Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Readers Write In: There's a Snake On My Bookshelf-Help! What Is It! (and more)

1) David, this morning we step out into the garage hit the door opener and BAM under the door is a 4ft long snake frozen in place. Takes your breath away. My husband gets excited and at first because of its markings thinks it a rattler. No rattle… No worries but my husband is convinced it’s no good. Unfortunately he tried to scare it off with a mop and it managed to get inside my garage and disappear...Any help would be great. I don’t want to kill them but if they are dangerous then I would like to call someone to displace them appropriately. Otherwise I guess I get a friendly visitor every year.

Tammy B.
Allen, Texas

2) Good morning, David! I've got another snake question I hope you can help me with. Yesterday morning, within 5 minutes of getting out of bed, while reaching down to plug in my computer, I brushed up against a snake that was curled up on my bookshelf.

In hindsight, he may have struck at me and missed when I first brushed up against him, because he tried to strike several times while I was attempting to wrangle him into a pillow case. My initial conclusion was that he is just a black rat snake, but after posting the photos on Facebook, I have had multiple people ask if it was an indigo snake (probably because of tv special that aired recently that featured indigo snakes).  I'm skeptical, but wanted to see if you may be able to identify it from the pics I took. 

Ben M.
Loachapoka, Alabama

3) I live in the southern part of South Carolina. Today we found this snake just sitting on our porch as we were watering our flowers. I live in a residential neighborhood with 3 dogs. Can someone please tell me if this snake is venomous?

Alex F.
South Carolina

Here Are A Couple of Questions 
for You Experts Out There:

4) We are having some discussion here at the NC Botanical Garden about the ID of this juvenile water snake. I believe it is a Northern Water Snake, and others have tagged it as a juvenile Red-bellied Water Snake. We have both species in abundance in the area. The location is a vernal pond without fish, but plenty of Salamander larvae and Chorus Frog larvae. Any thoughts?

Mary S.
North Carolina

5) Finally, a reader found these animals on the right under some rocks from an old building's foundation. He thought it would be fun for people to try to figure out all the different species and also guess the location based on the species that he found together (hint: it is in the United States).

Readers: 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 goal of these posts.

-You can safely assume that 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.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

These Are The Questions You Ask Me About Snakes That I Can't Answer

    I get asked a lot of questions about wildlife and that’s great because I enjoy answering them. But, sometimes people ask me things that I have no possible way of knowing because I am not psychic. Here are two questions I am asked all the time that I just can’t answer.

I found a snake. Will it bite?

    Answering this question would require me to see into the future. Everything with a mouth can bite you, including me, but that doesn’t mean I will (but I might).

   Some snakes, like watersnakes, tend to be more likely to bite you than other snakes when you handle them, but that doesn’t mean they will always bite. Even species I think of as docile, like kingsnakes, will bite sometimes. Anytime you handle or harass a snake you run the risk of getting bitten. For non-venomous species, it’s just not a big deal. I’ve been bitten dozens if not hundreds of times.

   It is incredibly rare for a snake to just start biting you for no reason. Usually a bite happens only when that animal begins to feel threatened, such as when you try to pick it up. Want to avoid a bite from a snake? Don’t give that snake a reason.

    So, will the snake you found bite you? Maybe. Don’t stress it out and it’s very unlikely.

I found a small snake around my house. Does this mean Momma is around too?

    I have no idea.

    First off, what difference does it make? If there are baby snakes around your property, this probably means that your property is good snake habitat; they wouldn’t be there otherwise*. So, whether Momma is around or not, if you find a snake or two there are probably lots of snakes around that you didn’t see, and that’s okay.

    Second, with the exception of the vipers (rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths) and watersnakes (including Gartersnakes), most of the snakes you’re seeing around your house hatched from eggs that have been incubating underground or in some wood pile for at least two months. Snakes don’t tend to stick around their nests (with the exception of some pythons and cobras) and that’s a lot of time for a snake to wander off.

    Even those snakes that give birth to live young don’t really accompany them around like a mother lion does with her cubs (and they don't have nests). The young snakes do their own thing and generally head off in different directions shortly after they are born. There are some interesting exceptions: for example, when some rattlesnakes give birth in their dens, the young and the mother tend to stay there for some time. The interactions among these snakes are the subject of interesting and ongoing research, but this isn’t really relevant to the snake you just found in your yard or in your house.

