REPTILES AND AMPHIBIANS IN THE PHILIPPINES: SNAKES, LIZARDS AND THE WORLD'S LARGEST CROCODILE

REPTILES IN THE PHILIPPINES

Gray's Monitor lizard sell for up to $20,000 on the black market. Rarely seen in the wild, they reside in the canopy forests of the Philippines. In 2001, a new species of monitor lizard was found on the island of Panay. The Panay cloud frog is golden yellow in color. It is one of more than 90 frog species found in the Philippines.

The Philippines is home some of the deadliest snakes in the world, including the much feared Philippine Cobra, the most toxic of all cobra species, ranked as the world’s third most venomous snake. Out of a few hundred species, only a few are poisonous. Most of them stay in rural areas, preying on small mammals such as rats and mice. Usually they prefer moist areas such as rivers, being cold-blooded animals.

There are about 19 venomous snakes which can be found in the Philippines. Some of these are very rarely seen here but others are quite common in rural areas and even come into populated areas. There are many more species of non venomous snakes in the Philippines but the best advice is to treat all snakes as potentially dangerous and leave them well alone.

In 2005, Associated Press reported: “A two-metre python caused a commotion at a Manila police station, with rattled policemen used to battling tough criminals forced to destroy an officer's desk where the snake slithered in to hide, officials said. Policemen and village volunteer guards at the station in Manila's Quiapo district managed to subdue the reptile, but one police sergeant ended up with his desk destroyed so the python could be extricated from its drawer without being harmed. "The policemen on duty were afraid, but they could not leave because it would embarrassing to run away while a television camera was filming the whole thing," Senior Police Officer Cesar Sabile said with a chuckle.The snake had been brought to the station by a bystander who saw it near a fast-food restaurant. The python was later turned over to the Manila Zoo. [Source: Associated Press, December 14, 2005]

See Crocodiles, Cobras and Pythons factsanddetails.com

Cobras in the Philippines

Cobras are recognized by the hoods that they flare when angry or disturbed; the hoods are created by the extension of the ribs behind the cobra’s heads. All of the Philippine cobras have conspicuous dark bars or spots on the underside of the neck at about the level of the hood. Species found in the Philippines include the hannah king cobra (Naja philippinensis), northern philippine cobra (Naja samarensis), Southeastern philippine cobra (Naja sumatrana) and equatorial spitting cobra. [Source: U.S. Army, Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine (Usachppm) Entomological Sciences Program, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland]

Bites by Philippine cobras are immediately painful and tender to touch. When biting, these cobras tend to hold on and chew savagely. Specific symptoms of cobra envenomation include drowsiness, difficulty in speaking, drooling, blurred vision, shortness of breath, and loss of consciousness. These symptoms occur within one hour after the bite. Respiratory arrest can occur within minutes. An additional, unique form of toxicity with the spitting cobras found in the Philippines (equatorial, northern and southeastern Philippine cobras) occurs when venom is spit into the eyes. Venom entering the eyes may cause immediate burning pain with inflammation and possible permanent blindness unless the venom is rinsed out of the eyes as soon as possible.

King cobras are the world’s largest venomous snake, with an average adult length of 3-4 meters (maximum length of 5.5 meters). A full grown king cobra can be yellow, green, brown, or black with yellowish or white cross-bars or chevrons on the back. The throat is light yellow or cream colored with 4 similar crossbars under the head. King cobras are active during the daytime and prefer to escape unless they are cornered or provoked. This is not true of females guarding their nests during the egg-laying season from January through April, when they may attack without provocation.

Northern and Southeastern Philippine cobras and equatorial spitting cobras reach an average adult length of 1-1.5 meters. These cobras are commonly active in the evening but are not exclusively nocturnal (active by night). Northern Philippine cobras have a yellowish to olive brown background color and lack distinct markings on their back. The throat is yellowish white with one or several pairs of lateral spots. Southeastern Philippine cobras have an iridescent brownish black and yellowish reticular background color. The chin and upper neck are whitish yellow with black bands or splotches.

