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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Book Review: Bushmaster by Dan Eatherley

Bushmaster (Lachesis muta) from Peru
Lachesis is the name of one of the three Greek Moirai or Fates, sister-deities who determined the destiny of every human life by spinning each life as a thread on a loom. Her role in the process was to determine the length of a mortal's life, and so she is appropriately immortalized1 in modern biology in the genus name of Bushmasters, huge Latin American pitvipers that occasionally play the same role and are herpetologically mythical in their own right. Her sisters, Clotho (who spun the threads of life) and Atropos (who did the actual thread-cutting), are similarly honored in the Latin name of vipers of the genus Atropoides and in Clotho, an old synonym for some members of the African viper genus Bitis.

Ditmars filming the Bushmaster "Lecky" at the Bronx Zoo in 1934
©WCS. Courtesy of the WCS Archives
If you're interested in Bushmasters and herpetological history, check out Dan Eatherley's new book, "Bushmaster: Raymond Ditmars and the Hunt for the World's Largest Viper", which chronicles the life and times of the Bronx Zoo's first reptile curator and one of America's first and most successful popular herpetological writers. Ditmars authored 24 books, >200 articles, and pioneered nature films in an era when video technology was still in its infancy. Eighty years ago, he was a household name in New York, enjoying a celebrity attained by few herpetologists. President Theodore Roosevelt praised Ditmars's The Reptile Book and invited him to the White House. One of the reasons for his popularity was his "obsession" with keeping large, exotic, sexy, venomous snakes—such as Bushmasters—in captivity, an endeavor on which the press regularly reported. Ditmars was reporter for New York Times when he was young, and the paper published 12-15 stories a year on his exploits between 1899 and 1942. Such was the popularity drummed up for snakes that, when a short-lived Bushmaster named "Lecky" was exhibited at the Bronx Zoo in 1934, it was credited with attracting an estimated 100,000 additional guests at the zoo and a 60% increase in visitors at the nearby American Museum of Natural History’s reptile hall.

The first photograph of a female Bushmaster guarding her eggs,
taken by C.S. Rogers in Trinidad, was published in Ditmars (1910),
and subsequently as a postcard sold at the Bronx Zoo.
The snake was a captive in the possession of R.R. Mole.
Bushmasters are unique among New World vipers, with the possible exception of the rare Bothrops colombianus, in laying eggs rather than giving birth to live young. Because they guard their eggs, a phenomenon that Ditmars and his correspondent R.R. Mole first described, they may offer insight into the complex evolution of parental care in pitvipers. In Ditmars's time, there was a single, widespread species of bushmaster, with four subspecies separated by tropical mountain ranges; we now recognize those four subspecies as species on the basis of morphological, behavioral, and molecular differences. Bushmasters are also the only pitvipers where the venom of juveniles appears to lack the chemical potency of adults, at least towards mammals. Many vipers feed on amphibians or other reptiles when they are young and switch to mammals as they grow up2, which might explain this observation. Bushmasters are the world's longest vipers3 (Gaboon Vipers exceed them in weight) and the longest venomous snakes in the Americas (King Cobras exceed them in length).

Ditmars wears a snake fang tie pin
on the book's cover
Eatherley's book is well-researched and accurate. I found it to be an exciting read with an excellent historical perspective. My biggest criticism was that it was a little sensational at times, as are most popular accounts dealing with venomous snakes. I particularly enjoyed the author's description of his experiences meeting up with some New York City herpers to seek Gartersnakes (Thamnophis sirtalis), Brownsnakes (Storeria dekayi), and other snakes that could still be found in the northern part of Central Park in the 1880s, when Ditmars was cutting his herpetological teeth. I was also interested to learn that Ditmars supplied snake venom to early antivenom producers and set a precedent, still in place today, of zoos stocking exotic snake antivenoms for the dual purpose of protecting their keepers and providing them to the medical community when bites from exotic species occur elsewhere.

