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Monday, August 1, 2011

FHF Borneo Posts

Borneo Dispatches #37: Bornean Short-tailed Python + Sundews

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Another Year, Another Cherry Season

And I live right inside Cherry Central (Sanchih/三芝) - these photos were taken just across the road from my house....

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pangolin - The Armor That Burrows Through The Mountain

I think I'm not too far off the truth when I say that few of us have ever seen a pangolin, and until last Saturday night around 2030 hours, that included me.

I was lying in bed, reading Thomas E. Ricks' "Fiasco - The American Military Adventure in Iraq", when the phone rang downstairs in the living room. I heard one of the kids pick up, and half a minute later both boys erupted into joyous ululations, yelling up the stairs "DAAAAD! GET DRESSED AND COME DOWN, QUICK! THE NEIGHBORS CAUGHT A PANGOLIN AND WANT TO GIVE IT TO US!!"

It took me a while to extricate my brain from the sticky cobwebs in which all those complex politics and military operations in the Middle East had thoroughly shrouded it, and tried to recalibrate it for use on the matter at hand. A pangolin? Shyeeeaahh. Right. Spitting cobras fly out of my butt, and Martian storm troopers are bivouacking in my ghetto blaster. I was convinced I had misheard, and reckoned the neighbors were actually bringing over pomelos or home-made dumplings, as they often do, or maybe a present for Hans' twelfth birthday today. But the inquiry I yelled back down the stairs while trying to pull on my britches without tripping over them still brought back the same message: the neighbors had found a pangolin, and did we want it, us being known snake catchers and all?

Wow. TRIPLE wow! You see, as crazy as I am about snakes, I'll gladly trade three of my cobras for one of your pangolins any day of the week. I have night-herped Taiwan's mountains extensively for two years and never ever seen a pangolin, not even a single scale. I managed to put on my shoes without strangling myself with the laces, and then my entire family accompanied me across the street to the neighbor's yard. There on the ground stood a blue wire cage for dogs, containing not a poodle, but one of the oddest creatures I have ever had the pleasure to lay eyes on.

As a long-time resident of Taiwan, I actually knew quite a bit about Chinese pangolins and had seen countless pictures, but never the animal itself. Until 1990, when Manis p. pentadactyla was put under strict protection, the natives used to catch these animals to use their scales in Chinese medicine and their meat in Chinese cuisine. All pangolin species are reportedly very tasty; and the African pangolins are very popular bushmeat. The "Armor that Burrows Through The Mountain" (穿山甲), as the Chinese call the animal, still falls prey to poachers here in Taiwan, but nowadays Taiwanese pangolins don't end up in local woks anymore, but are instead smuggled to Mainland China where they command top dollar.

Chinese pangolins spend their nights prowling lowland forests for ants and termites, and their days sleeping in self-dug underground burrows. Legend has it that they roll around in ant nests, trapping the insects under their movable armor scales. They then find a creek or pond, submerge and relax their scales. This forces the ants to the surface where the pangolin's tongue laps them up. Wikipedia has more:

Pangolins have large keratin scales covering their skin and are the only mammals with this adaptation. They are found in tropical regions of Africa and Asia. The name "pangolin" derives from the Malay word pengguling ("something that rolls up"). Pangolins lack teeth and the ability to chew. Instead, they tear open anthills or termite mounds with their powerful front claws and probe deep into them with their very long tongues. Pangolins have glands in their chests to lubricate the tongue with sticky, ant-catching saliva.

In case you're wondering where they put all that tongue - it retracts right down into the abdominal cavity, at or near the pelvis (no uncouth jokes, please.) Thanks to an anal gland similar to the model found in skunks, pangolins can give off a monstrously hideous stink, but this little guy, a rather young individual, just smelled of earth and dirt. Picking him up did not always cause him to roll up into a ball, whereas touching his surprisingly soft and hairy belly and palms did so without fail.

The main reason for my intense excitement at finally coming face to face with one of these "Old World Armadillos" (to which they're actually not at all related) is not so much their rarity or their weirdly cute appearance, but their ancientness. This is a living fossil, an animal that has not changed one iota for at least 56 million years. Compounding the awesome sensation of observing a genetic witness to prehistory is the fact that all these deliciously freaky features - the scales, the tongue, the toothless mouth, the über-specialized lifestyle - have actually survived those endless eons without a single major mutation, while the rest of the planet's fauna evolved into the furry hunters and grazers we commonly associate with the term "mammal".

Apart from all that, pangolins are also bona fide archetypes of antediluvian adorability, i. e. terribly cute. The next morning we took the ant fiend out of the dog cage and brought it to a spacious private garden featuring a lawn and large decorative rocks which I planned to use for backgrounds. The pangolin is such a docile creature that we didn't even bother with caging or bagging it for the short ride - the boys just held it on their laps, where it snored contentedly, snot dripping out of its little pink nose. At the garden I discovered that this docility does not readily translate into willingness to be photographed. As soon as we had placed the still bunched-up critter on the ground, it tentatively started to sniff and look around, and once we had stepped back about five feet, it unwrapped itself and took off across the lawn at quite an impressive clip. Photographing the creature in its rolled-out state seemed impossible, and the strategy of placing it on top of a large rock in the hope that it would not dare to jump off failed miserably: trusting his scales to dampen the impact, it ran straight for the edge, hurled itself off the precipice and hit the (fortunately muddy) ground tumbling, stumbling, and finally running. In the end, we discovered a large, artsy birdbath into which we lowered the animal. In the tub it immediately started to look for an exit, which afforded me a few shots of its active state, if only from above.

