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A born naturalist and a fearless traveler, Vladimir Dinets wrote travel guides, conducted field research, and lived a couple of lives before he was accepted into the PhD program in zoology at the University of Miami. He thought crocodiles were a dead-end research topic—survivors from the age of the dinosaurs but not much else—until he witnessed groups of up to seventy alligators performing mating choruses that included infrasound vibrations—a form of communication extremely rare in nature—and a “dance” unknown in the scientific literature but that resembled a scene from Jurassic Park. To prove his thesis about the language of crocodiles, he spent the next six years traveling around the world on shoestring budgets and in extreme circumstances, studying almost every living species. At the same time, as a man desiring companionship in life, he sought love.
With adventures on five continents, Dragon Songs is his account of this quest. It includes an escape from a boiling lava lake in the Afar Desert, being chased up a tree by a tiger in India, hitching a ride with a cocaine smuggler in Bolivia, and diving with giant Greenland sharks—all in the name of studying crocodiles, among which he routinely paddled in his inflatable kayak. Of course, not everything went according to plan. But, in the end, his ground-breaking research helped change the field. And during the course of his adventures, he met and courted his future wife.
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Love and Adventure Among Crocodiles, Alligators, and Other Dinosaur Relations
By VLADIMIR DINETS
Arcade PublishingCopyright © 2013 Vladimir Dinets
All rights reserved.
The Morning Chorus
Study nature, not books.
I landed in Washington DC, took a bus to Albuquerque, where all my earthly possessions were waiting for me in a friend's garage, rented a truck, hooked my little Toyota Celica behind it, drove to Miami, and found a small apartment in Little Havana. Miami didn't look that different from Nairobi, except the heat was much more oppressive, the groves of downtown high-rises much uglier, the swamps contained more alligators than Africa had crocodiles, and people looked bloated compared to skinny Africans, as if half of them had some terrible tropical disease.
My arrival was perfectly timed: I had just enough time to settle in before two hurricanes hit our area. It would be really sad to miss such impressive storms.
My first semester in the university went by quickly. I enjoyed every minute of it. I had been interested in zoology to the point of obsession since I was a small kid but never had a chance to study it in an organized way. In the Soviet Union, where I grew up, the main universities were off-limits (unofficially, of course) for a person of Jewish origin like me, so I had to get my master's in a place more technology-oriented, studying "medical and biological equipment"—the closest I could get to what I really liked. By the time I graduated, the empire was falling apart and science was no longer something you could do for a living. So I became a freelance naturalist, writing guidebooks like Mammals of Russia and Hitchhiking in South America, leading bird-watching tours, filing environmental assessments, usually having two or three jobs at a time.
Now, at last, I could simply be a zoologist. But I was facing another problem: What animal to study? To me, all animals were interesting. Until now I could work with all of them in turn, switching from insects to whales, from snakes to mollusks, from plankton to fishes. It would be painful to become an expert on, say, hummingbirds and forget about all the other wonderful creatures. So I decided to specialize in studying animal behavior. This part of zoology is called ethology (from the Greek word ethos, "habit") in other countries, but for some reason this term is seldom used in the States. I would still be able to study whatever animal I liked, without having to do unpleasant things that many zoologists do: collect specimens, dissect living creatures, kill the very animals I liked enough to make them my vocation. Instead, I'd mostly observe animals doing things they like, and sometimes stage simple experiments to understand how and why they make their moves, choices, and decisions.
It was time to choose the subject of my PhD thesis research. Even after deciding that my study would be on animal behavior, I still had to pick a particular problem to work on. I had a few suggestions, ranging from studying petrel navigation near the magnetic poles to snow-tracking wolves in Tibet. But when I presented these ideas to Steven Green, my scientific advisor, he found them totally impractical and didn't hesitate to point out why. Steve is a brilliant scientist, and I enjoyed every moment of working with him, but he's not the kind of person who politely keeps silent when you make a mistake, and his style of teaching is a direct opposite of the make-you-feel-good approach popular in American schools. Finally, he got tired of shooting down one idea of mine after another and said:
"Why don't you look into alligator behavior? They do some interesting communication in spring. Garrick studied it, but that was almost thirty years ago. And you wouldn't have to travel too much; there're so many gators around here."
