Over my time as a writer for Examiner.com many people have asked me what it is that I do in Panama. Well, I am actually a snake ecologist, a biologist who studies snakes and their role in the environment. This work has allowed me the ability to travel around Panama and provide a lot of interesting articles about places I seen and stayed.
One of the parts of my research that allows me time on the road is our road salvage study. Yes, that is correct; we actually hold permits to salvage all dead snakes we find on the road. Of course your first question is surely “why?”. Well, it is true that we come across some specimens that are quite smashed or covered with flies and ants, but in general a lot of the individuals we find are in quite good condition. This is a fantastic opportunity to advance what we know about these species of snakes.
Snakes, even in warm tropical places, seek roadways as a place to sit in the cool hours of the night or to help speed up the digestion of a recent meal. Although some people will swerve to intentionally hit a large snake, many of the smaller species are never even seen as the buses and delivery trucks speed to their next stop. In many areas the number of critters you can find on the road, especially during breeding seasons for organisms like reptiles and amphibians, is staggering and cause for real concern. Some ideas for solutions have included drift fences to keep animals off the road or tunnels to allow animals to pass under the road.
It is regrettable that any animal is run over but we are trying to the make the most of an unfortunate situation. Many of the species of snakes we find on the road are fairly elusive and difficult to find during a routine survey. Just finding the snake already provides information on where geographically the species is residing and what sort of habitat it utilizes, or at least passes through. Documentation of the date and time of the find gives an idea of when the species is active. Yes, even in a country like Panama that is fairly well studied, there is much we don’t know about where and when different species are found!
The snakes are collected into plastic bags and returned to my snake lab, located in El Copé, Coclé Province. In the lab I measure the length of any snake that is complete and determine sex when possible. Often times we find individuals with diet items or eggs (reproductive females) so these items are noted and preserved for further study. Again, we lack a lot of data on reproductive cycles and complete diet that any record is a valuable find.
A tissue sample is collected from each snake so molecular analyses can be conducted. Using salvaged snakes for these sorts of studies is an excellent way to actually advance conservation. Often, when conducting molecular analyses you are looking for relationships among species or even to determine if a snake is a species new to science. If your results suggest something interesting it is of value to have the actual specimen to look at; salvaged snakes can be preserved and no individuals from the wild populations have to be sacrificed for the purpose of having a museum voucher.
Finally, all snakes are documented with digital photographs and any snakes in descent enough condition are preserved and placed in our Team Snake Panama museum. These specimens are now available for further study by researchers or students and provide a way people the vast diversity of snakes in their area, while emphasizing how the collection was made entirely from salvaged snakes.
In the past three years we have salvaged over 700 snakes from the roadways of Coclé Province! These records have led to a number of scientific publications and notes.
This surely is not your average vacation or residency in Panama, but is work that is leading to important discoveries about the natural history and biology of species of snakes that are often rare and even endangered. Whether you particularly like snakes or not, they are an important part of their ecosystem and it is important to help preserve them.
To learn more about our studies or to submit a photograph of either a live or dead snake you may have seen while in Panama, please visit our Website. And if you are behind a car in Panama that suddenly stops and then begins to back up, you may have come across us working on our study!