For our first installment of the human stories behind herpetological research, we are republishing a story written by our past president, Joe Mendelson. Joe’s story focuses on a topic familiar to many of us field biologists: roadkill. This story was first published in Charged Magazine earlier this year. Enjoy!
“A repo man’s job is always intense” movie Repo Man (1984)
Field biologists get themselves into situations that other normal people, including other scientists, just do not encounter, when you are up close and personal with Mother Nature, Gaia, Pachamama, or whatever you wish to call her from your cultural perspective. This is where I live. It is hard to tell my stories at parties, because (before I developed a filter) I would blurt them out, but typically everyone is too horrified by the details to see the funny part. Or, I would come across as a “one-upper” because, nearly always I have a story that is far more extreme, gross, or scary than the average person. I’m guessing they teach you, somewhere in medical school, that surgery or EMT anecdotes are not funny outside your inner circle. I’ve noticed that those people generally don’t tell their work stories at parties. Biology departments—those with field programs, anyway—don’t seem to have that ethos. They are a constant one-up contest for whomever returns from a field trip with the most vile, uncomfortable, or dangerous story. My colleagues love these stories and think they are funny, especially if someone gets really sick, hurt, terrified, humiliated, or just plain grossed-out. In fact, everyone is disappointed if a field crew returns with no outlandish stories. Grizzly bear wakes up early from sedation? The bot fly was where?! How many ticks can fit on a human body? Roadkill—need I say more? So, I decided a few years ago to just stop telling most of my stories. Returning from a fun party one night, my wife said “Where is the bottom of your well of stories?” I was mortified, and asked if I had commandeered the party conversations with my own stories? My wife said “No, not at all, I just can’t figure out how I’ve been with you for 20 years and you continually pull from a seemingly endless list of insanely scary or gross stories from your fieldwork!” Ok. I have too many stories, so here are some of them. Previous entries in the Ballad of Gringo Perdido series here in Charged have centered on human-related and otherwise social or cultural malfunctions that one experiences in the field. Here I will focus on the interface of the biologist and the natural world and, more specifically, where the rubber hits the road……or flesh. It often ain’t pretty.
One of my unofficial duties as a biologist has been to scour any nation’s highways and backroads for road-killed animals that are of biological value, and so deserve a permanent resting place among the preserved research collections in a natural history museum. These specimens can be of significant value to researchers, as they can complement our knowledge of a species’ geographic distribution, habitat use, and seasonality. If they are not too mangled, they also can be dissected to examine stomach contents, reproductive condition or basic anatomy. In any case, the roadside tragedies are valuable and otherwise completely wasted if left to rot. I mean, it’s not like the vultures need more to eat out there, is it? We’ll get back to vultures in a bit.
So, somebody has to scrape up all of these mashed nuggets of knowledge—to salvage them for eternal knowledge in the museums of life—and I elected myself to be one of those people. This does not endear one to others. My family still shudders when I arrive to Thanksgiving with whatever goodies I collected en-route to the holiday. My long-suffering mother once defrosted a large Red-diamond Rattlesnake (Crotalus ruber) that I had placed in the freezer next to the rump roast she intended for dinner. My college roommates nearly cut me from our lease when I decided to put a Spotted Skunk (Spilogale gracile) in our apartment freezer, rather than take it directly to the museum late one night. A California Highway Patrol officer once took exception to my duties and when I politely offered to show him my state wildlife salvage permit, that allowed me to possess the dead Badger (Taxidea taxus) in my hand. He informed me that “Permits are not the point here, son. Disgusting is the point, and the problem.” I eventually did get to keep my badger. On the way to a summer barbecue party once in grad school, I saw the car in front of me run over the head—just the head—of a large Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Of course, I had to collect it, but afterwards realized that my institutional museum at that time was brimming with preserved snapping turtles from the local area and really did not need yet another. So, I brought the poor turtle to the barbecue as my contribution to the meal. Not everyone saw the obvious logic and thriftiness in this decision. It tasted great, marinated in olive oil and garlic and grilled as kabobs with onions and peppers. No wonder so many turtle species are endangered.