I didn't like the idea. As any biologist would, I found alligators—as well as crocodiles, caimans, and similar creatures, known together as crocodilians—fascinating from an evolutionary point of view. They are often called the last survivors from the Age of Reptiles (which lasted from about 250 to about 65 million years ago), living fossils, the closest thing to dinosaurs ... none of which is technically true. But study their behavior? All they ever do is bask in the sun, waiting to be fed by some lucky chance. Every time you stop by their enclosure in a zoo, you hear some little boy ask, "Are they real or plastic?" What kind of research would it be, sitting for hours in some hot, humid swamp, seeing nothing but wave after wave of mosquitoes and blackflies, waiting for the beasts to move a leg or blink an eye?
Of course, I knew from literature that crocodilians did move sometimes, and that they could do some interesting things: care for their offspring, hunt large mammals, and produce infrasound (acoustic vibrations too low-pitched for humans to hear). But the only things I'd ever seen them do were sliding in the water at my approach and trying in vain to stalk some wading bird. So I went to our library and read the works of Leslie Garrick, a herpetologist who more than forty years earlier had discovered that alligators could communicate by infrasound. He described their behavior during the mating season: the so-called bellowing choruses, head-slapping displays, and other things I'd never heard of.
It was April, the time of year when alligators started mating in Florida and along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. So I drove to the Everglades, found a roadside pond full of alligators, and waited. The reptiles—thirteen of them, all larger than me—were sleeping on the banks or swimming very slowly through still, tea-colored water. They were black, thickly built, and boring. Nothing happened all day. After sunset, nothing happened either, except now I could see the gators' eyes reflecting my flashlight. I counted those red embers and realized that the lake contained twice as many reptiles as I could see during the day.
The night was full of voices: crickets, tree frogs, toads, nightjars, owls. Everybody was vocalizing except the alligators. The air was hot and humid, as expected. Not as unbearably hot and humid as it gets in the Everglades in the summer months during the rainy season, but still bad enough to make sleeping in a car with windows closed (or your clothes on) impossible. I got in the car, doused myself with insect repellent, opened the windows, and managed to get a few hours of sleep before the repellent evaporated and the mosquitoes rushed in. I woke up, spent half an hour reapplying the repellent and scratching the bites, then got out of the car. And that's when it started.
The lake was barely visible in pink fog. The forest was eerily quiet after the cricket-filled night. The purple sky was crisscrossed with golden jet contrails and lines of high cirrus clouds. The sun was just about to come up. The alligators were all in the water, floating like black rotten logs. Suddenly, the largest one, a beast almost as long as my car, lifted its massive head and heavy, rudder-like tail high above the water surface. He (such huge individuals are usually males) froze in this awkward position for at least a minute, while others around him also raised their heads and tails one by one, until there were twenty odd-looking arched silhouettes floating in the mist.
Then the giant male began vibrating. His back shook so violently that the water covering it seemed to boil in a bizarre, regular pattern, with jets of droplets thrown nearly a foot into the air. He was emitting infrasound. I was standing on the shore at least fifty feet away, but I could feel the waves of infrasound with every bone in my body. A second later, he rolled a bit backwards and bellowed—a deep roar, terrifying and beautiful at the same time. His voice was immensely powerful. It was hard to believe that a living creature could produce what sounded more like a heavy army tank accelerating up a steep rampart. He kept rocking back and forth, emitting a bellow every time his head was at the highest point and a pulse of infrasound every time it was at the lowest. All around the lake, others joined him. They were all smaller, so their voices were higher-pitched and less powerful, but still impressive. Clouds of steam shot up from their nostrils (weren't they supposed to be cold-blooded?). Trees around the lake—huge bald cypresses—were shaking, dropping twigs and dry leaves on churning waters. I stood there, frozen, fascinated, hearing alligators in other lakes, near and far, as they joined this unbelievable show of strength and endurance. For about an hour, waves of bellows and infrasound rolled through forests and swamps all across southern Florida.
Then, gradually, they stopped. It was quiet again. The alligators were floating silently in the black water of the lake as if nothing had happened. I waited for two hours, and not a single one of them moved. Nothing moved there, except the rising sun and flocks of snowy egrets that sailed across the sky on their way from their night roosts to some fish-filled ponds.
