Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

Snake and Frog Prattle

“Surely, then, it interests us to know the lot of other animal creatures. However far below us, they are still the sole created things which share with us the capability of pleasure and the susceptibility to pain.”— HUXLEY.

It may be edifying to confess a particular interest in man’s first enemy-not such interest as the man of science displays when he seeks to add to the knowledge of the world, but a kind of social concern. None of us is likely to forget that on the authority of Holy Writ the serpent became familiar with mankind very shortly after his appearance on earth, and whispered injurious secrets into guileless ears. Ever since the scene in the Garden of Eden, war between man and the serpent has prevailed, and now, if we are to credit the sayings of the wise, the end of all reptiles, if not actually in view, cannot be long postponed. Is it not mete, therefore, to take fair opportunity of studying the characteristics and qualities of an animal, closely associated with us by fable and in fact, which is doomed to extinction by the ruthless strides of civilisation, which is regarded by some as cleanly and decent, and by others as repulsive and direful? Plain, unromantic, unsensational statements make for the acquirement of knowledge illustrative of the habits and faculties of the creature against which the hand of the average man is raised with a mixture of wrath, vengeance, and fear.

By study and observation one may come to understand the higher principles of Nature, and so learn how to withstand influences inimical to his interests without upsetting laws which tend to his welfare.

Occasionally quite casual happenings and bare and slight matters of fact show that those who study natural history first-hand acquire information not to be obtained from authoritative works. Let one instance concerning the varied diet of the death adder be quoted, since it confounds the experience of one of the most learned men in Australia on the subject. On the beach just at high-water mark, beneath an overhanging shrub, several birds sounded an alarm, notifying by peculiar and persistent screeching the presence of an enemy. After a few minutes’ search, for the strained attitudes of the birds indicated the direction, a death adder was seen gliding among thickly strewn brown leaves with a limp bird between its jaws. It was quickly killed, and then the bird, a dusky honey-cater, was seen to be dead. Dusky honey-eaters generally spend their days among the topmost sprays of flowering trees and shrubs, while death adders habitually seek the seclusion of the shadiest places on the surface of the soil. In this case the adder was small, so small that it seemed to be a vain if not impossible feat for it to swallow the bird.

Hitherto the food of the adder had been deemed to be frogs, lizards, beetles, and such game of the ground. Was it curiosity which brought the sun-loving bird within reach of the shade-loving snake? Upon the incident being referred to Mr. Dudley Le Souef, who has quite an uneasy familiarity with Australian snakes, dating from the days of ardent youth, when he was wont to carry some species about with him in his pockets, that authority wrote: “I did not know that death adders ever killed birds; I did not think they were active enough, their usual prey being frogs, lizards, etc. The honey-eater must have been taken unawares.”

Though scientifically regarded as “the most dangerous and probably the most deadly” of Australian snakes, the death adder has to its credit many everyday proofs to the contrary: so many, indeed, that some are inclined to class it as comparatively harmless, the reasons for such opinion being —(1) the small size of the creature, reducing the risks of its being interfered with inadvertently; (2) its amiability; (3) the fact that unless the sensitive membrane at the end of the tail, to which the curved spine is the culminating-point, is trodden on or otherwise insulted, the chances are that there will be, no active resentment. While adopting all precautions, accepting no risks, and being very eager to reduce the number by all and every possible means, it is well to avoid overexcitement; for though the reptilian age is passing away, those who live in the bush are too often reminded that snakes are still numerous, and some of them decidedly vicious.

