Mela's account of research in the Australian rainforest

Since the fall of 2017, I have been helping Michelle Graham, a Ph.D. candidate in the Socha Lab at Virginia Tech, conducting research on the gap-crossing abilities of flying snakes by analyzing motion capture data, videos, and still images of these snakes. Last fall, she invited me to travel to the Daintree rainforest in Queensland, Australia to help her with capturing the northern and common tree snakes and collecting data to study their locomotor abilities and morphology. I, of course, couldn’t pass up the opportunity!

Michelle Graham and Mela Coffey at breakfast in Cairns, before Mela flew back to the U.S.

I will start by saying that this experience was absolutely incredible. I saw wild birds that are considered house pets in the United States. I saw wild wallabies, cassowaries (both adolescent and fully grown), five different species of snakes, spiders the size of my palm (some larger, the largest one seen in one of our host’s bathrooms), sea turtles, frogs, forest dragons, monitors, toads, rat kangaroos, white-tailed rats, and so much more. There were ferns that were twice my height and beautiful fan palms that shaded the ground below. The rainforest was breathtaking, and I saw something new every day.

Mela in the Daintree rainforest

The days could get very exhausting, both mentally and physically; not only were we moving around a lot, but looking for snakes strangely became mentally tiring. We woke up early in the morning, which actually wasn’t too difficult given the time change, and ate either toast or cereal for breakfast. Sometimes we would also have a nice glass of “tropical breakfast juice,” a wild combination of pear, orange, pineapple, banana, mango, and passionfruit. We would then go hiking for three or so hours. We would look for snakes pretty much anywhere – standard hiking trails (often going off trail) and up creeks, but also nature boardwalks, botanical gardens, and along beaches. We would then go back to our temporary residence for some lunch and a break before going back out again for another four or so hours. Sometimes we would go back out to look for snakes after dark, either up streams or along some trails. Typically, though, in the evenings we would relax by eating dinner, reading, and of course having a yoga session before bed.

A stream to walk up is a good way to look for snakes, but sightings are rare

When we did find a snake, this routine would immediately come to a halt. Finding a snake meant getting back to our temporary residence ASAP and setting up the experiment. Being my nerdy self, I found the experiments to be the best part of the field trip, so finding a snake was exciting for me. I loved working with the snakes and observing how their gap-crossing abilities compared to those of the flying snakes I’ve worked with back home. Data collection also meant a little relaxation time, of which I took advantage – we could take a physical break from hiking, and a mental break from looking. During my time in Australia, we caught and collected data from two snakes: one very large common tree snake (Dendrelaphis punctulatus) and one adolescent northern tree snake (Dendrelaphis calligastra). I thought they were both adorable, despite many people assuring me that “snakes can’t be cute.” (Of course they can!) We would return the snake to the wild the next day, in the same spot where we caught it, and I do find myself wondering what they may be doing or where they might be now.

I learned so much from this experience, especially how beautiful the world is, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to conduct research in such an amazing place.

For more info on the project, see Michelle Graham's blogs here.

Funding for this project was provided by an Early Career award to Michelle from National Geographic.

Mela on the coastline. The Daintree Rainforest Observatory was just a few minutes away from such sights.

© 2016-21 Jake Socha