Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Turtles....On the Road Again

I originally wrote this column last spring but plan on revisiting it annually this time of year.

It’s spring now and the amphibians and reptiles have awakened from their winter inactivity and are seeking out food to eat and sunny basking spots to warm themselves. Last night I came home to find a Fowler’s toad sitting by my front door, he was waiting for an opportunity to eat one of the hapless moths that had been attracted to my porch light. Over the last few weeks I’ve been serenaded by male toads singing their high-pitched trilling calls from the pond in front of my condo. They do so to attract females. Recently, the spring peepers have ceased calling, this species typically breeds early in the season and they have likely completed the bulk of their breeding. In turn, other species have begun. Last night was the first time I’ve heard a leopard frog this year, there was a single male calling out his chortling-like call. I expect to hear more in the coming weeks.

Another group of species that is increasingly active this time of year are turtles. Surrounding Auburn, the species you’re most likely to see are yellow-bellied sliders . They’re often floating just below the surface of the water with just their heads poking out. Although they’re closely associated with aquatic habitats, these turtles need to get out of the water for several reasons, primarily to lay eggs.

Over the next month or so, you’re likely to see turtles on the road as the females haul themselves out of the water and look for a suitable site to nest. The vast majority of freshwater turtles that people encounter crossing roads are females full of eggs or females returning to their wetland after nesting. There are also terrestrial species, such as box turtles, that encounter roads during part of their daily travels. As you might expect, these are dangerous journeys for turtles.

These animals are frequently found on roads killed by cars. Only recently, however, have researchers determined that the effects of individual turtles killed on the road are having significant effects on local populations. It all relates to the natural strategy that most turtles have adopted.

Turtles have a life history strategy that includes producing many eggs and young turtles. They have to produce many young because they are frequently eaten by predators. Contrast this with the strategy a deer or bear might employ, these species only produce a couple young each year, but these young have a relatively high chance of surviving until adulthood. Turtles, on the other hand, have a very slim chance of reaching maturity. However, once they have reached their maximum size, their tough shell allows them to escape predation from most natural predators. Since it is so rare that a young turtle becomes an adult, these mature individuals are valuable to a population’s persistence.

Although a turtle’s shell allows it sufficient protection from most natural predators, they are no match for an automobile. Turtle mortality due to cars has now been determined to change the sex ratio in neighboring populations. In areas with high road densities, freshwater turtle populations have many more adult males than they do females because the latter are killed on roads in greater numbers. This reduction in the number of breeding females has dangerous implications, it is unlikely that these populations can respond to these changes fast enough to rebound.

In response, there have been increasing attempts to making roads more compatible with wildlife. Outside Tallahassee, Florida, plans are in development to integrate a culvert system under a road that intersects Lake Jackson, a site of high turtle mortality. A similar system was incorporated into Payne’s Prairie State Park outside of Gainesville, Florida. Did you know that the Alabama state reptile is the Alabama red-bellied turtle? This turtle is an endangered species and is found only in Alabama. Road mortality of this species poses a significant problem and the Alabama Department of Transportation recently installed a fence along the Mobile causeway to protect females hauling themselves onto land to nest.

After reading this, you may feel inclined to help a turtle across the road the next time you see one (I hope so, at least). However, it is of the utmost importance that you consider your own safety first. Do not endanger yourself on roads. That said, a turtle should placed on the side on the road in the direction it was heading. They know where they want to go and will just try to cross the road again if you put it on the wrong side. I typically place turtles just off the road right-of-way, at the edge of the mowed vegetation (if the area isn’t developed). Although you may be tempted to bring the turtle home or relocate it to a different area, keep in mind that turtles are accustomed to their specific habitat. Relocated turtles often become disoriented and may be more susceptible to predators in the unfamiliar area.

Snapping turtles represent a unique dilemma. Seldom is an animal so uncooperative when one attempts to help them. You may find it useful to usher the turtle into a box for convenient transfer across the road. Otherwise, you can hold onto the turtle’s shell (near the back) or its back legs and pick it up this way. Keep in mind that a snapping turtle has an extremely long neck. Some find it most efficient to simply grab its back legs and carry it across the road (keep it away from your body). Picking up a snapping turtle by the tail should only be used as a last resort as this may injure the turtle’s spine. I’ve handled over 200 snapping turtles and have never been bitten, use caution and you will be fine.