To disappoint the snake and at the same time to discredit its reputation, calmness on the part of the individual who may happen to be bitten is counselled. He should behave as a neighbour who one dark night stepped off his verandah barefooted on to nearly cleared land. As he strode along the scarcely distinguishable track, he trod on something other than a half-burnt stick. Almost instantaneously the Scripture was fulfilled — the serpent had bruised the man’s heel. Now, this man has been in many strange, not to say fear-provoking, situations, and has listened to more than one close call without spoiling the occasion by anticipatory and hideous outcry. He does not smoke or drink whisky or give way to any nerve-affecting habit. He lives within hearing of the soothing lullaby of the sea. When his heel was gripped he did not jump or offend the air with unmanly plaint and ineffectual clamour, or otherwise fluster his heart with pernicious apprehension. With calm deliberation he put his hand into his pocket and drew forth — no! not a razor-edged knife, with which to slash the region of the punctures, but a box of matches, so that the scene might temporarily be surveyed. He saw, not the expected death adder, not a deadly copper head, not the venomous black which flattens and distends the neck like a cobra when its passions are roused, not the great red pugnacious beast which has been known to kill off-hand a big horse, but a shame-faced carpet snake, which, though innocent and inoffensive, will, like the worm, turn if rudely trodden on. The snake was quite ready to apologise for impulsive and graceless misbehaviour; but it seemed fascinated by the sudden light — how little of brightness bewilders such lovers of darkness — and maintained its repentant attitude until the sacred law was finally vindicated by the fatal bruising of its head.

Many years ago a locality a few miles away suffered from a raid by bush rats, which congregated in great numbers. Similar plagues have often been recorded from the western downs; but the coastal visitation was singular, for it was associated with death adders, which seemed to be on good terms with the rats. One of the settlers was growing sweet-potatoes on a fairly large scale for pig food, the plough being used for the harvesting of the crop. Seldom was a furrow run for the full length of the field without turning up both adders and rats. Suddenly the rats migrated, and then the death adders disappeared, few of either being seen for a decade, when the association between them was again sensationally illustrated. The daughter of a settler rose at dawn, and with others ran off to the vegetable garden for salads for breakfast. While she was looking for a seemly cucumber, a rat was disturbed, and almost immediately after she was bitten by a death adder which had lain inert at the very spot whence the rat had fled. The child recovered, while the deceptive snake, which will not submit to have its tail saluted even by the airiest of treads, was killed. Not only have we here another proof of the non-fatal character of the bite of an adder, but a singular instance of association between an adder and a rat. Why and for what purpose does this apparent amicability exist?

Sometimes mankind is startled by the unexpected appearance of a snake. Will credit be given to an almost magic disappearance? Those who hearken to the voices of birds learn to discriminate between the language of content and happiness and love and that of dismay and terror. A number of loud and pleasant-noted fasciating honey-eaters suddenly changed their tune to that indicative of fear. They were, gathered on a thick-leaved tree on the edge of the jungle in a crude circle, with heads pointing to a common centre. It was simplicity to conclude that a snake was present, but not at all easy to see it, for the flustered birds began to change their manoeuvres directly help was at hand. Eventually a thin brown snake was seen doubled up and apparently sound asleep among the branchlets The gun was called for, and two others hastened to the scene, each of whom distinctly saw the snake. When the shot was fired, a peephole was made through dense leafage just where the snake had reposed, but with the report it had ‘disappeared. Fragments of twigs and leaves came to Mother Earth, but even a smart black tracker failed to find a trace of the snake, though the force of the explosion must have carried portions out into the open. The point of this artless narrative is that the black boy formed the firm opinion that that which he and two others had concluded to be a snake must have been “‘Nother kind. Him no good. Close up ‘debil-debil!’” To him a visible snake was quite commonplace; but one that vanished under the impulse of a charge of shot represented a mystery which called for caution and hasty departure, and the boy strode away with the suggestion of hot bricks below. But the tell-tale birds, suspicious of the material only, returned, stared at the vacancy, and fluttered off with — was it? — a note of thankfulness.

