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 Post subject: Borneo Dispatches #17: Oriental Whipsnake
PostPosted: November 29th, 2011, 6:13 am 
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Joined: June 8th, 2010, 2:19 am
Posts: 3179
Location: Kuching, Sarawak (Borneo)
I've been meaning to post the pictures of the Malayan Coral Snake for over a month now, but there's always something that keeps me from doing it. Like this here. All I wanted to do on my 48th birthday last Sunday was a slow, solitary amble along a nice little forest trail in Kubah National Park. I would set my own leisurely pace (my son had gone with a bunch of friends on a three-day jungle adventure into Sarawak's hinterland), listen to the birds, and watch whatever I would find. I expected no snakes, as it was raining on and off all day, but that was OK with me. I just wanted some peace and quiet, and where better to find it than in the the forest?

But you know how things sometimes tend to go. My serene mood was shattered right upon entry in the park, when two groups of visitors told me they each had seen, independently from one another, a big Equatorial Spitting Cobra during their hikes that day. That information brought me back into a primeval snake hunting mood with a violent body slam, and I immediately changed my plans. Screw the damn birdies - I decided to drive straight up to the Frog Pond, circle it twice for reptilian predators, and then spend the afternoon scanning the ditches along the main forest road.

The vegetation around the pond was dripping, the plank walk was slippery, neither man nor beast was to be seen, but the cobra stories had revved my adrenaline to a level that against all common sense, I seriously thought I could find something in this weather - if only a little water snake! And find something I did - but not at all what I had expected. Finishing my first circle around the pond, I suddenly saw something very long and very thin hanging at knee height in a trailside bush. The object was of an intense, day-glow green, a green so eye-searing that it had to be be man-made, like those cheap Chinese rubber animals you find in shooting galleries at third-class carnivals. My first thought was that someone had chucked something like that into that bush. But then I discovered the head, and those Area 52 eyes, and I knew exactly what it was. Ahaetulla prasina, the Oriental Whipsnake, is a very common snake in South-East Asian gardens, parklands and forests, but as I never tire to point out, in the inner tropics, "common" does not necessarily translate into "visible".

I was stoked beyond description. The forest had given me the best birthday gift I could have imagined: a lifer, on a silver platter, there for me for the taking. "Silver platter", because these snakes react to disturbances by stiffening their bodies and trying very hard to look like a part of the vegetation. Their tactic is not to move, no matter how close you get, unless you actually touch them. And even their tongue contributes to the illusion, as I quickly found out to my disbelief. Unlike any other snake I've ever seen, the Whipsnake's tongue does not wiggle or flap around in the air - the snake pushes it out very slowly and deliberately, and there it stays immobile like a strip of cardboard, until it's drawn back in just as slowly. It took me a while to believe what I was seeing, but once I understood the mechanics, I saw the logic in it: if you want to look like a twig, you better not any appendages flicking around in the air...twigs don't do that either.

I relaxed and began unpacking my camera gear. Clearly, this snake was not a flight risk. And a good thing that was: all three lenses were fogged up as they came out of the backpack, and it took me an eternity and two snake bags (great lens-cleaning cotton, those bags from tongs.com!) to reinstall a semblance of usability. First I shot a few in-situs with the 300mm (I still didn't want to get TOO close), then tonged the snake off its perch and carried it to the road just outside the pond for a little freehandling session. I desperately wanted to take a few close-ups of those outlandish eyes, and after I had played around with the beast, letting it run all over me to sate my curiosity, I stuffed it in a snake bag and proceeded to change to my 100mm macro.

