Saturday, September 22, 2018

Snake Identification Challenge of the Week is Back!

Dear Dr. Steen,

My wife and I encountered this snake (video attached) along the Irondale Furnace walking trail in Mountain Brook, Alabama. The trail runs alongside a part of Shades Creek near the Mountain Brook Club golf course.

If the attached video gets to you as recorded please maximize your volume. You will hear this fellow (or lady) intensify it's rattle when it realized that it was being followed....

Thanks a bunch for your help to identify this snake and for your writings and blogs to enlighten us on these reptiles.

Doug R.

Hi my name is jason and I would like your help in identifying this rattlesnake.  It was caught in Pen Argyl Pennsylvania.  It was over 2ft long and it was pretty docile until we went to put it into the bucket . Then it coiled up ready to strike but it didn't strike, it only rattled it's rattles . Thanks for your time and assistance 

Jason L.

My cat found this baby snake in our house in South Carolina. These are cell phone pictures. Sorry they aren't better. I am hoping it's a harmless snake. My young son is scared to go to sleep tonight. Can you tell me what it is?

Thanks so much!

Nancy M.
South Carolina

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? 

Monday, July 23, 2018

A Tadpole Bigger than a Can of Soda --Guest Post--

Two months ago, while netting a mostly drained pond, American Museum of Natural History’s Southwestern Research Station (SWRS) volunteer Alina Downer felt something large bump into her legs as it swam through the knee-deep mud. At first, she thought it was a fish but when she reached down she was surprised to see a very large bullfrog tadpole. The team named him Goliath.

   I am a herpetologist --someone who studies reptiles and amphibians-- and a graduate student at the University of Arizona staying at the SWRS for my field season and when I heard Dr. Michele Lanan boasting of Goliath’s size. I just had to see him for myself. I posted a picture of Goliath to Twitter and within hours the post had thousands of likes and hundreds of comments. I was surprised and happy about all the (mostly) positive reactions to Goliath. I was in awe of his* size like everyone else. As far as we can tell Goliath is the largest tadpole on record. 

Bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus) are native to the central and eastern regions of the United States. The largest of tadpoles usually grow up to six inches, and adults can be over eight inches long. Unfortunately they are not native to the western US; they were introduced there as a game species, for food (frog legs!), and to act as pest control.

 In southern Arizona, bullfrogs have altered ecosystems and have been one of the main reasons for the decline of native species such as the Chiricahua Leopard Frog (Lithobates chiricahuensis) and the northern Mexican garter snake (Thamnophis eques megalops) both of which are listed as threatened. Bullfrogs eat anything they can fit in their enormous mouths, including these native species, birds, fish, and insects. They also harbor large parasite loads and the deadly chytrid fungus.  

Chiricahua leopard frogs depend on aquatic habitats as eggs and tadpoles develop and adults use them for reproduction and refugia. In 2007 SWRS implemented a plan to reintroduce the Chiricahua leopard frog (listed as a threatened species in 2002) around the research station in wetlands where they had disappeared. The plan had multiple steps and included finding funding, assessing habitat, habitat restoration, starting a captive breeding program, and finally reintroduction to native habitats.From 2011-2014 more than 12,000 tadpoles had been released into seven frog ponds on the SWRS property. Thirteen other ponds were built within 10 miles of Cave Creek corridor in the hopes that the Chiricahua leopard frogs would disperse into them and they did! 