I drove home, thinking about what I'd just seen. Both alligators and crocodiles were known to produce sounds (called bellows in alligators and roars in crocodiles) and infrasound during their respective mating seasons. Fossils suggest that these two groups separated about seventy million years ago during the age of dinosaurs, so the spectacle I witnessed was probably even older than that. It was one of the most amazing things I'd ever been privileged to see. It was very easy to observe, yet very few people had ever paid any attention to it. The first description that wasn't total nonsense was written in only 1935, by Edward McIlhenny. McIlhenny was an amateur naturalist, but his book, The Alligator's Life History, was way more accurate than those of many professional scientists before him. In the 1960s, Leslie Garrick suggested that these choruses served the same functions as bird songs: attracting mates and staking out territory. But he wasn't sure, and he published only three short papers on the subject. Later, two other zoologists studied it in more detail, but they, as Garrick before them, worked mostly with captive alligators in zoos, not wild ones. It was an area that was all mine to explore. I must be the luckiest zoologist in the history of mankind, I thought.
So the next evening, I was back in the swamps of the Everglades. And the evening after that. And on one of those hot, steamy nights I discovered what no zoologist had ever found before. Alligators did more than just their Jurassic version of bird songs.
They also danced.
The Night Dance
The hardest bird to hunt is a snipe, for it hides in plain sight.
Florida is probably the best place in the world to study crocodilians. After being slaughtered almost to extinction, local populations of alligators and crocodiles are now rapidly growing. There are over a million American alligators and a few thousand American crocodiles, plus a few introduced caimans. They share the state with an equally rapidly growing human population, which will probably reach twenty million by the time you read this book. Although it's common to see alligators in urban lakes and irrigation ditches, lethal attacks on humans are surprisingly rare: fewer than twenty people have been killed by alligators in the last fifty years, and nobody has ever been killed by a crocodile in Florida. The statistics have gotten worse in the last decade, in part because the number of very large male alligators began increasing from almost-zero levels since the late 1990s.
Humans don't attack alligators much either: at the time of my research there was no legal hunting, only gathering of eggs for alligator farms and removal of "problem animals" from residential areas. Crocodiles are fully protected by the law. So both species can be very tame and easy to observe.
Encouraged by these statistics, I bought an inflatable kayak and started looking for research sites where I could observe alligators with as little human disturbance as possible. Soon I found two small lakes in different parts of the Everglades, hidden in dense hammocks, which in southern Florida refers to an island of tropical rain forest. Dozens of such islands are scattered across the sawgrass savanna of the Everglades. Some are made up of just a few trees, while others take hours to walk through. Both lakes were filled with alligators. Dry season in the Everglades normally lasts from October to mid-May, so water levels are at their lowest in April and May, just when alligators mate. Any permanent lake usually has lots of alligators at that time. Some gators even dig their own ponds. Only a few feet across when first dug, these "gator holes" are then enlarged and maintained by generations of the reptiles. They are very important for local wildlife, and not just as reliable water sources: the water they hold plus the mounds of excavated soil encourage tree growth, so many hammocks have formed around alligator-made ponds and then expanded.
About fifty miles up the coast from Miami, I found a beautiful place called Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. It had a six-mile-long canoe trail—a narrow, water lily–filled channel winding through sawgrass marshes. There were few alligators there, but I liked having my research locations in diverse habitats.
South of Miami, I chose another site that was probably the easiest place in Florida to study alligator behavior. It's called Anhinga Trail—a half-mile boardwalk near the main entrance to Everglades National Park, at the end of which is a lake. It always has plenty of water, and more wildlife than any place in Florida I know of. During the day it gets lots of tourists. At night there are usually just a few people coming to see alligator eyes reflecting their flashlights.
I made my first discovery on Anhinga Trail during my first week of observations, when I didn't expect to see anything out of the ordinary. Anhingas, weird-looking relatives of cormorants with egret-like necks and heads, were nesting in pond-apple trees in the middle of the lake. Their downy white chicks were already trying their short wings, so numerous alligators floating underneath the trees looked hopeful.
Two hours after sunset, all the tourists were gone. I switched my tiny headlamp to red light (many animals don't see red color well, so red light is less disturbing for them) and sat on a wooden bench, watching alligator eyes circle below the boardwalk. Soon I noticed that they were all gathering in one part of the lake, and becoming more and more active. Eventually about thirty alligators gathered in an area less than sixty feet across, swimming like crazy, splashing, hissing, slapping their heads and tails, occasionally getting into brief but violent fights. Some of them would form pairs, then break up again. New ones were arriving every few minutes, alone or already in pairs, smaller females following their males. Others were leaving, but many remained in that small area until dawn. Then all swimming and fighting and splashing ceased, and the lake was quiet again. After the sun came up, the remaining alligators bellowed in chorus, and crawled onshore to bask for the rest of the day.
