Saturday, November 28, 2015

Readers Write In: Little Brown Snakes to Identify




Dr. Steen:


We live in Bethesda, MD - very close to C&O canal and the Potomac River. Neighborhood has lots of kids, dogs, other pets, etc. Lots of black snakes too, but this was something different. Picked it up and moved it out of the road - but curious to know if it were something about which we should be concerned. Grateful for any thoughts. Thanks.

Adam C.
Maryland





Hello
,

I saw this snake on a walk in Goderich, Ontario, Canada. Any idea what it is?

Thanks for your help.

Cathy S.
Ontario




Good Morning-

I have a snake and I am not sure what it is and was hoping if I emailed you the picture you could help.

Amy B.



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.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Readers Write In: Snake ID from Maryland to Texas



I took a picture of a snake near my home in MD today but can't identify it.  It may be a common garter snake, but I'm unsure.  Is it possible if you can suggest what type of snake it is?  Thanks!

Mark Z.
Maryland








It looks long in pic but is only about 12" long i had just saved it from my pool skimmer.

Jon
Arkansas









Hello again--

    I thought this picture from early last spring (in SE Texas) was a blotched water snake because they are reputed to have nasty dispositions, but I am tempted to reconsider after noticing the nostril-ish pit on the face. Am I right? Thanks again for your help.


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, November 11, 2015

So You Say You Want to Help Hellbender Salamanders? Here's Your Chance ---Guest Post---

   
  I will never forget the first time I touched a Hellbender. I had just started a new field position with Cathy Jachowski at Virginia Tech, and I was out on my first day with the crew. We got in the water, and before I could understand what was going on, someone pulled this enormous, thick, dark, shiny, cucumber-shaped animal from the water. There it was! A Hellbender! Smooth, spotted skin with many folds, two bubble-like eyes that seemed to explore the surface world, and four legs with human-like toes. I had never seen anything like that before. “I can’t believe that is a salamander” I said out loud. From that moment on, I was hooked. At Tennessee State University I conduct research on the distribution of Hellbenders and am evaluating potential causes of Hellbender population declines in Tennessee.

    Hellbenders are the only giant salamander species in North America, reaching up to two feet (about 65cm). Their flattened body shape permits them to live under large rocks and move swiftly around the stream bottom without being noticed. They are completely aquatic and rarely visit dry land. They live exclusively in clean streams and rivers with cool, well-oxygenated, fast-flowing water. Contrary to common misconceptions, Hellbenders are harmless, and feed mainly on crayfish, posing no threat to game fish species. 

    Hellbenders were at one time abundant from southern New York and south to north Alabama and Georgia, and northeast Mississippi. However, in the past 20 years Hellbenders have experienced drastic population declines throughout most of their range. So far we have not yet identified the exact causes behind these declines, but we know that landscape degradation, siltation, pollution, and emerging diseases are all contributing factors. Hellbenders are the “canary of the coal mine” for our streams and rivers, and their decline serves as a warning that we are significantly degrading our streams and rivers.

    These incredible animals need our help. They have been around for millions of years, and now they are disappearing at alarming rates. The presence of these animals indicates a healthy ecosystem and great water quality which benefits both people and wildlife. Who will ensure that future generations can live alongside these gentle giants? I will. You will. We will. Hellbenders are simply trying to make it to the next day – just like the rest of us.

    One of the potential options for conserving Hellbenders is the construction and installation of artificial habitat structures. These “nest boxes” have been shown to improve habitat conditions for Hellbenders, even to the point where Hellbenders will live in the “nest boxes” for many consecutive years, and use it to deposit eggs and guard the hatchling Hellbenders until they leave the nest. These “nest boxes” (although a temporary solution) provide one potential conservation strategy to give Hellbenders a little more time until we better understand the causes behind their  declines. This is where you can help!

    I invite you to take a look at my Crowdfunding page where I explain a little more what I am doing and different aspects of my project. Thank you in advance for any support you can provide!

    Please feel free to contact me with any questions regarding the project or Hellbenders in general!


