Life history and conservation of the green anaconda (Eunectes murinus)
The green anaconda is the largest snake in the world. Although famous, very little is known about its life history. Until I began my research, no field studies had been carried out on the species. Due to the skin trade and habitat degradation its numbers have declined in places where they are not protected. In an effort to protect the species I, with a team of friends and colleages, began the Anaconda Project in 1992, with the aim to learn the basic aspects of the anaconda’s biology in order to create guidelines for its protection and possible management.
At first, to work with anacondas seemed like a formidable challenge that I could not overcome. However, I chose to work in the llanos where the strong dry season makes the animals much easier to find and catch. Later I learned how to find, catch, and restrain them in the field. The areas of my research are: population dynamics, habitat use and mobility, diet preferences, predation of adults and juveniles, their health status and diseases they may suffer, the biology of neonates, their mating system and reproduction; among many other aspects of the life of the anacondas.
many aspects that I have learned in a casual way from the snake, just by
following them for so long is the presence of cannibalism
in green anacondas and in a related cousin that occurs in Bolivia. I have learned how often they are wounded by their own prey, the possibility that they can attack a human being. I have also learned several
tricks to work with them such as how to measure, how
to wire an anaconda both forced or by chirurgical implantation on them with 777minimun
distribution of the behavior, among many others. My ultimate goal is to learn
all the secrets of the life history of the animal and get a more firsthand
knowledge of it.
I have gathered eleven years worth of data catching and processing more than 900 animals and with more than 170 recaptures. I have followed with radio transmitter more than 38 animals, collected more than 100 diet samples, I have also found 51 breeding aggregations and studied the mating, pregnancy and delivery of more than 47 females. With the information gathered I hope to develop a management plan for the conservation of the species and the area in general.
I discovered that anacondas make breeding aggregations of one female and several males. Despite the uneven sex ratio, no conflicts, fights, or agonistic interactions occur between the males other than perhaps pushing each other away from the mating position. I also found that anacondas have an amazing Sexual Size Dimorphism (SSD) where the female is much larger than the males. Indeed anacondas show the largest SSD found in any tetrapod. This SSD is surprising due to the high likelihood that males compete physically for the females (by pushing each other). Physical competition would produce selection pressure for large size in males, however this is obviously not seen in anacondas. One of the aims of my research is to explain why we find this SSD despite the physical competition among males. So far I have found that males seem to rely on tactile cues in order to identify who the female is in the breeding ball. I have found evidence that larger males are mistaken for females and courted by smaller males. Courted males, as well as courting males, will be in disadvantage. Thus, there seems to be an optimal male size where it can outcompete other males but it is not too large to be mistaken (click here to read the whole article).
At first I was surprised that anacondas seemed to possess the only polyandrous mating system among snakes, where many males mated with one female. At the time I started the study, it was believed that polyandry was constrained in snakes because of phylogenetic reasons (it was not present in the lineage to begin with). Yet, when I found out that anacondas were polyandrous, I started looking with more attention at the mating system of other snakes. To my surprised, I discovered that anacondas were not alone in being polyandrous. Furthermore, there were many more snakes in this same mating system. In fact, after looking at the data with my eyes wide open, I concluded that polyandry is, in fact the dominant mating system in snakes (click here for the whole article)
By studying anacondas in a integrated way I learned not only several aspects of their secret life but also that they can be excellent models for the study of relevant issues in the ecology of snakes and vertebrates in general. Having the largest Sexual Size Dimorphism of any species I can hardly think of any animal that would be a better model for SSD research. Anacondas also present a surprising ontogenetic change in biomass from birth to adulthood, with a 500-fold increase it is much higher than the increase we find in any other species of snakes. This makes anacondas an excellent model to study the ontogenetic changes and develop predictions regarding this issue. Due to their large size, anacondas offer advantages for study that are not found in other snakes, including easy extraction of blood samples sufficient for study of physiological processes and genetic analyses, and possibility of implanting radio transmitters for long term studies. I have put together a short description of anacondas natural history for those people interested on it,
Due to the charismatic nature of my study animal, my research has received wide
attention from printed media. It was featured in New York Times, Smithsonian
magazine, BBC Wildlife, Das Tier (
Currently I am planning and ambitions project to study the ecology of anacondas
in other habitats of its distribution in order to compare with my findings on the llanos. By
conducting a comprehensive field research project about the life history of
this magnificent animal I came to realize the importance of the often forgotten
naturalist’s approach to research that can teach us the whole dimension of nature.
One of the main challenges that one faces to really understand the life cycle and private life of long lived animals is to obtain funding to study the population long enough to get the complete picture. Most financial institutions would grant research for one year or two relatively easy. They could extend the funds for three, four, at the most, for five years in the best case scenario. I feel quite lucky that I have managed to keep this study running for 25 years now getting funds from different sources. However, 25 years is probably only a fraction of what I estimate the life span of anacondas is and I am yet a long way to understand the life of these animals the way I would like to.
Lately I have been funding my field research by bringing people who want to get up-close and personal with anacondas to the field to work with me. These contributors provide a donation that I have used to continue the field work as well as to train students into the techniques and methods to study anacondas. People that come join me are not tourist. They may be up until the time they arrive to my field site. But as soon as they are with me, they become field assistants. In other words, I do not spend time an energy I need for the field work catering to tourist. Rather the contributors become active members of my team and do all the work that other biologists or students do, shuffle through the swamp, help in the processing of the animals until late hours when needed, just like we all do. They may be bitten by bugs, piranhas, or any of the other unpleasantries that the field work involves.
Below is a list of the articles published so far:
Calle, P. P.. Rivas J. A. Muñoz, M. C. Thorbjarnarson, J. B. Holmstrom, W. and W. B. Karesh. 2001. Infectious Disease serologic survey in free-ranging Venezuelan anacondas (Eunectes murinus). Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine 32(3): 320-323. (PDF file)
Calle, P., Rivas, J., Muñoz M., Thorbjarnarson, J., Dierenfeld, E., Holmstrom, W. Braselton, E., And Caresh W. 1994. Health assesment of free-ranging anacondas (Eunectes murinus) in Venezuela. Jour. Zoo. Wildl. Med. 25: 53-62. (PDF file)