In southeastern Arizona, I was on one of those impossibly long, straight and lonesome desert highways Far ahead, I saw a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) alight on the right shoulder of the road. I slowed to see what scientific morsel it had found. It was a freshly hit Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum)—a gorgeously colored, somewhat uncommon species of venomous lizard. This had to go to a museum, for sure. I pulled over and was walking back to collect my prize and expecting the vulture to fly off. It did not fly off, eyeing my approach and pecking at its find. Now I was in facing a hungry vulture who now had a foot solidly on my lizard, crouching, flaring its wings, and hissing at me. My “shoo” motions and noises were to no avail. This was a stand-off, and I was determined to claim victory. So, I did the unthinkable. Using my sandaled foot, I kicked a bird, and I liked it. I got my dead Gila Monster. Don’t worry, all is fair in the world as another vulture, on another day, got the best of me.
Sometimes even Gringo Perdido has his limits of acceptability. I found a road-killed porcupine once, and pulled over to retrieve my prize. The animal looked to be in fairly decent condition. The skull was not crushed; that is a plus in my profession. But it did smell absolutely awful. In the beam of my flashlight, I could not determine neither why, nor how, the dead porcupine could be rotating his signature quills in little wiggly circles. I poked the carcass with a stick. The quills wiggled more vigorously. I tried to roll the carcass over with my stick, purely for scientific inquiry. The carcass apparently was adhered to the asphalt, but the skin and quill matrix flipped over to reveal a football-sized porcupine-shaped ovoid of wriggling maggots. There was no porcupine here to be salvaged for science, just a porcupine-shaped ghost of maggots. Altogether just plain unpleasant. That one stayed on the side of the road.
A lot of animals are most active at night, so my collecting activities often are nocturnal. Cumulative years of my life have been spent as late nights driving down lonely backroads, scraping up the dead stuff, and then later nights logging the specimens into my field journal and transferring them into freezers or preserving them in formaldehyde. I once spent a summer as an intern at the Southwestern Research Station, near Portal, Arizona. I was out every night conducting a transect study of snake populations, and salvaging hundreds of specimens from US Highway 80. It is staggering how many animals get killed by vehicles every day. About 2am one morning, back at the station, I was preserving a pile of mangled snakes at a table I had set up in an outdoor breezeway by the lab. While carefully filling the body cavity of each snake with preservative and positioning them in my specimen trays, I felt something warm and delightful on my leg. I was wearing my usual uniform: shirtless, cut-off shorts and field boots. I looked down and realized that a very large Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis) was rubbing its head and neck against my calf. I recognized that skunk. He lived on the grounds of the station, regularly seen raiding food scraps from the compost station. He was a massive beast of a skunk. The staff had named him “Elvis.” It was nuzzling me like a large, friendly, aposematic cat. It was soft, gentle, beautiful, and terrifying. I recall that it was purring, but I don’t know if I just imagined that part. In any case, I really did not want to be bitten. I did not want rabies and I also I really did not want to get sprayed. An eternal few seconds passed, and it walked away bored with me or realizing that the dead snakes on my workbench were unavailable.