But, it did not make sense to keep reintroducing leopard frogs while there were still bullfrogs around waiting to eat them. That’s where Dr. David Hall comes in. He is the field coordinator of the FROG Conservation Project and a senior wildlife biologist at the University of Arizona and has been working with his SWRS team, local landowners, and Arizona Game and Fish on bullfrog removal and Chiricahua Leopard Frog reintroduction in the Cave Creek drainage for years. The scope of the project is large: bullfrogs must be completely removed from 66 thousand acres in the San Simon Valley in Arizona. It’s a game of strategy- deciding which ponds are essential to target next to stop bullfrogs from moving into Leopard Frog territory. To fully clear the San Simon Valley, they needed to drain four major ponds simultaneously to ensure the bullfrogs cannot migrate to other water sources like natural ponds, cattle tanks, and other stream systems. The best time to remove bullfrog adults are during the evening and night when they are most active. But the team also works during the day to remove tadpoles by seining-- vertically moving a net through a water body. It is best to keep the pond dry as long as possible to ensure that the bullfrogs do not return to the area or hide in the mud, but the length of time depends on many factors including weather and landowner preferences. Once the frogs are successfully removed from the San Simon Valley they will not return, because the distance to the next bullfrog site is too far for them to move on their own.

Back to Goliath.

After capturing Goliath, the team brought it back to SWRS where the Resident Research Scientist, Dr. Michele Lanan, set the tadpole up in a 25-gallon tank and started contacting amphibian researchers to hear their opinions about the giant. Dr. Lanan says that it is hard to study isolated events like Goliath. She believes that he might have a hormonal imbalance that will prevent him from ever metamorphosing into an adult bullfrog. Based on his years of fieldwork with bullfrogs, Dr. Hall believe that Goliath is at least three years old. We are unsure exactly how long Goliath may live without metamorphosing but if it continues to grow it may get to a point where the respiratory or circulatory system will not be able to support the size of the body. 

While discussing the possible research avenues with interested researchers, Dr. Lanan has been studying his growth rate, how much he is eating (he feeds on algae), and whether his behavior differs from that of normal tadpoles. Dr. Lanan has shared the news of Goliath’s discovery with other herpetology experts, many of whom were also puzzled by the cause of Goliath’s size and are interested in determining the reason for it. She hopes that research on Goliath might help solve questions about the regulation of amphibian development and paedomorphism. In the meantime, Dr. Lanan, Dr. Hall, and all the members of the frog project hope that their efforts to remove the invasive bullfrogs are successful so that native species will be able to once again thrive in the area. 

The FROG Conservation Project also works on recovering wildlife and habitats in the Cienega Creek area and surrounding areas threatened by invasive species. Dr. David Hall’s team includes Jace Lankow, Sarah Wolfsiffer, Chris Prewitt, Julia Muldoon, and many other volunteers. For the last twelve years Dr. Hall has been investigating the impacts on invasive fish and bullfrogs on native Arizona species ( The Frog Conservation project partners with many other organizations such as the Arizona Fish and Game Department, the US Fish and wildlife Service, and the US Forest Service, and local landowners, without whom this project would not be possible.

*There is no way to tell the sex on a tadpole from morphology, but I’ll refer to Goliath as a he since he’s been given a male name. 

About the Author

Earyn McGee is a PhD student at the University of Arizona where she also received her Master’s in Natural Resources. She is a NSF- Bridge to Doctorate fellow as well as an NSF- GRFP fellow. In addition to her academic endeavors like ecology and herpetology, Earyn is also interested in #Scicomm and posts to Twitter and Instagram under the handle @Afro_herper.  

This post was made possible in part thanks to financial support provided by The Mindlin Foundation to David Steen to support blogging and science communication activities.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

What Should You Do if You Find a Turtle On The Road?

    Chances are that you have probably seen a turtle trying to cross the road. But roads are dangerous places! 

   Adult female turtles do something that other turtles do not: travel on land to nest. And, this makes them particularly vulnerable to roads. Normally, many eggs and baby turtles are eaten by predators, but this is offset by their long lifespan. If turtles survive to adulthood, then they are tough enough to live for decades. If they lay eggs for many many years then they are likely to produce enough babies to replace themselves in the population. When roads take those adult females out, then the population may decline (this relates to some of my masters research).

   So you see, when turtles get killed on roads it is clearly a big problem for individual turtles but it also affects the overall population too. 

   People often ask me what they should do if they see a turtle crossing the road and I am always immediately clear about one thing: Always Prioritize Your Own Safety. People have been killed helping turtles cross the road and it's not worth it.

