As I finished my fried flounder sandwich and sat around the restaurant table with Kelly Jones and Brandon Rincon, two Virginia Tech researchers and avid herpers, we debated how many amphibian and reptile species we would find that night. Our plan was to wait until dark, pay our tab and disembark to explore some of the most secluded and overgrown swamps and bogs in the Florida panhandle, an area renowned for its biodiversity. After considering the species active at this time of year and how commonly they’re encountered, I confidently remarked that we’d find thirteen. More optimistically, Brandon suggested fourteen. Kelly, clearly assured we’d find species I’d written off, predicted fifteen.
I knew we could count on animals such as the southern toad, which reliably hop across roads near wetlands in uncountable numbers after the sun has long set. It was a sure bet that we’d hear green tree frogs, “quanking” at each other in a full chorus in a competition to attract females. Bronze, pig, and leopard frogs were also likely to be heard. If we were to hear and identify any of their distinctive and unique songs, it would count towards our total. As always, the wild cards were the reptiles. Secretive and silent, it is nearly always impossible to accurately predict when one would be encountered, let alone which species.
Due to creative editing, nature television programs often give laypeople the wrong impression regarding the search time necessary to find neat stuff. Far from stumbling into a giant or deadly snake at every turn, walking through the woods and searching for animals is often a long and unrewarding task. I always warn people interested in tagging along with me that if they are anticipating finding new and exciting animals in the time it takes to get to the first commercial break, they will be disappointed. Searching out a target species takes time and a combination of luck and skill.
Throwing a wrench in our predictions was the very real possibility of finding an animal that had not yet been officially described. There are rumors of several different kinds of sirens, fully aquatic salamanders, squirming through the wetlands of the Florida panhandle and southern Alabama, yet they do not have a scientific name. Casual conversations with individuals that had seen or captured these mystery animals piqued our interest and we were eager to try for the chance to see some ourselves.
It wasn’t so outlandish to suggest we’d succeed. Just in 1982, Florida wildlife biologist Paul Moler was exploring some of the same wetlands in an attempt to document the distribution of the Pine Barrens Tree Frog when he heard an odd noise. Moler is an expert herpetologist and when a nearby frog issued an unfamiliar call, it was impossible to resist investigating. A quick search revealed a small (1.5 inch) frog casually sitting in the shallow seepage. Although superficially resembling the more common bronze frog, there were some distinct differences, including its unique song.
These days, species are often “discovered” in the laboratory, when researchers identify subtle genetic differences between populations; but, this frog was so distinct that no genetic work was necessary to distinguish it. Moler designated the animal as Rana okaloosae after Okaloosa County, Florida, the only area where the frog could be found (it has since been found in neighboring Santa Rosa and Walton counties, but only at a total of about 20 different wetlands). It’s incredible to consider how a species can only be found in such a small area.
As I considered the crayfish and minnow traps we had set earlier in the day in a backwoods swamp...
I anticipated the excitement of lifting a trap from the water to find a squiggling new siren within it. Our hopes were high as we paid our checks and set off.
We took the long route to the swamp so that we could drive along some promising roads where we might find crossing snakes while simultaneously providing some extra time for our traps to lure in unsuspecting animals. As we drove our eyes were peeled to the road in front of us as we scanned it for animals. Before long we came across a large bird strolling nonchalantly around, periodically stabbing downwards with its bill. I hit the brakes and after only a moment, Kelly identified it as a juvenile black-crowned night heron. Shortly after he raised his binoculars, he informed us that the heron was picking up and eating toads.
As we noted how interesting it was that the heron was eating the warty amphibians (despite the poisonous glands on their heads) and how it was apparently taking advantage of the lack of cover on the road to find them, a deer suddenly emerged from the woods and galloped past the truck. Simultaneously, the heron took to the air and disappeared into the darkness. As we sat in stunned silence, a camouflaged and armed Army Ranger appeared in the road in front of us, illuminated within our headlights. We quietly watched the Ranger approach our vehicle as I casually turned my brights off.
