Arxiu d'etiquetes: viper

5 experiences in a wildlife rescue center

If you’re a former, present or future biology student this interests you. One of the most rewarding work experiences I ever had was working in a wildlife rescue center. Actually, I worked as a technical assistant veterinary, but allowed me to know how a center like this (led by a biologist) works and have direct contact with wildlife. These are just 5 experiences and lessons learned from that adventure.

WHAT IS A WILDLIFE RECOVERY CENTER?

It is a center where sick or injured wild animals are welcome where they have veterinary care and food until they are able to fend for themselves. Then they are released into the wild. This centers are of great importance for the conservation of the species, especially those that are endangered or vulnerable. The contact with animals should be the minimum to avoid humanizing them and not change their behavior so they can survive once reintroduced in nature.

Some centers also breed in captivity threatened species, such as the Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni) to try to recover wild populations introducing the offspring in nature.

Eagle flying in the Wildlife recovery center “El Valle”, Murcia. Photo taken from Murcia enclave environmental

Unfortunately, some animals are unrecoverable due to his injuries or behavior, so in the center they lived some birds of prey such as the goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) to be an example in environmental education and awareness.

If you find an injured animal, NEVER try to keep, treat or feed it: probably you’ll cause more injuries. Always call one of these centers or local authorities. They have the facilities and appropriate knowledge to treat these animals.

1. CLEAN, CLEAN AND…  MORE CLEANING

The first information I got when I entered the center was: “80% of the time of this work is to clean the animal facilities. But the remaining 20% ​​is  worth rewarding. “

The director was right. It is a job where you’ll get dirty, and if you’re a little apprehensive, it is not for you or you’ll need to get used (and believe me, you get used to almost everything , cleaning was not the hardest thing I faced). But see how it goes ahead an animal that you have taken care, is priceless.

2. THE WONDER OF WORKING IN THE MIDDLE OF NATURE

The dream of many biologists is working in direct contact with nature. These centers are usually in it, which gives the opportunity to work outdoors, away from the stress and pollution of the city. Sometimes it rains, makes a blazing sun or cold temperatures will freeze your hands and cut your skin. But the good times are terribly comforting. Many of us prefer put up with occasionally adverse weather conditions  rather than being locked in a windowless office for 8 or more hours

In my case we also had a pair of attached facilities outside the center and had to go every day strolling through the woods, with the added appeal and adrenaline (especially if you met a wild boar) to see animals and plants in their habitat.

Natural park of Montseny. Photo by Mireia Querol

The field work was completed by the laboratory and treatment room: analysis of feces, blood, muscle… to detect the presence of parasites in new animals, future reintroduced ones and dead ones: autopsies allow to have a record of possible diseases and epidemics of local fauna.

3. GIVE LIFE… BUT ALSO QUIT LIFE

In addition to maintain proper hygienic conditions, the main occupation that I had was to feed the animals. At that time there were mammals like hedgehogs, badgers or foxes which we fed with fodder and supplements such as worms.

For raptors, one of the most frequent tenants, the diet was based mainly in chicks and mice. The chicks were bought frozen, you just had to plan the thawing and leave them on their premises. In one case I had to hand feed one tawny owl (Otus scops) with a broken wing, so the contact with the animal was inevitable. And feeding a nocturnal bird of prey, althought it was a small one, is complicated task the first time!

autillo, xot, Otus scops,
Tawny Owl (Otus scops). Photo by Mario Cea

The mice instead were kept alive. By ethics and risk the animal was injured, we had to kill them with the least possible suffering before serving them as food. To learn the technique and do it properly, creates a sense of contradiction, so it’s better to focus on the animal you’re trying to save as a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), a viper (Vipera Aspis), a tawny owl (Strix aluco), kestrels (Falco tinnunculus), a hawk (Accipiter gentilis)… For herbivores, such Hermann’s tortoises (Testudo hermanni), was much easier to prepare their food. And the nicest thing, to feed a baby squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris).

