Gerald Durrell – A Zoo In My Luggage

Simon Tonge blogs about discovering a specimen at RAMM collected by world-renowned naturalist Gerald Durrell.

When I started volunteering at the museum Holly Morgenroth, RAMM’s Natural Sciences curator, took me into the ‘wet store’ at The Ark. This is the room where all the specimens preserved in some kind of fluid – usually alcohol or formalin – are stored. Most are starfish, reptiles, fish and amphibians.

Many of the preservative chemicals are hazardous, so we weren’t opening jars. I picked one up to look at the contents through the glass and was delighted to see that it held a Nose-horned Viper (Bitis nasicornis) also known as a Rhinoceros Viper. I looked at the label and was astonished to see what it said. ‘You’ve got a Durrell specimen!’ I exclaimed. To which Holly replied, ‘We do? Wait. What? You mean Gerald Durrell?’ The label clearly said ‘Gerald Durrell, Cameroon 1957.’

Gerald Durrell – author, naturalist and zoo keeper

For younger readers, who may not have heard of Gerald Durrell, he was a famous author, of extremely funny books. Perhaps the best known is ‘My Family and Other Animals’ about his time growing up on the Greek island of Corfu. This has recently been made into a TV series. Other books describe his expeditions to Africa and South America in search of animals for the UK’s zoos.

Later he went on to found his own zoo on the island of Jersey. It is now one of the most important zoos in the world for its conservation ethic. My first job after leaving university, a very long time ago, was as a keeper in the Herpetology Department at that zoo. I was privileged to know Gerry before he died in 1995.

Like many items in the RAMM collection the specimen is listed on the museum’s database. However, much of the ancillary data on the label and associated correspondence has not yet been added to the record. This meant that Holly was unaware of the origin of this specimen. Holly is a great sleuth of stories about the specimens under her charge. She quickly tracked down a blog by Bob Golding who, as a very young man, had accompanied Durrell on the 1957 expedition to Cameroon. His blog shows some fascinating photos of the expedition, including one of a Nose-horned Viper. Durrell tells his story of the trip in ‘A Zoo in My Luggage.’

Gerald Durrell and RAMM

We have no way of knowing whether this is the same specimen that is in the RAMM collection as they collected several during the trip. It seems likely that the RAMM specimen might have died on the long ship voyage back from Africa. Or maybe Durrell donated it to a local zoo, perhaps Paignton, but it died soon afterwards. Either way a collector of natural and local history objects gave it to RAMM in 1982, we don’t know if she knew Durrell herself. Zoos don’t do collecting expeditions in the same way anymore. For the same reasons museums don’t either. The descendants of the animals Durrell collected are still with us today and their living and preserved populations are of high conservation significance.

African vipers

‘Beautiful but deadly’ is a somewhat hackneyed phrase in the English language. But, when talking about the African viperid snakes of the genus Bitis, it is hard to avoid it. The genus consists of about eighteen species of small to large, heavy-bodied, dangerously venomous snakes that occur in every habitat from forest to desert and swamp to mountain top. Famous snakes like Puff Adders (Bitis arietans) and Gaboon Vipers (Bitis gabonica) are members of this genus. There are also many other, poorly known, species and new ones are still being discovered.

Hunting technique

They are ‘sit-and-wait’ predators. This means that they stake out a likely site where prey items, usually rodents, regularly pass. The settle down for the long haul, sometimes for days. When the moment comes, they strike with a speed that defies belief! Using their long, hypodermic fangs, they deliver a huge dose of venom which is simply not survivable. Then, using their highly developed sense of smell (via the tongue), follow up the dying prey item and devour it.

Because of their sit-and-wait strategy Bitis vipers need to be as invisible as possible. The coloration of their back has evolved to help them achieve this. They have disruptive dorsal patterns that mimic the forest floor on which they live and some of them are, to human eyes, extraordinarily beautiful. Beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. My personal favourite is this one – the Nose-horned Viper from the forests of West Africa! So many colours and such intricate patterns, and with a weird prominent nose horn (itself another part of the disruptive camouflage) at the front end. Fantastic!

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