I initially wondered whether the timing was right for this column, but within the last week I found a mud turtle crossing the street off of Longleaf Drive, a large river cooter in the road in southwest Georgia, and a friend showed me a box turtle that had been hit by a car and suffered some damage to the rear of the shell. It was destined for a wildlife rehabilitation center.

Photo courtesy Matt Aresco

Friday, April 24, 2009


During the final semester of their undergraduate career, students are often afflicted with what is known as senioritis. Symptoms include a general apathy towards their classes, perhaps they are distracted by how their life will soon change or wonder if studying for an exam will do much other than reduce the amount of time available for more pleasant pastimes. I recently realized that the end of my 20th grade of schooling is approaching, and it could be my last before relocating to Florida and dedicating my life full-time to my research.

Soon after this realization, I began to finally experience the onset of my own case of senioritis. The warm weather has only reinforced my longing to cast away the burden of my classes and spend the daylight hours outside, rolling logs to look for salamanders and peering into swamps in the hopes of seeing a serpentine shape parting the water.

I was staring blankly at my computer screen today, trying to muster the willpower to address a class project I’ve been laboring over for the last two months, when I found an excuse to give Sean Graham a call. I knew Sean had recently begun this year’s field season, i.e. collecting cottonmouths in local swamps, and I was hoping I could escape from the office and tag along under the pretense of helping him.

About 30 minutes later we were bumping along the dirt roads of Tuskegee National Forest, headed towards the beaver pond that represent his primary study site. I was last here in the fall for a successful cottonmouth collecting trip at night. Our job today would be somewhat easier, as our plan was to find snakes while there was still daylight.

Snake tongs in hand, I began wading through the marsh, paying particularly close attention to bushes and branches emerging from the water and offering a sheltered spot that still allowed in the sun’s rays. It has only recently become reliably warm, and for many snakes that recently emerged from winter refuges, their priority is to bask in the sunlight and absorb the new warmth. Soon, when the central Alabama heat becomes more consistent and omnipresent, taking advantage of the sun won’t be as important. The snakes will disperse through the swamp, making targeted searches during the day more difficult.

After about an hour, I had yet to see a snake and began to get discouraged that I would find one at all. I consoled myself by listening to some of the frogs calling to attract mates. There weren’t many singing, just a couple of each species really. Perhaps they were just clearing their throats for the oncoming darkness, when most of their breeding would take place. I heard cricket frogs, and gray, bird-voiced, and green tree frogs singing from hidden perches and hiding spots. The one or two solitary calls of the green tree frog were the first I had heard from this species this year, a sign that the time for winter breeding amphibians was coming to a close. In turn, species that sing later in the year, like the green treefrogs, take their place. I heard a great-horned owl hooting in the surrounding woods, also waiting for the cloak of darkness but to begin hunting for unsuspecting prey rather than a mate.

As I explored the depths of a particularly thick and dense patch of bushes, I spotted a small snake loosely coiled around a low-hanging branch. I barely had a chance to peer at the animal for more than a few seconds before it dropped into the water with a faint plunking noise and disappeared from view. I caught only a brief glimpse of its tail as the brown water completely enveloped it. The lack of patterning on the snake and its escape behavior was typical of a plain-bellied water snake, one of the more common water snakes in this habitat.

Disappointed at the escape of this snake before I could even raise my hands, let alone reach it with my tongs, I hoped to have another chance. The dappled light filtered through the trees above, casting shadows around me. As the sun set and the light diminished, each of my steps became more purposeful and deliberate, for fear of stepping on a venomous snake.

As I plodded through the wetland, I investigated any potential hiding spot. I thought the snakes might be looking for areas that were sheltered enough to discourage predation from larger animals but still sufficiently exposed to enjoy the sunlight. Within the swamp, many of the trees sprouted multiple trunks, creating small crooks only about a foot above the water line. It was within one of these crooks that I once again recognized the dark brown shape of a snake. The pale underbelly interspersed with darker bands, along with the dark line running down the side of its broad head, identified the animal as our target species, a cottonmouth. I yelled to Sean, who I hadn’t seen since we had arrived, and he soon appeared out of the swamp to process the snake and take the necessary measurements.

Sean revealed that he had already found a cottonmouth himself. When snakes have recently eaten a meal, they will occasionally regurgitate their prey so that they are better able to escape quickly. He related that the snake he captured had attempted this strategy, revealing a recently ingested amphiuma. Amphiumas, closely related to sirens, are a large, completely aquatic salamander. This one was almost the size of the snake itself.

