I was walking towards the Gift Shop just before noon on a Sunday last August when I found the entrance completely blocked by a commotion of a dozen people clustered in front of the glass entry doors. The groups’ collective gaze was directed towards something – or someone – on the ground in a corner that was hidden from my view. I thought at first that someone was injured, but the group seemed to be generally smiling, chatty, and upbeat, implying that they were watching something more engaging than a twisted ankle or an arm full of cactus spines. I shouldered my way into the pack and when I looked over one of the shorter heads, there was indeed a person there. His body laid stretched out, stomach-side down, completely blocking the entrance. But he was moving. He was propped up on his elbows and was using them to slowly drag his prone body towards a dimly lit, hollow crevice near the bottom of the hinge of the right hand entry door.
From where I stood, the shadowy space looked like it contained a tangled shoelace that was suspended in mid-air, encircled with odd, alternating black, white and red bands, like something a clown would wear. When I asked the person next to me what all of the hubbub was about, she said, “It’s either a snake eating a spider, or a spider eating a snake. I’m not sure which.”
As it turns out, it was a six inch coral snake that had become entangled in the sticky web of a black widow spider, and the black widow was wasting no time in sucking the life out of the unfortunate coral snake. The horizontal man had now rolled over on his side and was aiming his digital SLR camera for close-ups of the carnage. He was later introduced to me as Larry Jones, herpetologist and author of the book The Lizards of the Southwest. The majority of the onlookers were just returning from a Learn Your Lizards walk led by AZ Game and Fish biologist Abbi King, and the real-world, life-and-death scene that was unfolding before them was an added bonus that thrilled everyone right down to Abbi, who was now lying next to Larry with her camera, stifling any hope of anyone getting in or out of the Gift Shop.
Over the next half hour, most of the onlookers that had cameras, including me, took their respective turns rolling around on the warm concrete outside the Gift Shop doors, inhibiting commerce, but also photographing a unique scene that Larry Jones later said was a “first” for him. When I quizzed him for his expert opinion about which one of these venomous creatures he would rather be bitten by, he gave me the only scientifically valid response: “Neither.” Then he added, “Well, it depends on where you’re bitten. Coral snakes have a nasty venom, but then so do black widows.” I thought about this as I stepped between several pairs of legs on my way to get another look, and decided that my envenomator of choice would probably be the coral snake. With its tiny mouth, there are a limited number of body parts that would present themselves on a fully clothed individual, whereas the black widow could more easily slip itself in or under, exposing a plethora of meaty targets.
BEMUSED BIOLOGISTS BARRICADE BOOKSTORE might have been the headline in the morning paper had the scene not diffused itself as quickly as it started. By early afternoon, life was back to normal for everyone but the coral snake. What had started as a five-alarm biological event –a rare clash of the titans –was now barely a side show. With no crowds to draw attention to it, most visitors came and went, buying tee shirts, or books, or Gatorade, without ever noticing the black widow hanging smugly from her fresh kill in a shadowy, nearby corner.