Snakes On The Plain: Kevin in China

Let's see how many people incapable of spelling 'plane' arrive here by the way of Google. But I am talking about a real 'plain' - a big one, in China, and about some very real live snakes as well!

A good friend (and ex-neighbor) of mine, Kevin Messenger, is in China right now, surveying herpetofauna (that is - reptiles and amphibians, for the non-biologists here) in a remote area of central China, rarely visited by Weesterners, and never before surveyed by scientists.

He is one of those natural-born herpetologists - he lives, breathes and dreams snakes. When I lived in Raleigh I would often see him pull up with his truck next door. He would holler "Hey, Bora! Come see what I got today!". I'd walk over there and watch the bags in his truck wriggle. He would open one bag at a time, with a gleam in his eyes, showing me "the biggest rattler I ever caught!" and "hey, this one is so rare around here" and "isn't this one pretty?" His house was full of animals, mostly herps (his veterinarian sister has her own menagerie - but her animals mostly had eyelids), and he always had great stories to tell from his surveys in the Sandhills.

He gave a talk about his research at the meeting of the Society for Herpetology when he was still in high school! He published his first paper when he was a freshman. I will, at some point in the future, write about his excellent paper on the effects of moonlight on snake activity in the Sandhills. The research in China is going to be his MS work, although he just graduated college and has yet to start grad school. Still, since the first day at NCSU he knew he was going to do graduate work with Hal Heathwole, and Hal knew it, too.

As he is sleeping in a tent somewhere in China right now, you can imagine how hard it is for him to get online. He was thinking about recording his trip and his work on a blog, but had to give that idea up - it is just impossible in his situation. Still, every now and then he goes to visit the civilization and manages to send an e-mail or two. He asked me to post his essays here, on my blog. Once he comes back home in Fall, he may republish them elsewhere on the Web, either on a static page, or on a blog that he may wish to continue to write afterwards.

Kevin has sent me a few installments already - they ar fascinating, believe me - which I will post over the next several days. He even managed to send me some pictures of the animals he saw there and I will post those as well. As the new stories and pics come in, I will post them here as well.

Today, I will start with Kevin's introductory autobiography and description of his researh - under the fold:


At the request of a couple of friends, and in order to give anyone I don't know some background information, I am writing an introduction to myself, my work, and my goals. Unfortunately, the background into my professional career is fairly lengthy...

I will start off simple; my name is Kevin Messenger, and I am a recent graduate from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC. I majored in zoology and worked under Dr. Harold Heatwole. Since I was a senior in high school (2000 - 2001) I have been working on a snake study in the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge. The study addresses the behavior and movement patterns of snakes on this refuge and also takes note of the biodiversity over several years.

Though the first two years were good, the study did not reach its full development until 2002 - I now basically view those first two years as practice years, getting the methodology down and the feel for what data to collect. I came to continue my research through NC State after meeting Dr. Heatwole in the spring semester of my senior year. Based on recommendations from the Museum of Natural Sciences, I showed Dr. Heatwole my research and was basically just looking for any opinions and advice. He was very impressed and invited me along on a course that summer; Coral Reef Ecology, on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

As any herpetologist knows, Australia is one of the herping capitals of the world and it has always been a dream of mine to visit there. My parents made that trip my high school graduation present, and so for my very first NC State class, I was receiving lectures on a remote tropical island on the Barrier Reef. While there, I studied the behavior of the Mourning Gecko (Lepidodactylus lugubris) which later led to my first published scientific article in the journal Herpetofauna, an Australian based journal. While on the island Dr. Heatwole and I discussed the future of my sandhills work. He said I could very easily turn it into a Master's or PhD thesis and that I should continue it. One notable difference is that few Master's thesis' are seven or eight years in the making. When I returned to the states that fall and enrolled in fall classes, I spent the next several months searching for grants to fund my growing hopes about the sandhills potential.

So, since 2002 I have dedicated the majority of my time to my research. I would spend about 20 hours a week during the school year and endless hours during the summer in the sandhills. So for the past six years, I have been working on the many facets that the sandhills has provided me, expecting to use them for a higher degree.

