms associated with the monsoons can be terribly violent. The storm yesterday included hail as well as rain, plus very gusty winds. A storm a few weeks ago spawned lightning that lit a tree on fire in a nearby park. Some streets here in Tucson are sacrificed to drainage during storms, and I jokingly tell people that I live on the North Fork of Magnolia during the monsoons.

Most destructive of the monsoon phenomena are “microbursts.” These are straight-line winds that can wreak just as much havoc as a weak tornado. Microbursts are essentially “wind bombs” that happen when cold air in the top of a thunderhead suddenly drops to the ground, sending the equivalent of a shock wave of wind in all directions. The winds generated can exceed 70 miles per hour, and the phenomenon can last from five to fifteen minutes. The area impacted is small, however, generally restricted to less than 2.5 miles in any given direction.

The intensity of the monsoon season varies considerably, and La Niña and El Niño events can exert quite an influence, but the rains are vital to preserving the diversity of flora and fauna in the Sonoran Desert.