Taiwan is simply an awesome field herping destination. Despite having only four active days in Taiwan, the time I spent there was my favorite part of a 31 day herping odyssey across five countries in southeast Asia. When I landed in Taipei I was raring to go – I was finally recovering from a terrible chest cold acquired on my outbound flight to Kuala Lumpur three weeks earlier. I felt pretty good for a change, and was looking forward to finally herping this island, sitting on top of my must-see list for a long time. The plan was to herp up in the interior mountains, but before heading up there, I spent the first night herping a hillside forest near Taoyuan City with friends Kevin and Bill, and a very snakey night it was. Bill kept track of numbers, and we saw more than 60 snakes in just a few hours.
The most common snake that first night was the south China green snake, Ptyas major (formerly Cyclophiops major). This beautiful serpent made up well over half of our serpent sightings, all of them resting in bushes and trees. Most of our hike was punctuated with remarks like “there’s another one!” These harmless green beauties are a diurnal form that prey on earthworms significantly larger than the ones around my house. Also observed off the ground were Kelung cat snakes (Boiga kraepelini) and Chinese green tree vipers (Trimeresurus stejnegeri), both species wide awake and looking for meals and mates.
Several many-banded kraits (Bungarus multicinctus) were encountered prowling around the forest floor, along with red-banded wolf snakes (Lycodon rufozonatus), a species which has recently lost its cool specific, Dinodon, when genetic analysis indicated they belong in the Lycodon species group.
Irony: these snakes have been Dinodon for decades, and when I finally get a chance to see one, they’ve been lumped in with the wolf snakes (eh, Lycodon is kinda cool too, really).
We also saw a dozen or more Taiwan japalures (Diploderma swinhonis) sleeping while clinging to twigs and branches. These agamids were nearly as big as North American collared lizards (Crotaphytus) and I wondered what their total biomass for this forest might be; no doubt they were a significant food source for many of the snakes we were finding.
Kuatun frogs (Hylarana latouchii) were common in low and wet places and are equivalent in size to North American wood frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus). I’d seen other species of Hylarana in other countries on my journey, and as a group, they fit into the robust, medium sized, and attractive frog category.
It was yet another late night and early morning spent chasing critters in the forest, but when we finally headed back to our hotel, I slept the sleep of the victorious herper. It was late morning before Bill, Kevin and I started making our way up into the mountains of the interior. There was no rush – it was possible to find some herps during the day, but our prime directive was to cruise the mountain roads at night. We enjoyed an excellent lunch, and then a swim in a chilly mountain stream. Bill and Kevin know how to enjoy themselves and I’m totally sympatico with their ‘gentlemen herpers at leisure’ approach.
The mountains were rugged, with few roads cutting through them, and they were covered with lush green forest. At times there were layers of mist on some of the higher slopes and valleys, much like the Smokies back in the States. It was cool up there at night, but not cold, and the roads we drove varied in elevation from 1000 to 1500 meters. Along with watching the roads, we would be scanning the culverts and rock walls that lined the roadsides.
The first serpent to appear in our headlights was a snail-eater, Pareas atayal. There are are least two snail-eaters in this area, and while they are similar in appearance, they are not closely related, as one might think – later we would find several Pareas formosensis.
Pareas of both species would be a common find, and the biggest example might have been eighteen inches in length. An interesting feature is their triangular shape in cross-section, an aid to climbing that allows them to stiffen their body when reaching for a far branch in pursuit of their prey.
Up next was a snake that really grabbed my interest – a false habu, Macropisthodon rudis. This species reminds me of North American hognose snakes (Heterodon) in a number of ways: they’re about the same size, they spread and flatten their heads to mimic vipers, and toads are a big component of their diet.
I handled this first one, but then was cautioned against doing so. Long thought to be a mildly venomous rear-fanged snake, venom experts now think it may be potentially lethal, and advise handling M. rudis like an elapid. We found several more of these snakes, and I was quite careful with them from that point on. Some workers now place this species in Rhabdophis, but there is some controversy and doubt about that.
I had seen several species of kukri snake traveling around southeast Asia, and I added another one in the mountains of Taiwan – Oligodon ornatus, the ornate kukri snake. The rear-most teeth in this egg-eating species are shaped somewhat like the angled kukri knife found on the Indian subcontinent, and I’m told they leave significant lacerations if those teeth come into play during a bite (fortunately they’re not big biters). When agitated or threatened, Oligodon often coil their tails in a spiral that flash brightly colored ventral scales.
Kevin and I had a rental car, while Bill rode his motor scooter. To maximize effort, Kevin and I would take turns walking stretches of the mountain roads while the other drove. While walking along one stretch, Kevin spotted a large snake in a small drain hole in a rock wall, and managed to extract a four foot Taiwan beauty snake (Orthriophis taeniurus). I’ve been in love with beauty snakes for nearly fifty years, and so it was immensely satisfying to finally see one in the wild.
Venomous serpents were also present, including Hatori’s coral snake (Sinomicrurus hatori) and green tree vipers (Trimeresurus stejnegeri). Fortunately there was little traffic on the mountain roads after dark, allowing us to photograph hot snakes without having to worry much about approaching vehicles.
We were on our third pass on the road late one night, and only a mile or so from our turnaround point, when a meter-long snake appeared in our headlights. Kevin stopped the car quickly, and I didn’t know what we had until I opened my door and stood up, allowing me a better look at it. I let out a primal scream that surely startled anyone within earshot – we had found Euprepiophis mandarinus, the mandarin ratsnake! I knew mandarinus occurred on Taiwan, but had no expectations that I would see one – this was big game, a top-tier herp, and I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
Examining this beauty (which never offered to bite), I couldn’t help but compare it to the mountain kingsnakes (Lampropeltis zonata) of North America (comparing the herpetofauna of the eastern and western hemispheres was a common theme on this trip). It had a similar body and head shape, was secretive in its habits, and if I looked around, the habitat for mandarinus had some strong similarities. At any rate, I felt incredibly lucky, and the mandarino sits at the top of the 147 species I observed across 31 days of herping.
There was more fun to come, including a two meter stinking goddess (Elaphe carinata), a ratsnake built more like a bullsnake. This species is famous for its post-anal glands that produce a vile-smelling substance, but when I handled it, the body was coated in an oily substance that smelled equally bad. I’m not sure of the origin and/or mechanism behind this stinky oil, but I keep wet wipes in my pack just for these occasions. This species commonly exceeds seven feet, making it both rank and impressive at the same time.
It rained during my last night up in the mountains, and the frogs and toads came out to play. Taiwanese brown frogs (Rana longicrus) looked amazingly like the North American wood frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) back home and were pretty much the same size.
Bankor toads (Bufo bankorensis) were common – this species sported powerful arms and legs (see slideshow below). We saw quite a few Taiwanese sharp-nosed frogs (Odorrana swinhoana), beautiful jumpers about the size of leopard frogs.
The last snake of the trip was a meter-long Chinese cobra (Naja atra), that hooded up and posed for a few photos just before dark. It was a great way to cap off a successful trip. I had managed to record 27 species and some spectacular finds in just four herping days. A couple more days would have been nice, but at the same time I was ready to return home.
More photos are in the slideshow below.