Jeronimo is a graduate student in the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at Tennessee State University under the supervision of Dr. William Sutton. For more information about Hellbenders or wildlife research at TSU contact him by e-mail or visit the TSU Wildlife Ecology Lab page.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Readers Write In: A 4-part Challenge to Flex Your Identification Skills

Dr. Steen,

I thought your readers might like to flex their identification muscles on some small species that I don't see show up too often in your ID challenges.  Attached are pictures of 4 different snakes, all of which were found in Kansas (specifically, and respectively, Russell, Chase, Lyon, and Miami counties).  Numbers 1 & 2 were found on rocky prairie hillsides, #3 was crossing a road between two fields, and #4 was under a piece of bark in a forest clearing.  Feel free to use any or all of them.

Love the blog!

Best,

Andrew C.






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, November 6, 2015

Counting Toes at Pond Creek



I moved to Auburn in January 2007 and my first night on campus I was up until about 1 A.M. in the herpetological collections. I looked fondly at all the specimens, staring with awe at the hundreds of jars. Bob Mount’s The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama (arguably the best state herpetology book in existence) contains excellent locality maps for each Alabama species, and almost every dot on those maps represents the collection locality of a specimen housed in this museum. I admired specimens of Red Hills Salamanders, Georgia Blind Salamanders, One-toed Amphiumas, and Southern Dusky Salamanders.

I had already examined Southern Dusky Salamanders at the Georgia Museum of Natural History, after I’d gone looking throughout southern Georgia for sites that still contained this species. I was not very successful. After checking dozens of sites, searching for hundreds of hours, and getting thoroughly tangled in the most dank, brier-infested swamps that South Georgia has to offer, I found only five Southern Duskies. The Southern Dusky Salamander truly appears to be in trouble. 

 Southern Dusky Salamander (top) collected in
Conecuh National Forest in 1967. It is much darker
and skinnier than its more common relative,
the Spotted Dusky Salamander (bottom).
Now I was looking at specimens that had been collected in Alabama, which were far fewer in number than those known from Georgia, and writing down the collection sites. I would try my luck here. I had mentioned this to Mark Bailey a couple of weeks earlier at a conference, and told him that one of the sites was within Conecuh National Forest. He said he had a trailer down there I could crash in while I was looking. He gave me his number.

            Next weekend I found myself driving all over the Conecuh trying to find the site. It was one of those glorious March days where it’s partially sunny but the sky is peopled by purple-blue clouds—so it’s warm but still cool. Jessamine was in bloom and twining up the swamp trees. It immediately became clear that the collection locality for Southern Duskies in the Conecuh had not been cataloged correctly. The information said the site was at the Hogfoot Creek Bridge over County Rd 24, but Hogfoot Creek never intersects that road. That left two possibilities: either the Pond Creek or the Five Runs Creek crossing of County Rd 24. I checked both. The bridge at Five Runs Creek doesn’t appear to have suitable habitat, but if you go upstream a ways there are some nice blackwater sloughs near the creek with cypresses and thick, black, mucky accumulations of leaf litter and coarse woody debris—the perfect haunt for Southern Dusky Salamanders. I’m reasonably sure this is where the species was collected in the past. I’ve been through there more than five times digging everywhere and have never found any duskies. If this was the collection locality for the two Conecuh National Forest specimens, they are almost certainly no longer present.

            The bridge over Pond Creek has a nice seepage area near it, with thick accumulations of sphagnum moss, gurgling peaty muck, and whitewater trickles with carnivorous butterworts. I dug through this stuff crawling along on my hands and knees and started finding salamanders immediately. I found Dusky Salamanders, which were merely the seepage-loving Spotted Dusky Salamander, and not the much rarer Southern Dusky. I found Two-Lined and Three-lined Salamanders, Red Salamanders, and a Lesser Siren. I then spotted a nice medium-sized log laying in the muck, perfectly perpendicular to a small, clear rivulet. It looked like a good log.