Nurse feeding a baby squirrel. Photo by Ezequiel Becerra

The hardest moment is where you have to euthanize an animal. Unfortunately, some animals are seriously injured and you can not do anything to save them. In other cases, if it is not priority species (such as gulls, pigeons, invasive species…) lack of resources and/or legislation euthanasia is the only solution left. First the animal anesthetized to avoid unnecessary suffering, and then euthanized with a syringe directly into the heart to make it as fast as possible. Find the heart with a stethoscope and have to check it has stopped is one of the most harrowing experiences that I had to live there.

So death is also present in these centers. Causes frustration and sadness see dying an animal you are trying to get ahead, or having to euthanize it to avoid suffering, but it is one of the difficulties it has to be faced.

4. HUMANS, THE MAIN REASON OF INCOME OF WOUNDED ANIMALS

The animals arrived to the center through forest rangers, with which you have constant communication, associations or other institutions or individuals. On occasions we moved because it was impossible to move the animal: a huge wild boar (Sus scrofa) hit by a train. The collisions are a leading cause of death of wild animals. The situation could not be more daunting: rain, the animal on the roadside in a pool of his own blood and mud. Were difficult times as we had to apply higher euthanasia doses than normal because he clung to life, besides having to ensure our own security. Finally, for all of us the suffering ended. Dirty and sad, we get on the jeep back to the center.

Fox hit by a car. Photo taken from 20 minutos

The possession of wild animals as pets causes accidents by negligence or ignorance of their owners: was the case of an eagle which it had cut its primary feathers so he could not fly when it wasn’t a harmless chick anymore. He had to undergo surgery and expect to grow new feathers and learn to fly again.

Pets themselves also causes serious injuries: for example tortoises, iguanas bitten by dogs…

The traps, poisoning and direct shots of hunters , even on protected species like raptors, is another cause of having animals in these centers. Birds also face hazards such as power lines, pylons, wind turbines, wired fences … death traps for many of them.

Dead eagle because shot pellets. Photo taken from Quo

There were few cases where the causes of admission to the center were natural or impossible to determine. In fact, I do not remember any.

5. THAT FEELING WATCHING A RECOVERED ANIMAL FLYING TO FREEDOM

The most wonderful moment is that one in which the animal is ready to return to nature. Planning how and where, taking the journey to the place, checking the surroundings (and if lucky, with the sighting of other species) the moment you open the cage. .. and you see these two kestrels that you have been feeding for months, eager to rise into the sky, you with binoculars in your hand observing them away into the vastness to become tiny black dots… and disappear. I’ve never seen more clearly a metaphor of what freedom is. That feeling, like love, can not be explained.

Maybe it is love, after all


Querol Mireia Rovira

Cover photo: Mireia Querol. Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) in flight over the Foz of Lumbier (Navarra, 2007).

* The photos of this post do not belong to the animal rescue center, they are used as an example of the species listed in the post

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Iberian ophidians: nice snakes and venomous vipers

In my first blog entry I talked about the different kinds of snake that exist based on their dentition. In this entry, I’ll explain what species of ophidian we can find in the Iberian Peninsula, which species are venomous and which aren’t, and how we can identify the different species we can find when we are on the field. As we will see in this entry, snakes have been unfairly demonized, as the species in the Iberian Peninsula pose no threat to us.

INTRODUCTION

In the Iberian Peninsula we can find 13 different species of snakes, with representatives of three of the four types of dentition I talked about in my last post. There aren’t any proteroglyphous snake because the members of the Elapidae family are restricted to tropical and subtropical habitats. Most of the iberian species are snakes of the Colubridae family (aglyphous or opisthoglyphous) or vipers and adders of the Viperidae family (solenoglyphous).

