Sunday, April 1, 2012

Dr. William Lamar, Close Calls, & an Avian Life List

A look into how Dr. Lamar got his start in herpetology, what he's currently up to with research, and a very close call with one big, angry Bothrops atrox.
Red-eyed Tree Frog (Agalychnis callidryas), Costa Rica
© Chris Carille Photography
How did you first become interested in reptiles/amphibians?

Dr. Bill Lamar: I found a California Ribbon snake in my yard, it thrilled me and my mother was gently encouraging about it. Had she scolded me, likely I would be a Republican today. Also, from birth I was fascinated by dinosaurs.

Were your parents or friends influential in your decision to go into herpetology as a profession?

Only in the sense that no one ever discouraged me.

I’m in love with Central and South America myself, what draws you to those areas?

I was always drawn to tropical areas filled with mystery. As it happens, I landed a position with the Smithsonian Environmental Program that moved me to Colombia and I have concentrated on Latin America ever since.
Tambopata River, Peruvian Amazon
© Chris Carille Photography

Where is your favorite herping spot in the world?

Hmmm, I can't say I favor one over all others. I know of some places that have been extremely productive over the years, and they include spots in Costa Rica and Ecuador. In Ecuador I once collected 60 species of herps in one night.
Playa Ballena, Costa Rica

Do you have any favorite herps to find in the wild?

Not really. I have worked with all major groups and collected broadly. Certainly there are snakes that make me smile, such as boa constrictors, some ratsnakes, etc., and I am deeply interested in most kinds of New World venomous species of snake, so I like turning them up.

Do you have a life list? If so, what herp is at the top of your list to find in the wild?

I do not have a life list of herps, although I do of birds, interestingly enough. I suppose if I were to name a species it would be some nearly mythological species such as Corallus (Xenoboa) cropanii.

Is there any country/area that is at the top of your list to visit still? Why?

I would like to spend time in French Guiana because such large tracts of habitat are still intact. Unfortunately most parts of the world, no matter how remote, have become significantly compromised owing to human intrusion during my lifetime.

Do you keep any herps as personal pets? If so, what species and any favorites?

I do keep herps, although I do not consider them pets. Everything I keep is venomous and I do so to further familiarize myself with them.

Any crazy herping stories?

Oh, I could fill a couple of books with crazy stories. I did publish some viper encounters in an article in FAUNA Magazine. 
An excerpt from Dr. Lamar's article in FAUNA (2001) titled "Lucky Strike" - 
A couple of years ago, I hiked in a beautiful upland forest along the Rio Tahuayo, in Peru. It is filled with arching tress, and mosses and ferns so strange it seems like another planet. A clear, flat stream cuts the land like a flooded road. There is basically no rock in this part of the Amazon Basin, but the broad creek bed is aged clay that has the consistency of asphalt. At one point, it has collapsed creating a four-foot waterfall that crosses the stream like a jagged smile and forms a plunge pool below. On that day the water was chilly and running swiftly because it had rained all the previous evening. It was a classic "swimming hole," so I decided to jump in and cool off.
Eventually my companions began to arrive. They would be hot and sweaty and would waste no time in joining me for a dip. All were wading in the shallow stream in lieu of using the trail and one of them reached the pool ahead of the others. "There's a big snake swimming in the creek!" he shouted above the din of falling water. "What kind is it?" I yelled back. "I think it may be poisonous!" he replied. he kept glancing upstream behind him so I gathered that the snake was about to make its appearance. 
Standing with difficulty in the chest-deep, folling water, it was nearly impossible to ascertain anything about what was happening above. The laborious climb up from the pool was out-of-the-question. "Here it comes!" he said suddenly. I was bouncing up-and-down in an effort to see the streambed above, but the current kept knocking me back. "Just point your arm like a rifle at the snake to show me where it is swimming!" I instructed him. He did this, indicating - to my horror - a spot precisely in front of where I was standing.
I lunged sideways just as a large and thoroughly aroused B. atrox, floating high and striking at everything, came over the waterfall. Mouth half-open, she quickly turned her attention to me and I hit her point-blank in the face with a hard splash of water, pushing her back. In an instant, the current swept her past and she was thrown against the bank downstream where she (big ones are always females) made her way rapidly into the forest. Had I not been forewarned, the first thing that frightened snake would have contacted after plunging over the precipice would have been my head. Somehow, waterfalls will never be quite the same.

What has been your favorite/most memorable herping trip you’ve ever made?

A local guide in the Peruvian Amazon
© Chris Carille Photography
Honestly, there have been so many I cannot single any one out.  Each has been special for different reasons: location, results, sights, some special species, etc. But I would have to say that the locals who have worked with me are what have really made those trips successful or at least memorable.

Of the new species you’ve described and helped to describe, which has been the favorite?

Hmm, again, there is no favorite. I have concentrated on each one and thoroughly enjoyed dealing with them. Currently, I am at work on a watersnake from the Amazon so that is where my attention lies, but I can honestly say I have enjoyed all of them.

You’ve worked with a bunch of other herpetologists – anyone you’d like to work with again?

Well, some of my favorites are no longer with us: my mentor Federico Medem, my friends Arthur Loveridge, James A. Peters, Charles Bogert, among many others. Among extant herpetologists, I enjoy the company of Jonathan Campbell, Roy McDiarmid, Bob Reynolds, Norm Scott, Jay Savage, Bill Duellman, and young guys such as Dante Fenolio.
Being into photography and herps, what do you find more satisfying finding a species in the wild you haven’t seen before or having a photo published on the cover of a book or magazine?

They are very different things but finding something new is always exciting, although it usually will be a small, drab brown thing...nothing spectacular.

Any advice for people that want to get more involved in field herping, but don’t have the educational herpetology background?

Well, formal education is not really all that conducive to learning herpetology. I, like most herpetologists, am basically self-taught. Live with books, ask lots of questions, THINK about things, observe, observe, observe.

Who do I go to if I need a Costa Rican herp identified, you or [Costa Rican herpetologist] Alejandro Solorzano?

Craugastor bransfordii, Costa Rica - identified
 by Jay Savage through e-mail.

Either one of us could likely help, as could Mahmood Sasa, Quetzal Dwyer, Jay Savage, and others.

Diasporus diastema complex, Costa Rica - identified
 by Jay Savage through e-mail.
Do you think the increase of interest in the herp-keeping hobby has helped or hindered reptile & amphibian conservation?

I wish I could put a pretty face on conservation, and I certainly believe in it, but the sheer mass of humanity and the damage they do is so overwhelming I have to admit that I mostly feel it to be something of a fait accompli that all this stuff is going away. Certainly, during my 37 years spent in the Orinoco and Amazon Basins as well as Central America and Mexico, the steady disappearance of species has, if anything, accelerated.

Are you currently carrying out any herp research at UT Tyler you could let us all in on?

Right now all I am involved with are descriptions of a new lizard and a new snake. I am also working on an amphibian conservation program in Chile. It involves captive reproduction as well as field studies.

Anything else you’d like to share?

As I look back on my life I am deeply grateful for all the wonderful times spent in primitive situations far from human settlements.  I feel as though I have come as close to living my life as though I had been born 100 years prior, that I am satisfied with this. For me, the natural world is everything, so I cherish the opportunities I have had to enjoy it.
Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus) Rio Sierpe, Costa Rica
Sites dedicated to protecting endangered species, including Chilean amphibians: 

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