   That said, I'm so excited to once again partner with the brilliant Rosemary Mosco (get her new book!) to illustrate why turtles cross the road and what you can do about it (previously we teamed up on Cottonmouth Myths). 

This collaboration was made possible thanks to a grant awarded to me by The Mindlin Foundation and my time was made possible through my work for The Alongside Wildlife Foundation, my 501(c)(3) conservation non-profit Want to support more work like this? Then please considering signing up as a recurring donor.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

About My Viral Video of a Hognose Snake Drinking From A Water Bottle ---Guest Post---

    The work day began for us at 4:30 AM. We loaded up the field truck with our equipment and were on our way. It’s not always easy getting up before the sun, but it is worth it knowing that you increase your chances of finding some really fantastic snake species by doing so. 

    Tristan and I are field research assistants for herpetologists Dr. Mike Dreslik and Dr. Chris Phillips at the Illinois Natural History Survey. Our task over the last few weeks has been to explore several sand prairies in Illinois and document the species of herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) we encounter. Surveys like these are critical because they can pinpoint locations of protected species and allow biologists and land managers to implement the best practices to maintain the habitats of these creatures.

    Just as we arrived at our site, the sun began warming the prairie. We walked slowly across the landscape with our eyes glued to the ground, hoping to encounter a snake. During the summer, many diurnal snakes become active just after sunrise before temperatures become exceedingly hot, so this is a great time to look for them. This particular morning was very warm and the temperature was rising quickly, even at an early hour. Despite the increasing heat, we continued our search, meticulously combing the prairie. 

    After a morning of searching – and multiple previous visits to the site with limited success – our efforts finally paid off. A western hognose snake, Heterodon nasicus, was spotted moving through the sandy vegetation, most likely looking for a meal (these snakes love turtle eggs!). Tristan picked up the snake and she immediately “played dead,” a defense mechanism commonly seen in hognose snakes. Western hognose snakes are state threatened in Illinois and live only in a few scattered places across the state, so encountering one of these snakes in the wild was extremely exciting for us. We brought the snake back to our field truck to collect some valuable data from her: we recorded her length, mass, and sex, and took a scale clip as a tissue sample.

    By the time we finished processing her, the temperature on the sand prairie had risen noticeably. It was a cloudless, windless day as well, which enhanced the heat of the sun. Tristan and I were both in need of a water break. We got our bottles from the truck and sat down with the snake before hiking back to the capture location to release her. With temperatures this intense, the snake would normally be down in an underground burrow by this point in the day, so we thought she may be experiencing slight dehydration. Tristan wondered if she would accept water from us – so we gave it a try! 

    I took the lid off of my water bottle and filled it with water. Tristan held the snake up to the lid and she immediately began to drink from it! She took many gulps of water before it occurred to me that I should record this very cool experience. Even after I stopped filming, the snake continued to drink. We were happy that she accepted water from us and it made us feel good to make up for any inconvenience we may have caused by temporarily removing her from her habitat.

    I enjoy sharing photos and videos from the field on social media (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) because I believe communication between scientists and the public is crucial for the success of wildlife conservation. I wanted my friends to share our unique experience of watching a wild snake accept and drink water, so I posted a clip to my social media accounts. I NEVER expected the clip to receive as much attention as it has! It is incredibly exciting to see the reaction of the public to my video. Snakes have unfairly earned a bad reputation and usually only receive negative attention in the media.

    Responses to my video have been almost entirely positive! Most people that comment on the video state that they have never seen a snake drink before and that seeing this happen helped ease their fears by allowing them to relate to the animal in this way. Some have stated that they didn’t know wild snakes could be so docile. Others are moved by the fact that humans would act so kindly toward a scaly, misunderstood creature and have thanked us for our actions.