    So, if you don’t want snakes around your house, don’t spend too much time worrying whether Momma is there and concentrate on making sure your house and yard isn’t good snake habitat

*This is also relevant to another question I am frequently asked regarding how far a baby snake has moved from where it was born. Again, I have no way of knowing how far the snake you found has moved. After snakes are born or hatched they generally disperse off into different directions. If they are in good habitat already (they probably are) then they'll probably stick around without going too far. If they're not, they'll start crawling and how far they get depends on how long they've been traveling. But, like above, what difference does it make? If your yard is good snake habitat then there are likely to be snakes there; don't get caught up on the history of any one particular animal.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Turtle Activity: Living the Life in the Sun –-Guest Post–-

    Hello, our names are Sara Bresse and Nadeen Masarweh, and we are 5th year biology students at San Diego State University in California. This is our first time writing a blog post, and as a research assignment for our experimental ecology course, we observed turtle activity at our turtle pond on campus. Throughout the course of this semester we have conducted a few ecological class research projects. Our final assignment was to conduct our very own independent project, and we decided to write a guest blog post as an outreach tool and to inform others of our exciting results. Our focus was strictly observational and there were no manipulations made while collecting our data.

    We all love taking a vacation, and most of us would prefer to take a beautiful vacation at a sunny, hot beach. This is because a lot of people enjoy sunbathing and swimming on their vacations. Most of us only get to enjoy this kind of lifestyle during vacations for about a week or two, but lucky pond turtles, such as Trachemys scripta elegans, get to live the extravagant life every day (at least here in sunny San Diego, California).

    Pond turtles spend most of their time basking (laying out in the sun next to a body of water). This is because unlike humans, reptiles such as turtles are ectotherms (formerly known as “cold blooded”) and require the sun to increase their body temperature. Mammals, such as humans, are endothermic (aka warm blooded), and do not rely on the sun (or external heat sources) to maintain a functional internal body temperature. 

    Turtles bask daily to maintain a preferred body temperature between 30° to 36°C so that they can perform normal physiological functions (86° to 96.8°F, Boyer 1965). They also can swim in the pond water to avoid deviating from their preferred body temperatures (Boyer 1965). Turtles engage in this activity because the pond water is typically at a lower temperature than the environmental temperature, thus lowering their overall body temperature. 

    Temperature also plays a critical role in turtle reproduction. Turtle eggs require a certain temperature for successful development. If an increase in global temperature were to occur, there could be an increase in turtle egg fatality and an alteration in sex ratios (Poloczanska 2009).

    Pond turtles prefer to haul out on objects such as rocks and logs that are on or next to their pond so they can easily escape into the water if necessary (Boyer 1965). This is a great defense mechanism used by pond turtles that feel threatened, but because our pond turtles at the San Diego State Koi Pond have more interaction with humans, most of them tend to tough it out like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and remain basking instead of fleeing into the water when approached. 

     After observing the turtles for a week at SDSU, we found a significant relationship between temperature, weather, and turtle activity. Through analyses we established that weather (i.e., cloudy or sunny) is more significant than temperature in determining the type of activity the turtles are engaged in. More turtles seemed to be bathe during the cloudy weather, because we found the temperature to be warmer on those days. This could be because clouds serve as an insulator, keeping the warm air inside the atmosphere. On the other hand, we noted that on sunny days, the temperature was not as high and turtles were found more often to be basking on the rocks near the pond. Clear sunny days were cooler because the sunlight and energy that would typically make environmental temperatures increase could be released back into the atmosphere and are not guarded by the clouds. 

    Highest turtle activity occurred between the temperatures of 24° and 29°C (75-85°F) . There was a mixture of turtles basking and bathing during these temperatures and there was no relation found between temperature and whether they were basking or bathing. We believe that if we had a greater sample size we would have found significance in basking or bathing with an increase or decrease in temperatures. There was minimal turtle activity found below 75°F and above 85°F. 

    After observing the turtles between the hours of 7am-11pm, we found high activity of basking and bathing between the hours of 9am-4pm and no turtles were visible around the pond outside of those hours. We also noted that the highest percent of turtles found bathing and basking around the pond occurred around 1pm, probably due to high sun exposure and temperature during this time.

    This concludes our overall findings of our project and we hope that you enjoyed reading our post! We are glad to contribute to the ecological community and we hope to have broadened your interest in pond turtles.

Want to Learn More?

Boyer, D. (1965). Ecology of the Basking Habit in Turtles Ecology, 46 (1/2) DOI: 10.2307/1935262

Poloczanska, E.S., C.J. Limpus, and G.C. Hays. 2009. Chapter 2. Vulnerability of marine turtles to climate change. Advanced Marine Biology 56:151-211.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Part V: The Conclusion of Natural Springs, Brownback Salamanders, and the Good Folks of St. Clair County

By Sean Graham

Make sure to start at Part I.