I soon saw this behavior firsthand. As we emerged from the swamp at the end of our survey, Sean spotted a grotesquely obese ribbon snake slowly slithering along the bank. Although we handled him lightly, the snake began to contort its body and ejected what we immediately identified as a marbled salamander. The salamander looked just as one you might find hiding under a log; it must have been eaten very recently, perhaps within the hour. So that we didn’t cheat the snake out of a meal, Sean gently persuaded it to swallow the salamander again, and placed it in a secluded spot where it could digest in peace. This was a particularly interesting observation, as ribbon snakes are not known to eat that species of salamander.

As we drove out of the forest, we reflected on our good luck (or skill?) on finding three different snake species. On cue, a fourth emerged from the grass alongside the road, a big, beautiful timber rattlesnake. After taking some quick measurements and a blood sample, we admired the strikingly patterned animal as it slithered into the woods. Its camouflage blended perfectly with the leaves that covered the forest floor. True to form, we found this snake in the hardwood forest not far from water. It is within this habitat that the timber rattlesnakes may find some of their favored prey, particularly grey squirrels.

It was great to get away for a few hours this afternoon, but knowing everything that can be found just a short drive away from my office will do little to keep me there tomorrow morning as I catch up on my work.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Case of Mistaken Identity Part I

     A few years ago I was up to my waist in muddy water, helping lead a class of undergraduate students through the murky depths of Chickasawhatchee Swamp to expose them to some of the unique ecosystems of southwest Georgia. It wasn’t long before a student straggling behind the group excitedly shouted that he had found a cottonmouth. Excited and with adrenaline pumping, I trudged through the water to a small patch of land where he was enthusiastically pointing to a snake coiled around some grass and partially concealed by an old stump. While splashing noises behind me signaled the arrival of the rest of the class, I quickly realized the snake in question was not actually a cottonmouth but a large plain-bellied water snake (I have found that almost without exception, a person not particularly familiar with reptiles will identify any snake they find as a venomous species).
 I wanted to catch the water snake to show the students, but being an ornery species it did not take well to the harassment and tagged me several times before I had it firmly and safely within my grasp. With my blood dripping down my hands and into the water around me, I turned around and presented the four foot long snake to the group with a huge smile. As I looked at their horrified expressions and open mouths, it dawned on me that I hadn’t made clear to them that the initial identification was a mistake. I hurriedly corrected my oversight and informed that I had not, in fact, been bitten multiple times by a cottonmouth, but instead by a harmless water snake. They were visibly relieved.
 Before we examine how to accurately differentiate between venomous cottonmouths and non-venomous water snakes, let’s first address their names. A cottonmouth’s scientific name, (Agkistrodon piscivorous) cannot be mistaken with anything else, but there aren’t rules regarding what other names it can be called. For example, cottonmouths are often referred to as water moccasins. It’s not entirely accurate to call other snakes moccasins, but many do. Much confusion can be averted by using the word moccasin only when speaking of the venomous cottonmouth.
 It’s difficult to describe how to identify a snake. A picture tells a thousand words. Some of the characteristics I describe below may be subtle, and it may take some time looking at actual snakes before you can easily identifying them and notice their unique features. But that’s the most effective way of becoming comfortable identifying snakes, looking at a lot of them.
 Much has been said about how venomous pit vipers can be distinguished from non-venomous snakes by their triangular-shaped head.
Note the head shape on this venomous cottonmouth
     It’s true that this shape can be used to differentiate them, but many people have pointed out to me that sometimes, if you look hard enough, even harmless snakes can appear to have a triangular shaped head. I’ve seen many non-venomous snakes that may flatten out their head when they’re threatened, making a distinctive triangular shape. Most people haven’t looked closely at many snakes, therefore when one suddenly appears there’s not much to compare it to. For this reason, I don’t often put much stock in using head shape to identify snakes.
Note the head shape on this non-venomous ratsnake
     Cottonmouths have very thick bodies and they’re often covered by dark bands. However, examining a snake’s patterning is not always a useful way of identifying snakes, different individuals often have varying degrees of patterning, and older snakes may become mostly dark over time.

