Snakeman!
Environment TOBAGOFocus On Tobago´s Environment
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Snakeman!


In his office in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, on the wall above his desk, is a photograph of Man-o-War Bay, Charlotteville, Tobago. It is his favourite spot in the world, and he has visited Tobago almost every year since 1962, always staying at Pat Turpin's Man-o-War Cottages.

Why does he come again and again to this island of Tobago?

He is David Hardy - zoologist extraordinaire. He is putting together a comprehensive Flora and Fauna Census of Tobago. That means identifying and describing every living thing on the island. He is affiliated with The Coastal Ocean Laboratory, National Oceanographic Data Center, U. S. Department of Commerce and the National Systematic Laboratory, National Marine Fisheries Service, U. S. Department of Commerce at Smithsonian Institution, U. S. National Museum of Natural History.

But he says, "Good grief - I sound important! But I ain't."

This time he's in Tobago looking for a snake. A particular snake, the first and only specimen of which was found in Tobago in 1978. Its small, about 10 inches long, lives underground, and eats earthworms. David suspects it is new to science, although a very similar snake occurs near Caracas, Venezuela. More specimens from Tobago are needed before the riddle can be solved.

David has his snake traps set up and is sitting at the back of his Man-o-War cottage anticipating the return of his assistant who has been in the field checking the traps.

He began identifying and cataloguing Tobago's snakes thirty-five years ago. Locals quickly gave him the nickname "Snakeman" and today as we walked along the beach the name was called out as we passed fisherman and shop owners.

Somehow he couldn't stop with just the snakes. Beginning in 1979 he expanded his research to... well, to just about everything. He has identified over 500 species of fish, seven previously undescribed by science. He can tell you what mollusks reside here. Trees, flowering plants, mosses, ferns, algae, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, insects, arachnids, worms, sea squirts, bacteria, and protozoans among other things -- are all collected and identified in his laboratory. He has brought over 300 other researchers to Tobago with him through the years.

As of 1994 his research shows 6,270 "critters" living on Tobago. Among these: 106 species of red algae, 142 species of fungi, 1,522 flowering plants, 218 species of clams and oysters, 3 types of scorpions, 150 species of flies, mosquitoes and midges, only one kind of centipede, but 24 kinds of millipedes, 105 spiders, only one earthworm and 54 starfishes.

"Want to see a water mite?" he asks.

And there under his microscope I see little yellow and black creatures, like tiny round spiders.

"They are related to spiders," he explains, "Very few species of mites live in water and all those found so far are red and orange. These may be a new species."

Back home he has two bedrooms full of books, papers and reports on Tobago's natural history -- over 6,000 documents, some dating back to the 1600's. He wants to donate these to Tobago someday when he finally tires of his quest.

He has published several papers on the fauna of Tobago -- on reptiles, amphibians, and chaetognath worms (arrow worms), and has about 70 unpublished manuscripts of various plant and animal groups, some many inches thick. This December the Smithsonian Institute will be publishing the first section of his mollusk list.

"I want to publish my work in sections," he says. "Each time a scientist publishes something, it is reviewed by a group of his peers for inaccuracies. When I'm sure all of it is as accurate as I can get it, I will publish the whole thing."

We can only encourage him to do this as soon as possible.

"Many millions of years ago," he says, "Tobago broke away from what is now Venezuela, moving east. Trinidad remained attached to the South American continental plate. Tobago actually moved around Trinidad to its present position. This is why we find so many species on Tobago that also exist in certain parts of Venezuela but are not found in Trinidad."

He discovered the bones of two species of peccary (wild pig) in Crusoe's Cave. Only one still exists on Tobago. Also the bones of several species of bat not found today. And the bones of a Glyptodon, which is an extinct, prehistoric, turtle-like mammal covered with plates of compacted hair. Most of Crusoe's Cave was destroyed when the airport was constructed, but Mr. Hardy suspects that there are more underground caves, possibly extending as far as Buccoo, all unexplored.

What does he want to do next?

"I found Lantern fish larvae in Man-o-War Bay," he answers. "Adult Lantern fish are found only in very deep water, far out at sea. How did they get here? I want to do a study of fish eggs and larvae, do you know where I can get a boat?"

Although we know that fish spawn in nearshore areas, wetlands and lagoons, like those at Bon Accord, no fish egg and larvae study has ever been done in Tobago. Who knows which fish spawn in these areas and how important are they to our fishing industry? This study needs to be done soon as so much of our coastal areas are proposed sites for large scale resort development.
 
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