Urban Jungle

At Home with Herps: Living with Reptiles

How a herpetologist fell in love with the natural world by observing snakes, lizards, frogs and other reptiles around his home

Text and photographs by: Gerry Martin

When I was in the sixth grade, we had a week of particularly heavy rain and in addition to keeping me from getting to school, it flooded the lake adjoining the farm I grew up on, bringing the water up to our house. While many others found this inconvenient, it was paradise for me; and a week that I will never forget.

Reptiles were all seeking high ground, including our walls, shelves and tiled roof! Frogs were everywhere, putting together a crescendo of a chorus every night and it really seemed to be raining herps! After the first day of torrential rain, we found a couple of forest scorpions, numerous centipedes and a wolf snake inside our house. My grandfather set up a mosquito net over my bed that night — solutions were so much simpler then and far less dramatic. There were no “rescuers” to call. Besides, making a call from there (we lived well outside Bangalore — then still a small town claiming to be a city) required getting in touch with an operator and then waiting in the hope that they’d connect us.

The green vine snake’s (Ahaetulla nasuta) pointed snout and forward facing eyes give it binocular vision. This, along with it colour, gliding motion and slender body make it perfect for its arboreal lifestyle.  Cover photo: The bronzeback tree snake (Dendrelaphis tristis) has two ridges near the edges of its ventral (belly) scales that enable it to grip even the faintest hold, enabling it to climb effortlessly up seemingly smooth surfaces. The green vine snake’s (Ahaetulla nasuta) pointed snout and forward facing eyes give it binocular vision. This, along with it colour, gliding motion and slender body make it perfect for its arboreal lifestyle.  Cover photo: The bronzeback tree snake (Dendrelaphis tristis) has two ridges near the edges of its ventral (belly) scales that enable it to grip even the faintest hold, enabling it to climb effortlessly up seemingly smooth surfaces.

The green vine snake’s (Ahaetulla nasuta) pointed snout and forward facing eyes give it binocular vision. This, along with it colour, gliding motion and slender body make it perfect for its arboreal lifestyle.
Cover photo: The bronzeback tree snake (Dendrelaphis tristis) has two ridges near the edges of its ventral (belly) scales that enable it to grip even the faintest hold, enabling it to climb effortlessly up seemingly smooth surfaces.

The mosquito net worked wonders. Over the next few days, I woke up to a few different critters on top of it; a reality that made waking up so much better. However, more joyous than finding these little “creepy crawlies” (and I use this term with the greatest of affection), was the lesson that I learnt from that week — There was so much more life around me than I could see! So, I set out, barefooted and shin-deep in water to find as much as I could.

Fortunately, this was a time with a lot more “green” and much less concrete. There were very few spaces that didn’t have some sort of natural ecosystem or garden. I spent my time staring at ponds, hedges, fields and even the tiled ceiling of our mud-plaster farmhouse. I found that waiting and watching worked well for the most part and I got to see a lot of animals being their natural selves. Still, as a young lad I found it hard to always stay still and spent a fair deal of time actively searching for all things reptilian.

(Left) A male oriental garden lizard common garden lizard (Calotes versicolor) stands high on his perch to let females and other males know that this is his territory. (Right) Male common garden lizards develop a red colour on their heads and necks during the breeding season.

(Left) A male oriental garden lizard common garden lizard (Calotes versicolor) stands high on his perch to let females and other males know that this is his territory. (Right) Male common garden lizards develop a red colour on their heads and necks during the breeding season.

One of the easiest animals to spot in the garden was always the erstwhile infamous “bloodsucker”, more accurately called the Oriental garden lizard (Calotes versicolor). Any space with ample vegetation, leaf litter and a few trees can host numerous individuals. Usually, one large male lords over an area from a high perch and will rush down to chase away any intruding males. Within this area of the calotes’ line of sight, there will be numerous females and juveniles. Our dominant male spends most of his time doing head bobs and push-ups as displays. The word “bloodsucker” must have come from the red colouration that the males get on their gular (throat) skin during the breeding season. The obvious conclusion to this colouration for someone was that these lizards suck human blood telepathically!

Watching garden lizards be garden lizards can provide hours of entertainment. They’re constantly on the lookout for food, predators and other lizards. Interestingly, they don’t only hunt insects. I’ve seen these garden lizards capture centipedes (during that flood) and even grab a fledgling sunbird once.

Speaking of garden lizards and predation, the first green vine snake that I ever saw gave its presence away by grabbing a fully grown, male calotes right outside my grandfather’s window and the ensuing struggle drew my attention. With no guidance, literature or Internet to check with, I was too afraid to go any closer, worried that the snake would see me and attack my eyes with its pointed snout — a very popular conviction even today. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Vine snakes rely completely on camouflage and staying out of sight for their safety. In fact, if a vine snake were to try to gorge our eyes out with its snout, its incredible adaptation that helps the snake gain binocular vision and judge distances, it would break.

(Left) Prashad’s gecko (Hemidactylus prashadi) is one of the many geckos that might make your front porch its home and feed off the bugs attracted to the light. (Right) A nice layer of leaf litter will invite many a ground-dwelling lizard like this Beddome’s cat skink (Ristella beddomei) to share your backyard with you.

The vine snake and garden lizard aren’t the only ones that will dispel misconceptions if just watched. I was just under seven years old when I remember my first wild encounter with a spectacled cobra (Naja naja). My grandfather and I were together when we saw this snake very slowly crossing the path in front of us. My immediate reaction was to start moving backward, but my grandfather just put his arm around my shoulder and said, “If we stay still, it will go away.” The cobra raised its head (not its hood) glanced at us and then hastened away into the adjoining field. These words and that experience have stayed with me.

They enabled me to try and understand this terribly misunderstood group of animals. Over the years, I was able to observe a host of behaviour from predation and defence to mating and combat all in my home and backyard.

The painted globular frog (Uperodon taprobanica) comes out of its tree or rock crevice to reproduce and feed during the rains.

The painted globular frog (Uperodon taprobanica) comes out of its tree or rock crevice to reproduce and feed during the rains.

In addition to the joy of seeing an animal, I find it much more rewarding to spend time observing it. Taking notes of the where, when, what, etc. helped me stay tuned with seasonal behavior and what to expect while herping. Knowing when garden lizards would be laying their eggs or when to expect hatchling flapshell turtles to start showing up in the damp areas of the garden was invigorating and built my understanding of the reptile life around me.

I feed my addiction of watching reptiles by creating better habitats for them around my home. Leaf litter, piles of brush and dead wood, ponds and stacks of old bricks and tiles that I gladly take from anyone throwing them out not only form terrific refugia for herps, but allow the entire assemblage of animals that they need to live off to thrive.

Creating small spaces that offer wildlife a variety of habitats, food and water will go a long way in increasing the appeal for various animals to call your backyard home. You can start small and allow it to grow like this little pond did outside our home.

Today, I watch herps pretty much as I watch birds: from a distance, unobtrusively and trying my best not to disturb them. Although I love seeing the amazing images that are out there of various reptiles and amphibians, I personally choose to capture these images in my mind’s eye.

Gerry Martin
Gerry Martin

is the founder director of The Gerry Martin Project, and has been involved with herpetological research and conservation, documentary filmmaking, education and eco-tourism over the past decade.


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