     I don’t advise you to get too close to a snake unless can you identify it, but another way to differentiate a cottonmouth from non-venomous snakes is by the shape of its pupil. Pit vipers have vertically oriented slits; other water snakes have round pupils.
   One unique feature of cottonmouths (and closely related copperheads) is that young snakes have a bright green or yellow tail (they lose this color as they age). It’s thought that by wriggling their bright tail, cottonmouths can lure in curious lizards, which are promptly eaten.
    The venomous cottonmouth, which is a pit viper (like rattlesnakes), can be very common in our area; in some swamps they may be so abundant that you may wish to watch each step. All denizens of the swamp should respect the cottonmouth, as it eats a wide variety of prey. Rats, frogs, fish, and even other water snakes are documented food items. We’ll examine how to identify these other water snakes (banded, plain-bellied, northern and brown) in Part II.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Alabama Passes Gas...Law

If you’ve ever spent time walking through the open pine forests along the coast from South Carolina to Louisiana, you’ve probably noticed the distinctive burrows of gopher tortoises. Tortoises typically dig burrows that are best described as a half circle, rounded on top and flat on the bottom, not unlike the shape of the tortoise itself. Once you recognize this telltale shape, they will be easy to distinguish from armadillo burrows, which are rounded.

Over 300 different species of wildlife have been found using, or living in, the burrows of gopher tortoises. Snakes find cool shade in the burrows during the heat of the summer and many animals may seek their shelter when a fire burns through the forest. Of course, the burrows are important for the tortoises themselves, they provide safe refuge during the inactive winter months and nesting often occurs right outside the entrance, on a mound of sand called the apron. Males may also periodically visit the burrows of nearby females in attempts to court them.

Due primarily to habitat loss, gopher tortoise populations are decreasing throughout their range. Much of the longleaf pine forest has been developed and paved over. A large portion of the remaining forest is managed without fire; without periodic burns, hardwood trees invade these pine forests and it quickly becomes too overgrown and shaded for tortoises.

Tucked away in their underground refuges, tortoises could do without the debate over what to do with their dwindling habitat. They’d rather keep to themselves and eat their leaves in peace. Unfortunately, they haven’t always been safe in their burrows.

Although tortoises are charismatic animals and popular with the public, another species uses their burrows that are not: rattlesnakes. Tortoise burrows are excellent shelter for diamondback rattlesnakes during the winter. They use the burrows as a safe place to hide during cold weather when they are inactive.

In these burrows, rattlesnakes are vulnerable to snake hunters. Several rattlesnake roundups still exist in the South; events where local snakes are collected and brought to show the public. Apparently rounding up animals and killing them still draws a show, although you won’t find me watching or supporting it by buying a ticket.

In any case, a popular method of catching rattlesnakes is to pour a small amount of gasoline down a hose and into gopher tortoise burrows. The gasoline vapors do not circulate and the rattlesnakes emerge for fresh air. Groggy and full of poisonous fumes, the rattlesnakes are easily bagged. Tortoises, on the other hand, don’t leave their burrows after they’re gassed; the gas fumes may damage their lungs and lead to death. They may never leave the burrow again. This practice of gassing burrows was also suggested to be a major threat to indigo snakes, another animal that used burrows as shelter and are now a federally threatened species.

Gassing burrows is incredibly destructive and damaging to the environment, it is known to kill and injure many animals of our southeastern pine forests. That it was primarily undertaken just to catch snakes to kill them makes it particularly distasteful. This practice is illegal in Georgia and Florida, although it is likely that some individuals secretly continue to degrade our shared natural resources for their personal benefit. Unbelievably however, gassing tortoise burrows has been perfectly legal in Alabama. That is, it was legal until last month when the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board unanimously voted to outlaw the practice.

Kudos to Alabama for recognizing burrow gassing as an environmentally destructive practice with no redeeming use and moving to end it forever. Credit is also due to the individuals that fought to bring this issue to their attention.

Monday, April 13, 2009

BioBlitz Spring 2009

There may be little on Earth that I enjoy more than sharing a campfire with friends and retiring to my tent once all the stories have been told and the beer supply depleted, leaving the rain cover off so that I fall asleep only after tiring of watching the stars. On the other hand, there are few things more miserable than having it rain on my face the next morning. The fond memories of the night before quickly fade as I try to find a corner of my tent that isn’t being bombarded by water.

Yet, this was my Sunday morning last week, camping within the Talladega National Forest in central Alabama for this spring’s Bioblitz. I had learned my lesson of the year before during the 2008 Bioblitz, I was ready for the cold and had brought my winter sleeping bag, capable of keeping me warm during the frigid nights. I had used this bag for March camping trips in Newfoundland and Maine, surely it was equipped for central Alabama. Unfortunately, it wasn’t waterproof and I hadn’t checked the weather for the weekend.