Natrix maura bo
Viperine water snake (Natrix maura), aglyphous
Malpolon bo
Montpellier snake (Malpolon monspessulanus), opisthoglyphous
Vipera latastei bo
Snub-nosed viper (Vipera latastei), solenoglyphous

COLUBRIDS vs. VIPERS

When we find a snake in the wild it’s important to know if that animal is a colubrid or a viper. Bites from Iberian colubrids are mostly harmless because they have either an unspecialized non-venomous dentition (aglyphous) or posterior venomous fangs (opisthoglyphous) which usually doesn’t inject venom and even if they do, normally they don’t inject enough venom for it to be dangerous. On the other hand, as Iberian vipers are solenoglyphous, they inject large quantities of venom, being vipers responsible for most of the snake bite accidents in Spain. Yet, bites are extremely rare, and most happen after a too prolonged manipulation of the animal.

To identify a snake as a colubrid or a viper there are some anatomical characteristics which tell them apart. These characteristics are usually only applicable to iberian ophidians; species from outside the Iberian Peninsula may present different combinations of characters.

The most cited character is the pupil. Normally vipers show an elliptic, slit-like pupil, while colubrids present a round pupil. However, this character is variable, because with low-light conditions a viper’s pupil may look round as the eyes of these animals can adapt to darkness.

PUPILA
Colubrid with round pupil (ringed snake, Natrix natrix) and viperid with elliptic pupil (snub-nosed viper, Vipera latastei). Photos by Honorio Iglesias.

The second character refers to the shape of the body. While colubrids are mostly thin, have an undifferentiated neck and a long slim tail, vipers have a triangular-shaped head with a neck differentiated from the body, and a short and conic tail.

BODYYY
Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus) and Baskian viper (Vipera seoanei, photo by Daniel Gómez)

Although it may be difficult to look at, scales can be useful to tell colubrids and vipers apart. Vipers always present keeled scales, which have a little keel-like protuberance longitudinally on it. On the other side, even though they can have some keeled scales, most colubrids present smooth scales.

SCALES
Smooth scales of a horseshoe whip snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis, photo by Saúl Yubero) and keeled scales of an asp viper (Vipera aspis, photo by Grégoire Meier)

Finally, while colubrids are active animals and usually flee before we can get close to them, vipers rely on their camouflage to avoid predation. Therefore, they stay still so we can’t see them, and may bite if they feel cornered.

IBERIAN OPHIDIANS

Colubridae family:

Coronella genus: Known as smooth snakes. In the Iberian Peninsula we can find the northern smooth snake (Coronella austriaca) which presents a dark mask-like spot covering from the nasal openings up to the neck and dark irregular markings on its back, and the southern smooth snake (Coronella girondica) which presents a pair of parietal marks and dark transversal spots on its back.

Coronella aust gir
Northern smooth snake (Coronella austriaca, left, photo by Christian Fischer) and southern smooth snake (Coronella girondica, right, photo by Evaristo Corral)

Hierophis genus: The green whip snake or western whip snake (Hierophis viridiflavus) is a brightly-coloured snake with a pattern of black, yellow and green spots over its body. Even though they can grow up to 170 cm of length they are not venomous. It can be usually found from temperate forests to crop fields, and even in abandoned buildings.

Hierophis viri
Green whip snake (Hierophis viridiflavus), juvenile (left, by Polypterus) and adult (right)

Natrix genus: Commonly known as water snakes due to their affinity for aquatic habitats. In the Iberian Peninsula we can find two species, the viperine water snake (Natrix maura) named after its zigzag marking and its keeled scales similar to a viper, and the grass or iberian ringed snake (Natrix astreptophora) which presents reddish pupils, an extremely variable coloration and a black “ring” in juvenile individuals.

Natrix mau nat
Viperine water snake (Natrix maura, left, photo by Honorio Iglesias) and iberian ringed snake (Natrix astreptophora, right photo of Fafner).

Zamenis genus: The Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus) is a slim, long and harmless colubrid with a characteristically narrow and elongated skull. It is normally found on forested areas, with different microclimatic variations to aid it on its thermoregulation. This species is the one represented coiled around the rod of Aesculapius and the Bowl of Hygieia, symbols of medicine and pharmacy respectively.