Part V: Disaster, and Triumph

    I have only one recurring dream. It always follows the same formula. I am usually in a car driving across some open landscape when the weather suddenly brews dark clouds. I look out across the fields and a funnel cloud forms. The part of the dream that’s always the same is that I then think to myself (in the dream) that I’m finally going to see a real tornado, and not just dream about it. At first the dreams were exciting, even exhilarating. I would reach for my camera to try and take pictures. But they have progressively gotten much worse and can now be considered recurring nightmares.

    I was in Funchess Hall on
 the campus of Auburn University on April 27 2011 when news reports appeared all over the web about a massive tornado touching down to the northwest over in Tuscaloosa. A web cam somewhere on the campus of the University of Alabama caught the monster in broad daylight. It was so big you couldn’t make out a narrow funnel cloud; instead it was a massive, rotating black wall. I decided not to go home that night and slept on the couch in the Guyer lab. Funchess Hall is an ugly, rectangular brick building with few windows, but it’s a designated fallout shelter. I spoke on the phone that night with my then girlfriend Crystal (now my wife) who at the time was in Australia. She gave me a hard time and said I was being too alarmist. They don’t have tornadoes very often in Australia. 

    From Tuscaloosa the tornado tore a path through north central Alabama to Birmingham before dissipating northeast of town. It reformed and rolled into the Shoal Creek Valley east of the city like some horrible gutter ball. It made it all the way into Georgia before it lost strength. The next morning I told my girlfriend in an “I told you so” way that over 300 people were killed. It was the worst tornado outbreak since the Tri-State Tornado of 1925 killed twice as many people. 


    Before arriving at Buford’s House I stopped by the florist in Ashville to get flowers. I waited a few minutes for them to make the bouquet. Without any better word to describe it, this would surely be an awkward visit. I really needed to visit the spring for this study, but I didn’t want to seem insensitive. But I definitely didn’t want to just show up and play dumb, as if I didn’t know what had happened. So I thought flowers would be a nice gesture. I sorely wished I had Shannon or Jenn along with me. I was breaking the cardinal rule: asking permission from a landowner without a lady. For this I definitely needed a woman’s touch. 

The Shoal Creek Valley in early spring 2012.
    I drove down the Shoal Creek Valley and could barely recognize the place. The trees of the Shoal Creek Mountains lay down in one direction like thousands of dominoes. The Beaver Creek Mountains were untouched—the tornado hugged the south side of the valley. It would have been a half mile wide to reach the Valley slope and the Sanders home. It looked like a bomb had gone off. I drove past houses that were reduced to their cement front stairs. I drove past the Sanders place twice before I recognized it. Both houses were gone. Gone. The spring house was gone. Mangled slabs of siding were wrapped around snapped trees. The copse of willows that used to line the spring run next to the holding ponds was now three dead snags.

    I pulled into the driveway and saw a small new house a block or two away from the old home sites. Buford came out to meet me and seemed to truly appreciate the flowers, which he handed off to Margaret. It wasn’t long before he told me the story of what happened. 

    It was getting dark when the tornado warning was issued for their valley. Angie had put in some brownies after dinner down at Al’s house. Buford called down to Al and told him this warning was no joke and he needed to get Angie and the girls—Al had three daughters aged 14 and up—into the center room of the house. Buford and Margaret got into a central closet as the tornado rounded up the valley right at dusk. The house shook and he clutched his wife and closed his eyes, then it seemed like all suddenly became lighter. He looked up to discover his house no longer had a roof. They never found it. 

    After the tornado passed, Buford went to check on this son’s family. Al’s house was gone. For that matter, so was Buford’s. They found Angie nearly a hundred yards from the house. She was already dead. They found all three of the girls, some of whom were severely injured but all of whom were alive. 

    Buford became visibly emotional and his finger shook when he pointed out the spot where they found Al. 

    Al was still alive but a stick had punctured his lung. One of his daughters called 911 but the dispatchers said they were having a hard time getting to people because of all the downed trees. She told them her daddy was dying and that they should send a helicopter—it could land in a clearing across the street. They never came. 

    Buford held his boy all night. 

    Hours later, Al said, “Daddy I’m dying.” 

    With tears now streaking down his weathered face, Buford told me he replied, “No son, you can’t die. I love you too much.” 

    He looked away from the spot where his son died and back at me. “You know how hard that is to say.” I nodded yes. “It was especially hard for me and my boy.” 

