Ryan Photographic - Ogmodon vitianus - Bolo, Fijian Burrowing Snake
Fijian Burrowing Snake (bolo), Ogmodon
One of the myths perpetuated in Fiji even by people who
should know better is the mongoose myth. The mongoose myth runs like this:
to control the population of a venomous snake that lived in the cane fields.
It did this so successfully that the snake is no longer found there. The truth
alas, is rather more mundane. The mongoose was introduced to control the rat
populations, which it did extremely well. Unfortunately it also controlled
nearly all of Fiji’s ground-nesting birds at the same time. As with most
myths, even modern ones, there is a grain of truth in the story. We do have
a terrestrial venomous snake, which must come as a bit of a shock to those
people who claim that Fiji is snake-free apart from the pacific boa, seasnakes and the introduced flowerpot snake. What is
even more surprising is that the snake is an elapid. In other words it belongs
to the same family as the Indian cobra and the Australian taipan. Never fear
though, until recently, less than twenty specimens of this snake, Ogmodon vitianus,
were known to science.
From the records of the early naturalists we knew that Ogmodon, bolo
in Fijian, was probably a burrowing snake. As a result it would be very rarely
if it was quite common. Its burrowing nature was confirmed when a specimen,
found a metre down in soapstone rubble, was brought into the Fiji Museum. Unfortunately,
the owner would neither let colleague John Gibbons nor me photograph the snake.
To add insult to injury the snake escaped from its container and was probably
snapped up by a passing mongoose. John Gibbons though was a very persistent
man and he launched a one-man "find Ogmodon" campaign throughout
central Vitilevu. In time he was successful, a juvenile about 15cm long was
brought into the Biology Department at the University of the South Pacific
by a villager from the interior. Juvenile bolo can be distinguished from the
adults by the possession of a cream chevron between the eyes. Juveniles are
also darker than adults, almost black compared with a smokey-grey. Unfortunately
this specimen soon died, almost certainly from dehydration, although neither
of us realised it then.
Juvenile bolo (Ogmodon vitianus) rare Fijian endemic snake. The angle of the flash makes it seem lighter than it appears to the naked eye.
With time the trail grew cold. John obtained another small specimen,
crushed almost beyond recognition by a car (some unkind people claim you
could read "Dunlop" on
the animal) but that was it. The reason was simple, the villagers concerned
believed that bolo was a harbinger of death, a bad omen of the highest order.
Even the substantial financial reward that John offered was insufficient to
over-ride the superstition.
Things looked bleak until George Zug of the Smithsonian Institution
again visited Fiji. George has been a source of inspiration to both John
one of those wonderful academics who enthusiastically shares his knowledge. John
felt that the Namosi area would be likely to yield bolo so the two of them
made the trip to Saliadrau - where they spoke to the villagers about the snake.
The people of Saliadrau claimed to be familiar with bolo. They said they encountered
it regularly when planting crops. The two herpetologists came back full of
enthusiasm although I was sceptical. When people ask whether you want 5, 10
or 20 of one of the world’s rarest snakes you have a right to be sceptical.
One week later the three of us went back to Saliadrau. To our utter
delight the villagers were as good as their word. Twelve Ogmodon were brought
astonished gaze and a delighted George Zug had to dig very deep in his pockets
to pay for them all (no credit cards for bolo at Saliadrau). After the transactions
were all over we sat down to some very serious kava drinking, all of it green
and it went straight to our heads (don’t let anyone tell you that grog
isn’t a drug). We returned to Suva reluctantly, even though the incredible
Namosi scenery made us a little happier.
Stunning Namosi scenery
All of these specimens went overseas
to museums, consigned to such indignities as chromosome counts and pickling.
Over the next few weeks more specimens came in, one a large (30cm) and apparently
pregnant female. The Saliadrau villagers told us that the female gives birth
to live young but the discovery of 2-3 ellipsoid eggs in a female makes this
unlikely unless the young hatch while in the oviducts. They also told us that
the snakes burrow in the soil underneath logs during the day and move up to
the log to feed at night.
If you hold a large specimen it will wriggle but makes no attempt
to bite, instead they produce an unpleasant, rather pungent odour. John noted
snakes are more aggressive at night but I haven’t seen this myself. We
still know nothing about the toxicity of their venom. Earlier writers mention
that they could never get them to strike and no one has yet tested the venom.
I expect it is fairly mild, after all, if you feed on earthworms and beetle
larvae you don’t need a powerful venom, furthermore the snake is so small
and has such a tiny mouth that I seriously doubt whether it could penetrate
human skin. In the absence of other information though it pays to play safe.
Ogmodon vitianus or bolo adult from the Namosi Valley.
The next question is how did it get here? I don’t claim to know
the answer to that; I leave it to the biogeographers. Its closest relatives
to be in the Solomon Islands and Australia but it must have been in Fiji for
a long time to diverge so far from its cousins. A 1998 article by
Keogh, Shine and Donnellan based on ribosomal RNA sequencing suggests that
relative is the New Guinean snake Toxicocalamus preussi.
When I originally wrote this article (which I am updating now) bolo was the only known endemic land snake. But that may have changed. In 2008, another burrowing snake was discovered in Vuna, Taveuni. When I say discovered, I really mean brought to the attention of biologists, locals had known about it for years and gave it the name Ngata ni qele ("snake of the earth"), though they only see it rarely when digging in their gardens or in the forests while looking for wild yams.
Although I have been back to Taveuni on numerous occasions (staying with my wonderful friends Teri and Allan Gortan at Paradise Taveuni) and asked locals to keep an eye for the snake, I have been unable to see a live specimen. The closest I got was when Dick Watling let me photograph preserved specimens he had obtained.
Ngata ni qele. the Taveuni blind burrowing snake
We may never know the full story surrounding the Taveuni blind burrowing snake but hopefully its relationships will soon be elucidated. Because the area around Vuna has many coconut plantations it is possible that the snake was introduced accidentally by early planters.
One endemic burrowing snake is exciting but the discovery of a second just blows me away. What else may we yet find in these fascinating islands? I doubt that
we will ever know the full story about either of the snakes but there is one moral that I have
from this saga ... never under-estimate the Fijians living in the
interior. They may have answers to lots of our biological problems but we just
don't know the questions to ask.
Sadly, John Gibbons and his immediate family drowned in an horrific boating accident. But his name lives on. An extinct Tongan iguana which grew to 1.3m in length was named Brachylophus gibbonsi in John's honor. I cannot think of a better tribute to this extraordinary man.
Dr. John Gibbons drinking Kava at Saliadrau, Namosi