Then in the winter of 2005, my advisor (Dr. Heatwole) forwards me an email from a job advertisement online. The advertisement was posted on the Center for North American Herpetology. In his email, he asked me to pass it along to the rest of the herpetology club (I was the current president of the Herpetology Club at NC State - one of the co-founders as well), and mentioned that someone may want to apply for the position. The email detailed the need for a herpetologist to conduct some field work in the mountains of central China, specifically the Shennongjia National Reserve. It mentioned that the individual would need to be in great physical condition and would be in a primitive campground for three or four months for the summer of 2006, and that the primary interest was sampling the snakes found on the reserve. It mentioned that no official herpetological studies have ever been conducted here and that Azemiops feae was one of the suspected species.

There were two small "glitches" that kept the project from being perfect, one was that the individual would have to be self-funded, and the other was that the individual would have to know mandarin. Either way, this still sounded like a dream to me; not only as a herpetologist, but also as an Eagle Scout, and an amateur nature photographer. The idea of spending four months camping in the mountains of an unknown place (herp wise) is just incredible, and I wanted it badly. I went ahead and passed it along to the other members of the club, but immediately contacted Dr. Stanford in California (the individual who posted the job). I sent him a quick informal resume and after about a month of inquiring about the position, I had the job.

The China project entailed sampling the Shennongjia National Reserve, a mountainous terrain of 800,000 acres, and covering a vertical range of 2,752 meters (8,256 feet). During my stay, I will be cataloging snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, toads, and salamanders. There is a very likely possibility of new species as well. In addition to simply cataloging the herpetofauna, I will also examine the biodiversity at various elevations, from approximately 400 meters, upwards to 2900 meters, at roughly 400 meter intervals.

Due to the length of the project, I have to postpone my attendance for graduate school in the fall of 2006 until spring of 2007. The China project will take over as my Master's work, and I will reserve the sandhills work for my PhD.

The following page is a copy of my proposal which gives provides more detail into the project (though some of the details changed significantly once I got here, particularly methodology, due to various circumstances).

Herpetological Survey of Shennongjia Forest Preserve, Hubei Province, China

Determine what species of reptiles and amphibians inhabit the area
Examine the herpetogeography of the area
Increase knowledge of threatened or endangered species

The Shennongjia Forest Reserve is a forest located in the mountains of Hubei Province, of central China, between 110°03'-110°34' and 31°21'-31°37'N. The reserve was established in 1982 and covers over 3,000 square kilometers of lush mountainous terrain. Elevations range from 398 meters (river valley) to 3,150 meters. The reserve is divided into an eastern and western portion, by geographical features. The climate is sub-tropical/ temperate climate with very distinct seasons. In areas above 1700 m, spring is from April to the end of May; summer from June to mid August; autumn from mid August to the end of October; and winter is from November to the end of March (Li, 2000). The habitat at the various elevations can be broken into the following categories: subtropical evergreen broadleaf forest below 800 m; subtropical montane deciduous broadleaf forest between 800 - 1550 m; temperature deciduous broadleaf coniferous forest from 1500 - 2600 m; temperate coniferous forest above 2600 m (Wuhan Institute of Botany, 1980).

The area has over 500 vertebrate species and an enormous variety of medicinal herbs and tree species. About 30 of the species that exist here belong to world's rarity or China's specialty. Reptiles and amphibians are two groups of animals in this region that have received very little attention.

Unfortunately, a herpetological survey has never been conducted in these mountains. Very little is known about what is there, or what could be there. For example, one suspected species is Azemiops feae (Fea's Viper). There are specimens of this species in nearby museums, and it has been recorded in the Sichuan Province, which borders Shennongjia to the west. This is arguably the most primitive viper on earth, and would certainly classify as one of the rarest. It shares qualities of vipers, elapids, and colubrids. This snake was described in 1888, but until 1935 only two specimens were known. The species is very hard to keep in captivity and captive breeding has not been successful (Mara, 1993). There is very little known about this species in its natural habitat, including diet, reproduction, and information on hatchlings (Mehrtens, 1987).

