Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Two Unique Alabama Treasures On the Brink --Guest Post--

Flattened Musk Turtle
Take a minute and think of something unique to Alabama, something you can’t find anywhere else. What is it? Perhaps it’s tailgating on a cool Saturday afternoon after Thanksgiving, for the greatest football rivalry in the South. If you attended elementary school in Alabama, perhaps you thought of the only monument in the world to a pest insect, the Boll Weevil. Some would think of their favorite hunting or fishing honey-hole. Whatever you thought of, I doubt it is what first comes to my mind: the Black Warrior Waterdog and the Flattened Musk Turtle. In fact, most Alabamians don’t even know they exist. Native to the Upper Black Warrior River System, the Black Warrior Waterdog, Necturus alabamensis, and the Flattened Musk Turtle, Sternotherus depressus, are endemic to Alabama, meaning they only occur in Alabama and nowhere else. This alone makes these two species incredibly special, but the curious nature of the Flattened Musk Turtle and mysticism of the Black Warrior Waterdog along with the astounding beauty of the habitat in which they occur establish them as natural treasures. 

Black Warrior Waterdog (Courtesy Mark Bailey)
While conducting studies on these species over the past five years with the Alabama Natural Heritage Program at Auburn University, first as an undergraduate and now a graduate student, I have developed a deep connection and appreciation toward these species and the unique river system in which they occur. Being part of what may be the final generation of researchers to have the privilege of working with them, it is an appreciation I hope to share with you.
      The morning fog floating above the water’s surface begins to dissipate as I reach the sandy bank of the Sipsey Fork after a half-mile of kayak dragging. The steep path between bluffs was once an ATV trail. Before that, it may have been a horse and wagon trail used by settlers, and, still earlier, almost certainly was a Chickasaw Indian footpath to access the stream. Now, used only by me and the occasional deer, it is overgrown with briars and muscadine. A sliver of regret develops in the back of my mind over the decision to bring the kayak as I dread the idea of dragging 70 pounds of kayak and gear back up the 200 foot elevation gain to my car. Still though, the Sipsey Fork is uncomfortably cold to be wading in March and the feeling is quickly replaced with contentment as I begin paddling downstream along a colossal sandstone bluff overhanging the water. I steer the kayak between the steady drips of water falling 70 feet from the top of the bluff, avoiding the unpleasant sensation of cold water droplets exploding on my neck.

I paddle to my first trap which is set next to a car-sized submerged boulder. I pull the trap to find nothing but a Sloped Crayfish (Cambarus obstipus) and a couple young sunfish which I release. In the next trap, by a submerged log, I notice a dark, slender shape. My heart begins to race as I pull the trap from the water and the critter becomes visible. To my disappointment, the shape morphs into a small catfish, not my target, which is the rare aquatic salamander known as the Black Warrior Waterdog. I continue to check the rest of the traps, but they don’t yield much else. As elusive as they are, I knew the odds were against me capturing one of those foot-long salamanders.

Bizarre and majestic in their own right, Black Warrior Waterdogs, with their external gills, resemble mythical dragons of Asian lore and are quickly becoming as hard to find. They have declined drastically across their range over the past few decades due to increased sedimentation and poor water quality. Recent surveys indicate that they may have already disappeared from 80 to 95 percent of their historic range. To make matters worse, very little is known about their life history and historic abundances as few studies have been conducted on the species. Because of the lack of research, conservation of the species has been ignored. It is possible that we will lose the Black Warrior Waterdog (one of Alabama’s only two endemic amphibians) within the next couple decades.

My hope was to capture a waterdog at this site, where they hadn’t been previously sampled, to determine the extent of their range within Bankhead National Forest, but that would have to wait another year as the active season for waterdogs was drawing to a close. With traps pulled, I grab my radio telemetry receiver and antenna and turn my attention to another imperiled resident of the Sipsey Fork.