At that moment, a sweaty band of rosy-cheeked Australian high school students in full jungle gear came huffing up the steep road, on their way to one of the trails. After a few Hail fellows, well met! I was told they were were in Borneo for a month on a World Challenge trip. They sure looked the part, all bush hats and leech socks, and so I decided to let the snake out of the sack, so to speak. "Wanna see something cool?" I asked, pointing at the sack in my hand. "Sure..." So I began to open the bag to take out the snake, but as soon as I had untied the opening, the snake's head popped out, took a quick look around, and, as tree snakes are wont to do, went straight for the tallest object around - my head. There it sat, sticking out its tongue at the delighted Ozzie kids, its stringy body way dangling down my shoulders, the tail tightly fastened to one of my belt loops. "Wow! It's so GREEN!" was the commonest remark from the audience. I explained to them the beast's stereoscopic eyes, the reason why the tongue stuck out in such an un-snakelike manner, and told them a bit about the animal's general natural history. During the entire presentation, the snake was surprisingly composed and let me handle it without any hitches. None of the things I had heard about the general aggressiveness of the genus Ahaetulla and their spectacular neck-pumping action were present here, but I guess I shouldn't complain.

After the snake show the kids proceeded up the hill to their target trail, I took a few more photos (all free- and one-handed, so no frontal shot of the eyes...), then set the snake free and drove back down the hill towards the park exit. Half a klick before the gate, the forest had another birthday surprise for me: a tree that had fallen across the road. Luckily, I had the headquarter's phone number, and ten minutes later a little guy in flip-flops and a construction helmet came chugging up the road on a moped, chainsaw at his side, and sawed the tree into smithereens so I (and the Singaporean birders in the minibus behind me) didn't have to spend the night there.....


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #17: Oriental Whipsnake
PostPosted: November 29th, 2011, 10:39 pm 
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Joined: June 8th, 2010, 2:19 am
Posts: 3179
Location: Kuching, Sarawak (Borneo)
PS: anyone have a good frontal shot of those eyes, and maybe an explanation why they evolved into stereoscopy?


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #17: Oriental Whipsnake
PostPosted: November 30th, 2011, 12:28 am 
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Joined: June 7th, 2010, 11:30 am
Posts: 377
Location: U.K.
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Here are a couple of head on shots.

I have no suggestion as to why evolution has worked in this way in this Asian species but not in similar species elsewhere.


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #17: Oriental Whipsnake
PostPosted: November 30th, 2011, 12:37 am 
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Joined: June 8th, 2010, 2:19 am
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Location: Kuching, Sarawak (Borneo)
Thank you, Rags!! Is this a different color morph or a different species?


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #17: Oriental Whipsnake
PostPosted: November 30th, 2011, 5:58 am 
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Joined: November 23rd, 2011, 8:26 am
Posts: 372
Location: London, United Kingdom
When I was in Thailand, I found a species of whipsnake. It was about 2 meters long, was green with a blue tong and a Red Tail. It seemed to resemble the Red Tailed Racer more than a Whipsnake but I was certain it was. I could not Identify it so I reckon it was a cross breed between two species of Green Whipsnake...still those guys are prettyyyyyy


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #17: Oriental Whipsnake
PostPosted: November 30th, 2011, 6:06 am 
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Joined: June 7th, 2010, 11:30 am
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Location: U.K.
Hi Hans,

Same species - Oriental Whip Snake - (Ahaetulla prasina).

The Penang specimens have a tendency towards this straw coloured body. We have also found similar green Whips too.


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #17: Oriental Whipsnake
PostPosted: November 30th, 2011, 10:10 am 
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Joined: June 7th, 2010, 6:09 pm
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I had two of these as captives. Such a mellow tractable snake. Not a mean bone in their thin bodies. Only when they were feeding on house geckos did they show any kind of assertiveness. They seem to do well as captives; even though they are lizard and frog eaters.
Mine learned to grab the gecko out of a paper bag placed in their terrarium. They are also livebearers and I have known people who had gravid females give birth for them. Small litters, though; only about 2-4 babies. BTW, it's Area 51 i think you're referring to.


