Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Media Fail: A Toad Panic Ensues

    I see a lot of news articles that incite fear and panic about amphibians and reptiles, but this one might take the cake. This article, which warns pet-owners of a giant toad that will kill dogs, came to my attention because of an e-mail Theresa Stratmann sent to me. The story was getting a lot of attention and she was concerned that even though it is only about one species of introduced toad, it could make people afraid of all toads, even our harmless native species. After seeing it myself, I could not agree more.

Photo courtesy of Ltshears, Wikimedia Images.
    Let's get something out of the way. The Cane Toad (Rhinella marina) is a very large species of toad from Central and South America. Unfortunately, it has been introduced all over the world (notably Australia), including Florida. These toads eat a lot of small native species and their poisonous glands make them dangerous to any would-be predators. In short, they are a very damaging invasive species.

    But, a toad is not a toad! The southeastern United States has a number of smaller native species that are quite harmless. Here's a very useful website describing how to distinguish the Cane Toad from the native species in Florida.

    Scientists often use scientific names because each animal only has one of them and this helps make sure there is no confusion about which animal they are talking about. On the other hand, many species have multiple common names. For example, Rhinella marina has been referred to as the Cane Toad (this is what most people I know prefer), the Marine Toad, the Giant Toad, and the Bufo Toad. This last name is the most confusing.

    We are always learning more about the evolutionary relationships of animals and that means we have to change scientific names. The official scientific name of Rhinella marina used to be Bufo marinus! So, I guess it makes sense why some people would call them a Bufo Toad...but the harmless native species in the southeastern United States also used to be in the Bufo genus. So, this is clearly a misleading and confusing name for Rhinella marina and I hope it fades away.

     The terrible video Theresa made me watch wanted everyone to know that there were deadly toads all over Florida and they were likely to kill your pets. As you might have guessed, they were referring to Rhinella marina and calling it the Bufo Toad. I would be able to let it slide that they were using Bufo Toad to refer to Rhinella marina if they had made clear that this was an invasive species not to be confused with our native species. But they never even mentioned our native species (remember, these native toads also used to be in the Bufo genus). I still might have cut them some slack, but they showed pictures of the harmless native species when they were actually talking about Rhinella marina! At this point, I realized they were just lazy fear-mongerers.

    These days many media outlets simply report on what other media outlets are reporting, so it's hard to identify the "original" article about Cane Toads that started this whole fiasco (perhaps this one?) but I don't think the story got everyone's attention until it appeared in the New York Daily News. To the author's credit, he did at least note that Bufo Toads were an invasive species, but there were other important problems (and not just the confusing use of "Bufo Toad").

    I contacted the author on Twitter to voice my displeasure.

I was pleased to see that he was receptive to my complaints.

    You can check out the thread on Twitter to see the full conversation, but I left with the impression that a number of corrections would be issued to the article. They were not, so here we are.

1. The problems start with the title. The Cane Toad is not venomous, it is poisonous. Venom is injected and poison is ingested.

2. The article twice refers to Cane Toads as slimy. Toads are not slimy and nobody that has ever touched one would say so. Frogs have a wet skin, toads have a dry warty skin.

3. The article says that Cane Toads are larger than any other frog or toad in Florida. The Orlando Sentinel is cited as the source for this statement, which in turn cites the University of Florida Wildlife Extension. Presumably they are referring to this page. I'm giving partial credit to this one because although a very big Cane Toad can reach larger sizes than Florida species, the Bullfrog can hold its own.

4. Finally, the article states Cane Toads were expanding their range because of climate change. This is a pretty bold claim. What's the source? This website from the ASPCA about a dog that had been poisoned by a Cane Toad. This is the relevant statement:

"Bufo marinus, also known as the giant toad, marine toad, or cane toad, is a large nocturnal toad found mostly in Florida, Hawaii, and a small section of southern Texas. Extensions of these traditional geographical boundaries have been recently noted as a result of environmental change.1"

    First of all, Florida and Hawaii are not the traditional geographic boundaries of this species, the species was introduced there. Second, the source for this statement is:

"POISINDEX editorial staff: Toad toxins. POISINDEX System [intranet database]. Micromedex, Englewood, Colorado, 2012."