 I switch radio frequencies to a familiar wavelength. “Ping… ping…ping,” the receiver begins its metronomic tune. The volume increases as I paddle closer to the location of the transmitter. I triangulate the location to a submerged slab rock which had broken off the face of the bluff many years ago, perhaps at a time when the Chickasaw were using my path down to the stream. I scan the stream bottom while trying to hold the kayak steady in the current. Suddenly, I feel that rush of adrenaline that hunters can relate to. It’s the feeling you get in the split-second between the pattern recognition of your quarry, say a deer, in your peripheral vision and when you focus on and confirm that it is, in fact, a deer. My eyes adjust and focus in on the familiar sight of a Flattened Musk Turtle poking her yellow head with black reticulations out from under a rock.

The Flattened Musk Turtle gets its name from the uniquely flattened shape of its shell, a direct product of Alabama’s geology. Below the Fall Line, the dividing line between the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain where the Western Interior Seaway existed 100 million years ago, the Black Warrior River is mostly sandy with some small rocks and gravel. Above the Fall Line, however, the Black Warrior River Basin is a heterogeneous mix of bedrock, boulders, large slab rocks, gravel, and sand. This habitat, abundant with rock-crevices and isolated from other river systems, is where the Flattened Musk Turtle evolved.

Over hundreds of millennia, this new species of musk turtle evolved in the Upper Black Warrior that was unlike those found in the Coastal Plain or adjacent watersheds in the Piedmont. It developed a more compressed shell with a flattened carapace, reducing drag and allowing for individuals to lodge themselves deeper into crevices to escape predators and high velocity flow events - an important adaption for a river system with steep canyons that channel water creating extreme currents and exceptionally high flood levels. There were, of course, biological costs to compressing organs and living in these cold upland streams. Females took seven years to reach sexual maturity instead of five and laid half as many clutches per year. However, the wealth of food in the form of snails and great abundance of rock-crevice refuges were worth the costs.

This specialization was a good strategy as long as the streams had plenty of crevice cover. Unfortunately, that habitat has been increasingly altered over the past 70 years. Largely from extensive mountain-top removal, also known as “strip mining,” coal extraction in addition to the state government’s allowance of poor riparian zone management around some land development projects and forestry operations, sediment has inundated much of the Black Warrior Basin, filling in the crevice habitat that is so critical to the survival of the Flattened Musk Turtle. The coal mines have the double whammy of also creating long-term pollution issues that kill off aquatic mollusks (snails and mussels) that the turtles rely on for prey. Historic survey data is robust for the Flattened Musk Turtle and recent surveys indicate that they have been lost from around 70 to 90 percent of their historic range. The story of the Black Warrior Waterdog parallels that of the Flattened Musk Turtle, from their speciation in the Upper Black Warrior to their flattened body shape, and from the population declines to the issues causing them. Likewise, if we push the Black Warrior Waterdog off the cliff of extinction, the Flattened Musk Turtle, our only endemic reptile, will not be far behind. However, if we develop strategic conservation plans soon, we may save both for the price of saving one and, in the process, protect a number of other imperiled aquatic species in the Black Warrior.

This was the first time I had seen the adult female since she became inactive in November under a boulder about 40 feet upstream. I grab my GPS and begin recording data about habitat and location while she continues to watch my every move with curiosity from the comfort of her sandstone retreat. After recording the necessary data, I take a moment to admire this comical-looking turtle. Although only the size of my hand, she has been roaming this stretch of river longer than the 21 years I have been alive. I continue on, tracking other turtles and recording data before calling it a day and paddling back to the take-out. Knocking from a Pileated Woodpecker echoes across the forest as the afternoon sun dips below the bluff-line. I begin the long drag up and out of the canyon, but I can’t get my mind off that old turtle staring at me from under her rock. There is something humbling about looking into the eyes of such a creature, knowing that she has seen more sunrises than you.

