DQ Blog

The Latest Is Late

     May 24, 2018 

   "We stepped out of the helicopter and there in the grass was a thirteen-foot African snake."

     Ah, good: I've been wanting to write that sentence, but there just hasn't been time.  It happened a month ago—April 15, to be exact—in Mozambique, while I was researching a National Geographic story on Gorongosa National Park.  We had gone out that morning, flying low over the miombo forest and savanna, to collect buffalo poop for the research project of a young PhD student named Matt Hutchinson, from the lab of Dr. Rob Pringle at Princeton.  We had spooked up a few small clusters of buffalo, circledsnake330 down, landed, and gathered a pretty good haul (Matt had, that is; I wasn't a very proficient buffalo-poop finder) in the form of a brown glob here, a greenish-gray smear there, from which Matt would do DNA analysis back in the lab.  His analysis would show which forms of vegetation—native grasses, exotic weeds, both?—these buffalo had been eating.  We lifted off, landed a second time, and within a few yards of the heli we nearly stepped on this big, gorgeous snake.  She was moving slowly, like a channel of laval, trying to burrow as deeply beneath the grass as she could, as though she were wary of us . . . or embarrassed to be admired.  (I say "she" because our pilot, Mike Pingo, told me that African rock pythons this large are usually female.)  First we saw her tail, then traced forward a few yards to her midsection, and then—holy cow, this is her head, way the hell up here?  After due appreciation, we left her in peace, of course, and flew back to camp.  It was Matt's last morning in the field, and he had to pack his specimens, grab his gear, catch a Cessna from the park's airstrip, and connect to his flights to the U.S.  And I had to finish what I was doing—researching this story on Gorongosa and its remarkable recovery from devastation during the long Mozambican civil war.


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