Equatorial spitting cobras found in the Philippines have a uniform jet black background color with a bluish black belly and pale markings on the neck and chin. Northern and Southeastern Philippine cobras and equatorial spitting cobras are generally timid and will seek to escape when encountered. They are the most dangerous when surprised in close quarters, and when biting, tend to hold on and chew savagely. These snakes also have a highly developed ability to “spit” venom at intruders, ejecting their venom accurately into the eyes of their victims from a distance of up to 3 meters. The venom of all cobras in the Philippines contains potent and fast-acting neurotoxins. Bites from king cobras are of special concern because of the greater volume of venom injected.

Cobras are at home in many types of terrain in the Philippines, from sea level up to 1,800 meters elevation. All of the Philippine cobras are terrestrial, but specimens are sometimes encountered in trees and streams. Optimum habitat for cobras found in the Philippines include the savannas and grasslands, bamboo thickets, dense or open forests, dense mangrove swamps, hilly jungles, as well as cultivated areas. King cobras are found on Balabac, Jolo, Luzon, Mindanao, Mindoro, Negros, and Palawan. This species is uncommon throughout it’s Philippine range. Equatorial spitting cobras are found only on Palawan and some of the Calamian Islands. The Northern Philippine cobra has been recorded from Luzon, Mindoro, Masbate, Marinduque, and Catanduanes. Records from the Calamian Islands and Palawan require confirmation. This species is common in areas populated by man and is an important cause of snake bites in the Philippines. The Southeastern Philippine cobra inhabits the islands of Mindanao, Samar, Leyte, Bohol, and Camiguin and is likely to occur on some of the other smaller, nearby islands.

Pit Vipers in the Philippines

Species of pit viper found in the Philippines include the Bataan pit viper (Trimeresurus f. mcgregori), Wagler’s pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri), polillo pit viper Trimeresurus f. halieus) and Philippine pit viper (Trimeresurus flavomaculatus) Wagler’s, Philippine, Polillo, and Bataan pit vipers all belong to a group of tree- dwelling snakes called lance-headed pit vipers. General characteristics of this group of snakes include a broad, flattened head, very distinct from the narrow neck, with a moderately compressed, cylindrical body, and a prehensile tail of moderate length. Their eyes are small to moderate in size with vertically elliptical pupils. Pit vipers have a pair of heat sensing pits located between each eye and nostril. Wagler’s pit vipers have a green or blue-green background color with black-edged scales; the top of the head is black with yellow-green markings and the chin is yellow. Trimeresurus spp. snakes have a dorsal background color of green, greenish-yellow, or bluish-green, a characteristic broken or continuous line of yellow dots along the sides near the belly with or without a series of irregular dark blotches or crossbars, varying in color, along the back. [Source: U.S. Army, Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine (Usachppm) Entomological Sciences Program, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland]

Pit vipers possess a very sophisticated venom delivery system. Large tubular fangs are placed in the front of the mouth and they are hinged, allowing them to be folded back when not in use. Their venom is primarily hemotoxic and all of the lance-headed pit vipers of the Philippines are capable of inflicting a dangerous bite. Primarily nocturnal in habit, these snakes are sluggish and docile during the day but will bite when threatened at night.No species specific antivenins are produced for pit vipers found in the Philippines.

The lance-headed vipers that inhabit the Philippines are arboreal, usually being found in bushes or in small trees. Generally, they live in lowland forests, and are often encountered along banks of streams or in damp localities at elevations up to 600 meters. Habitats include mangrove and hardwood forests. Wagler’s pit vipers are sometimes kept unconfined in temples or tolerated about dwellings as an omen of good luck. Wagler’s pit vipers are distributed throughout the Philippine archipelago. The Philippine viper and it’s subspecies have been recorded from Camiguin, Jolo, Luzon, Mindanao, Polillo, Bataan, Bohol, Catanduanes, Dinigat, Leyte, Mindoro, Negros, and Panay.