It would’ve made little difference had I known of the torrential downpours that were expected for Sunday morning. I was representing Auburn University during the annual spring Bioblitz, the biannual competition between Auburn, the University of Georgia, and this year, the University of Alabama. Our goal, as always, was to survey the amphibians and reptiles in a little-studied area, and I couldn’t be kept away.

I’ve previously noted that we often lack the most basic information about amphibians and reptiles, in many cases our knowledge of a particular species is based on sporadic observations. Many species, for example small salamanders, are extremely secretive, hidden under clumps of moss or leaves for nearly their entire lives. It’s no surprise that we often have a poor understanding of the geographic distribution of these animals. Field guides often insert numerous question marks onto range maps; we simply do not know for sure where many species can be found.
But this is essential information. Although amphibians and reptile populations are declining across the country, how can we say if a species has disappeared in a region if we didn’t know if it occurred there in the first place? This is why it’s so important to compile this information, referred to as baseline data; Baseline data represent something to compare our future observations to.

At the request of state and federal agencies, we were conducting this spring’s Bioblitz within and surrounding the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge, in Bibb County, Alabama. This refuge is one of the youngest in the country, formed in 2002, and has a history of abuse. The land was once primarily used for coal mining and there remain many reminders of this past use, in particular a giant strip mine running through the center of the refuge. In addition, the longleaf pine uplands were extensively logged and gradually replaced with loblolly pine, a species that grows faster than longleaf and therefore can be harvested sooner.

But nature has clung on in this small area, the Cahaba River continues to flow through the property, harboring 135 different species of fish and if you look hard enough, you may find one of the several federally listed species that reside on the property.

Federal and state biologists have begun attempts to restore the land, and are returning longleaf pine seedlings to the uplands in the hopes of once again viewing the historic forest and all the animals that should naturally occur there. One of our goals for this weekend was to find some of those longleaf-pine associated animals that may be hanging on in the property in isolated pockets. If they were still there, it would be that much easier for the populations to rebound to their previous abundance once their normal habitat was present. One of these species was the six-lined racerunner, a small black lizard with six lines alongside its body. These lizards are fast and often reveal themselves only as a dark blur streaming through the grass and out of sight. This species is highly associated with the longleaf pine forest and may be found in grassy areas with lots of light streaming in through the trees.

Our goal was to find this and other species before any of the other teams, compiling points for animals found on the refuge as well as species never before documented in the county. We thought that the contest would be close this time, but as we all emerged soaking wet and miserable from our tents, we all made the decision that we’d cut the competition short rather than try to make a day out of finding more critters. The Auburn team huddled together and reflected back on the weekend, hoping that we had amassed enough species to beat the other teams.

This was actually weekend two of the competition, the first weekend, of which I was not a part, included a canoe trip down the Cahaba River to nab some elusive turtles. This mission was a great success and included the capture of two Alabama map turtles. The first map turtle was caught after it was seen basking on a log hanging over the water. With great speed and stealth, Sean Graham and Katie Gray sped towards the log and managed to grab the turtle out of the air as it attempted to plunge into the water to escape. Their ecstasy and jubilation at such a dramatic capture of a rare species was muted somewhat, however, when a hatchling map turtle decided to just wander out of the water onto the beach beside them where they were later eating lunch.

Additional finds from that previous weekend include a worm snake residing under rocks and leaves in a hardwood forest along the river and a cottonmouth that had been decapitated by some careless individual. Both of these species had never been documented before in the refuge or even the entire county.

So, when I awoke the next weekend on Saturday, we knew we had a fairly strong foundation; my job was to accompany Matt Connell, an Auburn undergraduate, and try to pick up some of the species that had been missed the first time around. One of the first tasks was to retrieve some crayfish traps that had been set the day before in the hopes of capturing some large aquatic salamanders, like sirens and amphiumas. After our initial disappointment at seeing the empty traps, we headed towards the refuge.

Conservation organizations, like The Nature Conservancy, often have limited funds that they can use to purchase and conserve land. To make the most of their money, the often focus on lands that are adjacent to property that they know will be protected forever, like federally owned wildlife refuges. In this way, large areas of connected land can be conserved, rather than little isolated pockets that can contain less species. It is for this reason that The Nature Conservancy had purchased a few tracts of land around Cahaba River NWR, and one of these was our first stop.

