Monday, November 27, 2017

When Tortoises Attack ---Guest Post---

    As a graduate student at Florida Atlantic University, I study the insects that live within gopher tortoise burrows. One method I use to collect insects is by digging a hole near tortoise burrows that insects fall into, called a pitfall trap, and bait it with something lots of insects find irresistible: gopher tortoise dung. Not exactly glamorous work, but I am interested in how the tortoises and their burrows influence what kinds of invertebrate species can persist in the area i.e., their biodiversity. So why do I care? Some species of insects provide dung removal services in the burrows, potentially benefiting tortoises by reducing parasite loads. These animals may have critical value to the gopher tortoise, yet we know very little about them. So here I am, setting insect traps and digging through dung.

    On one of my first trips to our field site, Carolyn, a fellow graduate student, pointed, “Gertrude’s burrow is over there.” Carolyn was introducing me to gopher tortoise number 159; a large female she nicknamed Grumpy Gertrude. As we approached the burrow, I saw a head emerge from the tunnel. With heavy feet, Gertrude bounded towards us, rapidly bobbing her head, a clear sign of aggression. She approached my ankles as if she wanted to push me back. We were obviously not welcome here.

    When approached by humans, most tortoises will retreat into their burrows or simply ignore us. My study site has a very high density of tortoises, nearly 100 tortoises in 23 acres, and is located in a high traffic suburban greenway, so it is reasonable to assume that they are fairly used to people. Indeed, Dr. Jon Moore, who began researching this field site over 17 years ago, says aggressive behavior is rare, but there are a few individual tortoises with a bad attitude, like Gertrude.

    I went into the field one evening to check my traps, and as I sat digging through dung, a tortoise came out of its burrow with the same aggressive stride as Grumpy Gertrude. “Gertrude?”, I questioned as I excitedly reached for my camera. I was excited because I hadn’t seen Gertrude in almost two months, around the time Hurricane Irma hit Florida. As the tortoise continued to approach me, I got a better look at the ID number on her shell. Number 43. This wasn’t Gertrude. Unexpectedly, she lunged at me, nearly ramming into my camera (check out the video below!)

    Head bobbing, ramming, and occasionally biting are common forms of communication used by gopher tortoises to signal aggression to predators as well as members of their own species. These aggressive behaviors are most often related to competition for resources, mating opportunities, and defense against predators. Based on my personal observations, it seems that Grumpy Gertrude and Number 43 are especially territorial, at least as compared to the majority of tortoises at my study site.

    Gopher tortoises have varying personalities and, as we observe more details of their daily lives, we are finding they even have social lives. These animals interact in complex social networks displaying a variety of different interactions. They form tightly-knit groups called cliques and may intentionally avoid nearby neighbors. On the other hand, some tortoises regularly travel relatively far distances to visit certain individuals that they prefer to spend time with. This may be particularly common for such a dense population like the one at our study site. You could make the case that it is a veritable gopher tortoise high school, and needless to say, Number 43 didn’t want me in her clique.

    These complex social behaviors have important implications for how we conserve gopher tortoises. One of the leading threats to gopher tortoise populations includes the reduction of suitable habitat as a result of human development. At times, animals are moved when their habitat is going to be developed, but successfully relocating tortoises is not as straightforward as just placing them in a new spot. If tortoises are simply released to a new site, they inevitably attempt to navigate their way to their original stomping grounds. As we’ve discussed here, tortoise social behavior can be surprisingly complex and raises lots of questions about what else can be learned about this important, sometimes grumpy, keystone species.

 About the Author

Amanda Cristina Hipps first began researching gopher tortoises during her undergraduate career at the University of North Florida. She is currently working on her M.S. in Biology at Florida Atlantic University, studying gopher tortoise ecology and conservation. Specifically, her thesis investigates burrow commensals in southeast Florida, primarily focusing on invertebrate animals, filling in the data gaps on their ecology and distribution.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Dozens of Snakes Rescued From Iowa Well -- Snake Hero Guest Post --

    A property owner reached out a couple weeks ago to find someone to help him with a problem. He is building on an old farmstead and when he opened the well pit he noticed a bunch of snakes inside. His problem was not with the snakes being there, rather that the well was about to be demolished and he didn't want them to get killed in the process. I got in contact with him to find out when the well was being filled in and if there was any way to delay it until spring. 