    Al said “I love you too,” and died. 

    It was dawn before the paramedics arrived. Al Sanders survived most of the night with a massive injury that he could very well have survived if help had come sooner.

    Buford and I stood there in silence for a moment out there in that blasted valley, the both of us now crying quite openly. I was thinking about my own father. He looked off toward the Shoal Creek Mountains. “We still see lots of bluebirds. I love the bluebirds.” 

Buford Sanders demonstrating the power of
the tornado: he found this piece of metal
protruding from a log after the storm.
    I told him I thought there would be thousands of bluebirds and woodpeckers nesting in snags along the ridge after the tornado, if he left them. He said he probably would. “I love this valley, and I think I’m gonna stay.” 

    After a few minutes Buford broke our silence with some wisecrack. Soon we were smiling again. 

    I told him, “Sir, you’re a miracle.” 

    I spent the next few hours collecting salamanders in their spring. The potted plants were mostly gone or sunk into the mud but there were still several nests and plenty of Brownback Salamanders. 


    Five days later I staged two encounters between male Brownback Salamanders with females and intruders and nothing happened. I was swearing, hoping for any activity. They just sat there. Then I set up SS-03 and a female. SS-06, the intruder, approached the female tentatively and slowly. He started rubbing the back of the female with his snout. Male SS-03 broke off from the female and nudged the intruder. They seemed to pause for a moment, then all hell broke loose. 

Evidence of aggression in Brownback Salamanders:
the circular wound on the side of the salamander
was inflicted by another male during a battle.
    SS-03 snapped vigorously, flinging himself a few centimeters away from the intruder. He quickly recovered his footing then rapidly walked directly toward the intruder. They nudged each other with their snouts, and started pushing each other. They were facing opposite with their heads pushing each other’s waists, so they spun around wildly like a yin-yang. Then SS-03 latched on to the intruder’s side and twisted his whole body in an athletic somersault. After watching the salamanders fight for 15 minutes I was breathless. I separated them, and upon inspection SS-06 had a big chunk taken out of his side.

Oh they fight alright.

    The video ended shortly after the big bite was taken from the intruder. I had my laptop out and was excitedly explaining to the Sanders—Buford, Margaret, and their granddaughter Cassie—what I’d found after I returned all of my test subjects to the spring. I showed them the best videos of the fights. Several of the males fought when I introduced an intruder. None of the Two-lined Salamanders did. There would be no trouble finding statistical support for the behavioral differences between these salamanders. The study had been a complete success, and I finally had a good explanation for the range of variation displayed by the salamanders. Buford seemed to enjoy watching the videos and had a good smile going. He was probably being polite and just responding to my enthusiasm. I think Margaret was unsure of what she was looking at. Cassie seemed unimpressed. 

    “You sound like my biology teacher.” 

    “Is that a bad thing?” 

    “What good are salamanders, anyway?” 


     I’m not sure if the Brownback Salamander needs to be a protected species like the rare darters they share the springs with. On one hand, the springs are being heavily modified, destroyed, or capped for human consumption one by one. We don’t know how many of the springs are still in a natural state. And I’m not so sure if protection by government agencies would even help; the impoundment at Roebuck Spring—one of the only sites where Watercress Darters are knownwas accidentally dismantled by the City of Birmingham soon after we collected our Brownback Salamander larva there. Hundreds of the dead, desiccated bodies of darters were found in the muddy pond bed.

A capped spring in Walker Co., Georgia. To
my knowledge, this site no longer supports
Brownback Salamanders.
    On the other hand, the salamander is more widespread than I’ve led you to believe. We don’t know where the distribution stops; I’ve found several springs in Tennessee with big-headed aquatica types. They may occupy the entire Great Valley from Alabama to Pennsylvania. We found them well into northern Alabama and sometimes quite far from springs. The Brownback Salamander is still locally common, but the pure water springs they breed in are certainly under threat. Demand for clean water will become desperate in the future. The privately owned springs will likely become goldmines for property owners as world freshwater supplies begin to run out during the next century. Then the choice of whether to preserve the springs or cap them for consumption will be obvious.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Part IV of Natural Springs, Brownback Salamanders, and the Good Folks of St. Clair County

By Sean Graham

Make sure to start at Part I.

