Monday, July 07, 2008

torcelos and terciopelos

There are many creatures here: something like 5% of the world’s animal species live in Costa Rica, and each must find its place within the whole. What to eat, where to eat, when to eat, how to avoid being eaten, how to find a mate, how to create future generations – everyone has their own niche world within the greater various ecosystems.
As a westerner, growing up in Scotland where the most dangerous animal is the rarely seen adder, (the bears and wolves hunted to extinction), I have a conditioned faith that nature is benign. And as a human living in the world’s temperate zones, it largely is: one must search fairly hard to find a grizzly or a rattlesnake or a puma.
Beyond those temperate zones nature, not man, holds the balance. (For the moment: pollution is man’s best weapon against nature and enters into areas where man hasn’t yet taken over.) In such places, man like everyone else must find his or her place. Here, on the edge of the jungle I see nature in her glory daily, whether it be the smell of death and decay from a ditch and circling vultures, to a wasp entering a hole in my chair carrying a paralyzed caterpillar, to the giant orange horsefly with the huge emerald eyes that just bit my leg. As a human at the top of the food chain it still looks fairly benign. But yesterday was book marked by two creatures who’s particular little niche world I would rather not encounter.

Torcelos (a type of bot fly) are rather nasty. The adults are large, bright green, squat and have no working mouth parts. After breeding the female catches mosquitoes and deposits her eggs on their proboscis. When the mosquito bites an egg enters the wound, soon hatches and the grub begins to grow. It lives below the skin feeding on its host for up to two months before pupating. It’s fairly easy to identify a torcelo – the skin is raised in a hard lump, usually discoloured like a bruise and there is a neat round hole, about a millimeter across on the side of the bump. If you discover it early it’s fairly easy to kill it – either squeeze it out (a knuckle size lump holds a 5 millimeter grub), or suffocate it. There are various folk cures, from tying a piece of meat to the lump, to rubbing with mashed hoja de estrella leaves to coating with gasoline. When the grub gets bigger it has to be cut out. Hoss once had one which had grown unnoticed for three weeks (he was staying with friends). When the vet took it out it was half the length of my finger, I couldn’t look, even the vet was horrified. There seems to be a season and we seem to be in it. Hoss has/had 4, clearly a heavily laden mosquito. Luckily I spotted them within a day and coated them with green oil (sulphur, camphor, citronella suspended in oil). It killed them quickly and now we are dealing with his body’s absorption of the matter, hydrogen peroxide and another green oil coating just to make sure. But Young Jack has a big one that sticks out like a third hip bone. It’ll have to be cut out. And we can’t do it yet given the pain and sensitivity he is experiencing in that region.

Terciopelos are often called the most feared animal in Latin America. They are in the viper family and are fairly excitable as snakes go – stories of them attacking rather than retreating are not uncommon. They are rather large too – the females on this coast average 66 inches (over a metre and a half), maximum recorded length is 97 inches. They have long hinged fangs which lie against the roof of the mouth. When they bite the fangs rotate forward into a stabbing position and their hypodermic needle fineness directs venom deep into the tissue. The venom is full of tissue destroying chemicals and digestive enzymes: when a human is bitten up to a third of the blood supply leaves the system and floods extremities or the intestines, the resulting drop in pressure stops the heart. In non fatal bites there is often permanent damage to the kidneys or lungs and to the site of the bite. The snakes look a little like rattlesnakes, brown with a chevron pattern of darker brown outlined in white or cream. They have narrow necks and triangular heads with large eyes and the typical heat sensitive viper pit between eyes and nostrils. They are creamy white or yellow on their underside and their lower jaw is also a pale yellow – their other Spanish name means yellow beard. And like rattlers they shake their tail when threatened, it produces a humming sound. Last night I was going to the banana box and one was lying, rather casually I thought, on the steps. I was rather taken aback. We looked at each other for a while; me trying to determine whether I could wield a machete with any real direction or effect on the steps in the dark, he realizing I probably wasn’t a threat and I certainly wasn’t prey. And then he left. Slowly, unperturbed, exploring a couple of crannies before entering the bathroom and then out of my sight. I didn’t follow him to make sure he really left. He was about 4 feet long. I like snakes, but I wouldn’t call him pretty: the markings are beautiful, but the neck is very narrow and the head a blunt arrow, he looks unbalanced. I was as close as I’d ever like to be. He was no more than 5 foot away, but down 4 steps – there was no danger. I was very very glad the dogs were sleeping inside. I woke this morning thinking I should have scared him or threatened him, chased him off. I don’t know why I didn’t, maybe that old conditioned faith in blind ignorance, maybe trust in the universe, after all I saw him at the top of the stairs.