Project Chicchan – Part 2

Day 2 – 18th December


Following a hard day before, and the jet-lag still lingering, a good night’s sleep did me good, and I woke up feeling fresh and ready to see what came next.

The day began with Rowland going over the protocol for the surveys proper: for each animal we caught, we would mark its position with a GPS, note where on the trail it was found, measure the temperature of the spot if it was standing still, and take its length and weight. We proceeded to test our measuring skills with the snakes – not just the Leptodeira, but a coffee snake, Ninia sebae, that had been found while we were on our walk the previous night. In the course of our expedition, we would find over twenty more; this was very much Ninia country. We also found another Norops: this one took forever to identify using a key, until we finally concluded (tentatively) it was a Norops rodriguezii.


Weighing the snakes was relatively straightforward – putting it in a bag and hanging it from a scale, like everything else. Getting the length, however, involved persuading the snake into a tube, then running dental floss down its body. All too often, the snake would shift and you’d have to start again; Ninia, which are burrowing snakes and very strong for their size, were particularly difficult in this regard. They also had a great tendency to leave musk all over your hand.


Also turning up that morning was another turtle, Rhinoclemmys areolata, which we allowed to have a wander around our lab. We noted that there was a distinct hole in the top of the shell – a jaguar, perhaps?


During lunch, Futha spotted a Morelet’s crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii) in the river from some distance away; it was moving upstream, but was only obvious as a crocodile via zoom lens. These crocodiles can get very big, over three metres long, and have been the focus of previous surveys since this area contains a relatively dense population.


In the afternoon, we had a lecture on venomous snakes – including the legendary barba amarilla (Bothrops asper), one of the most dangerous snakes in Guatemala, and, naturally, something we were all eager to see. (Unfortunately none had yet turned up this season.) Yet another species then turned up in the lab during the lecture – a dwarf gecko, Sphaerodactylus glaucus, who quickly underwent a long photography session! Only our second day, and the species were turning up thick and fast.


That night, we did some proper surveying up on the Jaguar Trail – unfortunately, I didn’t manage to spot anything myself, but early days!

Day 3 – 19th December

The previous night, I’d been woken up by rain. Tonight, I was woken up by the hoarse roaring of howler monkeys. This was a common sound throughout our time here, but you didn’t hear them that often at night, and it sounded like they were right on top of us! It seemed a very long time before they quietened down and I could get to sleep.

The morning, once again, was spent going over the snakes that we’d found surveying the previous night. This time, we had another Ninia, and a blunthead tree snake, Imantodes cenchoa. These were the second most common snakes we would find (after Ninia) – almost always found in trees, they can grow to nearly a metre long but are ridiculously thin and can curl themselves up very efficiently. Even more special, however, was a striped Oxyrhopus petola, which is considered more of a rarity.


An even bigger rarity was still to come, however, as Bruce found a mussarana, Clelia scytalina, around the volunteer quarters. This is considered a rare snake – books contain very little information about it – but Rowland said this was the fourth that had been found on Project Chicchan, all of them around the station! So if you fancy studying Clelia scytalina, this is the place to do it!


In the afternoon, with the rain dying down and the weather warming up, I finally gave the cold shower a go. It wasn’t the most comfortable experience – really cold water usually gets me hyperventilating at first – but I’d be much more enthusiastic about that shower in days to come.

The evening saw another unofficial walk rather than a survey. Rowland said to me along the way that he had never known a volunteer to not find at least one snake – and it must have made my luck change. First I spotted a Norops – and then a Ninia! Thus, I finally got to hear the words “Good spot!” from Rowland. Futha, meanwhile, spotted a little snail-sucker, Sibon nebulata.

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Day 4 – 20th December

At this point, I was quite enjoying living off the grid. Though I could send the occasional text, I never received any back for some reason. (And no, that wasn’t because my family was being neglectful – they were receiving my texts and sending replies, I just wasn’t getting them.) And today, we got some brief time on the Internet on Rowland’s laptop. Thus I was able to check my emails and make sure nothing terrible had happened back home – but it was so slow that I didn’t bother sending any. The weather, meanwhile, had improved considerably; the sun was shining, though humidity remained high throughout. My personal notebook would be in a pitiful state by the end. We also received some proper visitors today – the previously encountered British ambassador to Guatemala and her family turned up for a few days!

For the next few days, the four of us were all packed together in one room, to make space for a big party of birdwatchers that were coming in. In the afternoon, Futha and I happened to be relaxing in the room, when Bruce suddenly came in looking all excited. In his hand was our new snake for the day: a baby boa constrictor (the snake with the easiest-to-remember scientific name in the world – Boa constrictor).


Rowland had actually reported seeing this snake on the website before we arrived; having found two young boas on site, he suggested that they had come from the same litter. He was particularly happy that this one was in such good condition, as it hadn’t looked too healthy when he last saw it.

The night’s walk was spent returning the snakes that we had caught earlier – which, of course, ended in us catching three more coffee snakes. (I spotted another one – a stripy baby one.) But some way up the Jaguar Trail, something a bit more special was waiting for us.


It started when Bruce was certain he could hear a cat calling, not far off. Then, a short distance ahead, some jaguar faeces was sitting on the path – and Rowland reckoned it was fresh. Now on full alert, we moved forward a little, and then Rowland told us to switch our head torches off.

We were now standing in the middle of the forest, in pitch blackness, talking in whispers, waiting to see if a very large cat was going to make an appearance.

This was definitely an experience to make your heart beat faster. I was half expecting the jaguar to leap out of the darkness and attack.

Then we heard a hooting noise off in the forest – I thought it was monkeys, but Rowland said it was owls. Immediately afterwards, there was an annoyed-sounding yowl. We heard it, over and over.

It was a jaguar, calling at the owls. And based on the sound Bruce had heard, Rowland reckoned it was a mother and cub.

We carried on listening, until finally the sound died away, and Rowland whispered, “That is closer than many jaguar researchers get to an actual jaguar.”

The main thought going through my mind was, “I am so happy I came here.”

This feeling diminished just a little later on, when I walked face-first into a spider web.

About R.J. Southworth

Hi there. I've been blogging since January 2014, and I like to talk about all sorts of things: book reviews, film reviews, writing, science, history, or sometimes just sharing miscellaneous thoughts. Thanks for visiting my blog, and I hope you find something that interests you!
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2 Responses to Project Chicchan – Part 2

  1. Elle says:

    Wow! I suddenly feel my life is so boring. I’m not a snake enthusiast but you make it sound really fascinating. And to have heard a wild jaguar is truly lucky and amazing. As far as travel writing goes I think you have the right mix of factual information and personal experience to make this interesting for someone who knows nothing about reptiles and is not sure where Guatemala exactly is.


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