Part IV: The Life and Times of Brownback Salamanders

    450 million years ago northern Alabama was a shallow continental shelf accumulating thousands of feet of limey organic ooze. This layer of dead microscopic creatures eventually became solidified into thick limestone bedded between layers of sandstone, shale, and coal measures. Subsequent faulting, folding, and erosion produced the peculiar corduroy texture of the Valley and Ridge region—where pastoral valleys guarded by long parallel ridges stretch from Alabama, through the Shenandoah to Pennsylvania, and beyond. The old limestone beds typically make up the floors of the valleys—the Birmingham, Big Canoe, Shoal Creek, and Coosa Valleys, among others. Rain falling on the ridges bracketing each valley finds its way into caves, grottoes, and deep aquifers. This water gurgles out in a thousand springs.


A male Brownback Salamander from the Appalachian
Plateau of Alabama. These were identified by Mount as
the "Cole Springs" form of the Two-lined Salamander.
We determined they are a unique branch
of the Brownback Salamander tree.
    In a nutshell, we eventually confirmed that the Brownback Salamander is indeed a species separate from the Southern Two-lined Salamander. Genetically, all the spring dwellers were each other’s closest relatives, and all the stream dwellers were their own closest relatives. We also found that there were three main branches on the Brownback Salamander family tree, each of which corresponded to a region of springs with its own special spring-dwelling darter. In the Birmingham Valley there is the Watercress Darter. In the Coosa Valley there is the Coldwater Darter (Etheostoma ditrema). And in the Appalachian Plateau there are more spring-dwelling darter species. 

    Our genetics paper underscored the fact that the Brownback Salamander’s genetic diversity reflected the diversity of the fish in the Southern Appalachian springs. We eventually found Two-lined Salamanders right next door to nearly every spring, and they were not related to the big-headed salamanders like Folkerts predicted they would be. So why had there been so much confusion? 

The phylogenetic tree we recovered based upon the DNA
of the salamanders we collected; note that the spring-dwelling
salamanders we collected from the three regions are all closely
related to each other and not to Southern Two-lined Salamanders
collected from the same regions. Each major branch of Brownback
Salamanders correspond to unique spring-dwelling fish found
in the same springs
    I think a lot of the confusion came from relying on color too much, because these and many other salamanders can change color rather rapidly. They might start out a deep brown and after two hours in a ziplock bag they turn bright 
yellow. The yellow “intermediate” female we found in Shoal Creek was probably that color due to the different water temperature of the creek relative to the spring. We also found that females of the two species are not very different. But the head shape and body shape of males in the two species could not have been more different. I always use tanagers and buntings as an analogy. If you look at the males of the four North American species of these birds, there can hardly be any confusion. But try identifying the females in one of the places where their distributions overlap. By comparing the genetic features of the many salamanders we collected, we had a way to group them without any preconceived bias. We had a so-called “a priori” way to group them. When we grouped them by their genetic assignments, we found they were very different in shape. The “intermediates” we found were not genetically intermediate. They were female Brownback Salamanders. 

    Along with the genetic differences, we found differences in their behavior and reproductive biology. At this point (during 2009-2010) I was working with Jennifer Deitloff, a whip-smart post doc who joined the Guyer lab and shocked the Auburn scene with the progressiveness of her piercings and her utter disregard for social norms like laughing at an acceptable volume. As well, I was joined by a bright young undergraduate Mike Alcorn, who usually had poofy hair.

    Rose and Bush had mentioned that the Brownback Salamander laid large numbers of eggs compared to other Eurycea. But after the long, pained taxonomic history of this salamander it was good to confirm this now that we knew what species we were dealing with. They indeed lay much larger clutches. And there was the interesting way that the males and females seemed to participate in rearing the eggs.

A female Brownback Salamander with eggs.
    During the late winter of 2009 I returned to Sander’s Spring to take advantage of the potted plant nesting habitat there. I turned as many pots as possible and if there was a salamander under it I noted its sex, took a picture of the eggs, and a close up picture of the back of the salamander. Each salamander has a unique pattern of splotches and spots on the back, and I intended to use this pattern to compare to a later photo. I just wanted to confirm that the males stick around for a time instead of just hanging around with the females at the precise moment they lay the eggs. Lungless salamanders mate long before they lay their eggs and the females store the sperm. So it was quite unusual to have males anywhere near the nests.

    While I prepared the study site, catching and photographing salamanders, the family patriarch came by. Buford Sanders was Al’s father. The two lived on the same old family plot but in different houses. Buford lived in the white house up the hill. Unlike Al, Buford was a very amicable old fella—always wearing overalls and an old ball cap, with worn crow’s feet at his eyes that betrayed how frequently he smiled. He was always quick with some witticism and was guaranteed to poke a little fun at Auburn’s football record or the desperate need for Mike Alcorn to get a haircut. But this was always with a terrific, twinkling smile. While I worked he came by to see what I was doing and I tried to explain to him what was unusual about what we observed, sure as always to point out how helpful it was to have such a site to return to. While I spoke he broke off a piece of watercress and munched on it. 