It is critical that we learn about the biodiversity that inhabits this remote location. Understanding the biodiversity of a place promotes a better understanding of community ecology and makes responsible resource management possible. Once we know what species live in an area we can make judgments on the health of an area. Anurans are excellent sentinel organisms, but if we do not know what species are there to begin with, then it is hard for us to judge the health of an area until it is too late. There is even potential for undiscovered species of reptiles or amphibians. Obviously anything we could learn about Azemiops would also be of significant importance. The results of this study will give the Chinese science community and worldwide scientists a better understanding of the populations of endangered species, potentially undiscovered species, as well as a better understanding of the habit requirements and natural histories of certain species.


There are several techniques to find and capture reptiles and amphibians. Actively searching, checking coverboards, setting up drift fences, pitfall traps, funnel traps, PVC pipes, and driving roads at night are all highly successful methods for finding herps (Grant, 1992; Leiden, 1999; Gibbons 1981). Drift fences will most likely not be used in this situation because of the intensity of labor involved, not to mention that without prior research of the area, it would be very difficult to judge where drift fences should be placed, but they still could be used later in the study. Actively searching, checking coverboards, setting up funnel traps, PVC pipes, and monitoring roads at night will be the techniques primarily employed. Simply placing PVC pipes in areas of high humidity will collect several species of tree frogs with minimal effort on the researcher's part (Johnson, 2005). Anurans will also be surveyed by recording calls at night or during rain storms. All attempts will be made to actually find the animals, but if an animal can not be found, then at least I will have a recording of the call, which should be adequate to identify current species. Coverboards (both plywood and tin) will attract a number of herps, such as snakes, lizards, frogs, salamanders, to even turtles (Grant, 1992). Checking roads at night is one of the best methods for monitoring the snake fauna in a particular place (Leiden, 1999).

Upon capture, snakes will be marked with a cauterizer to identify individuals on subsequent recaptures (Winne et al. 2006). This technique also allows for all sizes of snakes to be marked, not just adults. Snakes will be measured both snout-to-vent and total length. Snakes will be weighed and sexed. They will be photographed as voucher specimens and then released. Specimens collected will be deposited with the museum officials in Shennongjia. I will comply with appropriate field research protocols, such as the Guidelines for Use of Live Amphibians and Reptiles in Field Research, compiled by American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, The Herpetologists' League, and the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles - Additional voucher specimens will be requested to be placed in museums or universities in the United States. Proper preservation techniques will be used in order to maximize the value of the preserved specimens. Locations of finds will be marked with GPS coordinates. Environmental data such as ambient temperature, substrate temperature, habitat, elevation, and any other relevant data will be recorded as well (precipitation, moon phase, time of day/night). Other herps will not be marked but will be measured, weighed, and photographed with an identifying number in the picture.

The reserve covers a vast vertical range (2752 m) and I will be conducting biodiversity surveys at 400 m, 800 m, 1200 m, 1600 m, 2000 m, 2400 m, and 3000 m. Surveys will be conducted approximately 6 out of 7 days each week from mid-May until mid-September of 2006, with the intention of a follow-up season in 2007. I will be living in the primitive camp in Qianjiaping established by Dr. Li Yiming of the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. The information obtained will be shared with Chinese officials, the park service, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.


There are several potential predators of reptiles and amphibians in the reserve. Some of these include the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), fox (Vulpes vulpes), weasel (Martes sp.), eurasian badger (Meles meles), zibet (Viverra vibetha), jackal (Cuon alpinus fumosus), wolf (Canis lupus chaco), golden cat (Felis temminckii tristis), leopard (Panthera pardus fusca), and possibly the tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) if they have not been extirpated from the reserve.

References Cited

Gibbons, J. Whitfield, and Raymond D. Semlitsch.1981. Terrestrial drift fences with
pitfall traps: an effective technique for quantitative sampling of animal populations. Brimleyana No. 7:1-16.

Grant, B. W., A. D. Tucker, J. E. Lovich, A. M. Mills, P. M. Dixon, and J. W. Gibbons.
1992. The use of coverboards in estimating patterns of reptile and amphibian biodiversity. Pages 379-403 in R. Siegel and N. Scott (eds.). Wildlife 2001. Elsevier Science Publ., Inc. London, England.

