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!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Readers Write In: What is this Snake in the Cat Food?



We have a house along the shore of Hyco Lake in NC (just south of Danville VA). We saw this snake soaking up some sun in the rocks along the shore.  We were not able to see its head just the part of the body that shows in the photo.  Can it be identified by this photo?  Any info would be greatly appreciated because I'm not to excited about living alongside this wildlife.

Jackie C.

North Carolina









Hello! Can you please identify this snake? He was found in Edmond, Oklahoma. Thank you!!

Rhonda S.
Oklahoma





Hello again, David--

  You were kind enough to include my snake pictures in your 
latest blog, so I thought I would ask about one or two others. I am confused about the differences in coloration between juvenile and adult snakes. 




Is this a light-colored cottonmouth or some kind of water snake? Thanks for your help. I did forward the link to your blog to my outdoorsy friends and family, by the way. All of my snake pictures were taken at Barker Reservoir, which is on the western edge of Houston, Texas

Cathy N.

Texas



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 point of these posts.

-This is not a pop quiz, any kind of research is encouraged and I hope you will engage with other commenters to try to figure these snakes out. I will eventually chime in with my thoughts.

-Assume 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. Don't hate, educate.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

"Poisonous" Sea Snake Surfaces in California – Is it that Big of a Deal? --Guest Post---

Image courtesy of Will Flaxington.
   You've probably seen the headlines, a Yellow-bellied Sea Snake (Pelamis platura) was recently found along the California coast at Silver Strand Beach in Ventura County. This is a rare and interesting find given the waters along the western coastline of the United States are colder than where the species is usually found. 

    But, it’s not completely surprising given that the northeastern extent of the range extends north of the Baja peninsula. So, while although this record is extremely rare along west coast waters, Yellow-bellied Sea Snakes are actually part of the native herpetofauna in California. Globally, this species has a very extensive range and is native to tropical waters from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of North and South America.

Range of the Yellow-bellied Sea Snake. Map courtesy of IUCN Red List Spatial Data.

    Yellow-bellied Sea Snakes (also known as the Pelagic Sea Snake) are relatively large-bodied snakes (50 – 80 cm) and have a generally flattened body profile and a large paddle-like tail. The snakes are dark above and bright yellow underneath and  and. This species spends a majority of its life at sea although they sometimes give birth to their live young in tide pools. One of the most interesting aspects of this species is its ability to drift in the open seas far from shore. This species will often congregate in large numbers to form large rafts that are believed to imitate driftwood or large mats of seaweed. Yellow-bellied Sea Snakes will prey on fish and other aquatic prey that choose to seek shelter under this floating snake raft. I imagine that a large raft of snakes might be most folk’s worst nightmare, but it sounds pretty amazing to me!

    As most have probably noticed, many headlines described the Yellow-bellied Sea Snake as a “poisonous snake.” Being the literal person that I am, I got very excited thinking that the writer had either found an introduced Rhabdophis tigrinis (Tiger Keelback) or was describing the discovery of a new snake species to the US that causes death of predators upon ingestion. As Yellow-bellied Sea Snakes envenomate their prey via fangs, they are indeed venomous, not poisonous. There are snake species that are both poisonous 
and venomous, but that’s for another blog post.

    Sea snakes are part of the family Hydrophiidae and have a similar fang structure to snakes in the family Elapidae, which includes the oft-feared cobras and mambas. Collectively, snakes in these two families are equipped with stationary fangs that are used to deliver a rather potent dose of neurotoxic venom, which they primarily use on their aquatic prey (mostly fish).

    Fixed fangs differ greatly from the retractable fangs of the pit viper species we encounter in the United States in that venom essentially trickles through hollow fangs rather than being injected. Envenomations of humans by Yellow-bellied Sea Snakes are extremely rare (none have been recorded in the US); fishers that encounter this species as by-catch are most likely to suffer bites.

    Some of the articles about the snake that was found in California suggest that the larger-than-normal El NiƱo weather pattern is to blame for this rare encounter. Given that the distribution of Yellow-bellied Sea Snakes falls within the tropical waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it’s completely conceivable to think that weather patterns that result in increased warming of ocean waters will lead to the occasional expansion of a species out of its normal tropical environment. Similarly, there have been lots of observations lately of many different species experiencing shifting geographic patterns due to climate change. So, although this rare encounter of a Yellow-bellied Sea Snake in the continental United States is interesting, we will likely experience similar weird occurrences of vagrant species in the future given the long-term predicted impacts of climate change.




Bill Sutton is an Assistant Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Tennessee State University in Nashville, Tennessee. Bill’s research interests include understanding the impacts of human disturbances, such as climate change and landscape disturbances, on wildlife populations.  Check out more of Bill’s research here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Readers Write In: Mystery Trail Camera Snake and More to ID



Hello. Can you please help me to identify the young snake pictured below? I live in the woods upstate NY.

Thanks for your help.


Enjoy in joy,


Sherry M.

New York





So sorry for the terrible pics but it's the best my cousin took (nervous!) lol. They live in San Marcos, Tx and allllll their friends on fb insist it's a rat snake. I say nope, definitely a rattler. Can you please help?

Vonda S.
Texas


Hi David,

One of my trail cameras took this photo of a raccoon investigating a snake. I think I know what it is, but I want your input. What do you think it is?


It was taken near Thomasville, Georgia.

Thanks.
Jerry T.

Georgia



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 point of these posts.

-This is not a pop quiz, any kind of research is encouraged and I hope you will engage with other commenters to try to figure these snakes out. I will eventually chime in with my thoughts.

-Assume 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. Don't hate, educate.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Readers Write In: California Rattlers and Kitchen Invaders to ID





I ran into this guy on a bike ride in La Quinta in May. About 4-5'. Is it a western Diamondback? Any idea how old? I made sure he/she got across safely. Biggest one I've seen.

Steve D.
California









David,

A coworker removed this specimen from his family's back yard in the laurel highlands of SW PA.  I thought it may be a juvenile rat snake.  He safely relocated to a less occupied location.  Can you tell which species this is?
 
Joseph S.
Pennsylvania









In my kitchen tonight!


Jan K.




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 point of these posts.

-This is not a pop quiz, any kind of research is encouraged and I hope you will engage with other commenters to try to figure these snakes out. I will eventually chime in with my thoughts.

-Assume 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. Don't hate, educate.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Readers Write In: Western Vipers to Identify?



Hello--


I live in southeast Texas, and often encounter snakes on my walks. Some I can identify, but many leave me wondering. If I may, I'd like to send you two pictures and ask for your help in identifying them. I am particularly taken with the one who has the smiley face on the back of his head. Thank you very much.

Cathy N.
Texas










Location: Aguirre Springs Rec Area, Organ Mountains, east of Las Cruces. About 5000' MSL.
September 9. Notice rattles intact. Length estimated at about 30"-34"

My guess is Black tailed. Surprised by the definite green cast to coloration which I have not seen before in various rattlesnakes in this area. However, lots of green vegetation at this time of year on the east slopes of the Organs (monsoon season, as they call it here)

Jim B.
New Mexico



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 point of these posts.

-This is not a pop quiz, any kind of research is encouraged and I hope you will engage with other commenters to try to figure these snakes out. I will eventually chime in with my thoughts.

-Assume 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. Don't hate, educate.