    I came back a few days later and found many of the same salamanders—including the males—were under the same pots with the same clutch of eggs. Nobody had really ever tried to confirm that the same female Eurycea stays with eggs, much less the males. 

    As these observations accumulated—the different genetics, habitats, head shapes, and reproductive behavior, I started thinking about what could cause all of these differences. There is a range of variation in these salamanders from big heads to skinny heads. Some species show one shape, other species show the other, and some kinds can even have both simultaneously. I thought that the habitat differences could explain this pattern; especially how the habitat could influence the distribution of females. Bird biologists discovered long ago that the distribution of females can determine the mating system of the males. If a male can monopolize several females, he will guard a territory and exploit them. If he can’t, he may choose to be monogamous. 

    This made sense for our salamanders: the spring habitat of Brownback Salamanders is a confined space and all the females go there to reproduce. Males could take advantage of this concentration of females. In this way, Brownback Salamanders are more like pond-breeding salamanders than other lungless salamanders. I think that’s why it’s sometimes hard to find adults: I think they migrate to the springs solely for breeding and are otherwise terrestrial. The streams and swamps occupied by Two-lined Salamanders are much more expansive than the springs. In such habitats a male would be lucky to find a single female to mate with. Perhaps in some places two kinds of males attempt both strategies simultaneously. 

    So I began to think the Brownback Salamander’s big head and jaw muscles were for establishing and defending territories. They were battlers. The only evidence I had at first was that occasionally males I found had bite scars, which faded after preservation. I thought the cirri of Two-lined Salamanders were for tracking females along stretches of stream habitat—cirri are known to conduct chemical cues (such as pheromones) up to the nostrils of salamanders for processing by the brain. Longer cirri, better tracking abilities. But then we tried the experiment to see if the Brownback Salamanders were territorial, when mixed with intruders both species did nothing. We were so desperate we started looking into the guts of preserved specimens of both species to see if there could be something unique about the diets of male Brownback Salamanders. Perhaps they were crunching on all those snails you find in the spring habitat. We were grasping at straws. 

    That’s when I decided we had not properly tested the hypothesis. If the males guard nests, and guard females from other males, then we had to check to see if they would fight in the presence of females. In early 2012 I got online to look up Al Sander’s phone number so I could call ahead, which I did every time I planned a collection trip up to Sander’s Spring.

    I got a hit right away. It was a link to a story in the Huntsville Times: Al and Angie Sanders, Ashville Tornado Victims.

Don't miss the conclusion tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Part III of Natural Springs, Brownback Salamanders, and the Good Folks of St. Clair County

By Sean Graham

Make sure to start at Part I.

Part III: "Let's Find aquatica"

    In 2006 I worked at Zoo Atlanta and met Beth Timpe, an incredibly smart and organized woman with curly, fire orange hair. When we both left for grad school we decided to tackle the Brownback Salamander problem. She was going to work with Ron Bonett, a salamander genetics guru. I would be at Auburn, an hour away from most known Brownback Salamander collection sites. After conferring with Ron, he decided it was a good idea. Now we just had to find them.

    You’ve seen the fake adventurers on Discovery Channel travelling to some cave in India to locate a famed and entirely mythical creature. You’ve heard of the great naturalists of the 19th century exploring a continent for the first time, and you can probably imagine their determination and delight in discovering new species. But a nugget of this exhilaration can be experienced in far more prosaic circumstances, and to be sure, the lead up to discovery is usually far more fulfilling than the discovery itself. The real thrill is the collection trip; scouring ancient hills hiding unseen treasures, requiring no small amount of experience, skill, and of course providential luck. 

The most recent crew to Sander's Spring, Jenn Deitloff
Mike Alcorn, Megan Loraas, and the author.
    Driving one hour north to Birmingham carried just as much allure as if we’d packed up and left for Borneo. The fruits of our search would be no less novel. It was all the more incredible that we were driving along interstates populated by oblivious truckers, tax accountants, and fast food fry guys with no concept of the deepness of mystery casting reflections on their windows. We would arrive at intersections and interpret our bearings sternly. Hitting one site then speeding on to the next one. We were on a mission.