Zamensis long
Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus) (left by Amiralles).

Hemorrhois genus: The horseshoe whip snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis) is an aglyphous colubrid that, even if it may bite if touched or grabbed, it’s not considered a venomous species. It presents a transversal mark on its head from one eye to the other, and another mark in the shape of a horseshoe on its neck, which gives this species its common name. It’s a species typical of rocky habitats.

Hemorrhois hippo
Horseshoe whip snake (Hemorrhois hippocrepis). Photos by Accipiter and Raúl León.

Rhinechis genus: The ladder snake (Rhinechis scalaris) receives its common name due to the stripes that juvenile specimens present on their back, similar to a ladder, even though adult individuals may present only longitudinal stripes on their body without any transversal marks connecting them. Despite being an apparently aggressive snake, it rarely bites and is harmless to human beings.

Rhinechis sca
Ladder snake (Rhinechis scalaris). Photos by Matt Wilson (left) and by Fernando Fañanás (right).

Macroprotodon genus: This is one of the few venomous species in the Peninsula. The western false smooth snake (Macroprotodon brevis) is an animal common on many different Mediterranean habitats. Even if it’s venomous, its small opisthogyphous mouth and its calm behavior make it totally harmless. It is characterised by a dark mark on the back of its head, and its short and flattened skull.

Macroprotodon brev
Western false smooth snake (Macroprotodon brevis). Photos by Saúl Yubero and Amiralles, respectively.

Malpolon genus: With specimens growing up to two and a half meters of length, the Montpellier snake (Malpolon monspessulanus) is the largest ophidian of the peninsula. Due to its opisthoglyphous dentition it normally doesn’t inject venom when biting (which is extremely rare), but larger individuals with much wider mouths may inject venom, but to cause symptoms it should hold its bite for a long period of time (most bites, even if rare, are dry warning bites). It is easily recognisable for its prominent eyebrows which give it a ferocious look.

Malpolon mons
Montpellier snake (Malpolon monspessulanus). Photos by Herpetofauna and RuizAraFoto respectively.

RuizAraFoto

Viperidae family:

There’s only one genus of vipers on the Iberian Peninsula with three representative species. Vipers and adders usually have a wide and triangular head, a lightly elevated snout and usually present a zigzag pattern on their back which help them camouflage. The three Iberian species are venomous, but thanks to modern medicine, their ocasional bites aren’t harmful to human beings. The asp viper (Vipera aspis), the most venomous snake in the peninsula, presents grey, golden or yellow scales, with black or green spots. The snub-nosed viper (Vipera latastei) is the most common viper in the peninsula and its coloration varies from brown to grey. Finally the Baskian or Portuguese viper (Vipera seoanei) is a middle-sized viper and with a highly polymorphic pattern.

Vipera asp lat seo
Asp viper (Vipera aspis, top left, photo by Felix Reimann), snub-nosed viper (Vipera latastei, top right, photo by Honorio Iglesias) and Baskian viper (Vipera seoanei, bottom, photo by Andre Schmid).

As we have seen, snakes and vipers aren’t as bad as they are portrayed to be. Most species flee from human beings, and accidents and bites happen when we force them to interact with us too much. Also, ophidians help farmers and agriculturers by hunting and eating species traditionally seen as vermin. If we leave snakes and vipers alone, we will be able to enjoy the beauty of this animals in peace.

REFERENCES

The following sources have been consulted in the elaboration of this entry:

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Snakes: Show me your teeth and I’ll tell you who you are

This week’s entry focuses on snakes, creatures that have caused an intense hate from human beings since ancient times. One of the main reasons why snakes are so deeply rooted in the human mind is the posed by the fact that some species are venomous, possessing venomous glands which open through ducts into grooved or hollow teeth. Although most species are harmless to human being, these animals still give the shivers to more than one.

Venomous fangs appeared as a modification of maxillary teeth. Depending on the level of specialization in both the jaw and these fangs, each species of snake may be classified into one of four different groups.