    I didn't bother to track this one down, it's obviously not a legitimate source when talking about whether Cane Toads are expanding their geographic range because of climate change (for what it's worth, here's a map of where the Cane Toad can be found in Florida). This article/report should have never been cited in the New York Daily News article (notice the expanding area bit also appears in the headline).

    This blog post went a little longer than I had expected. Look, there are a lot of dangerous things out there, don't let your cats and dogs eat wildlife, whether they are toxic, harmless, native or introduced, and I think we will be all in good shape. To the general public, don't go on a panicked toad-killing spree, most species are harmless. And journalists, in the future please talk to a wildlife professional when you are working on wildlife stories. There are simply too many wildlife professionals out there (Helloooo!) willing to talk to you to excuse this kind of fear-mongering and general sloppiness.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Reader's Write In: The Next Batch of Snake Identifications For You!

 One early evening a couple weeks ago, I found what I thought was a stick in the bottom of my pool. I fished it out to find it was this little guy. He was terribly sluggish, whether from the cold water or I assumed the chlorine. He seemed to be making a get away, so I left him to recover. He is the smoothest snake I ever saw, with his scales looking almost like skin.He also has unique marking along the front portion of his head and "upper" body sides, reminiscent of a fish to me. I would put his length at about 14 inches. Couldn't find him in an ID website either.

What did I encounter?

Corky D.
Central Florida

Recently I was camping on Sapelo Island in south Georgia. 
While romping in the woods we came across this little guy. He held that pose for quite a while before he had enough of us and headed off into the bushes. Could this has been an indigo snake?

Jim J.

Hi Dave,

Love the blog...My son found this dead 6” snake in Putnam 
Valley NY town park last weekend in Sept. We do have timber rattlers in the region, there’s a well known den right on the A.T. south of Bear Mountain, and one was photographed in Garrison NY backyard last fall (east of Hudson River). Son and I have seen several at the den site across the river in May & September but from this photo I can’t tell for sure if it’s a timber.

Tom G.
New York

The snake from Bucks County, PA

Bob S.

South Jackson County, Florida

Janice W.

Readers: What Are These Animals?

Snake Identification Post Ground Rules

-Guesses are welcome and encouraged. Don't worry if you're not an expert, wrong guesses allow us to talk about how to distinguish between the various species and that's why I run these posts.

-If you can't explain why you think a snake is a particular species, go ahead and just say what you think it is. But otherwise please do let us all know how you identified the animal. If you're wrong, we can explain why. If you're right, this helps everyone learn how to identify snakes, which is the goal of these posts.

-You can safely assume that I know what kind of snake is in the picture, I run these posts because they are outreach opportunities. Please don't send me private e-mails with your guesses, include them below.

-Remember, the person that sent me the picture is probably reading your comments. Although it is frustrating to know that many of these snakes have been killed, these people do want to learn more about them. More snake knowledge will lead to fewer snakes being killed.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Capturing Sage Grouse with the Help of Rock ‘n’ Roll --Guest Post---

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) has been receiving a lot of attention lately. This goofy chicken-relative inhabits sagebrush country in the United States and Canada and is famed for their mating ritual of congregating on leks (sage grouse breeding grounds) this time of year to puff up their air sacks and show their feathery finery in competition with other males for the local females.

Like many of the grouse species, human expansion has put a cramp on the sage grouse style and their population has sharply declined from the teen-millions to the hundred thousands over the last hundred years. Normally with this decline a species would receive federal protection status however the larger political battle has left this grouse on the wrong side of the road. The fossil fuel industry and at times the renewable industry has different intentions for what is currently sage grouse habitat and sage grouse often are precluded from conservation despite their circumstance.