In the afternoon, we showed the primordial beast to Hans' birthday guests. Ten awe-hushed sixth-graders standing in a circle around the animal created second thoughts about escape. However, the pangolin didn't seem to want to curl up and sulk either; it only seems to do that if someone approaches within touching distance. So it just swung its neckless head here and there, walked around at a slow gait (on his knuckles - how freaky is that?), and I finally got a few proper shots of it in motion.

That night, we released the little pineapple pinscher at a remote place in the mountains. He wasn't well: dripping profusely from the nose, watery eyes, and since I can't imagine any vet here knowing anything about these walking pine cones, we released him in the hope that he'll dig himself a nice burrow and sleep through his cold before it gets worse.

Footnote: Further and very detailed reading on the status and natural history of Manis pentadactyla can be found here...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

New FHF Posts So Far

Here are the links to all the photo threads I've started so far on the NEW

Sparkling Habu

Red Bamboo Ratsnake (O. p. kawakamii)

Enhydris chinensis - Chinese Water Snake

KraitZilla, Part One

Taiwan Trash Snakes, Part 1: Dinodon rufozonatum

Habu & Owl - A Taiwan Adventure

The Curious False Viper

Minimalist Krait

Green Day Vipers

Sleeping Greater Green

Dinodon eating Bufo

Big Fat Chinese Cobra - AT LAST!!!

Stinky Kings and Herping Clowns

Snakes On A Plate, Part II: Ptyas dhumnades

Russell's Viper (warning, crappy pix!)

Chinese Cobra & Little Twotons

Endemic Taiwan Elapid - Sinomicrurus hatori

An Indian Cobra in the Taiwanese Woods

Snakes On A Plate III: World's Most Beautiful Snake Belly?

Large Ptyas dhumnades

Two Greater Green Snakes (Cyclophiops major)

Rain Krait

One Man's Trash (Boiga kraepelini)

MacClelland's Coral Snake - Ecstasy & Tragedy

The Cobra That Hijacked The Camera Bag

Itsy Bitsy Baby Cobra

Ptyas dhumnades - Educating The Masses

Two Blackheads, One Orange

Mad Cobra At Night, Herper's Delight

Unruly Many-Banded Baby Krait

Psammodynastes pulverulentus - (Wannabe) Badass Ruler of the Sands

Green is Good; Greater Green is Better

FBK (Frickin' Big Krait)

Hello Kitty Cobra

Donald,the Chinese Pearl Snake

Orange-Red Bamboo Ratsnake

Scavenging Bamboo Viper

Horrible Habu, Heroically Hooked!

Pangolin - "The Armor That Burrows Through The Mountain"

Dark Mock Viper

Seriously Overfed Taiwan Pitviper Baby

Taiwan Gringo Herping, Part 1: Taiwan Beauty Snake

Taiwan Gringo Herping, Part 2: The Other Snakes

Big Fat Taiwan Herping Vacation!

Habu Baby - Baby Habu

Bitten By A Dinosaur

Greening The Planet, One Snake at A Time

Diurnal Pitviper Surprise

Extra-Cool Bamboo Viper Mimic!

Super Mom Pit Viper (Protobothrops)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Herper's Ball, Taiwan Style

Mr. Onionsack, the man in these images, was so nice as to put this together....

Sunday, February 28, 2010


Ladies and gentlefolk,

I'm proud to announce that after six months of gruesome toil, our long-awaited website SNAKES OF TAIWAN has finally gone online.

This website was conceived out of a need for complete, one-stop information on the snakes of Taiwan. Before we created this site, the only comparable resources were a number of field guides in Chinese, most of them outdated. Similar material in English did not exist at all.

With this site we hope to provide exhaustive and current knowledge in both languages: tons of photos and videos from the field, taxonomic descriptions, info on biology, ecology, distribution, etymology, toxicology and more - and if that's not enough, there are copious links to even more information on the Web.

The site is organized like a field guide, i.e., all species on the main menu are arranged by colors and patterns rather than in alphabetical order. This facilitates quick identification of any snakes you might encounter in the wilds of Taiwan.

Mr. Onionsack and I, the authors of this site, are not professional herpetologists, just two average guys with a strong infatuation for Taiwan's serpentofauna. We have researched and now present the information on this site to the best of our knowledge and abilities. If you spot any mistakes, errors, blunders, bloopers, typos, or maybe just have a comment or two, or want to link to your site with our banner, we would love to hear from you - please drop me a note!

Thank you very much in advance for your help and your patronage!


PS: The Chinese part is still being translated and will go online in March - we'll let you know when it's done :-)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Mammals Suck At Ambush Hunting?

Guess the sit-and-wait approach just doesn't work for endotherms, as these two images prove.

(Pearls Before Swine, 2/9/10; copyright Stephen Pastis)