In a recent post, I wrote that "Taiwan is home to three species of coral snakes - Sinomicrurus sauteri, S. hatori, and S. macclellandi, all of them endemic to the island. Like their American cousins, they're as beautiful as they're difficult to find: they're all small, nocturnal, rare snakes that spend most of their life beneath leaf litter, where they look for other small snakes to eat."
After the immense stroke of luck that was my encounter with a juvenile S. hatori
in the daytime a few weeks ago
, the Fates granted me another rare find: an adult S. macclellandi
that was crossing a mountain road behind my house around midnight last Friday. I was overjoyed, as the first two times I found this species didn't yield any good photos to speak of: the first time I didn't yet own a macro lens and barely made do with a 70-300mm zoom, and the second time I was about to haul out the camera when two cops drove by and inquired about that colorful worm dangling from my snake hook. I told them what I knew about this protected species, and they thanked me for caring so much about Taiwan's wildlife, but I sensed that they wouldn't let me leave before I'd released the snake, so I did and returned home with an empty memory chip. This time, however, I quickly swept the beautiful serpent into a bag and returned home looking forward to a weekend of proper macro photography.
The next morning I was up early, and like a child on Christmas morning, first went into my office where I keep all my snakes to admire the coral. To my immense chagrin, the small plastic terrarium in which I had housed the snake overnight was empty, and the inmate nowhere in sight. It turned out that the tape on one of the larger ventilation holes that I had taped off had loosened - and the snake had found a way to wiggle under the tape and leave for greener pastures.
Now, having a coral snake on the loose in the house might not constitute a five-alarm event like, say, a de-caged cobra or mamba, but in spite of their docile disposition and general aversion to defensive bites, people HAVE died from the bite of Sinomicrurus macclellandi
- notably Swiss (?) herpetologist Hans Schnurrenberger; "the initial bite was ignored until neurotoxic symptoms showed up 6 hours later, and death was 8 hours after envenomation
" (B. G. Fry et al., 2003). There is also no antivenin in Taiwan, because hardly anyone ever gets bitten by this species, so we were left to our own devices. Tearing apart the clutter box that is our house to find the snake would have been useless (too much clutter!), so I opted to wait until nightfall and see if the snake would come out on its own. I gathered the family and instructed them to (a) wear slippers in the house at all times, and (b) watch our two cats for signs of stalking or staring into dark corners, because the pair had led us to escaped snakes in the house before.
So, instead of getting all sweaty and dirty searching the house for the escaped elapid, we did the sensible thing and spent the day at the beach instead. And the gamble paid off: upon our return around eight PM that night, we found the snake sitting in the middle of the living room, flanked by our two highly skeptical-looking house tigers who obviously weren't sure whether to play with the strange worm, or rather leave it alone.
With great relief I moved the snake back into its (now reinforced) tank and prepared my little "faux nature" studio for the next day (see last photo). It's basically a large, flat plastic basket for sun-drying herbs outside, filled to the rim with dry leaves. With this I can create different backgrounds by substituting the leaves with sand or rocks or moss. The shape of the basket allows me to conveniently rotate the subject into better positions, if need be.
Sunday morning I finally set out to photograph the snake, first inside with artificial illumination, then outside in the morning sun. The shoot went well, considering that the snake constantly tried to bury itself under the leaves. I'd pick it out again with soft tweezers, place it under an aluminum rice bowl, wait a minute, lift the bowl and fire off a few shots at the resting beast before it started burrowing again.
All went well for a while, until all of a sudden the snake slowed down in mid-slither, slowly turned its belly skyward, opened its mouth, protruded its tongue, and generally did its best to convey the illusion of being dead......and then I realized to my utter horror that it actually, really had died, right in front of my eyes. Previous to its sudden demise, there had been no signs whatsoever of the animal losing steam or being sick, so I initially blamed myself for exposing the poor critter to excessive stress. But could that be? I've photographed my fair share of snakes over the past two years, and I'm always gentle with them, and never abuse them in any way just to get a better photo. Plus, all of them seem to be quite hardy when subjected to photo sessions. Finally, when reviewing the photos, I discovered a deep wound about two inches from the head (see photo second to last ). The snake had already been injured when I took it home, and would probably have succumbed to its injuries in the wild just as fast.
I'll never know, but it still breaks my heart.