    Snake conservation and education is important to us. We consider ourselves lucky to have the opportunity to study these underappreciated animals. Working with rare and understudied snakes such as the western hognose allows us to collect data that can guide conservation actions for the species. Another snake species that we are studying this season is Kirtland’s snake (Clonophis kirtlandii). This snake is also threatened in Illinois and has declined markedly through its entire range. Because it is a small, secretive snake that lives underground inside crayfish burrows, many people don’t get to see how spectacular it is.

    But, we need the public to recognize these animals and their beauty. We need the public to share their observations with scientists. We need to communicate, educate, and conserve. Public observations may be one of the only ways that populations of rare snakes, like Kirtland’s snake, can be documented on a broad scale. Scientists can’t be everywhere at once. Indeed, we all are the experts in our own backyards, stomping grounds, and fishing spots. We just need to do a better job of sharing it*. 

The future of conservation lies in the hands of everybody, scientists and citizens alike. Sometimes this is as simple as submitting a photo to your local biologist or offering a hognose a drink. When will you take a sip? 

*One way you could share your reptile and amphibian observations with scientists is through HerpMapper, a mobile and online application for reporting your encounters! 

About the Author

Taylor West is from northern Illinois and earned her BSc from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has a strong passion for wildlife conservation and herpetology, plans to attend graduate school in 2019, and hopes to eventually become an MD-PhD physician scientist. Currently, Taylor is working at the Illinois Natural History Survey, assisting with multiple reptile and amphibian studies. Her primary focus for this season is Kirtland’s snake research, a project that is important to her because of the relatively understudied nature of the species. Taylor will be performing research in South America later this year and hopes to broaden her understanding of the natural world by doing so. She can be reached at by e-mail here.

This post was made possible in part thanks to financial support provided by The Mindlin Foundation to David Steen to support blogging and science communication activities.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

On Rediscovering "Extinct" Species: The Lost and Found Project ---Guest Post---

This is a guest post by Dr. Diogo VerĂ­ssimo at the University of Oxford, describing a project recently supported in part by The Alongside Wildlife Foundation.

It’s easy to feel a bit down if you follow environmental news from around the globe. Every day there seems to be a new tragedy, a more recent disaster, a more pressing crisis. This is not without reason. The natural world is under threat and in need of more attention, but perhaps there should also be room for some more inspirational stories? 

Photo by E.J. Keller Baker (Public Domain)
As a child, I was consumed by the story of the Thylacine or Tasmanian tiger, a predator marsupial found only in the island of Tasmania, in Australia. Although this is no doubt a spectacular animal, being the largest known carnivorous marsupial of modern times. It is different to any other existing animal on earth today, representing a unique branch of our planet’s tree of life. But what mesmerized me about this species was the uncertainty around its extinction. While the mainstream narrative is that the last Tasmanian tiger died in captivity in 1936, there have been dozens of sightings of this species, leading to several expeditions to attempt to rediscover it. What if this amazing creature was still out there? What if this unique animal was after all not lost forever? 

I started reading up on these cases, where a species thought extinct was eventually rediscovered. It seemed that the Tasmanian tiger was not alone, and while it seems increasingly unlikely that it will ever be rediscovered, other species have. Many of these rediscoveries are truly inspirational stories, not only of how some amazing biodiversity “came back from the dead”, but also of the incredible commitment, selflessness and courage of the scientists, park rangers and nature enthusiasts involved. Here was my antidote to the doom and gloom that dominates so much of the environmental news. The Lost & Found project was born.

On Earth Day 2017, at the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington DC, the Lost & Found project was launched, with the goal of telling the most surprising, exciting and serendipitous stories of species rediscoveries. We currently cover 20, soon to be 25 species, from craneflies to turtles and newts to flying squirrels, from five continents. We present our stories in both written format and comics to allow for different audiences to enjoy these rediscoveries.

Thanks to a grant from The Alongside Wild Foundation, we were recently able to make important changes to our website, including the addition of five more species and the possibility to translating the content to other languages. So what’s next? We are currently working on five new stories, this time featuring plants, and are hoping to raise funds to have video animations of each of our stories, opening up our content to even more people.

