Is that a worm??!

Monday, July 9, 2012
Rafe Brown


My new hero is our field camp assistant, Pedro, a.k.a “Baba.”  Every day or two Baba brings me a couple of animals: a miniature forest rat, a bird, a giant water bug, a sail fin lizard, snake eggs from inside a log; whatever he finds.  Invariably he proudly presents the new catch on the end of some plastic string and we communicate in grunts and gestures because he speaks only Bisaya and a local indigenous language and I speak only English and Tagalog.  Baba is very adept at setting snares that put our fancy field gear to shame.  He has produced more species of mammals than all of the rest of us combined…but the best part is his enthusiasm for each variant he finds.  Baba uses his 2-foot, extremely sharp, bolo (macheté) for everything: cutting paths, fixing his sandals, opening cans of food, fixing snares….one popular camp joke goes like this.  “Hey do you know what Baba uses to comb his hair?  A bolo.  Do you know what he uses to scratch his back?  A bolo…Do you know what he uses to brush his teeth?  A bolo!”

Today Baba brought me a folded leaf with a very strange creature contained within…as I carefully unfolded the leaf and got a glimpse of its contents I thought, “OK Baba, thanks for the worm….wait, is that a centipede?  Ah, I know: it’s a blind snake…wait, no way!  Is that a Dibamus??!”

Dibamus are some of the most enigmatic and poorly known lizards in the world.  They certainly do not look like lizards.  They are legless and unless you get a close look at their head (and see eye spots and their mouth), you might mistake them for a worm.  Modern herpetologists have debated their evolutionary affinities for decades.  They are seldom collected in the Philippines and, according to current taxonomy, Philippine populations are grouped under a species that extends from Asia to New Guinea (an arrangement that I find extremely unlikely, suggesting to me that this specimen is unknown to science).  It’s only the second time that I’ve seen Dibamus in the archipelago…what a thrill!  Thanks Baba!