The serpent has one infallible, perhaps because it is automatic, regard for its own comfort and well-being — it cannot be induced to tie itself into a knot. It is in mind that once in the old country a very long and very cold lethargic boa constrictor became benumbed and forgot the primal instinct of the family, and paid for its absent-mindedness with its life. But the ordinary snake under extraordinary conditions, whatsoever its length, is most careful to disentangle itself even when knots are designed for the special purpose of embarrassing it. Though the head of a snake be battered until all apparent sense is obliterated, the lithe body will cleverly evade attempts to cause it to disregard the great law. However tight the corner into which it may squeeze or narrow the quarters into which it may be driven, and though head and tail may be close together and in the midst of a complication of coils, and the twisting and writhing may appear to be without method, yet the snake emerges a triumph of single purpose.

A complication was presented to a 6 foot 8 inch specimen, and truth bids me say that the snake did not seem in the least bewildered. From a nest of eggs six had disappeared in one night. The loss was debited to a snake, and it being calculated that the meal would suffice for several days, no particular zeal was displayed in tracing out the thief. Experience has taught that snakes do not wander very far when good and nutritious food is to be obtained by intrusion on the cosy quarters of a pet hen., Three days were permitted to pass, and then in the nest a rat trap was placed baited with two eggs, the door being secured with wire. The bait proved to be irresistible and the trap effective. In the morning the trap was crowded with snake, which had thrust its head between the wires, swallowed the eggs, and was a prisoner until they were dissolved by the processes of digestion or the door was unbolted. The natural process was not complete when the discovery was made, but the snake had managed to make itself as comfortable as possible in its temporary habitation. The trap seemed almost suffocatingly full, and when the occupant thrust its head and more than half its length between the bars, only to be checked by the hard-hearted eggs, it was thought that possibly, in its confusion, the snake might entangle itself; but invariably it retired into the trap without putting itself into any false position. It was killed, the executioner justly reflecting that a snake has mental limitations. Nothing could induce it to tie itself into a knot, and yet, wilfully and with its eyes open, it had entered a trap from which there was no possibility of escape until in the course of nature it had digested the bait.

Is it generally known that a snake does everything with its eyes open — that it is denied the privilege of closing its eyes? Such is the indisputable fact. ‘But without presuming to trespass on the preserves of men of science, the belief may be expressed that some species, if not in possession of a movable eyelid, have some means of suspending the faculty of sight. Indeed, there is evidence in support of the view that one species has a membranous eyelid similar to, but slighter than, that of a bird. It is not to be doubted that another reptile — the green turtle — is thus endowed, and that the “winking membrane” is found in many animals at the inner angle or beneath the lower lid of the eye. This membrane is represented in animals by a rudiment only. In the eyes of human beings the small reddish patch in the corner corresponds to the winking membrane — indeed, is the vestige of it. In monkeys, and in most mammals below them, there is present in this vestige a small piece of cartilage, and this is found occasionally in man. In white races it is very rare, occurring, as far as observations have shown, in less than one per cent. Recent investigations by Dr. Paul Bartels show that in twenty-five South African natives whom he had examined it occurred in twelve. Another investigation found it five times in twenty-five Japanese. It is curious to find that vestige more common in certain races, as it shows that in this small point they are less advanced than the white race.

This quotation from a forgotten source supplies important links in the chain of evidence in favour of the theory that certain species of snakes may have the winking muscle, which exists in marine reptiles and is present in some human beings. Apart from theory, it has been my good-fortune to see a sleeping snake the eyes of which were obscured by a greyish film, giving it the appearance of being “wall-eyed.” Being satisfied that it was blind, for it betrayed no uneasiness at a threatening demonstration, a determination was made to preserve it for critical examination. As soon as the snake was touched the cloudy veils were withdrawn, and the eyes flashed with the fire of malignity. It appeared to be spiteful because it had been caught napping. The specimen was not preserved, although it was bottled.