Near the road, some thoughtless people had dumped a load of used carpet. Matt and I eagerly searched the rolls for any animals hiding within and produced the first find of our day. When a small lizard with a bright blue tail suddenly appeared and ran for cover, we pounced upon and immediately identified the animal as a skink. There are three different species that live in the area that look almost identical and only after observing the scale patterns on its tail and face did we recognize it as a small broadhead skink, a species that hadn’t yet been identified in the county. And just like that, we were on the board.

Shortly after finding the skink, I spied a ringneck snake sunning itself on the path. This species, typically about six inches long, is particularly easy to find this time of year, apparently the University of Georgia team had found a dozen the previous weekend. After taking a photograph, I moved the snake off the path where no unsuspecting visitors might step on it.

Our next step was a rocky cliff overlooking the Cahaba River. The many leaf-covered rock piles and outcrops seemed excellent habitat for rat snakes, black racers, or timber rattlesnakes, and I eagerly searched the crevices for their distinctive shapes or patterns, but no snakes were to be found. We did record green anoles and eastern fence lizards scurrying around the tree stumps and under the rocks.

The refuge is relatively small, and we repeatedly bumped into some of the University of Georgia team as they set turtle traps, searched the woods, or waded through creeks after the same animals we were looking for. We found that it was often hard to visit spots we were optimistic about without revealing their location to our rivals. When we passed each other we sized each other up, trying to get a feel for we each may have found.

As soon as we could be certain that the UGA team was not close by, we visited a grassy site alongside a vast wooded canyon that was once a coal mine, a prime area for restoration. As I looked down into the depths I noticed a brown blur disappear into the grass by my feet. At that speed, it had to be a racerunner. I yelled to Matt that this was the place where we’d catch one of these elusive speedsters and I thought to myself that we wouldn’t leave until we did. Our day had been fairly slow, and I felt we needed a good catch like a six-lined racerunner, a potential new county record, to keep pace with our competition. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before Matt pounced on one and came up with it in his hand. A couple photographs later, the lizard was released, we had the proof we needed to officially document the species.

Afterwards, we found a beaver pond hidden between two hills and though we spent over an hour precariously balancing on the shoreline as we walked its perimeter, we could not catch anything, despite hearing a bullfrog and spotting a basking slider and stinkpot turtle.

As we drove out of this corner of the refuge, we spotted one of UGA’s vehicles near where we had found the racerunner. All we could do was hope they didn’t find one as well.

The day was well advanced at this point, and Matt and I discussed some strategy. We decided to make our way to town to get something to eat and drive back slowly to return to the beaver pond at nightfall. We’d hope to record some frogs calling for mates. Each species has a distinctive and unique call, if we could get a good recording of a singing frog; that would be sufficient for official documentation.

As we drove we occasionally pulled over to examine piles of rocks, wood, or garbage that looked promising. This tactic paid off quickly, as we found a beautiful black kingsnake hiding under some litter. After a few quick pics, we headed back to the pond.

We arrived at the wetland at dark, the temperature plummeted along with the sun. We spent about forty minutes on the shore, but I could only get a recording of spring peepers, a species that had been already been found.

Matt and I returned to our campsite and started a fire, unsure of how we fared in relation to the other teams. Over the course of the next couple hours, people started straggling in, sharing some stories and drinks as we enjoyed the warmth of the flames. We were oblivious of the rain that was a few hours away.

On Sunday morning we collected the traps we had set the previous day and quickly cruised by some potentially productive areas in the hopes that we could record some last minute species.

We met UGA at the designated time and place, not entirely confident that our efforts were sufficient to defeat them (The University of Alabama team didn’t make it). We had recorded numerous new county records, including the cottonmouth, worm snake, and six lined racerunner. But Georgia also had some significant finds, including three corn snakes.

As to who came out on top, was there ever any doubt?

Friday, April 10, 2009

No Good Deed...

Alligator snapping turtles are among the rarest animals in the southeast. Many eggs and hatchlings are eaten by predators before they become breeding adults, but once they do reach maturity, they live long lives. These factors combine to make turtle populations vulnerable to declines when adult turtles are removed. If young turtles disappeared, it wouldn’t influence the population much because many are eaten by predators anyway. But if adults are removed, they don’t get enough of a chance to produce enough young to replace them.

In the past, the major threat to alligator snapping turtle populations was commercial hunting. Collecting turtles for soup, trappers they would move from creek to creek, harvesting them by the ton. To this day, our rivers haven’t recovered and these turtles remain rare in most areas. It’s currently illegal to take alligator snapping turtles in Alabama or Georgia, but they are often caught by accident on trot lines. Trot lines are fishing lines tied to branches overhanging the water. They are baited and left overnight in the hopes of hooking a lunker catfish; however, the next day may reveal an ornery turtle instead.