Coral Snakes in the Philippines

The coral snakes of the Philippines can be classified as either Asiatic coral snakes (Hemibungarus and Calliophis spp.) or long- glanded coral snakes (Maticora spp.). Both of these types of snakes are characterized by small heads, not distinct from the body, a slender and elongated, cylindrical body with a short tail, and small eyes with round pupils. Long-glanded coral snakes reach an average adult length of only 0.3 meters. They have elongated venom glands that extend posteriorly for about 1/3 of the body length. Long-glanded coral snakes have a background color of brown to black above, with longitudinal blue, yellow, or whitish lines and the head and/or ventral surface of the tail brightly colored. Adult Asiatic coral snakes average 0.3 to 0.5 meters in length. They have a cream band across the base of the head, and a background color of russet to pink, with narrow, widely separated black cross bands or a background color of brown to crimson, with 3 longitudinal black strips from head to tail. Many harmless snakes mimic their coloration. Coral snakes are seldom aggressive unless provoked or handled. [Source: U.S. Army, Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine (Usachppm) Entomological Sciences Program, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland]

Species found in the Philippines include the Palawan long-glanded coral snake (Maticora intestinalis), long-glanded coral snake (maticora spp) and Asian coral snake (calliophis spp). The coral snakes of the Philippines are typically found in scrub jungles or monsoon forests, up to elevations of 1,100 meters, and are often found near human habitations. These snakes generally avoid dry terrain. Although occasionally active in the early morning, coral snakes are mostly nocturnal and remain hidden during the day within the humus of the forest floor, or beneath logs, and other debris in wooded areas. Asiatic coral snakes have been recorded from Luzon, Mindoro, Cebu, Negros, Panay, and Polillo. Long-glanded coral snakes occur in the Philippines on Palawan, Luzon, Mindanao, Samar, the Calamian Islands, and throughout the Sulu archipelago.

Coral snakes do not strike like the vipers; they bite and often chew to inject their venom. Coral snakes must hold on for a longer period of time for significant envenomation to occur. At the site of the bite, there is usually little swelling or inflammation. Neurological symptoms including slurred speech, an overall tingling sensation, drooping eyelids, blurred vision, muscle weakness and respiratory paralysis are often delayed for 12 or more hours after the bite. No species specific antivenins are produced for Asiatic coral snakes.

Sea Snakes in the Philippines

Sea snakes belong to the Family Hydrophiidae. They differ in appearance from other snakes in that they have an oar-like tail and laterally compressed bodies to aid in swimming. Sea snakes are air breathers and must surface to breathe. A specialized lung and nostrils with valves enable sea snakes to remain submerged for periods of up to 8 hours. Most sea snakes are completely marine and lack the enlarged ventral scales that enable land snakes to grip the ground. Once ashore, these ocean-going snakes are helpless, and cannot crawl. Generally, sea snakes are not aggressive. They are not thought to strike humans unless provoked, nor do they typically actively pursue swimming prey. However, there are species that may bite if they are stepped on or handled roughly. Species include the Lake Taal snake (Hydrophis semperi), pelagic sea snake (Pelamis platurus), yellow-lipped sea krait (Laticauda colubrina), Stoke’s seasnake (Astrotia stokesii). [Source: U.S. Army, Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine (Usachppm) Entomological Sciences Program, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland]

All sea snakes have fixed fangs and potent venom. Stoke’s sea snakes have fangs that are capable of penetrating a wetsuit. Some species of sea snakes have venom that is several times more toxic than the cobra’s. Fortunately, only small amounts of venom are usually injected, so fatalities are rare. The most serious bites involve multiple serrated-edged lacerations which may result in death from respiratory, heart, or kidney failure. The venom of sea snakes is painless and only small amounts of venom are usually injected. Fatalities are rare. The more serious bites involve multiple serrated-edged lacerations that produce muscle stiffness, difficulties in speaking and swallowing, flu-like symptoms and muscular paralysis. Antivenin is available which can neutralize the effects of the venom of most species of cobras. No species specific antivenins are produced for sea snakes.