    Unfortunately, the demolition could not be delayed.

    Iowa's laws are a bit weird in places. As far as I know, there was nothing stopping the land owner from demolishing the well with all the snakes inside...
But, it would be illegal to remove them without permits. I contacted a few people with the Iowa DNR to find out what could be done. Normally, obtaining permits take some time and we did not have much to spare. Thankfully, it was decided that since my name is on Linn County Conservation permits I could be given permission to remove the snakes and keep them for the winter.

    I met the land owner on the property on the morning of November 9th. He told me a little about what was going on with the construction and then showed me to the well pit. 

    Three snakes were immediately visible.

    That didn't seem so bad. He had mentioned seeing more though, and I suspected some others were hiding in the nooks. Sure enough, they were.

    One was even down the small vertical pipe in the floor.

    This still wasn't too many and I was able to get them all out, even the one down in the floor. But... and there is always a but... when I was removing the ones from around a pipe, I saw another one up higher in a crevice, and it slipped away into the hollow part of the bricks. We found a heavy piece of metal and used it to break through the front of the brick and that is when things got interesting. There wasn't just one more snake up in the hollow, there were three more. Then I noticed even more up in the corners. So, I started breaking open more bricks.

    It seemed like every time I broke open a new brick I would find another group of snakes.

    It is a good thing the well was being demolished, and this wasn't just a case of a home owner wanting the snakes to be removed, because I feel like I got a good start on the demolition.

    Fortunately, most of the snakes were restricted to that wall. I did some checks on the other three sides, and did find a few snakes, but nowhere near as many.
    One of the snakes I found was a racer high up in the southern wall that looked to be in the process of crawling into the well through a hole that was drilled for a wire. I had broken into the brick below it, and reached up and felt it. Pretty much every other snake I had done that to would start to flee into another cavity. This racer didn't move though. I very carefully broke out the brick around him, I got a better view, and he seemed pretty stuck.

    I left it there for a little bit, while I dug out other snakes, hoping it would wiggle its way out, but it hadn't budged. When we felt we had found all the snakes we could out from the rest of the bricks, we talked about the options for the racer. Fortunately for the snake, it was in the top row of bricks, not far below the surface... but we didn't have a shovel. The land owner managed to find a flat piece of metal though and it was enough to dig out along the outside of the wall. I dug down to a little above where I thought the snake was, then used my fingers to dig further and eventually found it. I hoped he could possibly pull back out through the hole, but he was definitely stuck. I dug down to find the wire that was in the hole with it, and we were able to cut it, and pull it out. That gave the snake enough room to slip the rest of the way through.

    In the end, we ended up pulling out 38 Western Fox Snakes (Pantherophis vulpinus), and 11 Racers (Coluber constrictor). I have no doubt we missed a few in the walls, but there was some places I just couldn't safely break into. The snakes I was able to catch are currently being kept in a cold place in my house to keep them inactive for the winter. In the spring they will be released back on to the property where they came from.

About the Author

Don Becker is  a self-employed IT professional, that is fortunate to have free time to devote to activities he is passionate about (e.g., conservation, education). He is the Chief Technology Officer for the 501(c)(3) non-profit HerpMapper citizen science project, and volunteers with Linn County, Iowa Conservation Department doing educational programs, wildlife surveys, and habitat restoration.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Snake Identification Challenge of the Week: A Snake Rescue and Copper Moccasin Rattlesnakes...

Hi,  We have a snake I was hoping you could identify.  I am sure it’s a copper moccasin rattlesnake but my hubby says not.  But it does have a pretty face and I couldn’t find another picture like it. We live in Elmore County AL on the southeast rim of the Wetumpka Crater.  We live at the top of this hill and a creek runs about a quarter mile downhill from us and there are a few ponds in the overall area but we are pretty dry  here.  I am sure he crawled on my porch to munch a brood of baby lizards that have been living there for a few weeks. He is inhabiting the pine straw in the garden area at the moment.  Thanks in advance for your help.  

Linda U.


Could you please help me identify the snake in this picture? I am in the West Georgia area. The picture was taken at the end of September. Poor guy(?) got stuck in my garden fence running from the lawnmower. I cut him out safely. I like having unpaid rodent control.

