Monday, October 26, 2015

Where Are The Most Herps in America? A Place Called Conecuh.

Introducing a new publication from contributors to Living Alongside Wildlife! This scientific “monograph” is packed with information about 105 species of amphibians and reptiles of Conecuh National Forest in south Alabama.


I first met Craig Guyer’s students back at my first national science conference in Indianapolis. Back then I was just beginning my Master’s degree and didn’t know any students at my university who did any field work of any kind, so I gravitated toward Guyer’s grad students. We went out together and hollered at people on sidewalks from Scott Boback’s VW van and I knew right away that’s where I had to be. I told them to clear off a space in their lab for my stuff. It was just a joke but in a few years I would indeed be starting my PhD at Auburn in Guyer’s lab. And they were probably just joking when they asked if I wanted to come down to the Conecuh National Forest in south Alabama in the winter of 2002 to help build drift fences. I needed to build these structures for my own research just beginning, and I wanted to hang out with them, so I agreed. Drift fences are long lines of metal flashing sunk into the ground. On either end of the fence there are either pickle buckets sunk into the ground or funnel traps. Amphibians and reptiles (“herps”) crawl along the fence, rather than over or under, and simply fall into your trap. It’s the most effective way to survey for them. But most people hate building drift fences. It’s grunt work. But I can’t think of anything better to bring people together.

            I met up with the gang on a steel-skied winter day. They started showing up one at a time and we set up camp at the Rome bunkhouse. Rome is one of those wonderful places you find in the South that appear on maps but don’t really exist. It’s just a crossroads near the Solon Dixon Forestry Center. The jokes and drinks started up early and we were immediately having laughs. Kyle Barrett was one of the last to make it down, and somebody seemed slightly concerned that perhaps he’d gotten lost. Roger Birkhead dismissed this immediately, saying “He’s a Southern boy. He’ll find it.” Next day we were rampaging across the Dixon Center property with Roger saddled to a big gas powered ditcher and the rest of us digging with shovels and cutting wrist thick roots with loppers. 

     The air was just right for this kind of work; cool and damp enough that soon we were comfortable in our field clothes and even shedding jackets. The hard work was interrupted by occasional treats for the naturalist: a drive down near the fire tower to see the bogs where in summer Pine Barrens Treefrogs squawk but were now occupied by small greenish Henslow’s Sparrows. Roger picked up and cut open a Parrot Pitcher Plant—whose pitchers lie prone on the ground, and which Roger described as “nature’s drift fence”—to reveal a thick glut of digesting bugs. It was too cold to find many herps, and we had to make do with a Two-lined Salamander found along the edge of Blue Spring (the one on the Dixon Center…not to be confused for the one with the same name over near Blue Lake…which shouldn’t be confused with Blue Pond). We scraped mucky rills in attempt to find Mud Salamanders, a species that should be there but has evaded detection to this day.

            So I was there at the beginning of what would turn out to be a ten year intensive census of this small national forest in the middle of nowhere in the wilds of southern Alabama. This place would turn out to be central to my career in a number of ways: I got to know some of my best friends and colleagues there. I met the Guyer lab in Indianapolis but joined the lab down in the Conecuh back in the winter of 2002. It just took me four more years to actually become enrolled at Auburn University. I met my lab mate David Steen at Auburn but we became brothers down in the Conecuh in 2007, on that trip when we found a Queen Snake at the steephead and didn’t properly voucher it. Mark Bailey and I met in Chattanooga but we had our first real moment juggling a One-toed Amphiuma at Pholeter Springs hooting like crazed rural Alabama elemetary schoolers. I met Jimmy and Sierra Stiles at Mark’s place at the 2006 Southeastern PARC meeting when they told me excitedly about documenting a Smooth Earth Snake for the first time in the forest. I told them that I believed there could be River Frogs there too, and still believe them now. I met Jim Godwin during the same conference but under more hilarious cirucmstances—the first Gopher Frog I ever saw was on a rainy February night out on the forest service road in front of Salt Pond, when Jim drove up in one of his half-dozen old Toyota Land Cruisers and pretended like he was a game warden about to bust me for “take.” I met my eventual post doctoral advisor Tracy Langkilde and her students down at the Conecuh (we would build drift fences together, too), and this enabled me to get two summer’s worth of my own research done down in the forest, which concluded in 2012 and bookended my involvement in the studies reported in our monograph. My career trajectory and explorations of the Southeast gradually pulled me south further and further south until it plunked me right down in the Conecuh.

            And the place is special in more than personal ways. As our new monograph on the herpsof Conecuh demonstrates, you can’t find a place of similar size in North America north of Mexico with more species of herps. It has more than the larger and much more intensively surveyed Savannah River Site in South Carolina. It may have as many species than Apalachicola National Forest, which is over seven times bigger than the Conecuh. The annual herp class field trip out of Auburn would consistently get more than 40 species in a weekend. The Gulf Coast strip from Mobile Bay to the Apalachicola is incredibly rich both in numbers of total species and in those found nowhere else. And not just in terms of herps: it has a bewildering variety of special plants, fish, birds, and other creatures as well. It’s a precious place that doesn’t cross many people’s mind when it comes to special American landscapes. Perhaps this monograph will help change that perception.           

More than this even, the Conecuh has mystery. We’ve added something to our monograph that is rarely found in scientific papers. To enhance the appeal of this paper for general readers and visitors to the forest, we convinced the editor (and at least one of the reviewers) to include “conservation essays”—where is really just a euphemism for good stories. These are stories about our adventures in the forest finding critters. They are sometimes funny, sometimes surprising, sometimes poignant, and are intended to show the human side of science. More than a few of these essays involve unexpected, serendipitous discoveries or fruitful searches after long, hard days. Not only do these stories document the discovery of rare species (One-toed Amphiumas, Mimic Glass Lizards, and perhaps a River Frog), they also reveal the sudden pleasure of finding a new nook or cranny in the forest we never knew about. Sierra follows an Indigo Snake to a secret pitcher plant bog. Craig has a close call with an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. I follow a clear creek through hanging gardens of ferns. These are the memories we’ll always cherish, and we wanted to pass them on to you. Oh, and Mark Bailey was present for Conecuh’s only documented Alligator attack on a human being, soyou’ll want to buy your copy for his story at least.

For the next few days Living Alongside Wildlife will be featuring some of these essays in a shameless attempt to generate interest in our monograph and in the fantastic herpetofauna of Conecuh National Forest. We tried our best to thoroughly describe the herpetofauna as a living, breathing community of interacting species, and the manuscript is peppered with juicy natural history information peculiar to the region. Our goal was to make our paper like one of those great local “bird finding” guides that you should never go anywhere without. There are color photos and species accounts covering all 105 species known from the forest, along with graphs, tables, and figures about all kinds of things. We cover Eastern Diamondbacks, Mud Snakes, Coral Snakes, Alligators, Alligator Snappers, Green Frogs, Green Treefrogs, Squirrel Treefrogs, Pine Woods Treefrogs, Pine Barrens Treefrogs, Pine Snakes (and maybe even Pine Woods Snakes), Gopher Frogs, Gopher Tortoises, Pig Frogs, River Frogs, Chicken Turtles, Sawbacks, three kinds of Glass Lizards, two kinds of Dwarf Salamanders, White Oak Runners, Red Salamanders, Waterdogs, Two-toed Amphiumas, One-toed Amphiumas, Sirens, Mole Salamanders, Mole Kingsnakes, and now, after a 60 year hiatus, the forest ruler over them all has returned: The Indigo Snake is back. Enjoy!

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