So if you haven’t heard the story of how David Wingate moved his family to a desert island to save the Bermuda Petrel, how the rediscovery of the Bulmer’s fruit bat almost did not happen due to the appetite of a dog, or how Peter Zahler had to resort to a local collector of squirrel poo to rediscover the Woolly flying squirrel, then I challenge you to pay us a visit and get to know some of these incredible tales.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Announcing the Wildlife Grants Awarded by The Alongside Wildlife Foundation

   Hi all, in 2017 I signed up with Patreon to find more justification for all the time I was spending doing outreach and science communication and also because I lacked job security and I was testing the waters to see what paths forward I could create. Once the donations starting rolling in I created a new non-profit charitable foundation, The Alongside Wildlife Foundation, to formalize this work and so that donations would be tax-deductible. In November I gave notice and quit my job at Auburn University. My plan was to develop the foundation (and donate plasma, rent out rooms, do freelance writing, etc) as the next stage of my life. But, shortly thereafter I was offered an exciting new position at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center (I started in January).

   Importantly, because I finally have job security and life stability I was able to make some big changes with the foundation funds I originally planned to keep for my salary. Since January, all donations have been used to grow The Alongside Wildlife Foundation and help other scientists and science communicators accomplish the mission we all share: science-based solutions for living alongside wildlife.

   One of our major initiatives was a small grants program and thanks to our growing army of small donors we have already awarded about $4,000 this year to wildlife projects everywhere from Arkansas to Nigeria. I wanted to highlight the projects that have received funding so far here (and yes, perhaps entice you to become a recurring donor so we can start doing even more).

Ikponke Nkanta (Tropical Research and Conservation Centre): Primate inventory and conservation in Ikea River Basin, Southern Nigeria.
The goals of this project include ensuring 1) future survival of the threatened/important primate species occurring within Ikpa river basin in southern Nigeria through participatory habitat restoration, protection and management. 2) a reduction in forest land encroachment and over-dependence on forest resources as the major source of livelihood (by facilitating adoption of livelihoods alternatives (bee farming, snail farming, fish farming) among hunters and timber harvesters. 3) community adoption of sustainable timber harvesting and better farming practices that are habitat friendly (agro forestry, organic farming) as these do not support further forest destruction, and finally, 4) establishing buffer zones with indigenous trees around the present shrinking territories to stabilize and ‘bridge-up’ fragmented patches.

Lauren Hennelly (UC-Davis): Assessing the status and distribution of wolves in Pakistan using genetics.
The overall goal of this project is to provide important baseline information and resolve what types of wolves are found in Pakistan to inform conservation decisions with several components, including 1) conducting the first genetic survey of wolves across major regions of Pakistan, 2) providing estimates of genetic diversity and potential gene flow to adjacent wolf populations, and 3) provide a clearer picture of the distribution of the Central Indian and Himalayan wolf lineages and the extent of their range. Funds from The Alongside Wildlife Foundation are going towards the purchase of camera traps to gain more information on the local wolf populations and to document the phenotypic characteristics of the wolves to accompany the genetic data. Lastly, there are very few photographs of wild wolves from many regions of Pakistan – camera trap images can become educational resources for the local communities.

Karl and Diane Roeder (University of Oklahoma and Cameron University): The ants of Oklahoma project.
The core objective of the Ants of Oklahoma Project is to  ighlight the diversity of life that routinely goes unnoticed. To accomplish this goal, this program (1) combines historical records found in museum collections, published manuscripts, and online digital repositories with (2) a citizen science outreach component that involves collecting specimens in backyards using standardized methods. Cumulatively, this project will collate information on ant distributions across Oklahoma, create a database of these distributional records, and publish such information for all to view. Moreover, an outreach component will primarily focus on involving undergraduate students in field observations and identification of ants both throughout the year and during annual BioBlitz events. This multifaceted approach will not only increase awareness of our particular taxon of interest, ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae), but will also encourage citizens and scientists alike to go outside, enjoy nature, and recognize how wonderfully diverse it truly is.