The Philippines have one of the highest densities of sea snake populations in the world and these marine reptiles are commonly encountered in both the inshore and offshore waters throughout the archipelago. One species of sea snake, the Lake Taal snake, is the only known species to have adapted to fresh water, and lives in a flooded volcanic caldera on Luzon. The greatest numbers of sea snakes are found in warm, shallow waters, without strong surf or current, along coastlines. The mouths of rivers, bays, and mangrove swamps are especially favored. They thrive in a variety of habitats, ranging from muddy or turbid water to clear waters and coral reefs. Many species of sea snakes enter brackish or freshwater occasionally. Some species of sea snakes that inhabit the deeper ocean waters are only rarely found close to shore, when wind or currents cause beach strandings.

Crocodiles in the Philippines

There are two species of crocodilians in the Philippines: in addition to the endemic Philippine crocodile Crocodylus mindorensis there is also the Saltwater crocodile Crocodylus porosus. The Saltwater crocodile occurs from India to Australia and is not globally threatened with extinction. In the Philippines however, saltwater crocodiles are now very rare and the species is locally extinct from most locations where it historically occurred. [Source: mabuwaya.org]

The Saltwater crocodile is normally found in coastal waters, mangroves, rivers and large lakes that are connected to the sea. It is also known as the Estuarine crocodile. This species is able to survive long periods in saltwater and is capable to travel long distances through open sea. It is the longest crocodile in the World with recorded maximum lengths of up to 6 meters. Because of its size, large adult Saltwater crocodiles are potentially very dangerous to people and are feared as occassional man-eaters.

The Philippine crocodile in contrast is much smaller with a maximum recorded length of about 3 meters. This species lives in freshwater habitats such as lakes, rivers and creeks but is also known to occassionaly venture into saltwater habitats such as mangrove forest and intertidal coastal areas, possibly when moving between coastal rivers. It has been found from sea level up to an elevation of 800 meters in the Cordillera Mountains although it normally does not live that high.

World’s Biggest Crocodile Found in the Philippines

In July 2012, a huge crocodile known as Lolong was officially named the largest crocodile in captivity, by the Guinness World Records. Lolong measures 20.24 feet (6.17 meters) and weighs more than a ton, The Guinness website said: “Lolong’s weight was also measured at a nearby truck weigh-bridge and verified as approximately 1,075 kilograms. The reptile took the top spot from an Australian crocodile that measured more than 17 feet (5 meters) and weighed nearly a ton. The Guinness listing is based on data by experts including crocodile zoologist Adam Britton, who measured the beast in his home, the new Bunawan Eco-Park and Research Centre in the Philippines.

AP reported: “The news sparked celebrations in Bunawan, a farming town of 37,000 in Agusan del Sur province on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, but Mayor Edwin Cox Elorde said it also fostered concerns that more giant crocodiles might lurk in a marshland and creek where villagers fish."There were mixed feelings," Elorde said by telephone. "We're really proud because it proves the rich biodiversity of our place but at the same time, there are fears that Lolong may not be alone." Lolong has become the star attraction of a new ecotourism park and research center in the outskirts of Bunawan and has drawn thousands of tourists since news of its capture spread. Elorde said his town has earned 3 million pesos ($72,000) from the modest entrance fees at the park, with most of the money being used to feed and care for the crocodile and maintain the park. [Source: Jim Gomez, AP, July 1, 2012]

National Geographic News reported: “Initially wary of claims of record-breaking size, Britton blogged his congratulations to Lolong "for amazing the skeptic in me." "I didn't expect to ever see a crocodile greater than 20 feet long in my lifetime, not an experience I will forget easily," wrote Britton, senior partner of the Australia-based crocodilian research and consulting group Big Gecko. The previous captive record-holder was a 17.97-foot-long (5.48-meter-long) Australian-caught saltwater crocodile.[Source: National Geographic News, July 2, 2012]

What's more, Britton noted, the 2,370-pound (1,075-kilogram) Lolong may have a sizable impact on crocodile conservation in the Philippines. For instance, the Philippine Senate recently introduced a resolution to strengthen laws protecting the saltwater crocodile and the Philippine crocodile, a species deemed critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. As Britton wrote on his blog, "this is excellent progress."