    It was early April 2007 when we arrived in the gravel parking lot of an old, yet neat, one-room white Baptist church, one of thousands that can be found all over the South, one hundred times more common than bookstores. We had intended to ask the pastor for permission to look around the property, but it was a Saturday and nobody was around. So we helped ourselves, scanning the tree line and grounds for signs of watercress. Jones’ thesis mentioned the best way to find the salamanders was to look for “watercress choked” springs and look through the dense growth. After a thorough search at Ebenezer Church we had only a possible sighting of a Brownback Salamander and no specimens. Perhaps this was going to be harder than we thought. 

    Our next stop was Glenn Spring, the type locality. It was absolutely crucial that we find salamanders there, but after our first experience we were careful not to get our hopes up. I didn’t really have much hope for finding them, because Rose mentioned they had been eliminated, Tom Jones only found larvae there, and nobody else had collected adult specimens there since the sixties. We arrived in Bessemer early in the afternoon and cruised through the sleepy, old neighborhoods. There were fences everywhere and the properties did not look inviting. Before turning around we saw a small sign indicating the boundary of what can probably be considered the most unlikely location for a National Wildlife Refuge. 

    At 25 acres, Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge is among the smallest such property in the country. It was established in 1980 to protect a tiny remnant of the habitat for a tiny fish, the Watercress Darter (Etheostoma nuchale) that is found only in the Birmingham Valley. Darters are minute, colorful, and full of personality. They park themselves on the bottom of clear streams and dart about snapping up small invertebrates. Males have fins as gaudily attractive as any bird’s plumage, and rival any popular tropical aquarium fish in beauty. They contribute some 180 species to eastern North America’s fish fauna, and therefore play a substantial role in making this region the most species rich temperate freshwater fish fauna in the world. The Watercress Darter was named for its tendency to occupy springs with abundant watercress, and is federally endangered because it only occupies a couple of the springs in the heavily industrial Birmingham region. It may have once been slightly more common, but many of the springs were long since capped for municipal use. Tom Jones pointed out that the distribution of rare, spring-loving darters overlapped rather well with that of the Brownback Salamander, which supported the idea that whatever factors led to the evolution of unique fish could certainly have influenced the salamanders as well. It would prove to be an incredible insight. 

    After what might have been the quickest collection period of my career, we were in and out of the refuge in fifteen minutes with several adult specimens of Brownback Salamanders. Apparently the unscrupulous collectors Rose had mentioned did not succeed in wiping them out. And like Rose before us, we were quickly convinced after seeing the brown, big headed males that we were dealing with a real species. We took small pieces of their tails for DNA—which regenerate readily—and released them. 

    After that trip we had a pretty good feel for how to find the salamanders. Finding the springs themselves was often the hardest part. We stopped in at a small spring that was listed in the museum catalog as “Taylor’s Farm.” A mean old man—leathery, with a hooked beak and scowling eyes—came out of a dilapidated shed and immediately began swearing nonsensically as we tried to explain what we were doing there. Before old man Taylor could discourage us, Wayne Cole strode across his front yard wearing a big friendly grin, followed by a substantial pack of small black and white mutts. The yapping of the dogs drowned out most of the brief but colorful exchange between Wayne and old man Taylor, the latter of whom continued muttering unintelligible but clearly profane remarks. He then waved his hands around angrily and went back inside. After a short introduction and shaking Wayne’s big hands we were given permission to check out the spring. Wayne Cole is a boisterous man, with a head like a watermelon. He wears overalls and rubber boots, and has a round, vacant face. But he’s no dummy. He’s a retired engineer for a local business, and he was thoroughly interested in what we were doing. He jotted down my number, promising he’d contact me with any number of questions about wildlife. He told us not to worry about old man Taylor, because he was crazy, and he was Wayne’s cousin. 

A very yellow Brownback Salamander from Taylor's Farm.
    We crossed a goat yard, dancing around turds and mud holes, and were soon peeling back thin layers of moss and flipping rocks from the margin of a crystal clear spring edged by watercress. I waded into the basin to get to some of the rocks. We had our quarry within minutes: some were big headed males, others gravid females, but they were all brightly colored and blonde—not the color typical for Brownback Salamanders. After the excitement of catching the salamanders I looked through the clear water of the ziplock bag holding their wriggling forms. I admired how, despite their color, they were still shaped very differently from Two-lined Salamanders. I allowed my eyes to focus on something in the background through the lens of the bag, and noticed a white PVC pipe trailing away from the spring, tracing a patch across the goat pasture up to Taylor’s shack. I was standing up to my crotch in his water supply. 