In his writing, Ditmars often portrayed Bushmasters as aggressive, in contrast to many other herpetologists who have described their manner as relatively gentle, even timid. In reality, they are, like most venomous snakes, cowards first, then bluffers, and lastly warriors, and their large size has earned them a reputation as formidable warriors as well as a prominent position in folklore throughout Latin America4. Their mystique and biology effectively drive Eatherley's book, only the second biography of Ditmars ever written (the first, by Laura Newbold Wood, was written for children and published in 1944, just two years after Ditmars's death). Throughout the book, Eatherley goes from stating that negative responses towards reptiles are “of course, the norm for most of us” (p. 11) to tracing a rapid path from ecstasy to palpable disappointment, familiar to any snake enthusiast, when informed during his search for a wild Bushmaster in Trinidad that a nearby farmer has found one, but killed it (p. 255). I think that Ditmars would be pleased with his abiding influence, nearly 75 years after his death, in inspiring passion for and love of snakes.

You can read two other reviews of Eatherley's book, published last month in Copeia and Herpetological Review.

1 I suppose she was already immortal, since she's a Greek Goddess.

2 Strangely, bushmasters seem to be one of the only vipers where this shift is not well-documented. Collecting data on young snakes is hard, and the venom study found that venom chemistry became more adult-like after just one year, so perhaps we've just missed the shift. Another hypothesis is that bushmasters tend to hold onto their prey after striking it, unlike other vipers which strike, release, and relocate, so perhaps the rapid immobilizing venom components have been replaced by a mechanical means of immobilization.

3 Regarding their maximum length, Campbell & Lamar's authoritative reference on venomous reptiles of the western hemisphere says: "Documented reports of measured specimens are scarce, however, and the maximum length has been the subject of some hyperbole. Hoge and Lancini (1962) claimed 4.5 m, Abalos (1977) claimed 3.5 m, Ditmars (1937) mentioned specimens of 11 feet (3.35 m) but apparently never saw one exceeding 3m, Bellairs (1969) gave the maximum length as between 3.05 and 3.36m, Dunn (1951) gave the maximum length as 14 feet (4.27 m), and Mertens (1960) listed 13 feet (3.96 m) as the maximum size. Sandner-Montilla (1994) claimed a record of 5.28 m for a Venezuelan specimen of L. muta (with 6-cm fangs!), but such records must be placed in the same realm as 20-m anacondas and other legendary monsters.", and concludes "The great 
majority of adult specimens of all species of Lachesis measure less than 2.5 m, and 3.5 m is likely near the maximum size."

4 Bushmasters play other roles in human culture as well—as food. 
Bora and Yagua Indians in eastern Peru consider them a delicacy. They are certainly one of the few snakes large enough to make a filling meal for a family.


Thanks to Dan Eatherley and Arcade Publishing for producing such a wonderful book, of which they kindly provided me a copy, to Drew Foster for sharing an advance copy of his review of this book for Copeia, to Marisa Ishimatsu and the Wildlife Conservation Society for the use of their photographs, and to Harry Greene for shedding a little more light on the diets of juvenile bushmasters.

Adler, K. 1989. Contributions to the History of Herpetology. Volume 1. Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, Oxford, Ohio <link>

Campbell, J. A., and W. W. Lamar. 2004. The Venomous Reptiles of the Western Hemisphere (2 Vol.). Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York <link>

Ditmars, R. L. 1910. Reptiles of the World : Tortoises and Turtles, Crocodilians, Lizards, and Snakes of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Macmillan Co., New York <link>

Gutiérrez, J., C. Avila, Z. Camacho, and B. Lomonte. 1990. Ontogenetic changes in the venom of the snake Lachesis muta stenophrys (bushmaster) from Costa Rica. Toxicon 28:419-426 <link>

Eatherley, D. 2015. Bushmaster: Raymond Ditmars and the Hunt for the World's Largest Viper. Arcade Publishing, New York, New York <link>

Foster, C. D. 2015. Bushmaster: Raymond Ditmars and the Hunt for the World’s Largest Viper [book review]. Copeia 103:1107-1109 <link>

Novotny, R. J. 2015. Bushmaster: Raymond Ditmars and the Hunt for the World's Largest Viper [book review]. Herpetological Review 46:657-659 <link>

Wood, L. N. 1944. Raymond L. Ditmars: His Exciting Career With Reptiles, Animals and Insects. The Junior Literary Guild and Julian Messner, Inc., New York <link>

Zamudio, K. R., and H. W. Greene. 1997. Phylogeography of the bushmaster (Lachesis muta: Viperidae): implications for neotropical biogeography, systematics, and conservation. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 62:421-442 <link>

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Life is Short, but Snakes are Long by Andrew M. Durso is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.