AT­TRACTED TO HERPETOFAUNA

At 10 years old, Mary-Ruth Low was al­ready in­trigued by rep­tiles. To­day, she makes a fas­ci­nat­ing ca­reer out of her pas­sion, writes SUZANNA PIL­LAY

New Straits Times - - News -

“OF all the an­i­mals in the world, in­clud­ing the cute and fluffy ones, or pretty birds, why did you choose snakes?” That was how Malaysian lass Mary-Ruth Low’s mother re­acted when she learnt that her daugh­ter’s in­ter­est in herpetofauna (rep­tiles and am­phib­ians) could po­ten­tially turn into a full-time ca­reer.

“My friends knew I was crazy about an­i­mals. So, work­ing with pythons was not ter­ri­bly far off from what they were used to me. My mum used to be ex­tremely fright­ened of snakes. The toy rub­ber snakes would freak her out.

“To­day, how­ever, my mum can iden­tify com­mon viper species and even has a spiel (and be­lieves it!) that she tells peo­ple, ‘If you leave the snakes alone, they’ll leave you alone, too’,” says MaryRuth, who is a con­ser­va­tion and re­search of­fi­cer with Wildlife Re­serve Sin­ga­pore (WRS).

In her role as a con­ser­va­tion and re­search of­fi­cer, she as­sists in co­or­di­nat­ing re­search projects mostly for rep­tiles, as well as lo­cal bio­di­ver­sity. Some of the species in­clude retic­u­lated pythons, com­mon palm civets and colu­gos (ar­bo­real glid­ing mam­mals).

Mary-Ruth traces the start of her fas­ci­na­tion with herpetofauna back to when she was around 10 or 11 years old.

“I had never han­dled snakes be­fore, and my clos­est en­counter with one was the pet python that a neigh­bour down the road kept. My fam­ily al­ways had dogs and a cat when I was grow­ing up,” she said.

It was only in uni­ver­sity that Mary-Ruth had the op­por­tu­nity to as­sist in frog sur­veys and han­dle snakes at the zoo.

She named her col­leagues — for­mer boss Dr David Bick­ford and se­nior vet­eri­nar­ian Dr Abra­ham Mathew — as the peo­ple who en­cour­aged her to pur­sue her pas­sion in the field.

“There is a lot of re­spect about herpetofauna among those in the com­mu­nity. Peo­ple are al­ways happy to share their knowledge about herpetofauna.

Although most of her field­work ex­pe­ri­ences has been “pretty mild and safe”, she had a close call with dan­ger while ra­dio track­ing bam­boo pit vipers (trimeresu­rus al­bo­labris) in Hong Kong.

“I was search­ing for a snake in a mass of un­der­growth and had crawled in the thicket to look for it. As the beeps from my equipment grew louder, I knew I was get­ting nearer to the snake.

“Then all of a sud­den, the beeps got a lot softer and I was con­fused un­til I re­alised the snake was right in front of my face!

“Thank­fully, the fe­male snake was pretty calm and she merely looked at me war­ily, while I most apolo­get­i­cally and grate­fully backed away, out of the thicket.”

Mary-Ruth en­joys work­ing with retic­u­lated pythons and de­scribes them as beau­ti­ful snakes.

“You get to see the dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions in size, colour and pat­terns. They are most beau­ti­ful, es­pe­cially when their skin has just shed and the light re­flects its iri­des­cence.

“It is also fas­ci­nat­ing to know how retic­u­lated pythons are sur­viv­ing in the city, just slightly out of sight, but ever so present.

“Nowa­days, when I’m down­town hang­ing out with friends, I joke, ‘There’s prob­a­bly a snake here, and an­other in that drain, and one more above in that car park!” she said.

Why is it so im­por­tant to study retic­u­lated pythons?

“All species have in­her­ent value and a role to play in the ecosys­tem, but in the retic­u­lated python’s case, it is the largest apex predator in Sin­ga­pore. As such, they play an im­por­tant part in con­trol­ling the pop­u­la­tions of the smaller mam­mals, such as rats.

“Fig­ur­ing out how they move and what/how much they eat could in turn help us un­der­stand how dis­ease is trans­mit­ted through their prey.”

Mary-Ruth said one of the big­gest mis­con­cep­tions peo­ple had about retic­u­lated pythons and rep­tiles in gen­eral were that they are “out to get” us.

“This per­cep­tion is likely due to Hol­ly­wood stereo­types, but in most cases, snakes are more afraid of hu­mans than we are of them. The re­cent and tragic case of the man killed and eaten by a python in Su­lawesi only oc­curs rarely.

“In the for­est, as long as you watch where you are go­ing and are care­ful not to step on a snake, or bump against a snake rest­ing in a tree, you are quite safe in­deed!”

An­other com­mon mis­con­cep­tion that peo­ple have about snakes is that they are slimy and have no back­bone.

“If you’ve ever han­dled a snake, you’ll re­alise that while their skin can be smooth, and some­times slightly rough, they are never slimy. They are also ver­te­brates and def­i­nitely have a back­bone.

“Peo­ple also think pythons are ‘poi­sonous’. That’s one way to an­noy an ecol­o­gist! First of all, it is ‘ven­omous’, not ‘poi­sonous’. Sec­ond, pythons be­long to a fam­ily of snakes which use con­stric­tion and suf­fo­ca­tion as a means to kill their prey.

“Venom refers to tox­ins that are in­jected into your blood­stream via fangs, such as the co­bra or pit viper.”

She said poi­sonous an­i­mals re­fer to an­i­mal species that have to be in­gested to cause harm, for ex­am­ple, the Ja­panese puffer­fish, or fugu.

“Of course, there are ex­cep­tions to the rule, and a few species of snakes are ven­omous as well as poi­sonous, such as the Asian keel­back that can give a ven­omous bite and se­crete poi­son through a gland on its neck.

Mary-Ruth Low is pas­sion­ate about pythons.

Low ra­dio track­ing pythons in the wild.

Mary-Ruth Low dis­cov­ers a python hid­ing in the un­der­growth.

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