Catching and Caring for the World’s Biggest Crocodile

AP reported: “The crocodile was captured with steel cable traps in the Agusan marsh in Mindanao during a three-week hunt after a two-year girl was killed in 2009 and a fisherman went missing. Water buffalos have also been attacked by crocodiles in the area. About 100 people led by Elorde pulled the crocodile from a creek using a rope and then hoisted it by crane onto a truck. It was named after a government environmental officer who died from a heart attack after traveling to Bunawan to help capture the beast, Elorde said. Elorde said he saw a bigger crocodile escape when Lolong was captured and villagers remain wary of fishing there at night. He said he has formed a team of hunters and is seeking government permission to hunt that crocodile. [Source: Jim Gomez, AP, July 1, 2012]

In September 2011 after Lolong was caught AFP reported: The 6.4m. 1075kg reptile may have eaten a farmer who went missing in July, along with several water buffaloes in the southern town of Bunawan, crocodile hunter Rollie Sumiller said. A crocodile also bit off the head of a 12-year-old girl in Bunawan in 2009, according to the environment ministry.

Sumiller said he thought the male crocodile was more than 50 years old."This is the biggest animal that I've handled in 20 years of trapping," he said. "The community was relieved," Sumiller said, but added: "We're not really sure if this is the man-eater, because there have been other sightings of other crocodiles in the area."

The team, employed by a government-run crocodile breeding farm, began laying bait using chicken, pork and dog meat on August 15. But the reptile, which measured 91cm across its back, simply bit off both the meat and the line it was skewered on. An eight millimetre metal cable finally proved beyond the power of its jaws, and the beast was subdued in a relatively fast 15 minutes at a creek late on Saturday with the help of about 30 local men.

After it was placed in captivity AFP reported: “A first, Lolong was fed the equivalent of 10 percent of his body weight in beef, pork and poultry every month, but an expert put him on a diet of eight to 10 kilograms a week to get him to be more active.”

While not considered an endangered species globally, it is "critically endangered" in the Philippines, where it is hunted for its hide which is used in the fashion industry, de Leon said. "There have been very few sightings of porosus in the wild in the Philippines in recent years," she added. In July, a smaller saltwater crocodile, measuring almost 4.2m was caught on the western Philippine island of Palawan after it killed a man.

Philippine Crocodile

The Philippine crocodile is one of the most severely endangered species. There is no more than 100 of these species of crocodile living outside captivity. But a number of them can be found at zoos and crocodile parks around the world. In the wild they mainly are restricted to freshwater areas: small lakes and ponds, small riverine tributaries and marshes.

The Philippine crocodile is a relatively small species. It has a relatively broad snout for a crocodile, and heavy dorsal armour. Similar in morphology to C. novaeguineae, of which it was classed a subspecies until fairly recently. Length: Up to three meters for males. The females are slightly smaller. Weight: Up to 200 kilograms for males and up to 100 kilograms for females. Common names: Philippine Crocodile, Mindoro crocodile, Philippine freshwater crocodile. [Source: lowryparkzoo.com, crocodilian.com]

The Philippine crocodile has about 66-68 teeth. Adult crocodiles feed at night on schooling fish, crabs, birds, turtles, snakes, and small mammals. Hatchlings feed on small fish, and crustaceans. Breeding: This species constructs a relatively small (around 1.5 m wide x 0.5 m tall) mound nest, into which the female deposits between 7 and 20 eggs. Incubation time is approximately 85 days. The female exhibits parental care. [Ibid]

Distribution: The islands of Busuanga, Jolo, Luzon, Masbate, Mindanao, Mindoro, Negros, Samar are part of the historical range, but the current distribution is largely unverified - reported to be extirpated from Jolo, Luzon, Masbate and Samar. Status: Considered at very high risk of extinction due to small populations, limited distribution, negative local attitudes and ineffective management. [Source:crocodilian.com]