While it seems like some can be indifferent to the plight of the sage grouse the same can’t necessarily be said for the on-the-ground workers and volunteers in local towns and federal and state governments. This disagreement has created some funding to study and see the birds close up. A lot of these jobs involve counting the birds at the leks, trapping and radio collaring the birds at night and then stalking them with radio telemetry during the day to find out more about their habits and habitat. I was recently honored with the opportunity to join some graduate students from the University of Nevada for several nights of sage grouse trapping and wanted to share the experience.

A Night in the Life of a Sage Grouse Trapper

The Group:

You meet up with your crew just before sunset and drive out to the trapping location. Your crew consists of a Spotter who carries a boom box, binoculars, and a spotlight and one or two Catchers (that’s me!) with headlamps who carry fishing nets that are about 2 feet in diameter and are attached to an 8 foot pole.

The Spot:

Once at the trapping location you wait until true darkness before walking around looking for grouse. The walking around consists of walking for a while then stopping while the Spotter uses the spotlight and binoculars to scan the area for the greenish eye-shine of a sage grouse. The sage grouse eye-shine is almost impossible to see with the naked eye from any large distance however as a spotter you will be able to see the eye-shine of rabbit, coyote, and pronghorn throughout the night. Spotters often like to look in areas of low vegetation (so the grouse are easier to see and catch with our downhill momentum), or from the top of a hill looking down at a lower elevation on the other side of a small valley.

Many times you can spend hours (or nights) walking around in the dark looking for eye shine. This gives a Catcher a lot of time to look at the stars, twist an ankle in a badger hole or think about what they are doing with their lives.

Once a sage grouse is spotted you may have to get closer to the sage grouse. So everyone in the group will turn off their headlamps and walks/stumbles in the dark a little closer to where the grouse is. It can feel like Elmer Fudd hunting wabbits in the dark at times.

The Capture:

Once within capturing distance (within a 100 yards) the Spotter beams the sage grouse with the spotlight to blind it/mystify it and gives the signal for the boom box. The boom box then plays incredibly loud and incredibly heavy metal music to muffle the groups footsteps and thoroughly confuse the birds. Once the boom box starts the entire teams starts racing in the dark to where the sage grouse is. During this part of the capture we played Rooster by Alice in Chains but pretty much any loud metal music would work.

The Catchers (who have no idea where the sage grouse is located because they didn’t see the eye shine) furtively look at the ground to figure out where the spotter is pointing the spotlight. Eventually when the catchers are within 15 feet of the heavily camouflaged grouse they see the stunned bird. The Catchers then run in front of the Spotter at the last second and net it while it still on the ground and then pounce to pin the 4 pound bird to the ground. Usually the birds are sitting in small groups and many will flush during the process but usually you’ll catch a couple. Once the birds are sufficiently captured the boom box is turned off.

The Process:

After the capture, different measurements and methods can be taken on the bird from sexing it to weight and wing measurements to taking blood samples and placing a radio collar on the bird. It varies study by study. Despite the odd method of capturing the birds it is surprisingly effective, inexpensive, and has a lower capture myopathy (death related to capture or handling) than many other methods. A lot of times the captured bird will loose a few feathers and poop on your pants, or in one unfortunate experience, on your face (tastes like sage!). After you process the bird you place it in taller bushes so it has a chance to recover rather than immediately flushing into the dark night.

Want to Trap Grouse?

During this time of year several Sage Grouse positions and volunteer opportunities open up around the Great Basin area. The current attention to sage grouse varies state by state but if you are interested in getting a job working with these goofy birds search state departments of wildlife (especially Colorado, Wyoming and Nevada) and local universities. Funding has been provided for more than a couple research students.

Do you have any experience trapping grouse? Write a comment and let us know about your experiences!