Thank you,



My wife saw this snake in our backyard this weekend and now is scared to go out in our yard. Need your help identifying it so I can get her out of the house. We live in Birmingham, Alabama and have a fairly good sized lake in our neighborhood. Houses on both sides of us have young children, so neighbors are concerned too.

Greatly appreciate the help,

Ed 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.

Enjoy what you read and learn here? 

Monday, November 6, 2017

American Snakes Contest Winners Announcement!

Photo Courtesy Zack West


Contest trivia questions and answers:

Q = Name two snakes with the same name as the author of American Snakes

A = Regina grahamii, Salvadora grahamiae (common names accepted)

Q = Which invasive snake, covered in chapter 10 of American Snakes, is this a close up photograph of?

A = Burmese Python

Q = Despite John Muir’s assertion that Yellowstone National Park is above the “snake line”—too high in elevation to support snake populations—Yellowstone is home to one rattlesnake species, as discussed in Chapter 11 of American Snakes. Which is it?

A = Prairie Rattlesnake

Q = Which native U.S. snake, part of a diverse group of “truly American snakes” discussed in Chapter 1, is this a close up of?

A = Ribbonsnake (some winners even recognized the subspecies, congrats!)

Q = Mother rattlesnakes stay with their young for a week or more after they give birth. This and other fascinating aspects of snake reproduction are covered in chapter 5 of American Snakes. How many adorable baby rattlesnakes can you count in the photo?

A = 4


Andrew DuBois (real winner)

Robb Herrington (fake winner)

If you didn't win, don't worry, you can pre-order
American Snakes from Amazon here: American Snakes


Enjoy this excerpt from Chapter 4: 
A Year in the Life of a Snake.

    I saw a striped snake run into the water, and he lay on the bottom, apparently without inconvenience, as long as I stayed there, or more than a quarter of an hour; perhaps because he had not yet fairly come out of the torpid state. It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and more ethereal life.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

A Cottonmouth Year

    The seasons of a Georgia swamp can seem virtually nonexistent. If visited at any point from April to October, the untrained eye may discern no changes. The days are long and hot, and the entire active season seems to be one long summer—the genuine, buoyant spring and crisp autumn inexplicably missing. Compared to places farther north, seasonal changes take place at a leisurely pace, but upon closer inspection, and after achieving a more intimate familiarity, one realizes that anywhere you go on the planet—owing to its slight tilt toward the sun—there are always constant and sprinting upheavals, eruptions, and cycles. To get a feel for seasonal changes in Georgia, you have to practically get down on your hands and knees and crawl face-first through the rich muck, looking down into its swirling clay waters at least three or four times a week. Then you understand that the place does have seasons, and contained within that languid summer there are in fact the hurried activities of a thousand creatures contributing to the year’s changes. Cynics might instead categorize the seasons of Georgia solely in terms of its biting insects: winter is sand fly season, spring is mosquito season, changing to deer fly season, gnat season, and so forth. But instead I focus on the more abundant species that pack their activities into the long southern summertime, resulting in—for those with the patience to observe it—a net gain in seasonal activity.

    I got to know these seasons well when I disappeared into a Georgia swamp for nearly a decade studying its snakes. I anticipated the emergence of snakes with as much esteem as singing frogs, blooming wildflowers, and arriving birds. I occasionally returned to civilization for dinner and a movie, for classes and graduations, for birthday parties and work. But those years in my memory are now an amalgam of yellow-green summers catching cottonmouths.

Photo Courtesy Noah Fields
    For the cottonmouth, the new year begins in March, when the first days of spring are bright enough to sunburn you. Big purple clouds propped on narrow shafts of sunlight in February give way to white cumulous clouds aloft on warm air. Giant W- and V-shaped flocks of trumpeting sandhill cranes slowly drift north, their 5-foot wingspans little more than specks flying high among jumbo jets. Cottonmouths appear at the base of rock outcrops along the creeks, next to overhanging banks of roots, atop the hummocks topped by small trees and grasses, and circle old stump holes in the hardwood forests, never too far from water. On warm days they can be found this way, curled in a tight coil, gray and pitiful looking. 

    For a few weeks, dozens of cottonmouths can be found near their wintering sites basking before descending into the floodplains to begin hunting. In April, before a riot of yellow-green vegetation fills the landscape, equal numbers of cottonmouths can be found basking as those lying next to narrow waterways, with their heads and necks cocked and aimed, ready to ambush prey. They are hungry after their winter slumber.

