Wednesday, September 1, 2010

CSI: Mason Center

by Lia Sansom

There is an important lesson to learn from this blog post.
On Monday, the field crew and I stopped by the Mason Center on our way back from the field to water some new garden plants. As usual, I crept around carefully until I could establish where the resident rattlesnake was hanging out that day. This rattlesnake, probably a western diamondback, can usually be found somewhere around the buildings and gardens. Volunteer Tom Bethard recently named him Don Diamond, because he seems to own the place as we give Don top consideration it what we do and where we go. Don has a particularly favorite spot to curl up: a dried pile of mud gloop in a basin alongside a path. Don is not offensive, in fact he has never rattled or given humans any notice. At the recent Nature by Night event, he even allowed close-up photos. He was looking classy that night; bright and shiny like he recently shed his skin. So Don became a stakeholder and a friend of the Mason Center (even though I felt he could have done a better job of eating pack-rats.) So it was shocking and tragic when I found him like this on Monday near that favored spot:

He was dead. It took a moment for this to register and I began to feel a little sad. I called the crew guys over to see and as I waited for them I inspected him closely and realized, this was no ordinary snake death. Look closely and you will see Don's head in the center of the photo biting his own body. There were no other signs of struggle: like marks on his body from a possible predator. A mystery. Well, I am embarrassed to admit how many episodes of the CSI tv shows I have watched, but those shows definitely influenced my next actions. I got out my camera phone and began snapping photos of the scene before I touched anything. Then I took some snake tongs and turned his body every which way and documented all angles of the bite:In the picture on the left you can see a small pink and grey feather stuck in his fang, which the three of us noticed with interest. Satisfied we had as much evidence as we could gather, we left the scene and planned a burial for a later date.
At the office the next day, I downloaded the photos and emailed them off to local herpetology experts, including Cecil Schwalbe. I thought this might be a common occurence easily explained by those in the know once they saw the pictures. I mentioned my theory that the snake had tried to attack House Finch (based on the feather) and accidentally bit itself in the heart (based on a diagram of snake anatomy I found and some research that told me snakes don't die from their venom). A few hours later Cecil called in utter amazement of what I had found and he asked this:

"Did you freeze it?"

Oh! What a rookie mistake! As Cecil went on about the possibilities of what happened and all the people he knew who would have loved to disect and examine the snake to figure out what happened, I sat cringing. I berated myself for having lost the opportunity to solve the mystery, to potentially advance knowledge about rattlesnakes and to give Don's death meaning. I asked Cecil if he thought Don's body might not have desiccated too much, even though 24 hours had passed since I found him. Cecil doubted it and my own experience told me the ants had probably eaten him to the bone already. So I changed the subject and asked if he had been able to identify the scat from this photo I had sent him a few weeks earlier:This was also from the Mason Center and I knew it was something potentially odd. The separation of the white uric acid indicated bird or reptile, but it was a large amount (evidenced by my keys used for scale) for either type of animal. I was hoping for Gila Monster, which had not been seen on the site for many, many years. Cecil said:

"That is cool. Did you pick it up and keep it? Otherwise it's too hard to tell."

Two for two failures at being an investigative naturalist! Well that was too much. I hopped in my car and raced to Mason, praying Don's body was still there in decent condition. Mason is a nature center, and I was not managing it well if I was allowing so many opportunities for knowledge to pass via unsolved mysteries. Thankfully, the body was in much better condition than I expected. The bite wound had opened up so the head was no longer clasping the body, and it was pretty smelly, but I put him in a couple of plastic bags and into the freezer. (Don't worry, I turned the freezer down to very cold and will bleach it when I take the body out).
Cecil promises to put it in his own freezer designated for these types of things and will examine it when he has time. So all you readers will have to wait, like me, before we get any kind of answer. Meanwhile, we wait to see what snake will take Don's place in the territory as the new Boss.

And the lesson? Well, if you haven't figured it out: when you find something cool that's dead or inanimate that needs an explanation- pick it up and freeze it! Mind those with whom you share a freezer, though. Frozen dead critters laying around may be a dealbreaker for some relationships.


  1. It's still just a dead snake. No use in cringing to death yourself over a dead snake. It's not like the last unicorn or something. ;-)

  2. That's very interesting. It's not just a dead snake, it's an interesting nature mystery. Looking forward to the follow-up.


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