Underneath, I exposed a black, foot-long, finger-thick torsional being and quickly reached for it. It deftly wriggled away, diving into the dark murk. I scooped with my hands, lifting it back out of the muddy water in time for a second opportunity. I cradled it with both hands, juggling it as it noodled between my fingers. Amphiumas can crawl backward, sideways, and forward with equal dexterity—obviously an advantage for living in a soupy medium—and for this reason they’re exceedingly challenging to bring home. I juggled it a few more seconds, simultaneously dug into my field bag, retrieved a ziplock, and finally got it secured. I examined the critter up close, scrutinizing the toes. In one of the more humorous etymological scenarios imaginable, Amphiumas are identified by the number of toes they have.

Amphiumas are elongate, eel-like salamanders with two pairs of ridiculously tiny limbs, and the species with the most digits has only twelve, total. Just to review, most humans have twenty. Many elongate creatures have reduced limbs and toes, and some poor elongate vertebrates have no toes at all. Snakes and glass lizards are Conecuh’s completely legless and toe-less vertebrates. There are three Amphiuma species, each with fewer and fewer toes. The Three-toed Amphiuma has three toes on each tiny limb, giving it twelve toes. They’re found in western Alabama and tributaries of the Alabama River as far east as Tuskegee National Forest. The Two-toed Amphiuma has two toes on each limb, giving it a grand total of only eight little toes. It is found throughout the southern part of Alabama. And, yes, there is a One-toed Amphiuma, which has four total toes. It is the rarest Amphiuma of all, and is only found in a few scattered localities along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Mississippi. At the time of this particular visit to CNF, a One-toed Amphiuma could have counted the total known Alabama localities for its species on both hands: it had been collected once each in Mobile and Baldwin Counties.

I counted my Amphiuma’s toes. I counted them again. I stepped out into the sunlight, looking carefully, and counted again. Four toes. Now, don’t get me wrong, it didn’t have four toes on each leg, which actually would have been a more startling discovery, because it would have likely meant that I had found a totally new Amphiuma species. No, so far as I could tell, this specimen was a One-toed Amphiuma.  

            I had never seen the species in my life. I checked again. There the Amphiuma slithered, and each time its little foot pressed up against the ziplock bag, I could see only one toe. And hilariously, I could see the single toe bend against the bag. It wasn’t just a teeny peg leg without a foot, or a tiny leg with a teeny-weeny pegged foot without any toes, it was exactly as advertised: the pathetic leg had the requisite three joints but just one toe. Its face was conical with tiny eyes, another key feature common to Amphiuma pholeter, but not the larger Amphiumas, which have more flattened faces.  I started getting excited. I was all alone out in the mucky swamp, with nobody to share my excitement with. I called Mark.

            “Hello?”
            “Mark. Sean Graham. I’m down here in the Conecuh.”
            “Oh, hey Sean.”
            “Hey, do you guys have pholeter here?”
            “Harhglhll.”
The cell signal faded and died.
            He called back. “What’s that you said?”
            “Hey, you guys don’t have pholeter here, do you?”           
            “No, I looked around for them in Conecuh back in the 80s when the Bog Frog was discovered in Florida—looking for Bog Frogs and pholeter—but we never found them.”
            “Well, I think I’ve got one.”

            From there the conversation descended into the nerdy hoots and hollers that usually accompany herpetological discovery, and we excitedly discussed the find in nauseating detail and with pretentious headiness. It turned out that Mark was a heartbeat away from submitting the final report of a three year herpetofaunal inventory to the Forest Service, and, gambling, he held off until he could see the specimen. He drove to meet me at the Pond Creek Bridge and looked over the specimen for several minutes and never once counted any more than four toes. I later showed the specimen to Craig Guyer, who similarly counted and quadruple counted those toes, going as far as to look at the toes under a dissection microscope. He verified it as a One-toed Amphiuma, the first ever for Covington County, Alabama, and only the third encountered in the state, ever. Mark added this discovery to his final report in the nick of time.

I found out much later that my discovery of this species in the Conecuh filled Mark with good-natured, competitive resentment—the way a crow flies, the seepage site is barely a mile from his house.


