Monday, November 23, 2009

Dinner in Cloud Break, Arizona

Today I received an e-mail describing a tale of mortal combat between a lizard and snake in Cloud Break, Arizona. The text of the e-mail reads, "These pics were taken by one of the road crew at Cloud break, Arizona last week. It took a total of 5 hours for the King Snake to finish off the Goanna. (Sand Monitor) As you can see, they put some signage up so it couldn't be run over."

What really happened though, is that a creative but lazy jokester has taken a series of pictures of a lizard and a snake from Australia and changed the location specified in the accompanying text, perhaps to scare their neighbors. I'm going to guess they're from, oh..I don't know...Cloud Break, Arizona? I can't actually find information about this town, does it really exist?

Our first clue is the mention of a goanna, which do not occur in North America. You may recall Paul Hogan eating one in Crocodile Dundee (although he didn't like the taste). Maybe whoever altered the e-mail didn't know this. But, at least they were aware that Black-headed Pythons can't be found in Arizona, so they changed the species to a Kingsnake, which do occur in Arizona and look superficially similar to the python in the picture.

Black-headed Pythons can reach about eight feet long, much bigger than Common Kingsnakes can; their large size makes them well equipped to eat large lizards such as goannas. Kingsnakes also like to eat other reptiles, although none as large as the goanna in the picture.

If you're interested in learning about what snakes can really be found in Arizona, check out this site. Information about Arizona's lizards can be found here.

10.8.11-Multiple commenters have noted that this picture was taken near the Cloud Break mine in Pilbara, Australia.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Give Me a Home Where the Blue Gopher Snakes Roam

It was Monday morning and Tropical Storm Ida was welcoming us to the new week. As the early chills of fall enveloped us, dark clouds gathered in the distance, ominously blocking out the sun. Perhaps seeing the look of concern on my face, Dirk Stevenson consoled me,

“No worries, the indigos won’t mind.”

Dirk is the Director for Inventory and Monitoring for Project Orianne, a large non-profit organization dedicated to conserving the eastern indigo snake where they remain and restoring populations to areas where they have disappeared. Dirk was to be my field companion for the day, accompanying me to my field site in the Florida panhandle. He hoped to establish whether indigo snakes, often locally known as gopher snakes, still persisted in the area, despite the lack of a confirmed sighting in over ten years.

Indigo snakes once roamed throughout the southern half of Georgia through Florida and west to Mississippi. Today, however, they may be found only in isolated and relatively undisturbed areas and they’re thought to have disappeared entirely from both Mississippi and Alabama. Although one of the largest snakes in North America (they can reach over eight feet long) and a fierce predator (including of rattlesnakes), the species is surprisingly vulnerable to changes to its habitat. As a large animal, it requires a large area to survive. An indigo snake living near humans is vulnerable to being killed on roads or by domestic animals. Its docile nature made it a popular target of collectors who wanted to make pets of the giant beasts.

Perhaps the most insidious threat to the continued persistence of the indigo snake in the southeast relates to the population decline of another species altogether, the gopher tortoise. Gopher tortoises are considered keystone species, meaning their presence influences many other organisms in their shared habitat. Tortoise burrows are used by a wide variety of other animals, notably the indigo snake. Indigo snakes use these burrows as shelter during very high or low temperatures and may search through them to find potential prey. They may be used for nesting, for mating, or to fight rivals. In some areas where they can both be found, tortoise burrows are an integral component of the landscape for indigo snakes.

Tortoises have declined for a number of reasons; historically they were harvested intensively by hungry humans. But that this practice has been outlawed doesn’t mean tortoises are in the clear. They prefer pine forests with few trees, an open canopy allows a lot of sun to reach the ground and encourages growth of the plants they like to eat. To keep pine forests open, however, requires fires to burn through every couple of years, as they did in the past after lightning strikes. These fires keep hardwood trees from becoming established in the forest, when they would otherwise crowd out pine trees and block out the sun. Many southeastern forests haven’t been exposed to fire in a long time, making the habitat unsuitable for gopher tortoises, which reduces the amount of refuges available for indigo snakes.

When it comes to indigo snakes, the Florida panhandle is a head-scratcher. Although the number of gopher tortoises in the area is considerably lower than elsewhere, they are still hanging on. And in this region can be found some of the most expansive longleaf pine forests remaining in the world. It would seem as if the area was tailor-made for a healthy population of indigo snakes, yet it’s been a decade since they were last spotted.

As we drove to the first site, a secluded area where you can still find a small number of tortoise burrows if you know where to look, Dirk explained the unusual behavior of the indigo snake. In the fall, on days when most other snakes would be holed up for warmth, male indigo snakes are conducting serious business; that is, looking for females. These males will crawl throughout the forest searching for either other snakes or the tortoise burrows they might be hiding within. It was our hope we might encounter one of these giant serpents as it undertook one of these excursions or perhaps a female coiled up and basking in the sun outside a burrow.

I couldn’t help but hope we found an indigo snake, a species that has successfully eluded me so far. I knew it was a tall order to see a federally threatened animal in an area where they haven’t been found in a decade, but I would’ve settled for seeing a large track in the loose sand leading down to a tortoise burrow.

This would indicate to us that an indigo had traveled through recently and give us some reason to be optimistic for the species’ recovery in the region. If they were still clinging on, the site might be considered a suitable spot to introduce more snakes, in the hope they would interbreed and thrive.

In short order, Ida started threatening us again, now with the beginnings of the rain that would drench the region throughout the night. Despite the less than ideal conditions, we dutifully visited sites we thought held the most potential, walking through the woods looking for the disturbed soil that might indicate a tortoise burrow. We were disappointed though, to find that even in areas where you could find dense populations of tortoises only years ago, they were few and far between now. Without burrows to serve as targets for our search, finding an indigo snake was like finding a needle in a haystack, if they were even there at all.

Indigo snake and indigo snake trail pictures appear here courtesy of Dirk Stevenson. The gopher tortoise picture appears here courtesy of Sean Sterrett.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A 55 foot boa in China?

Check out what is now being claimed as a 55 foot boa from China.

It should be noted that Chinese officials are claiming this photo is clearly a hoax, as boas are not native to Asia. Well, they're right...kind of. It's true that boas do not typically occur in Asia, they are limited to North and South America (with some exceptions), while pythons are found in Africa, Asia, and Australia. But the thing is...that's not a boa in the picture, it is a python. You can tell by its distinctive patterning.

Boas and pythons differ in other ways too. Boas give birth to live young while pythons lay eggs. Also, pythons have heat sensing pits in their face and boas do not.

So, why is it a hoax? Because no snakes alive today get that large. Even the giant reticulated pythons and green anacondas, our planet's biggest snakes, struggle to reach 30 feet.

Why does it look so huge? Well, if you've already read this post, you know exactly why.