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Denizens of the Desert
The Battle of the ReptilesI vividly remember the well-meaning lady who, after listening for two months to a course of lectures on Natural History at one of our summer resorts, exclaimed, by way of showing her interest and appreciation of the lecturer: "How I would like to go out an hour with you some time and see all these things you have told us about!"
All in an hour! As if the world of out-of-doors was a great cinema film, and all one had to do was to take a walk with a naturalist and see the whole interesting performance reeled off the screen in an hour!
Nature is in no hurry to make show of herself. She works slowly, often infinitely slowly, and the poor misguided souls who are of that same mind as Kipling's monkeys, who wanted to know and do all things "complete in a minute or two," must ever remain disappointed with Nature's deliberation and seeming procrastination.
"Gold," said an old prospector, when asked by an inquisitor where one might locate it, "is where you find it; that's where it is." 'And so one must say of the interesting phenomena and incidents of Nature's programme. Sometimes one must travel for hours or even days before seeing anything unusual. Then again there will come days which seem crowded with spectacular and interesting sights; as though Dame Nature had turned generous, and hurried the events of the weeks into a single day. But whichever way the tide turns, the naturelover is content, knowing that what does not come to him to-day will come on another. If he watches long enough, he will always see something worth his while.
On the evening when first I saw the mason bees at work, I said to myself while going home: "This is plunder sufficient for any day." You may imagine my mingled surprise and delight when there was staged before my eyes, in addition, the unusual reptilian battle described in this sketch.
The sun had already been down half an hour and the lingering reflected rays of daylight were just about to flee, when, in the dusky light, I saw beside my path a ball as peculiar as ever eyes had seen. There on the ground was a brilliantly colored king snake wound up into a ball as tight and as intricately turned as a Gilligan hitch. Protruding between the coils in all sorts of most awkward, absurd, and outlandish positions were the four legs of a large gridiron-tailed lizard. That expression, "closed in mortal combat," could never be used more appropriately than to describe these creatures wrapped together into this reptilian knot. The snake had wound himself about the saurian's body in such fashion that it seemed as though every bone in that lizard's body must be broken, the vertebrae pulled apart, and the function of every vital organ suppressed. The body was doubled backwards so that the rump and head were touching. So intent was the snake in his efforts to bind in tighter the already over-squeezed lizard that he seemed not to notice my presence in the least, or even be disturbed when I turned the living knot over with a stick. As the writhing ball was turned, I noticed that the lizard, who looked as though he had been dead for some time, had his jaws closed upon a fold of the snake's skin near the neck. "This," I said, "is because rigor mortis has set in and the jaws which had snapped in selfdefense when the snake attacked are now set stiff in death. It's good enough for you, old snake. For once the biter has been bitten."
There was not the least motion in the lizard's limbs; there was no doubt in my mind but that all circulation of blood had long ago been cut off by the constrictions of the snake's lithe body. As though attempting to begin swallowing the lizard, the snake was now trying this way and that to close his jaws over the saurian's head, but, since the lizard also had the snake within its jaw-grip, the latter could get no hold of any kind.
Inasmuch as the darkness of night was coming on so rapidly that I feared I would not be able to see the end of this interesting struggle, and since my sympathies were decidedly against the reptile who had so hard-heartedly caught this poor lizard, I decided before leaving to untie this reptilian Gordian knot and deprive the snake of his cruelly gotten prey. With the aid of two sticks this was effected ; but not without some difficulty, for the snake had given the lizard a double wrap besides tying his own body into a classical single knot.
You may imagine what was presently my surprise when I saw this lizard, now unwound, and whom I had thought long ago dead, quick as a flash spring backwards, and, righting himself, dash at the snake and grasp him again just behind the head.
Talk about being game; here was no coward of any stripe. He leaped literally from the coils of death back into the struggle. And he held onto his opponent as tenaciously as a snapping turtle. Though the snake now did his best to get away — he doubtless had had quite enough of it — the lizard held on with his iron grip and even allowed himself to be dragged along by his foe, who was now making his way toward a near-by hole beneath the surface. Not to be daunted when even this narrow opening was entered, he permitted the snake to draw him beneath the surface. When nothing but the zebra-striped tail was protruding above the opening of the burrow, I grasped it and pulled the lizard off, allowing the snake to go free. My opinions were now changing, and I began to judge that the lizard might have been quite as much the aggressor as the snake. After I pulled the lizard away, he ran off a little to one side and, tilting his head upward, looked at me saucily and reproachfully, as much as to say, "Well, what business do you have around here to meddle In my affairs, anyway?"
"Scat," I said, "you ungrateful beast!" And he scurried off into the brush to rest and ease up as best he could his much-stretched limbs.
And of course you ask: "What happened to the snake?" And my only answer can be that he crawled on down a hole; and he did it in a hurry, too.
Since this occurred I have often speculated as to how this battle between the reptiles began. It no doubt would have been an interesting thing to have witnessed the struggle from beginning to end; for it would have given one such a realistic picture of those struggles and scenes of carnage which in ancient geologic times were THE BATTLE OF THE REPTILES 169 staged between the huge carnivorous dinosaurs and the massive, heavily armored, herbivorous, monitor-Hke reptiles.
If you ask me to venture a guess as to who would have been the victor in this struggle, I will say, the snake, for he had every advantage. It is common knowledge among old desert travelers that the larger snakes quite generally attack and eat lizards, especially the smaller ones; also that the larger lizards prey upon the more diminutive species, and that snakes eat snakes. Mr. Gilman tells me that recently he witnessed in his own yard at Banning, California, a red racer devouring a black rattlesnake. A young observer from Barstow on the Mohave Desert has just sent me this interesting experience:
"As I was coming out of our well, that is, the pit in which the pump is, I came face to face with a huge gopher snake which was eating a medium-sized lizard. The reptile was about half swallowed. I watched them for some time, but as neither moved and I was in a hurry I touched the snake with a stick. He immediately opened his mouth and spewed the lizard out. The lizard's forelegs were folded tightly against his sides and he appeared to be dead, but in a few minutes he opened his eyes, tried first one leg, then another; and then on seeing me he ran off at top speed. I was truly surprised, for I did not think that anything could go through the experience of being half eaten and still live, much less be able to run off immediately afterwards."