I saw gatherings like that almost every night for a few weeks. In lakes, alligators would choose one part of the lake; in Loxahatchee, they did it in a large canal, always at a different location, but within the same area.
What were they doing? To me it looked like village dancing parties, where people would come, alone or with their spouses, to socialize, have fun, and, in the case of singles, search for mates. I looked through literature, but such "dances" weren't even mentioned anywhere. Local naturalists I consulted had no idea what I was talking about.
This was astonishing. The American alligator is probably the most-studied reptile in the world. Thorough accounts of its natural history have been written by famous naturalists since the eighteenth century. At least a thousand papers dealing with its anatomy, physiology, population demographics, and, of course, behavior have been published. It's unbelievably easy to observe: any Miami resident can get to Anhinga Trail in less than two hours. But nobody had ever noticed that alligators "dance" at night. How was that possible?
Eventually, I understood why I got so lucky. These "dances" are difficult to observe in captivity. Captive alligators are kept together all year and know each other well, so there's no need for displays and fights. And even if you did see them swimming and thrashing around at night, you'd have no idea what was going on. I'm sure tourists, fishermen, and hunters have witnessed "dances" on occasion, but they probably didn't pay attention, or didn't realize it was something unusual. Although everybody knows alligators are primarily nocturnal, the few people who studied them in the wild were mostly interested in nesting and mother-offspring interactions, and observed them only during the day.
Humans are a diurnal species. Even some experienced naturalists feel uncomfortable being in the forest or in a swamp at night. I know a few field biologists who have lived in the jungle for years who never set foot outside their cabins after nightfall.
Excerpted from Dragon SONGS by VLADIMIR DINETS. Copyright © 2013 Vladimir Dinets. Excerpted by permission of Arcade Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
List of Photographs xi
List of Maps and Charts xiii
Chapter 1 The Morning Chorus: Alligator mississippiensis 5
Chapter 2 The Night Dance: Alligator mississippiensis 10
Chapter 3 Learning the Basics: Alligator mississippiensis 18
Chapter 4 Dragon Reborn: Alligator sinensis 24
Chapter 5 Missing a Shot: Caiman yacare 32
Chapter 6 Honest Courtship: Crocodylus palustris 43
Chapter 7 Hunting on Shore: Crocodylus acutus 55
Chapter 8 Companions of the River: Gavialis gangeticus 64
Chapter 9 The Numbers Game: Alligator mississippiensis 69
Chapter 10 Crocodiles in Permafrost: Tagarosuchus kulemzini 76
Chapter 11 River World: Caiman niger 83
Chapter 12 Vibrating Toy: Paleosuchus palpebrosus 91
Chapter 13 Tales of Love and Friendship: Caiman yacare 96
Chapter 14 Help from the Sky: Caiman yacare 105
Chapter 15 Logging Observations: Crocodylus acutus 112
Chapter 16 Sadness and Hope: Crocodylus intermedius 118
Chapter 17 Natural Selection: Paleosuchus trigonatus 125
Chapter 18 Politics of Extinction: Crocodylus moreletii 131
Chapter 19 Island Romance: Crocodylus rhombifer 144
Chapter 20 Scientific Testing: Alligator mississippiensis 151
Chapter 21 Navigating Africa: Crocodylus niloticus 159
Chapter 22 Masters of the Bush: Crocodylus niloticus 171
Chapter 23 Traps on Trails: Crocodylus niloticus 184
Chapter 24 The Rainy Season: Crocodylus niloticus 193
Chapter 25 Dangerous Crossings: Crocodylus acutus 200
Chapter 26 The Place We Are From: Crocodylus niloticus 207
Chapter 27 Paradise in Hell: Crocodylus niloticus 219
Chapter 28 The Land of Lost Opportunities: Osteolaemus tetraspis 230
Chapter 29 Dense Woods Mecistops cataphractus 239
Chapter 30 Shades and Shadows: Osteolaemus tetraspis 245
Chapter 31 Moving Home: Alligator mississippiensis 252
Chapter 32 Ghost Hunt: Tomistoma schlegelii 256
Chapter 33 Island-Hopping: Crocodylus porosus 267
Chapter 34 Horror Stories Crocodylus porosus 274
Chapter 35 The Wrong Flood: Caiman latirostris 282
Chapter 36 Unsolved Riddles: Alligator mississippiensis 290
Chapter 37 Finding Answers: Caiman crocodilus 297
Chapter 38 Through the Mist: Crocodylus acutus 303
Chapter 39 The Last Song: Crocodylus siamensis 309