    We found Sander’s Spring the next year. By then I had refined my approach to asking permission for access to property. First and foremost, I never went up to knock on the door unless I had a woman with me. A pair of guys approaching the door was cause for immediate panic: two methed-out serial killers were coming. But if a girl knocks on the door it’s just a couple of college kids. My companion for many of these trips was the indefatigable Shannon Hoss. Shannon and I arrived at the property in late March—a bright, clear day after a cold front, when the valley had begun warming and light purple clouds sailed across a blue sky. The front yard was a well-manicured rose garden and had one of those store-bought ponds with freshwater plants. We knocked on the front door of the closest white house and got no response. So we drove past it down to a rectangular forest green house down the hill. After a brief wait a man of about forty came to the door—serious, with dark eyebrows and cropped dark hair. Handsome if slightly overweight. He looked like the kind of guy you’d choose to play a guy from Alabama in a movie about guys from Alabama. He didn’t look happy to see us. 

    “Hello sir, we’re biologists from Auburn University, and we would like to search your spring for salamanders.” 

    “Auburn, huh?” I glanced up to the right and noticed that the flag flying from his white front porch, right next to the ubiquitous front swing, was not the stars and stripes. Instead the flag was a blood red, cursive “A” on a white field: the flag of the University of Alabama, the bitter rival of my college. I was wearing a bright orange Auburn hat. I tried to redirect.

    “Yes sir, your property is in our natural history museum catalog as a place where a certain species was collected in the past and we just wanted…” 

    “Let me see your ID.” 

    “My ID?” 

    “Yes, your driver’s license.” I had never been carded before while doing fieldwork, but there was a first time for everything. Shannon and I began fishing through our stuff trying to find our IDs. I handed him over my driver’s license and college ID. He looked it over carefully, glanced back up at my face, and then seemed to relent, but ever-so-slightly.

    “Auburn’s been here before lookin’ at our spring. I remember a tall guy who came here when I was a boy.” 

    “Tom Jones?” 

    “That sounds right. Yep, I used to help him. Ya’ll can go on ahead.” We had been carded by Albert Sanders, who by now was substantially more mature if no less trusting of biologists than he was when he was 11. Perhaps his skepticism stemmed from the expectation that I would soon toss a salamander into my mouth. 

    “We can look around?” 

    “Do whatever you want.” 

Brownback Salamander eggs found under
a potted plant at Sander's Spring.
    We spent the whole afternoon exploring the property. The 
main spring issued from a cement cylinder surrounded by watercress. There were dozens of plastic potted plants along this and several other springs, and the main run still fed into long-abandoned aquaculture holding ponds that were skimmed with duckweed and a tiny reddish floating aquatic fern. We turned a few rocks and found Brownback Salamanders, among many others. When we turned over the potted plants we found several nests of the Brownback Salamander—the females had lain their eggs along the bottom of the plastic pots instead of their usual nesting sites on the underside of rocks. After allowing the water to clear, we found that most of the nests were attended by females, and some of them, perhaps most of them, were also attended by males. The Sanders family had inadvertently created an ideal nesting ground for these salamanders. They were virtually culturing them in their spring. 

The Sander's Spring pumphouse.
    After a while Al Sanders caught up with us and soon reverted to his childhood role of salamander catcher. Despite lightening up considerably, Al never lost that somewhat severe look, and rarely smiled. Frogs called from the holding ponds and down the valley near Shoal Creek. Remembering that Tom Jones had found all three of the different kinds of salamanders here—“aquatica types” “bislineata types” and “intermediates”—we walked across their broad pasture to Shoal Creek. I thought if we explored the Shoal Creek ridge we might find some Two-lined Salamanders very close to the spring. This would allow for a strict genetic comparison. After searching a small mountain stream feeding into Shoal Creek we came up empty handed. Then we noticed Al Sanders was wading in Shoal Creek, turning rocks. He called out to us, with his hand closed firmly around something. He held out his hand and I held mine under it. He opened it and out dropped a yellowish salamander. She was a gravid female who would no doubt lay her eggs in Shoal Creek, a totally different environment from the spring up near the house. She was yellowish but proportioned like a Brownback Salamander. We had finally found one of Tom Jones’ “intermediates,” and the credit belonged to Tom’s helper from thirty years ago.

The elusive "intermediate" Brownback Salamander
found by Albert Sanders.
    We finally understood the confusing range of variation exhibited by these salamanders, and it became very clear how Tom Jones would have come away confused and inconclusive without the genetic tools that were available to us. 

    With those tools we were able to finally explain what was going on.

Don't miss Part IV tomorrow