Conservation: Although this species was once found over the whole of the Philippines, it is now very critically threatened. In addition to this, very little is known about the natural history or ecology of the species, or its relationship with C. porosus, whose range it overlaps. More surveys are required to determine the present range. Initial population reduction was through commercial exploitation, although the current threat is mainly from removal of suitable habitat for agricultural purposes to satisfy a rapidly expanding human population. There is also very limited governmental support for any conservation measures, and the crocodiles are often killed by the local populace. This situation needs to be changed through awareness programs. Long-term captive breeding and release (through Silliman University and international breeding centres) is judged to be the best course to take at the present time, although it is imperative that a management program is drawn up for the remainder of the wild population (most of which resides in only one protected area). In 1992, there were estimated to be less than 1000 animals in the wild. In 1995, that estimate was revised to be no more than 100 non-hatchlings (note: hatchlings are rarely counted in surveys because their survivorship is so low).

Subspecies: This species was originally considered to be a subspecies of either C. porosus or, more recently, C. novaeguineae (i.e. C. novaeguineae mindorensis). There is limited evidence for a separate species called C. raninus, which is very similar to C. mindorensis but restricted to Borneo, to be resurrected. There is considered to be insufficient evidence to justify this, however, and C. raninus is not officially recognised. Recent genetic work suggests that specimens thought to be C. raninus may in fact be C. porosus.

Dragon-sized, Tree-Dwelling Lizard in the Philippines: a New Species

In April 2010, scientists reported the discovery that a dragon-sized, fruit-eating lizard that lives in the trees on the northern Philippines island of Luzon had been confirmed as a new species. Deborah Zabarenko of Reuters wrote: “Hunted for its tasty flesh, the brightly colored forest monitor lizard can grow to more than six feet in length but weighs only about 22 pounds (10 kg), said Rafe Brown of the University of Kansas, whose team confirmed the find. "It lives up in trees, so it can't get as massive as the Komodo dragon, a huge thing that eats large amounts of fresh meat," Brown said by telephone. "This thing is a fruit-eater and it's only the third fruit-eating lizard in the world." [Source: Deborah Zabarenko, Reuters, April 6, 2010 ==]

“Discovering such a large vertebrate species is extremely rare, Brown said. The lizard, a new species of the genus Varanus, is skittish and able to hide from humans, its primary predators, which could explain why it has gone undetected by scientists for so long. Biologists first saw photographs of the big, skinny lizard in 2001, when those surveying the area passed hunters carrying the lizards' colorful carcasses, but the species at that point had never been given a scientific identification. In the next few years, Brown said, ethnobiologists kept hearing stories "about these two kinds of lizard that everyone liked to eat because their flesh tasted better than the ones that lived on the ground; this thing was described as bigger and more brightly colored." The two kinds of lizard described by the local people were two names for the same animal, Brown said. ==

“In 2009, graduate students at the end of a two-month expedition kept seeing signs of the big lizard. There were claw-scratches on trees and clumps of pandanus trees, whose fruit the lizard prefers. The clumps indicated that the lizards had eaten pandanus fruit and then excreted the seeds in clusters. "It was literally in the last couple days of the expedition, we were running out of money and food and this was the payoff: they finally got this gigantic animal," Brown said. Hunters who had heard of the team's interest brought a barely-alive adult male lizard to their camp. The team euthanized the animal and did genetic tests that confirmed it as a unique species, Brown said. ==

“DNA analysis showed there was a deep genetic divergence between the new lizard and its closest relative, Gray's monitor lizard, which is also a fruit-eater but lives on the southern end of Luzon, rather than the northern end where the forest monitor lizard lives. "They are extremely secretive," Brown said of the new species. "I think that centuries of humans hunting them have made the existing populations ... very skittish and wary and we never see them. They see and hear us before we have a chance to see them, they scamper up trees before we have a chance to come around." These findings were published in the Royal Society Journal Biology Letters, with additional work by scientists in the Philippines and the Netherlands. =

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Philippines Department of Tourism, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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