AGLYPH (lacking grooves)

Python reticulatus3 (5)
Reticulated python’s skull (Python reticulatus)

Aglyphous snakes have the most primitive condition in which teeth are solid, without grooves or specialized venom-injecting fangs. This is the less specialized dentition, which is found in many snake families, from the great boas and pythons to the primitive blind snakes from the infraorder Scolecophidia, and even in some members of the great Colubridae family. Teeth usually have the same size and morphology. This type of dentition is usually linked with non-venomous species, although a few aglyphous snakes do have venom yet most are nonlethal to human beings.

OPISTHOGLYPH (rearward grooves)

These snakes posses venom which is injected with specialized fangs found at the posterior end of the maxilla, which are backward-oriented and grooved so that toxins are canalized to the tip of the tooth. To correctly inject venom, these snakes must hold their prey and move it to the rear of the mouth, a pretty arduous task if the prey is of a considerable size.

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Black-headed cat snake’s skull (Boiga nigriceps), a colubrid from Southeast Asia

This type of dentition is found in various species into the large Colubridae family, in which it has evolved twice independently.

Lampropeltis_getula_brooksi_cb2011_male_G1_ed
Common kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula), colubrid from the USA

Even though most opisthoglyphous snakes are harmless to humans (because fangs are found at the back of their mouths, and these snakes aren’t usually very big) some species are lethal to humans, like the “boomslang” (Dispholidus typus) and the bird snakes (Thelotornis sp.) which bite with the mouth wide open (up to 170 degrees to insert their venomous fangs firmly) and generate powerful haemotoxins against which no efficient antitoxin has been developed yet. Haemotoxins are toxins which destroy red blood cells collapsing the circulatory system and provoking severe necrosis to the other tissues.

PROTEROGLYPH (forward grooved)

Proteroglyphous species have venomous fangs at the front of their mouth and these aren’t usually very long. That’s why these snakes must apply pressure on their bite long enough to inject the necessary venom into their prey.

CobraSkullLabel
Death adder’s skull (Acanthophis sp.), and Australian elapid

This kind of teeth is characteristic of the Elapidae family, which includes cobras and sea snakes. The members of this family have venoms most of which consist in neurotoxin (toxins that destroy the nervous system), and are amongst the most venomous of all vertebrates.

Mozambique-Spitting-Cobra
Mozambique spitting cobra (Naja mossambica)

Also, some elapids of the Naja genre are known as spitting cobras, because their anterior fangs are modified and present orifices which allow them to spray their venom with the contraction of muscles of their venomous gland.

SOLENOGLYPH (pipe grooved)

This is the most evolved form and it is exclusively found in the members of the Viperidae family. In these species the maxilla is extremely reduced and serves as the support to a pair of hollow fangs which can make up to half the skull’s length.

Rattle Snake Skull, Poison Exhibit
Rattlesnake’s skull (Crotalus sp.)

These fangs are usually folded against the roof of the mouth but can articulate with the rest of the cranium when the mouth is opened up to 180 degrees to bite. This allows vipers to penetrate their fangs deeper into their prey and inject large quantities of venom, which being usually less powerful than the one of proteroglyphous snakes, in large quantities can be lethal.

Puff-Adder_682_731083a
Puff adder (Bitis arietans), showing how fangs articulate with the cranium

Intern taxonomy of the different snake groups is based on many different anatomic characteristics. The classification presented here only refers to the dentition and jaw structure, and that may not be directly correlated to the evolutionary relationships between different families. For example, inside the Colubridae family (family which includes two-thirds of the extant snake species), we can find species with aglyphous, opisthoglyphous and proteroglyphous dentitions, even though the proteroglyph type is characteristic of the Elapidae family, where it has evolved independently.

REFERENCES

The following sources have been consulted in the elaboration of this entry:

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Licencia Creative Commons Atribución-NoComercial-CompartirIgual 4.0 Internacional.