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #17: Oriental Whipsnake
PostPosted: November 30th, 2011, 10:23 am 
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Joined: June 27th, 2010, 12:27 pm
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Location: Terlingua / Marfa, Texas
klawnskale wrote:
BTW, it's Area 51 i think you're referring to.
Naw. Area 51 became to well known. All the cool stuff is now at 52. Don't tell anyone. :lol:


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #17: Oriental Whipsnake
PostPosted: November 30th, 2011, 3:47 pm 
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Joined: June 22nd, 2010, 9:48 pm
Posts: 277
Cool stuff Hans, one can never see too many vine snakes (at least that's my excuse for now gratuitously posting a bunch of vine snake pictures)!

Juveniles tend to be pale in colour too:

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This one in the Philippines wasn't though:

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Grab bag:

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My favourite Ahaetulla photo:

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As for the eyes, binocular vision has convergently evolved in genera from other parts of the world like Thelotornis and Oxybelis. All of these genera are long, thin, almost exclusively arboreal "colubrids". They do their hunting in the trees and primarily feed on lizards, which will jump out of a tree rather than be eaten by a snake (duh! :lol:). My guess is that for these snakes if the first strike is unsuccessful they lose their lunch, so the binocular vision has evolved as a way of increasing their strike accuracy (I can vouch for the fact that Ahaetulla has seriously accurate strikes!). The dentition of asian vine snakes is also really cool - as well as an enlarged rear fang for venom delivery, they have two very long recurved teeth about midway along the maxilla. Again, these presumably increase the success of their strike, ensuring that when they do grab a lizard it doesn't escape.


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #17: Oriental Whipsnake
PostPosted: November 30th, 2011, 3:56 pm 
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Joined: June 22nd, 2010, 9:48 pm
Posts: 277
It's probably worth adding to the speculation in my previous post that the evolution of binocular vision probably goes hand in hand with the exceptional camouflage that these various genera of "vine snakes" possess. If we contrast them with another genus of tree snakes like Dendrelaphis you'll see what I mean. Dendrelaphis also hunt lizards (and frogs) in trees but they are much faster snakes and will actually "rush" their prey, rather than relying on accurate striking. If a lizard jumps out of a tree to escape a Dendrelaphis, the snake will jump out of the tree too and will chase it at high speed along the ground, through the water etc. I suspect that Ahaetulla have sacrificed this kind of athleticism for the sake of their camouflage (which may be anti-predatory as well as facilitate the snake's own hunting) - thus the evolution of the binocular vision to increase strike accuracy.

I'm pretty much speculating off the cuff here so I'm happy for people to disagree :lol:


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #17: Oriental Whipsnake
PostPosted: November 30th, 2011, 5:28 pm 
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Joined: June 8th, 2010, 2:19 am
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Location: Kuching, Sarawak (Borneo)
Thanks for all the fascinating info, guys! I wish I had known all that before I met the Aussie kids :-)

I've heard two accounts of Dendrelaphis chasing lizards, quite a long way on one occasion. I've also seen lizards jump out of trees...

Daryl Eby wrote:
klawnskale wrote:
BTW, it's Area 51 i think you're referring to.
Naw. Area 51 became to well known. All the cool stuff is now at 52.

Exactly. 51 is strictly for tourists these days.


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #17: Oriental Whipsnake
PostPosted: November 30th, 2011, 5:48 pm 
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Joined: June 27th, 2010, 12:27 pm
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Location: Terlingua / Marfa, Texas
Daryl Eby wrote:
Area 51 became to well known.

Dooh! "To", "too". I always get those tew mixed up. Especially on Twosday.


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #17: Oriental Whipsnake
PostPosted: December 2nd, 2011, 9:08 pm 
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Joined: June 9th, 2010, 6:17 am
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great writing and pics! thanks for posting


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 Post subject: Re: Borneo Dispatches #17: Oriental Whipsnake
PostPosted: December 3rd, 2011, 12:37 am 
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Joined: June 16th, 2010, 12:26 pm
Posts: 561
Those whipsnake photos are excellent. They are great looking snakes. Hope to see one or more next year.

Regards,
David


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