Removing a hook from a large snapping turtle is no small feat and most fishermen prefer to cut the line rather than get their fingers near its mouth. The turtle is then allowed to slink back into the depths of the river in the hopes that the hook will dissolve before it leads to digestive problems or death. On the other hand, upon catching an alligator snapping turtle, some will take the opportunity to bring it home and eat it. It’s unknown if this is done because of ignorance of the law, but in any case, it’s why William Wilder came upon a 70 pound turtle sitting in the bed of a pickup parked outside a bar in Brookwood, Alabama.

William doesn’t consider himself a biologist and probably doesn’t fully appreciate how valuable adult turtles are to a population, but he did know the turtle in the parking lot was huge and that probably meant it was old. Too old just to end up as someone’s dinner.

Wilder identified the owner of the truck and offered him $10 for the turtle. To his relief, the offer was accepted (hopefully he used that $10 to buy a couple sandwiches for dinner, rather than catch another turtle). Now short $10 but up 70 pounds of reptile, William stopped off at his house before releasing the turtle, perhaps to show off the beast to his friends and family.

It was there, on the front porch of his house, where the rescued yet ungrateful snapping turtle bit off William’s thumb and finger.

With his hand stuck in the turtle’s mouth, William ignored the pleas of his concerned family and refused to let anyone kill the stubborn animal. He had a $10 investment in it, after all, and the turtle was destined for a safe release. Only via the intervention of four emergency medical technicians was William’s hand extracted from the turtle. Doctors were able to reattach his thumb but his finger is lost forever.

The old snapping turtle was treated at a nearby animal clinic and released into the Blackwater River, probably oblivious to his close call and eager to hide once again in the watery depths.

William Wilder saved a turtle from the pot that has likely been crawling around the river since World War II. He lost $10 and a finger, and spent two days of his life recovering in the hospital. In return, the rare alligator snapping turtle has the chance to spend the rest of its life in peace, hopefully away from both hooks and fingers.

A snapping turtle that likely prefers dead fish to fingers

* * * *

There is no denying that both “common” snapping turtles and alligator snapping turtles may be an ornery bunch when you take them out of their watery habitats and harass them on land.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t handle them safely, if you have a good reason for doing so. Far and away the most important rule is to keep your hands away from their mouth. Alligator snapping turtles can’t move their neck much because their head is so heavy. This means that if you respect the turtle by keeping your distance from the front part of the shell, there is almost no chance of this animal biting you. On the other hand, “common” snapping turtles, which are a different species, can quickly move their head around to bite if they feel threatened. This species has such a long neck that it can reach your hand if it’s touching just about any part of their shell. It’s that long.

I’ve captured, measured, and handled about 100 snapping turtles in upstate New York while conducting research for my masters research, another 100 or so while surveying Assateague Island National Seashore for amphibians and reptiles, and I’ve handled perhaps eight alligator snapping turtles when I lived in Georgia. I have never been bitten, despite exposing these turtles to various indignities as I posed with them for photographs or flipped them upside down to check whether it was male or female.

Any animal with a mouth can bite, but not without cause or opportunity. If, for some reason, it is necessary to handle a snapping turtle, just keep your fingers where it can’t reach them.

Some articles on this story have erroneously attributed an inaccurate quote to a member of the Alabama Wildlife Center stating alligator snapping turtles are thought to deplete fish populations. No biologist thinks this.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

BioBlitz Spring 2008

The following column was written in April of 2008 and relates last year's spring Bioblitz. The 2009 Bioblitz occurred over the past two weeks and I will relate it to you this month.

A few weeks ago I spent my weekend sleeping outside in 40 degree weather near the Fall Line Sandhills Natural Area in western Georgia. When I awoke, although I loathed the prospect of emerging from my not quite toasty sleeping bag, I promptly immersed myself in a frigid, cottonmouth infested swamp, wary and always on the lookout for giant alligator snapping turtles and the cryptic, aforementioned vipers. Why subject myself to this treatment, on my spring break no less? Because Auburn pride was at stake.

