Monday, June 1, 2009

Reptile combat

Yesterday afternoon, when I spotted this motionless combat between a snake and a lizard in my garden, I couldn't quite distinguish the contours of the two reptiles, whose hues are similar.

When taking this photo with a long-focal lens, I was leaning over the stone wall in front of my house, whereas the reptiles were located three meters below me. It was late afternoon, and there wasn't much light at the place where the combat was taking place. The yellow cylindrical object that crosses the photo horizontally is a garden hose, exactly 2 cm in diameter. So, the snake and the lizard are quite small creatures. I tiptoed down into the garden, to get a closer look.

Here, we are looking directly at the snake's head and right eye. The snake has turned the lizard over (the yellow zone is the victim's throat), and is pinning it down at the level of the lizard's front "armpits", preventing it from scrambling away. At the instant I took this photo, I did not know whether the snake had already killed the lizard. In fact, the lizard was very much alive, because I now see that the snake had probably not yet got around to planting its tiny fangs in the lizard.

Since the scene was still totally motionless, I decided to get some action by nudging the garden hose. The snake immediately wriggled away from the lizard, which promptly scampered up the stone wall to safety. Having been brought up in rural environment in Australia where the golden rule consists of killing any serpent you encounter, I took a swing or two at the snake with a garden fork. I remember thinking that it was quite unacceptable that the snake should attack one of the nice little lizards that I love to watch when they're basking in the sun. Then, all of a sudden, before delivering a fatal blow, I said to myself: "The poor little snake needs to eat. First, I've deprived him of his meal. And now, I'm trying to kill him." What dastardly behavior on my behalf! Like Abraham hearing God tell him that he should spare the life of Isaac, I held my arm back, and watched the serpent wiggle into the weeds. Back in his hole on the slopes, I can imagine the little snake telling his family that there's a psychopathic protector of lizards up in the garden at Gamone...

And what kind of a snake was it? I've often joked about the criterion for distinguishing between a venomous viper and a harmless grass or water snake, because the experts tell us that you simply have to look the reptile in the eyes and examine the shape of its pupils. Easier said than done... unless you've got a long-focal lens and Photoshop. The pupil of a viper is a vertical slit, whereas that of a non-venomous reptile is round. Here's a closeup view of the eye of the harmless little fellow that I chased away from my garden:

If ever he's brave enough to drop by again, I'll seek forgiveness for my brutality by helping him to catch a lizard.

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