On a diurnal drive through the Chihuahuan Desert of northern Mexico one day, I rounded a corner on a dirt road a bit too quickly, and found a road-killed Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus) in the middle of the dirt road. I hit the brakes and veered, to avoid wrapping the carcass around my front axle. The local Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) had found it before me. I was fine with this, as I did not have the capacity to salvage and preserve an adult deer. Despite my disinterest in the deer, I nevertheless encountered a volatile problem. Vultures are not agile pilots. They cannot dart under the wheels of a moving car to grab a morsel, as a pigeon in any city can do. They do not launch quickly. They do nothing quickly, actually. Even when suddenly spooked, vultures need a long, straight getaway flight path to get their hefty bodies aloft. They also have an enormous crop and stomach, so they can capitalize maximally on any carcass they find, to be digested later on a quiet cliff or tree somewhere. Jet pilots, in dire situations, will jettison fuel or bombs to lighten their load as they handle an emergency situation. Vultures do the same. They jettison the contents of their crop, in order to lighten their load for an emergency lift-off. Rounding that remote corner in Mexico that day, I created an emergency for about six vultures. Following common-sense avionics safety protocols, they jettisoned their excess baggage. About 10 pounds of decomposed deer flesh was barfed upon the hood and windshield of my truck as vultures frantically and clumsily tried to avoid a collision. The windshield wiper and fluid only made the viscous red slurry even more opaque. I drove for many, many miles to the nearest source of water, all the while with my head hanging out the driver’s door window so I could see to drive. I retched. I retched a lot, and I did not like it.
Backroad adventures sometimes are beyond just disgusting, or socially awkward, to include the terrifying. Road-killed snakes are, as I discovered, not always definitively dead. My usual protocol with a dead specimen is to put in a plastic bag with a field number, log it in my journal, and toss it into a cooler full of ice. But, sometimes I drive upon an unexpected treasure. For example, once when I was driving to a cousin’s wedding in California, I happened upon an unlucky Southern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus helleri), dead on the highway. Lacking my usual cooler, ice, etc., and well over-dressed for the role of dead-animal-highway-cleanup, I simply tossed the snake into the jump seat of my Toyota truck, jotted down the coordinates on a scrap of paper, and proceeded to the wedding. Many hours later, driving back and thinking about nothing other than the fun I had with my family, I felt something moving across my ankles. Looking down, I saw a perfectly alive 3-foot long rattlesnake draped across my ankles. A calm head prevailed, and a fortuitously nearby rest stop got me off the 101 Freeway. I waited until the snake crawled off of my feet, I got out, and managed to get it into a KFC bucket from the rest-stop trash, using with a piece of cardboard “for safety.” Unfortunately, the snake did die of its injuries, and remains for perpetuity in a natural history museum collection. As for me, disaster averted, and a lesson learned. I never travel without a cooler anymore.
Dead animals are stinky, messy, and such, but not dangerous or scary per se. Of course, as a field biologist, I know the potential dangers of my chosen field of work. But, the search for dead animals sometimes involves the living, as the wedding rattlesnake taught me. It was actually on the same day as the barfing-vulture episode that I found myself on that same lonely road, in the middle of the night looking for snakes and toads. I, was in my usual shirtless, shorts, boots uniform driving slowly along looking for my prizes. A local bat was my sentinel, having adopted the beam of my headlights as an attractant to moths and such. It was a rather beautiful scene, if artificial, and I was enamored of the bat’s agility while I scanned the road for death. Then, the bat made a mistake. It flew above my high-beams and backwards straight into my windshield. Fortunately, I was driving very slowly so the bat was not evidently hurt. It grabbed onto my windshield wiper with the little claws on its wings and screeched furiously at me through the windshield. Not sure what to do, I decided to bump the windshield wipers to encourage it to just fly away. It worked! And it flew around the corner and directly into the cab of my truck (windows down, hot desert night, no air conditioning) and latched onto my belly with those same little claws. Now completely terrified and infuriated, the bat began a slow crawl up onto my bare chest, still screeching. In my experience, no mammal is scary unless it is within biting range of my body. Like the friendly skunk in Arizona, this bat was within dental range. Pain. Terror. Rabies. I had ideas, but squishing a bat like a gigantic mosquito on my chest just did not seem acceptable. So, I awkwardly tried to position my bat-afflicted chest out of the driver-side window and flick the creature off of me. This would have been easier, perhaps, if I had stopped driving. But I did not, for some reason. I finally managed to wipe the screaming beastie off of me and watched if fly away into the night. I think the bat and I both lost in that particular encounter. But I can tell you of another, where the beastie most definitely won. Pseustes poecilonotus.
