Here’s a very average photograph of the forest floor in Panama. Do you notice anything out of the ordinary?
There is a splash of red color towards the bottom left of the image – look closer. This is the midsection of a coral snake (Micrurus sp.), a species which moves underneath the leaf litter and is often difficult to see. We think about these snakes a lot when we are crouching in the forest, because their venom is very potent, and bites can cause death within hours. Fortunately their fangs are short and are unlikely to penetrate rubber boots, but exposed fabric and skin are vulnerable. Luckily I saw this one before it saw me! Here is another image of its body as it slithered away from us.
Doing fieldwork means always being on guard, expecting the unexpected, being careful about what one touches. Here are a few more examples of unfriendly surprises that we’ve been seeing. First, another animal that can ruin your day – the bullet ant, Paraponera clavata. This species nests on the ground beneath the roots of certain trees, one of which I had the misfortune to step on earlier this week. The ants are considered to have the most painful sting of any insect species in the whole world, akin to being shot. In this case, a few dozen ants ran out of their nest and onto my boots, making loud clicking sounds the whole time. I was able to shake them off and run away, and hope not to be able to report if the sting is as painful as claimed. In addition to the potential of pain, individual ants are larger than one might like – I was able to get a photograph of one patrolling its territory across my tree-measuring tape. You can see here that the markings are in centimeters, and the ant measures almost three. It is not a pleasant thing to have walking around on you!
And last, a common liana that forms tangles in the forest, snagging the unwary passer-by – Entada polystachya. Many of the lianas here have thorns growing from their stems, but this one has particularly large and unfriendly ones. Fortunately plants don’t move, and it is easy to avoid this once it has been spotted. I’ve been crouching in the forest and more than a few times tried to stand up or turn around, only to feel a few large thorns cutting into me.
So the forest can be dangerous, but I don’t think of it as scary, nor do I want to have these species removed. Rather, the possibility of harm keeps me cautious and observant as I work. Walking through this kind of landscape, I am far more aware than when I meander through a city park, and this awareness certainly makes me a better biologist.