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
“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.