Diogo VerĂ­ssimo (University of Oxford): Lost and Found.

The storytelling project “Lost and Found” works to bring to life the inspirational stories of those species that were thought extinct for at least a human generation but where subsequently rediscovered. The goal of this project is to change the conversations around conservation, away from doom and gloom, and towards a more positive and balanced message about nature. The project will produce a total of 30 stories of serendipitous species rediscoveries across five continents and all animal and plant groups, both in narrative and comics format. This content is developed by professional science and creative writers and a comics artist and is freely available online. 

Wade Boys (University of Arkansas): Surveys, modeling, and prioritization for rare, endemic dragonflies across the Ozark-Ouachita region.

The goal of this project is to conduct rigorous field surveys for four dragonfly species of concern in the Ozark/Ouachita regions. All four of these species are rare and under-surveyed, with one of them being recently described. Their distributions are presumably limited by local habitat and climate characteristics, however, there’s been a lack of habitat-directed surveys. This study will address the sparse records of occurrence and unknown habitat requirements of these insects by combining distribution modeling with field surveys resulting in increased knowledge of their natural history.

Carla X. Neri Barrios (Soluciones Ambientales Itzeni, A.C., Mexico): A children’s book as a conservation education tool for awareness of the natural history of the lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae).
The goal of this project is to engage children of ages between 7 to 11 in the natural history of the lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) through the production and distribution of a children's book with the aim of increasing awareness and empathy towards this and other bat species.

Zackary Graham (Arkansas State University): Field observations on the aggressive behavior of Ringed Crayfish in Colorado.

Despite the extensive research on crayfish physiology and ecology, their natural behavior is extremely understudied. It is often assumed that the behavior and aggression of all crayfish species are identical. But, it is commonly found that the species that have most successfully invaded other populations are more aggressive than less successful invaders. The goal of this project is to conduct behavioral observations of the Ringed Crayfish (Orcconectes neglectus), which is native to Colorado, Arkansas, and Missouri but has been introduced to several locations throughout North America. Currently, the aggressive nature of these crayfish is unknown, and their agonistic behavior has yet to be characterized. These observations will ultimately be used to understand how and why some crayfish are more successful invaders than others. Further understanding of crayfish natural history and specifically aggressive behavior are key to make informed conservation efforts.

Adam Mitchell (University of Delaware): Determining impacts of plant invasion on native arthropod diversity in the Mid-Atlantic.
The goal of this project is to quantify shifts in community structure for arthropods that are impacted by invasive plants in the Mid-Atlantic region. Specifically, it will 1) determine changes in the richness and abundance of arthropod functional groups (herbivores, detritivores, pollinators, and predators) following plant invasion and 2) investigate patterns of change in arthropod community structure in multiple invasive plants to identify which invasive plant (or plants) present the greatest threat to native arthropod diversity in the landscape. 

Erin Spencer (UNC-Chapel Hill): One fish, true fish: combatting seafood mislabeling in the United States.
Seafood fraud often allows less-desired or illegally-caught species to be marketed as a species popular with consumers.  Although there has been media coverage that seafood mislabeling exists, there are little to no resources to teach consumers how to avoid seafood fraud. The goal of this project is to create a website that contains information and tangible tools consumers can use to make smart, sustainable seafood choices that helps promote a culture that values accurate marketing of seafood. The website will include: 1) fact sheets derived from current mislabeling research, including which vendors types (like grocery stores, sushi restaurants, etc.) are most likely to mislabel, 2) web and PDF photo guides for how to identify common seafood replacements, and 3) blog posts and features of local fishermen and vendors trying to support honest, sustainable seafood.

Want to help us do even more to create and promote science-based solutions to living alongside wildlife in perpetuity? Please consider joining our growing network of recurring small donors here.