If it moves, grab it, but try not to get the end that bites

That's the advice researchers in Venezuela give volunteers who help them find and collect specimens of the world's biggest boa

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South American literature abounds with fantastic tales about the giant anaconda. Now a team of scientists from Venezuela is working to distill fact from fiction.

For the past five years, two young Venezuelan doctoral candidates, Jesús Rivas and María Muñoz, have dedicated themselves to a project with auspicious backing: the Venezuelan Wildlife Department, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Their objective is to find out as much as possible about the biology of the anaconda, also known as the water boa, in order to develop a conservation program.

In order to catch these powerful reptiles, the researchers wade barefoot through water hyacinth-choked wetlands, feeling with their toes for a scale-covered body. They then have to capture the creature; if they are lucky, they don't get bitten, but occasional bites are part of the job.

Among their unusual findings: "Breeding balls," consisting of 2 to 12 males coiled around one female for as much as four weeks. Breeding balls, which Rivas calls "slow-motion wrestling matches," provide researchers with the opportunity to capture the males and remove them to the laboratory for further study. The female is allowed to go free to attract other males.

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