There is a large, nasty, unattractive, but non-venomous snake called Pseustes poecilonotus that ranges from Mexico southward, deep into South America. They are rather common in places like Costa Rica, but strangely uncommon in Mexico. I was with a team, driving one day in the State of Oaxaca, Mexico. Our crew had, collectively, spent a lot of time in that area. Of course, as professional biologists, we always have our eyes peeled for animals, dead or alive, on the roadway even if, on this dull afternoon, we were just travelling to a new field site. I think everyone except the driver and myself, in the front passenger seat, was asleep. Then, there is it was. Four feet of drab green-brown serpent right in the middle of the road. “Holy shit……Pseustes!” yelled the driver and, following a century of herpetological tradition, the shotgun seat is the launch pad for the procurement of any and all road-prizes. Brakes slammed, back-seat sleepers mashed forward, and I leapt into action. These are fast snakes and it saw me coming. It shot off the road into some tall roadside grass. I chased it through the grass, staring straight down and catching just one brief glimpse of the snake. Then, it was all over. I remember a tumbling sensation, disorientation, and finally opening my eyes to see my boots pointed straight toward the blue sky. And, I hurt all over. I seemed to be in tree. Upside down, suspended in a tree. As I tried to get oriented and determine what had just happened to me, I saw my colleague’s face appear over the edge of the cliff above the tree in which I was suspended. He said, simply “Dude! Where did you go?! It looked like you just ran right off this f…g cliff!” That helped me realize that this is exactly what had happened. Staring straight downward into the tall roadside grass for this snake, I had run myself right off of the cliff that was the roadcut for the highway switchback below. Fortunately, a tree caught me. And then he said it: “Dude?! Did you get the snake?” No. I did not get the snake. Everything from my skeleton to my ego was badly bruised, and I was reminded of my foible for an entire field season by my colleagues.
Finally, let’s bring it back home, so to speak. I love dogs, more than I love almost anything or anyone. I miss my dogs immensely when I leave on long trips afield. We all know that dogs get killed by cars as well, and it is just devastating for me to see their bodies as I scan for my other treasures. On the Pan-American Highway, in Panama, my colleagues and I stopped at a roadside joint for lunch. We were simply driving to Panama City in order to catch our return flight the next day, so “work” was essentially over at this point of the trip. Walking toward the restaurant, I heard a screech of tires, and a horrible
yelping sound. I turned and saw Mama Dog herding three puppies off of the highway, leaving behind a fourth that was now squealing and convulsing in the southbound lane. “No lunch, folks, we have to get this pup to a vet in the city!” I screamed. I dodged traffic, scooped up the little guy and we headed off, at top speed, toward the city. En route, I cradled the broken puppy and he and I shared many things. I had heard that ectoparasites will abandon a sinking ship, and it was true as I watched many dozens of ticks and fleas leave the puppy and move onto my body-ship. And, I did what everyone knows not to do with strangers—I came in contact with body fluids. Out of every orifice of the poor puppy came fluids of all constitutions and colors. The posteriormost semi-fluids also bore hundreds of squiggling parasitic worms. In honor of this adorable, suffering puppy I somehow managed to keep it together, keep cradling the poor guy to deliver him to a proper veterinarian. We were leaving the country, so I simply left the puppy at the vet with a stack of funds hopefully sufficient to get him through recovery. I have no idea what became of my little beige friend, but I did learn a lot about zoonotic diseases, Leptospirosis, in particular. You contract it through contact with body fluids from an infected animal, it is very common in Panama, and it is fiendishly difficult to medically diagnose because it flares up and recedes in random bouts. So, I had random flare-up and recessions of undiagnosed Leptospirosis for two full years. In literal terms, this means mattress-soaking night sweats almost every night, chronic diarrhea, and then the actual flare-ups that are two- or three-day bouts of malaria-like shaking tremors and chills, with abundant hallucinations.
But, I do love my life on the road!