The blacks of this district are more nervous about adders than any other snake, with the exception of that known to them as the “Wat-tam” (pronounce the “a” as in cat), and believed to belong to the same genus as the brown snake. This is a large snake, reddish-brown in colour, the underside, for about half the length, being bright orange, the tint gradually subsiding to pale yellow towards the tail. Post-mortem examination of the first specimen detected on this Island cleared up a bush tragedy. A nest had been built in a conspicuous spot by a pair of shrike thrushes, which the blacks, according to locality, know as “Moorgoody” and “Too-dring.” The birds are the sweetest-voiced of all natives, and become wondrous tame and confiding. After the big spotted and blotched eggs were hatched, the hen would perch on the side of the nest within a foot of admirers, accepting compliments with tilted head and bright and twinkling eyes. One night the brood disappeared, and desperate things were held in store if ever a snake were found in the neighbourhood. Two days after, the alert dog gave tongue, his language demanding urgency and extreme caution. Within twenty yards of the site of the violated nest he was found “setting” at a big snake, which had raised the forepart of its body and appeared to be concentrating its strength and agility on one fatal and perfidious spring. But the faithful dog was watchful too, and agile, as he crouched fearlessly across the track of man’s first enemy, with its crafty pose and glittering eyes. The black boys stood afar off, for the “Wat-tam” is so arrogant and pugnacious that it does not hesitate to attack a man, invariably with fatal results if great vigilance be not exercised — at least, such is their belief. Science, however, shows that though the snake has poison fangs, they are located so far back in the jaws as to be practically ineffective. Its fierce demeanour is probably, therefore, assumed for the purposes of intimidation. The gun speedily put the wicked-looking snake out of action, and a bulge in the body indicated the site of the last meal — the confiding thrush and her fledgeless brood. The incident illustrates another favourite theory — viz., that venomous snakes have a specific, distinctive odour, which warns animals likely to be attacked of their presence. The dog kills green tree, ordinary whip snakes, and the black, white-bellied species fond of reposing in the mounds of scrub hens, without ceremony and with all the zest and enthusiasm of a good sport; but in the case of venomous species so far he has not failed to call for help, but if assistance be delayed he takes the law into his own hands.

Be it far from me to cast doubt on the truth of that which follows. The record is found in “Memoirs of the Queensland Museum,” vol. ii., page 43: “Although the scientific worker is hopelessly handicapped by the vividly imaginative journalist when snake stories are told, yet occasionally there are noticed incidents startling enough in their way. During the cooler months a young and lithe DIEMENIA PSAMMOPHIS, Schleg, popularly known as a ‘whip snake,’ usually retired under a piece of bark placed in its case, and it was only to be tempted out on warm and sunny days. On one occasion a small skink lizard was introduced, and the snake commenced a lively chase. The lizard ran under the bark, and on reaching the other side scampered back over the top, closely pursued by the snake. Again the lizard entered the bark tunnel, through which the tail of the snake was rapidly disappearing, making a spurt to keep up with the main body. The snake darted for the lizard, missed it, and then seized its own retreating tail about two inches from the tip. With characteristic pertinacity it held on, and apparently the classic episode of a snake swallowing itself was to be attempted. It was not until the snake was taken, out of the case and forcibly handled that it let go, there being apparently no distinction to the ophidian palate between its own flesh and that of its favourite lizard.” The only comment that an unversed student of Nature may presume to make on this incident is that, possibly, the snake retained its tail because it could not do otherwise. Are not the jaws and teeth of some snakes so constructed, that the privilege of rejection is denied? The interests alike of science and the speculative world demanded that in the circumstances Nature should not have been balked. Why deprive the serpent of having its own blundering way with its own tail?

There is no doubt that man does directly benefit by the conflicts which rage continuously between living things lower in the scale of life than himself; but the common slaughter is at times so cruel and so inexplicable that it is not given the average intellect to discover good and sufficient cause, though he may observe the more obvious habits and appetites of frogs and snakes. The former oft implore aid against the attacks of green tree snakes and of a big light brown lizard, fond of sleeping in hollow logs, and since one does not understand from the beseeching tones of the frog whether it is being molested by the universal enemy or not, he often hastens to the rescue, laboriously cuts down to the scene, to find, instead of a snake, a lizard, perhaps more useful in the harmony of Nature than a frog, and certainly more endearing, since it possesses the habit of silence. Unless the frog is past recovery it has become a practice to scare the lizard, and to suggest to the frog the sanctuary of another hollow.