Meg Renninger writes about the fantastic adaptations of animals and humans at animalsandweapons.com. A fervent supporter of the local library and loyal reader of many blogs, Meg also finds time for her two dogs, large garden, and local breweries. Follow her on Twitter

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Two Million Served: Living Alongside Wildlife is a classy and reputable online source of information, but you won’t believe what we’re going to tell you about its author --Guest Post--

    Blogs are all the rage these days.  A blog allows the blogger to tell a story about something of their interest.  And people sometimes read it. The problem with blogs is that anyone can have a blog, and in that way blogs are like opinions. And everyone knows that—like toots—everyone has opinions and everyone knows exactly what they smell like. So, when Dave said he had a blog, Sean (one of them) was less than impressed. Many of you probably don’t know that Dave’s blog grew out of a syndicated column in some local newspapers in the Southeast (like here). At the time, that did impress Sean, but when Dave told Sean he’d transitioned to an online-only format, he didn’t give him much support. In fact, it should be said that Sean was a jerk about it. Which is why Sean is the one who should be praising him about this noteworthy milestone. In short, boy, did Dave prove me wrong.

    When it comes to scientific blogs, most of these stories must have some level of prestige so the potential reader to take them seriously.  Dave Steen's Living Alongside Wildlife has grown over the years as a reputable source of evidence-based information about human-wildlife interactions. And Dave's objectives over the years haven't changed—dispel wildlife myths, educate non-scientists about wildlife issues and make scientific research accessible to a broader audience. Unlike a newspaper column or other printed media, which answers to a local pool of board members, buyers, or populace, a blog must generate prestige on its own, seemingly out of thin air. Unlike a legitimate scientific journal, which is backed by a society with paying members with advanced degrees and driven by peer review, online scientific journals appear in many cases to be moneymaking schemes for evil offshore computer geeks. So, there is cause for skepticism when it comes to strictly online scientific materials.

    Science relies on the power of peer review to determine if a piece of research holds water...but who gets to review a blog?  The real answer is no one, officially; however, the general zoological community is watching and usually embraces blogs such as Living Alongside Wildlife, but not without some level of scrutiny.  This is the same way that any news source gains prestige as a reputable source of information. Dave uses logic and evidence to tell a story. This is the primary reason why he asks his readers to provide photos about observations or detailed information about species identification. This logic has also led to his constant remarks about why there are no 10 foot diamondback rattlesnakes in Alabama...or anywhere for that matter. As zoologists, we get a chance to hear every possible myth under the sun and it becomes a struggle to convince some folks that the ideas they've had all their lives are wrong. Dave has found a venue for tactfully dispelling long held myths and providing remarkable information to those interested in knowing the state of the art in wildlife ecology and conservation. 

    Because Dave provides a source of up to date information on wildlife ecology, and is an expert on the topic, he is also critical of local, national or international news sources which occasionally yank the chain of readers in order to gain subscriptions or website views. In one case, Dave called out one contributor to Slate magazine (a formidable online news source), who embellished the growth of “unstoppable” Green Anaconda populations in the Florida Everglades, while downplaying the role of invasive Burmese Pythons, which have been well-documented and studied by wildlife ecologists. Dave cleared up these issues in a guest post, which included remarks from snake ecologists working in the Everglades. Since then, Dave has contributed several pieces or been featured in Slate magazine (like here and here). Wise move Slate.

    Dave’s blog has reached out to the public successfully and maintained prestige and the public’s trust. In short, he’s developed a classy column that just happens to be online, which has been read by many more folks than most newspaper columns and certainly reaches more of the lay public than any scientific journal. His blog has national reach. And now, moving beyond its two millionth view, his readers have proved Living Alongside Wildlife’s popularity. Either that, or Dave spends all of his time opening and closing his own webpage. But this can’t be true, because he’s simultaneously kept up a blistering publication record of full-length scientific articles in major journals over the last decade. But don’t take our word for it. So far the greatest complement we’ve heard, besides the endless number of times site visitors have commented approvingly about a story, has been from renowned snake biologist and author Harry Greene, who (appropriately) shared Dave’s blog on Facebook, calling it “truly outstanding.”