This article was originally published in the magazine of the Alabama Wildlife Federation, “Alabama Wildlife,” in January 2018. The Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF) has kindly allowed the republishing of this article, and I encourage all who care about and enjoy the incredible wildlife of the Southeast’s most biodiverse state to join AWF and support their mission to protect and educate the public aboutAlabama’s wildlife
About the Author

Joseph Jenkins, born and raised in Alabama and has had a life-long passion for amphibians and reptiles and the outdoors. He is currently working on his M.S. in Biological Sciences at Auburn University and is advised by David Steen. His thesis explores aspects of the home range, movement patterns, and habitat selection of the flattened musk turtle.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Are Snakes Waking Up? Are These Corn Snakes?

It has been a long winter but snake identification requests are slowly starting to roll back in....

Good evening.  I took these photos of a snake on the road which I believe to be a corn snake.  My wife told a guy we saw he snake up the road and he insisted it was a Copperhead and that it should be killed immediately.  I told him I thought it was a Corn Snake but it could be a Copperhead as I’m no expert. Just for my edification…Corn snake, Copperhead or something totally different.


Jim T.

I found this beauty outside my garage door in south Florida. My wife nearly had a heart attack and wonders if the rest of the family is in the garage or the house. Can you identify it for me and let me know if it is a harmless corn snake.

Garry M.

What Are These Snakes?

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 point of these posts.

-This is not a pop quiz, any kind of research is encouraged and I hope you will engage with other commenters to try to figure these snakes out. I will eventually chime in with my thoughts.

-Assume 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. Don't hate, educate.

Enjoy what you read and learn here? 

Friday, February 16, 2018

If The Snakes Are Still Sleeping, We Can Identify Cats

Most of the identification requests I receive are for snakes, but this means I don't get as many e-mails during the winter when these reptiles are asleep. Fortunately, I do sometimes get questions about other animals. Readers, what are these cats? Explain your answers in the comments!


I was attending the Festival of Birds this month in Naples, FL and surrounding area.  While on the early evening boating tour of Rookery Bay Preserve, Naples, FL in the 10,000 island area an animal was spotted swimming to one of the small islands.  I was able to get a photo of it but with it being far away, it is a little hard to ID.  I have had a few people give me their thoughts about the animal; however, it would be great to have your opinion.  Attached is the photo.

The wild cat is on the right side of the photo under the mangrove tree.

Thank you,

Sherry F.

Just FYI I didn't take these photos and just took a picture of
 the phone and downloaded the other from my friend, but we wanted to know if this thing is the same creature and what exactly it is. He says it's a big cat but I'm skeptical. I'm sorry if the photo quality is poor I had to shrink it to attach. Our general location is SWVA. These were taken fall 2017.

Thad G.

Yesterday evening here in Delhi  Iowa it was 10 minutes to 6 this walked across the parking lot of our store.  The trailer tongue behind this is approximately 31" tall. Is this a bobcat?

thanks jeremy

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Who Wants Stickers!

Hey all,

   You may remember last month I announced the formation of my new non-profit organization, The Alongside Wildlife Foundation! I hope you have visited our new website.

We received a great outpouring of support after our launch and I'm looking forward to rolling out a few new programs this year to support science and science outreach, including a science communications prize and small grants program.

Anyway, this post is about stickers! Who wants one!? If you're currently supporting the foundation with your tax-deductible donation on Patreon,  Corn Snake patrons and above get a 4" sticker and Diamondback patrons and above get a 8" bumper sticker! Just send me an e-mail with your mailing address if you want one. If you're currently supporting the foundation with your tax-deductible recurring donation on PayPal, $5 gets you the small sticker and $15 gets you the big 'un. If you're currently sending us $1 and really want a sticker, you can hit me up too.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Announcing The Alongside Wildlife Foundation!

Hi all,

   I wanted to let you all know about some major changes related to my professional life and science communication efforts. I have been blogging here for about a decade, and over the years my outreach has spread to other platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube (I hope you have already found me at those places!). Soon we will be in print too: I'm excited to announce that I recently signed a contract with Texas A&M University Press to write a new book: Secrets of Snakes and the Science of Their Myths, building off many of the themes you have seen me discuss right here! 