But frogs are not always considerate of other and gayer creatures. A friend who possessed a pet canary noticed that one morning in the cage of his pet there sat a panting frog, blinking in the sunlight. Thinking that the intruder had entered the cage to assuage his thirst, he did not eject it. It was the habit of the canary to hail the smiling morn with cheerful carol. In a few minutes unaccustomed silence prevailed, and then it was noticed that the frog was distended to a degree which must have caused it infinite satisfaction, while the canary had vanished. The conclusion was obvious and damning. Being accustomed to post mortems, my friend settled the point forthwith, the warm canary being revealed, with but slightly disarrayed feathers.

A further illustration of the capacious and criminal appetite of the frog may be quoted. The wet season had been generous and prolonged, the crop of frogs prolific. The verge of a lagoon was crowded with active and lusty creatures, belonging, if colour was to be accepted as evidence, to different species, in fairly equal numbers. A casual glance inspired the thought that the occasion was nothing more than a vast assembly of greys and greens enjoying the pastime which boys imitate. All round were leaping frogs engaged in contests — greys against greens. Suspecting no evil intent, it was interesting thus to note the derivation of the game we have all played in sportful youth; but closer inspection proved that, instead of a friendly tournament on the grand scale, the rival frogs were indulging in shocking cannibalism. A grey frog would approach a green, when each would appear to become fascinated by the appearance of the other. Thus would they squat for several minutes, contemplating each other’s proportions and perfections. Then both would leap high with mouths agape, and that which timed the feat to the best advantage, or had the widest gape, seized the less fortunate, and slowly and with much straining and little apparent joy swallowed it. Often the rivals would not meet in mid air, and the lapse provided the delusion of innocent play. There were hundreds of examples of absorption of the least fit by the fittest to survive, and the chronicling of the cannibal feast would be incomplete if a singular detail were unrelated. The participators seemed of like size. Complexion alone varied and foppish discrimination was exercised, for since dog does not in a general way eat dog, greys did not eat greys or greens greens. With unswerving decision, greys swallowed greens and greens greys, and extreme corpulency was the inevitable result. Does this not smack of the snake story? It certainly does, but it has the virtue of being unexaggerated, and why shrink from the telling of the plain truth?

An unwitnessed tragedy may be told in a very few words. About twenty-five feet above high-water mark was the shaft of a white sand-crab. The site was not common, for the crabs are in the habit of burrowing well within the range of the tide. For two or three days — for the spot was at the back of the boat-shed and under daily observation — the alert creature was oft disturbed by my coming and going. One morning it remained motionless on the verge of its retreat. It seemed to be on guard, and as a companionable feeling had been aroused, I was careful as I passed not to unduly affright it. The statuesque position being abnormally retained, I stooped down, to find the crab dead, with the froth still on the complicated lips, while beside it was a huge wolf spider, “tremendous still in death,” with head crushed to pulp. One may theorise that the spider invaded the crab’s burrow and was promptly evicted; a fight took place for possession of the retreat, resulting in untoned tragedy. Venom and ponderous weapon each had done its work. Each participant had been victorious, each a victim.

A still more singular bush conflict was witnessed by a friend. He heard, and not without concern, the pleading of a frog from the assaults of an enemy, but having far too many of them about the premises decided on noninterference, thinking that the hungry snake would soon silence the clamour. But the cries becoming shriller and more piteous, he investigated, finding among the leaves of a creeper on the verandah a large green Mantis — religiosa, too — voraciously making a meal off the hind-leg of a little green frog, which it grasped firmly. Almost the whole of the flesh of the limb had been eaten, and the observer was of opinion from the rapacity of the insect that there would have been little left of the screaming frog if he had not interfered.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32