When he was alongside us I rolled down the window and politely informed him that we were researching amphibians in the area. Bored with our explanation, we were causally informed that he was in the front of a column of Army Rangers conducting training exercises in the forest. He cautioned that we could keep driving if we desired but we may be construed as a threatening presence. We solemnly nodded as he recommended rolling up our windows. He continued to tell us we shouldn’t stop as we drove the next hundred yards or so until we passed another ranger holding an orange light. This would signal to us that we had passed everyone in the exercise. We wouldn’t see any Rangers in the woods, he assured us, but they would be watching us.
It was with great trepidation that we thanked him and started to slowly roll away. I glanced in the rear view window to see the Ranger watching us leave. Kelly explained that even when undergoing seemingly routine training exercises, instructors may present the Rangers with new and unexpected scenarios to see how they react to surprises. Although we were only passing through to find some frogs, we could be seen as the unexpected scenario. Why roll up the windows? I wondered to myself, half expecting canisters of tear gas to bounce off them as we drove.
I considered what would happen if we were to come across a particularly exciting find in the road and if any of us would have what it takes to stop the truck and catch it. Would we be hog-tied and left in the woods if we got out? What species of snake would be worth being subjected to that treatment? Would I be able to defend myself against these highly trained soldiers? As I contemplated the tradeoffs, we were quickly upon another Ranger in the road, signaling to us with his orange light that we had passed through the gauntlet safely and without further incident. If we hadn’t come across the lead Ranger in the road, we never would’ve known we had passed anything at all.
The rest of the drive to the swamp was comparatively uneventful, save for a scarlet snake crawling quickly across the road.
When we arrived, I quickly donned my headlamp, pulled on my waders and fit into a vest containing everything I imagined I might need (including camera, pillow cases (to hold snakes), plastic bags (to hold amphibians) and utility knife) crammed into the multiple pockets. Feeling about 50 pounds heavier, I began to question my judgment as I high-stepped over fallen logs and wiped the sweat off my brow.
We raised our traps from the water optimistically but had captured only a few fish. Disappointed but not discouraged, we decided to wade around the wetland and hope to illuminate a foraging snake or siren with our headlamps. Brandon pointed out a small depression in the mud at our feet and described how amphiumas, large predatory and aquatic salamanders, will hide within these small burrows and wait for small animals to stroll by unsuspectingly. In a flash, the amphiuma will emerge from their hiding spot and savagely consume them. I twirled a small twig just outside the burrow in an attempt to lure the amphiuma out and told myself not to scream if a three foot salamander suddenly rushed out, mouth agape. My concerns were made moot however, as no killer amphibian was home.
When an unfamiliar frog started calling, “chunk chunk chunk chunk chunk” from the shallow and seepy outskirts of the swamp, I knew at once we were surrounded by bog frogs. As Brandon lead me to a promising spot, I heard the odd call once again and imagined I was Paul Moler discovering the species for the first time. Switching off my light so as to not spook the frog, I waited until he resumed his song. When I heard the sound from a nearby pool, I quickly flicked on my light and found a small and unassuming frog looking back at me from the shallows. There’s certainly nothing about the bog frog’s appearance that divulges its mysterious nature.
It’s little, it’s green and it superficially resembles many other similar species; perhaps this is what helped it evade detection and formal description for so long. We still know little about the species; there has been limited research on the species since it was discovered nearly 30 years ago, although some studies conducted through Virginia Tech are nearing completion. It’s likely that few in Okaloosa County know they share the area with one of the rarest amphibians in the world.
It was about 2:00 A.M. by the time we filled the truck bed with our empty traps and headed home for the night. We were disappointed we didn’t find any undescribed species but proud of what we had seen, including the bog frogs, barking tree frogs, and a young gray rat snake crawling through the overhanging bushes of the swamp.
As I drove I wondered aloud how many species were observed that night. Counting on our fingers the species we had found, we stalled at thirteen, just as I had predicted. After I spent a few minutes modestly proclaiming myself the smartest person in the truck, Kelly suggested we make a stop at a gas station to fill up, pick up some refreshments and, as it turned out, find species number fourteen crawling on the wall.
Photos of heron, scarlet snake, gray rat snake, and Mediterranean gecko are courtesy of Kelly Jones