  In other news, to support my science communication work, and the work of other scientists and science communicators, I have formed a new non-profit charitable organization, The Alongside Wildlife Foundation, and I hope you will visit our new website.

  From the site:

    I hope you will check the website and learn about our work to promote and communicate science. Let me know what you think below! If our interests align, please consider joining our (tax-deductible) support network, which helps make it all possible. 

  In other news, I have resigned my job at Auburn University and next week I will be moving to Georgia to start a new position managing the research program of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. I'm excited to join this team! 

  Thanks all for your support here over the years and I'm looking forward to what comes next!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Animals That Went Extinct in 2017

    It's a tradition here at Living Alongside Wildlife to gather in one place a summary of all the animals that went extinct in the previous year. Click here for the 2016201520142013, and 2012 editions. Let's get into it.

Stichocotyle nephropis, a marine parasite of Scotland last seen in 1986, may be extinct due to overfishing of its fish hosts, writes John Platt over at The Revelator.

Lindy Lumsden/IUCN
The Christmas Island Pipistrelle, an Australian bat last seen in 2009 and known only from, you guessed it, Christmas Island, is now officially considered extinct. Why did this species disappear? It is hard to say for sure but disease and introduced species probably played a role.

That's not the only bad news from Christmas Island, unfortunately. The Lister's Gecko, the Blue-tailed Skink, and the Christmas Island Forest Skink all used to roam the island but now are considered extinct in the wild. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why they got wiped out, but some point fingers at introduced species, like the Wolf Snake, which eats them.

Parks Australia 
Both Lister's Gecko and the Blue-tailed Skink were abundant in the 1970s but they were last spotted in the wild in 2012 and 2010, respectively. There are thriving captive colonies for each of these two species though, so they are technically hanging on. Perhaps they will someday be reintroduced to their habitats.

Unlike the other two lizard species above, the Christmas Island Forest Skink does not have a captive colony to fall back on; the last known captive individual died a few years ago, so it is probably gone for real.

In 2010 the Center for Biological Diversity sent a petition to the US Fish and Wildlife Service seeking protection for the Beaverpond Marstonia, a snail from Georgia. This year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service responded, and said it is extinct. Agricultural demands on water as well as pollution likely caused the demise of this invertebrate.

The Fishing Cat is in big trouble in Southeast Asia. After extensive camera trap surveys in Java failed to turn any up there is a fear that they have gone extinct in all of Indonesia (they persist in low numbers elsewhere).

There are over 70 other species to keep a close eye on in the coming years, including for example the Jamaica Giant Galliswasp, that are considered at least critically endangered and possibly extinct in the wild. In many cases we simply just do not know enough about these creatures to know whether or not they are still hanging on.

Simply listing the species that went extinct in a given year is surprisingly tricky. Here are my answers to some commonly asked questions.

1. Just because we are always discovering "new" species doesn't mean we are offsetting extinctions somehow. When we discover a new species it is not actually new to Earth, it is just new to us. In other words, a new life form was not just created, we just happened to learn about it. There is a limited pool of species and the total number of species is decreasing. Evolution leads to the creation of new species but not on a time scale that is relevant to this conversation.

2. Human beings are one of the species on Earth. That does not mean that anything and everything we do is natural and therefore okay, even if it means causing species to go extinct. Other species have value and we should act accordingly to keep them around.

3. In my list I include species that went extinct in a globally significant region even if the species might still exist somewhere else. I think these local extinctions (called extirpations) are important. You might decide not to include them in your list of extinctions.

4. I include in my list species that went extinct in the wild, even if some individuals may still exist in captivity. See above.

5. It is often impossible to know when a species went biologically extinct. That is, there is often no way of knowing when the last individual of a given species dies. So, I often include in my list species that were declared extinct, this official designation often occurs many years after the last actual death. Again, you may not include them in your list of extinctions, but I do.

6. It is not unusual to "rediscover" a species that we thought was extinct. That is always great news. But, they are usually still critically endangered and often "really" go extinct afterwards.