Johnson, Jarrett R. 2005. A novel arboreal pipe-trap designed to capture the Gray
Treefrog (Hyla versicolor). Herpetologicl Review 36(3):274-277.

Leiden, Yale A., Michael E. Dorcas, and J. Whitfield Gibbons. 1999. Herpetofaunal
diversity in coastal plain communities of South Carolina. The Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society, 115 (4): 270-280.

Mara, W.P. 1993. Venomous snakes of the world. T.F.H. Publications, Inc.

Mehrtens, John. 1987. Living snakes of the world in color. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.
New York.

Winne, Christopher, John D. Willson, Kimberly Andrews, and Robert Reed. Efficacy of
marking snakes with disposable medical cautery units. Herpetological Review, 2006, 37(1), 52-54.


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That is completely awesome. I'm twinging with jealousy over here, especially at the mention of potential new species of salamanders and frogs. I may be studying frogs in grad school, but I have a special spot in my heart for the lovely salamander.

He did.

He must have some pretty high-octane wetware.

I'm enjoying his posts very much (just read the second). Starting out in biology, the picture I had in my mind of a biologist's life was very much about field work and old-fashioned naturalist studies (Gerald Durrell was my only boyhood hero), so sitting here in an air-conditioned molecular lab I am feeling twinges of nostalgia and envy.

hey everyone. I really must thank Bora for doing this. I am not very computer literate and attempted a short blog before leaving and was unsuccessful. In the 3 months I studied Chinese I learned a lot, around 300 or so words - but it has not been near enough. Without my assistant Linsen, I would be completely lost. I am continuing to pick up things here and there, but I realize it will take a lot more study if I want to become independent out here. The hardest part isn't really the words or the pronunciation, but the intonations. Each word, such as "ba" can be pronounced with either a rising accent, a falling accent, a rise-and-fall accent, or a flat accent, and each one has a different meaning. Trying to listen to a conversation is where this becomes difficult.
As for the salamander lover, one of the more common species in Shennongjia (supposedly) is Andrias! The reserve office had confiscated one from a local trying to sell one for food, it was about 3 ft. I really want to find one personally. So far I've only found 2 species of salamanders, both highly aquatic and yet to be IDed (no book), 4-5 species of frogs, 2 species of toads, 1 species of lizard (so damn hard to catch, I've had several escape), and 14 species of snakes. Not a single turtle yet (except in restaurants).

Mandarin is one of the most difficult languages. I have been living in China for eight years and my mandarin is far from perfect.

How long will you friend be here in China or has he already returned to the US? IF he is still here I would like to contact him about some herping I have been doing in Zhejiang Province.

By Dayton Carpenter (not verified) on 17 Sep 2006 #permalink

Please give him my contact information, I am in China so he can call me I would love to talk to him before he leaves here.

my cell is 13958092113, just have borrow someones cell and give me a call or if possible if you know where he is staying and be reached by phone. please email to me.



By Dayton Carpenter (not verified) on 17 Sep 2006 #permalink

Must have been quite an adventure! I'm interested in hearing the results of Kevin's survey, especially whether he's since been able to ID the two species of salamanders he found!

General Comment re. Kevin in China:

My only comments are that Kevin seems to regard the catching of dangerous snakes as a "fun thing" to do.
Herpetology is a serious science and deals with species that can have a fatal consequence to the scientist involved(read about the death of Carl P. Schmidt, a world famous herpetologist who died from the bite of an African boomslang).
He also omits mentioning any warnings and the keeping of any records, observations and his general methodology.
All in all,Kevin displays the attitude of an amateur snake fancier rather than that of a profesional man of science.

By Richard Duval (not verified) on 05 Dec 2006 #permalink

Have you read the whole series, of which this is just the very first part?

Kevin is nothing but a very serious and dedicated herpetologist, and if you read all the rest of the posts, you will see that all your concerns have been answered. This first post is just a brief introduction - read the rest of the series.

Before my computer succumbed to virus I think I had this page bookmarked to take me on to Kevin's subsequent postings. I lost my old bookmarks and now I'm back here I don't see any links to his later reports. Is there a different address to go to? I'm really grateful, they were fascinating - entertaining but above all informative.