The site where I discovered One-toed Amphiumas within Conecuh National Forest is special. We have found nearly ten salamander species in four families there, and so perhaps more salamanders occur in this small muck hole than almost any other place of comparable size in the whole state. Sadly, I never did find a Southern Dusky Salamander in Alabama. I ended up finding another One-toed Amphiuma at the seepage site near Pond Creek—which Mark and I now affectionately refer to as “Pholeter Springs.” The implication being that the Southern Dusky Salamander—which before 1970 was frequently collected in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama—is now a rarer species than one that has been found in Alabama only as many times as it has toes.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Poise and Dignity ---Guest Post---


By Craig Guyer

One of the best adjectives for an amphibian or reptile is Bob Mount’s description that Eastern Diamondbacked Rattlesnakes interact with humans by showing “poise and dignity” (Mount, 1975). This description is a far better fit than the lore that has grown around this species, which describes it as being aggressive and willing to attack humans. The venoms produced by these snakes are quite potent and, if the lore were correct, there would be many more deaths attributed to them since they remain widely distributed and are commonly observed.

The description above represents the view that scientists have come to believe to be true of all rattlesnakes. But, there is something about these animals that causes an immediate visceral reaction in anyone discovering them. Invariably the discoverer is quite close to the snake when it is discovered and the discoverer’s brain is most likely to trigger the flight response – as in jump, run, or shoot to kill. My most vivid experience with Eastern Diamondbacked Rattlesnakes involved discovering one while I was censusing Gopher Tortoise burrows. For a 10-year period I made repeated censuses of about 300 tortoises distributed across the Conecuh National Forest. Typically, I would census once in the spring and once in the fall of each year and I used these data to try and understand how long tortoise burrows last as physical structures and how frequently they are abandoned by Gopher Tortoises. Of course, these burrows are a vital resource for a wide variety of other animals, including serving as an overwintering refuge for Eastern Diamonbacked Rattlesnakes. All of my tortoise burrows were marked with numbered metal tags and each census involved a tedious practice of kneeling down in from of each burrow to try to find a tag that was likely buried by vegetation growth or covered by shifting sands. Once the number was discovered, I would then stand and record that number and the status of the burrow. Because of the tedium, speed frequently became more important to me than safety. Fortunately for me, during this entire time period I only detected two rattlesnakes, one during the fall as I walked from one burrow to another, and the other during spring, when I noticed one coiled right next to my metal tag.

Trips to the Conecuh National Forest have been an
Auburn Herpetology tradition for decades.
 I had already knelt down, swiped my hand across the burrow entrance to discover the tag, and stood up to begin recording the data, when I detected the snake. The color pattern of these animals is a remarkable match to the light ground color of sandy soil, the tans of pine straw, and the dark patches of shadows. The snake had clearly detected me because it was flicking its tongue in my direction. But, it did not rattle nor had it moved when I first saw it.  My first reaction was to jump away, but I managed to quash that urge and decided that, since the species was supposed to interact with “poise and dignity”, I could finish recording my notes and slowly move away. I am confident that I was standing outside the strike range of the snake when I first saw it, so I was not too worried until the snake started to crawl. At that moment I decided that a “poised and dignified” snake would simply slip down the tortoise burrow and both of us would feel more comfortable. The animal instead began to crawl past the burrow entrance straight toward my position on the apron of the burrow. The science side of my brain said this was nothing to worry about because the animal would soon do the right thing and go down its refuge. But, the snake continued toward me until its body was past the entrance and well with the range of being able to strike at and bite me. At the very moment that I was about to end my experiment and jump away, the animal gave a very brief and soft rattle, backed down the burrow, and was never seen again.


I suppose the moral of the story is that science prevailed. This snake had every opportunity to bite me and did not. Mostly this was when I was blindly searching for the metal tag. But, this was also true when I chose to determine how the snake would react to my simply standing more-or-less motionless. There was a period of time when it appeared as though the snake might be attacking me, but this turned out to be the snake’s method of making sure that it could keep close tabs on me until it knew that it was safe from me. I think poise and dignity are fine adjectives for this animal’s behavior. I accept that my behavior might best be described as stupid.