    We think one of the reasons Dave puts so much time and energy into this blog is because he genuinely cares about and is fascinated by wildlife, especially reptiles. One clear, and repetitive, message that the reader receives from his blog is that there's not a logical reason to take a picture of a "12 foot long" dead rattlesnake, when a live 3 foot rattlesnake is truly amazing in its own right.  The conservation issues related to many of his post are very serious.  As readers and as reptilian ecologists ourselves, we can vouch for the urgency of the conservation messages raised by Living Alongside Wildlife.  Reptile populations are among the most imperiled, due to the uniqueness of their life and natural history. Dave is putting these issues at the forefront of his message, along with the conservation and awareness of all wildlife, and now with over TWO million served.

    However, this tribute isn’t going to be all smoke blowing or horn tooting, so we now turn to the other issue we’ve always had with Dave’s blog and his casual (non-science) writing. In fact, the major reason why Sean didn’t like the blog at first was because it’s not Dave. Dave is an incredibly funny and zany guy, and his sense of humor is one in a million. We love Dave, so much so that it makes our significant others jealous, and it pains us that Dave himself has not found his way into his own writing. Dave has fooled you all, and in person he is nothing like the way his blog reads. His writing voice is authoritative, concise, and dry, and Dave is really only one of these things.

    So, how has Dave tricked his readers? He’s used an alternate personality for his blog to keep up the level of prestige needed. He’s writing this blog for everyone. He knows that by saying certain things or including unnecessary jargon, he might lose you. He’s really good at staying eye to eye with his readers, something that many of us (both Seans) are not good at. An illustrative example:

    The first guest post that one of us wrote included several instances of profanity. They were all pretty luke-warm, and they were all funny, and they were all things scientists in the story really said. In case you didn’t know it, most scientists swear all the time. I thought it would be humorous and informative to include such quotes, to entertain and inform the public that we are, after all, real people. In reference to my query about whether I would be able to get away with it, Dave said, “absolutely not.” This manuscript is still in progress.

    Dave’s diplomatic responses to obvious trolls commenting on his blog are priceless. You would think they were more priceless if you knew what Dave was muttering under his breath about these people. For example:

Reader comment:

Dave's reply:

"Let me guess, ‘second of all’ is that you don't have any proof? If you did, you would be able to brag about finding the world's largest Timber Rattlesnake."


Reader's comment:

Dave's reply:

"I am always happy to learn something new. What evidence should I check out?"

    So, we’ve established evidence of Dave’s dry, authoritative web personality, but what about the real Dave?

    Well, trying to describe Dave’s sense of humor is like trying to prove to someone that you love your mother; it is just too intangible. The best approximation is this photo:

    Thanks and congratulations Dave, we’ll be looking forward to many more millions of views.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Reader's Write In: Spring has Sprung! What Are These Creatures?

It must be spring!

Hello Dr. David Steen,

My nephew found a turtle today that doesn't look like any of the turtles from our area. It has red color on the underside and a long tail, it is about 3 or 4" long. He found it in an area with a nearby creek. I looked on the web and found your name in an article about the Alabama Red Bellied Turtle. I'm in Gadsden, Alabama and was wondering if this could possibly be one of those turtles. I read that they are usually only in the Mobile/lower Mississippi area. Any information would be appreciated. I have attached a few photos


Michelle M.
Gadsden, Alabama

What kind of snake is looking at me? It shakes its tail when I get close but I don't see a rattle.

Matthew J.
Central Florida

Readers: What Are These Animals?

Snake Identification Post Ground Rules

-Guesses are welcome and encouraged. Don't worry if you're not an expert, wrong guesses allow us to talk about how to distinguish between the various species and that's why I run these posts.

-If you can't explain why you think a snake is a particular species, go ahead and just say what you think it is. But otherwise please do let us all know how you identified the animal. If you're wrong, we can explain why. If you're right, this helps everyone learn how to identify snakes, which is the goal of these posts.

-You can safely assume that I know what kind of snake is in the picture, I run these posts because they are outreach opportunities. Please don't send me private e-mails with your guesses, include them below.

-Remember, the person that sent me the picture is probably reading your comments. Although it is frustrating to know that many of these snakes have been killed, these people do want to learn more about them. More snake knowledge will lead to fewer snakes being killed.