A Cottonmouth captured in Schley Co. Georgia
I was participating in a herpetological bioblitz in western Georgia. A bioblitz is an event where a group of people select a pre-determined area and attempt to document all of the species they can find. For our bioblitz, my Auburn University colleagues and I were interested in only two groups of animals, amphibians and reptiles. These two groups, although distinct, are often clumped together because you can find them in similar habitats, namely mucky, weedy, and muddy spots. This is bad news for anyone that wants to find them and return home without smelling of dead fish and covered in wet mud. Does this sound romantic enough for you to want to help out next time? Well, it can actually be a lot of fun and serves a scientific purpose as well.

It turns out that many amphibians and reptiles are poorly known and infrequently studied; biologists often lack the most basic information for many species. It’s not unusual for even experts to have to guess where a particular species can be found. Sean Graham, coordinator of the bioblitz and fellow Ph.D. student at Auburn, notes that these events are, “an invaluable means of surveying little known areas which lack recorded observations of even the most common species.” In previous bioblitzes, snapping turtles, green anoles, cottonmouths, and black racers, all abundant species, have been recorded in counties where they had never before been documented. These are all common species and you’ve probably seen them before. That they haven’t been documented previously in a particular county is a reflection of the limited information we have about these animals.
Sean Graham confirms the identity of a Green Anole

However, our interest in documenting as many species as we could in a limited time frame wasn’t purely academic, this was a competition. To date, there have been three bioblitz competitions and a rivalry has emerged between Auburn University and the University of Georgia. Although other groups have sporadically participated in past blitzes, these two SEC schools represent the majority of participants. The rules of our herpetological bioblitz competition award points for every species observed, extra points are awarded for species never before documented in a county and for certain priority species, which tend to change depending on which area is being surveyed.

I am proud to state that coming into this year’s bioblitz, Auburn was undefeated, soundly trouncing UGA in the past. However, it was clear that the Bulldogs had tired of this trend and intended to put us to shame at this year’s event. The night before the official start day of the Blitz, the five of us that were representing Auburn University sat around our campfire and watched as vehicle after vehicle pulled into our campsite and the UGA students started piling out. The formidable University of Georgia Herpetological Society had arrived. There were over 15 people, representing undergraduates, graduate students and even one of their professors. The small Auburn contingent exchanged nervous glances as we re-examined our topographical maps, selected species that we would target for capture, and formulated a general plan of attack for the next morning.

My assignment was little-known Schley county; I was to attempt trapping turtles, catching water snakes and sifting through mud and leaves for salamanders. With the help of some Auburn teammates that participated for the day, we quickly documented green anoles, cottonmouths, loggerhead musk turtles, fence lizards and southeastern crowned snakes, all of which had never before been documented in the county. We also captured box turtles, skinks, slimy, three-lined and dusky salamanders and heard gray tree frogs calling. One of the highlights of the day included capturing river frog tadpoles. When adults, these frogs are about average-size for a frog, but their tadpoles are giants, nearly six inches long. They are so large I mistook them for catfish when I first sighted them resting on the bottom of a slow moving stream.
River Frog tadpole
We spent our time targeting areas where creeks intersected with the road, these tend to be relatively accessible spots where we can quickly jump out of the car and examine the most promising spots. It was a successful day, and when I arrived back at the campsite that night after about 12 hours of mucking around the county’s swamps, I was eager to hear how my teammates had fared. And so the weekend went, we knew that we were documenting many different species but we could feel UGA breathing down our necks. They seemed confident and we overhead them around the fire as they were discussing their plans for what they would do with this year’s trophy.

Invigorated by the competition, we finished the weekend with a flourish. As we tallied up our points, we admired the highlights of the past few days. DJ McMoran and Matt Connell had found a greater siren, a completely aquatic salamander that was over a foot long. They had captured it in a net as it lay in a pile of leaves at the bottom of a creek bed. Over the course of the weekend, we had found Chamberlain’s dwarf salamanders, musk turtles, broad-headed skinks, gopher frogs, chicken turtles and many others. We were particularly excited about finding the gopher frog; this is a state-listed, protected species that hadn’t been documented where we found it since the 1970’s and it’s exactly the kind of sighting that our bioblitz competition was designed for. We met the UGA representatives at the pre-ordained time and place and compared our species lists and scores. We held our breaths as UGA revealed their points. Auburn University had won again! It was close though, and UGA had documented a number of species we hadn’t been able to find, such as the alligator snapping turtle and northern water snake. Overall, both teams documented an astounding 40 new amphibian and reptile county records, making the event a great success and furthering our understanding of these little-known species.

The 2008 Champions

Loggerhead Musk Turtle