    Then the trees leaf out, their hundreds of big trunks acting like a thousand straws sucking down the winter water table. The water sinks by at least 2 feet, and archipelagos, peninsulas, and a network of channels appear from the yellow water, forming a perfect maze of hunting edges for cottonmouths. For the next three months, the swamp is the setting for biological dramas rivaling those of the African savannah. Cottonmouths are a constant hazard for anything in the swamp smaller than a raccoon. Frogs, fish, birds, rodents, snakes, crawdads, and numerous other creatures live in perpetual anxiety that the next root they encounter may in fact be a cleverly disguised snake. Along the quagmire of cutoff channels, oxbows, sloughs, and beaver projects, dozens of cottonmouths are propped along the edge of the water, patiently waiting.

    The hot days pass slowly, and you’ll be tempted to think that time has arrested, that the year has stalled in a long, humid purgatory of summer. Red-eyed vireos sing a drawling, repetitive warble from the treetops. Acadian flycatchers call abruptly from the hot, green gloom under the canopy, as if cursing the heat. Cottonmouths soon pile atop driftwood and hummocks, basking half in the filtered dark green, half out in the dappled summer sun. Such snakes have a lump in their belly, and are basking to quickly digest their meal before returning to the hunt.

    Late summer—the breeding and birthing season—is the most mysterious and exciting time for observing cottonmouths. Half the females each year will give birth, and half are available for mating and will give birth the next year. The snakes seem to disappear. Many are likely under cover and up to sexual deeds. From July to September, you are equally likely to find a hunting cottonmouth as you are to suddenly stumble upon a quartet of plump, pregnant females basking atop an upturned umbrella of windthrown roots. Or you may turn the corner of a swamp channel and suddenly discover a female snake half out of her old skin—as if undressing—attended by a male lustfully nudging her back with his snout, passionately darting his tongue along her sweet, musky back.

    Late summer progresses to a brief autumn, when the oppressive summer humidity at last yields to a mercifully crisp, dry heat. Nights cool off, and one by one the annual vegetation finishes, producing fruit, some edible to man, some only edible to rodents and sparrows. Cottonmouths become scarce. Females give birth to a small litter of colorful, yellow-tipped babies on hummocks during the first week of September and stay with them—perhaps to defend them—until their first shed a week later. As the first frost threatens, the snakes make their way back to winter dens, often to the same stump hole or granite outcrop used the previous year. In November, the sandhill cranes pass again—their fluting cries whispering down from the heights—and the snakes have assumed the same temperature as their winter quarters, reducing their heart rate to perhaps one beat every few hours, just to keep the blood going.

    Winters are a short and rather exciting time in a Georgia swamp, and only a few days pass when no plant or animal activity occurs. All the knotweeds and sunflowers that stood head-high in the marshes during the summer now lay pushed down like a tangled mat, making a perfect home and providing food for swamp sparrows and orange-crowned warblers. The woods provide gleanings for small flocks of titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, and kinglets. Solo hermit thrushes and mobs of waxwings search for every last late-summer fruit. The sap never stops flowing down here, so sapsuckers hammer away at perfectly round sap wells all winter long. The cottonmouths stay in their holes and sleep.

    It’s difficult to develop a detailed impression of the annual cycle of snakes. You need a decent-sized population so that you can reliably encounter individuals almost every time you go out to look. For snakes this is difficult. Either the numbers are too low and dispersed, so that discerning annual patterns takes years of study, or the snakes are only available for a short time period, so a wider seasonal picture is elusive. For these reasons, we know little about the seasonal activity patterns of such snakes as long-nosed snakes, which are fairly common but widely dispersed across the western deserts. We even have an incomplete picture of the well-studied common gartersnake, since they are abundant near their hibernation dens during spring emergence, but then disperse widely into the surrounding habitats for the rest of the year. By comparing numbers of snakes encountered seasonally across decades, we can piece together general seasonal patterns for many species. Radiotelemetry studies have given us excellent insights into the seasonal activities of larger snakes. But for most species, especially some of the interesting small ones, we have only vague notions of their seasonal patterns. 

To see the rest of this chapter, 
I hope you will purchase American Snakes