Tuesday, April 7, 2009

BioBlitz Spring 2008

The following column was written in April of 2008 and relates last year's spring Bioblitz. The 2009 Bioblitz occurred over the past two weeks and I will relate it to you this month.

A few weeks ago I spent my weekend sleeping outside in 40 degree weather near the Fall Line Sandhills Natural Area in western Georgia. When I awoke, although I loathed the prospect of emerging from my not quite toasty sleeping bag, I promptly immersed myself in a frigid, cottonmouth infested swamp, wary and always on the lookout for giant alligator snapping turtles and the cryptic, aforementioned vipers. Why subject myself to this treatment, on my spring break no less? Because Auburn pride was at stake.

A Cottonmouth captured in Schley Co. Georgia
I was participating in a herpetological bioblitz in western Georgia. A bioblitz is an event where a group of people select a pre-determined area and attempt to document all of the species they can find. For our bioblitz, my Auburn University colleagues and I were interested in only two groups of animals, amphibians and reptiles. These two groups, although distinct, are often clumped together because you can find them in similar habitats, namely mucky, weedy, and muddy spots. This is bad news for anyone that wants to find them and return home without smelling of dead fish and covered in wet mud. Does this sound romantic enough for you to want to help out next time? Well, it can actually be a lot of fun and serves a scientific purpose as well.

It turns out that many amphibians and reptiles are poorly known and infrequently studied; biologists often lack the most basic information for many species. It’s not unusual for even experts to have to guess where a particular species can be found. Sean Graham, coordinator of the bioblitz and fellow Ph.D. student at Auburn, notes that these events are, “an invaluable means of surveying little known areas which lack recorded observations of even the most common species.” In previous bioblitzes, snapping turtles, green anoles, cottonmouths, and black racers, all abundant species, have been recorded in counties where they had never before been documented. These are all common species and you’ve probably seen them before. That they haven’t been documented previously in a particular county is a reflection of the limited information we have about these animals.
Sean Graham confirms the identity of a Green Anole

However, our interest in documenting as many species as we could in a limited time frame wasn’t purely academic, this was a competition. To date, there have been three bioblitz competitions and a rivalry has emerged between Auburn University and the University of Georgia. Although other groups have sporadically participated in past blitzes, these two SEC schools represent the majority of participants. The rules of our herpetological bioblitz competition award points for every species observed, extra points are awarded for species never before documented in a county and for certain priority species, which tend to change depending on which area is being surveyed.

I am proud to state that coming into this year’s bioblitz, Auburn was undefeated, soundly trouncing UGA in the past. However, it was clear that the Bulldogs had tired of this trend and intended to put us to shame at this year’s event. The night before the official start day of the Blitz, the five of us that were representing Auburn University sat around our campfire and watched as vehicle after vehicle pulled into our campsite and the UGA students started piling out. The formidable University of Georgia Herpetological Society had arrived. There were over 15 people, representing undergraduates, graduate students and even one of their professors. The small Auburn contingent exchanged nervous glances as we re-examined our topographical maps, selected species that we would target for capture, and formulated a general plan of attack for the next morning.

My assignment was little-known Schley county; I was to attempt trapping turtles, catching water snakes and sifting through mud and leaves for salamanders. With the help of some Auburn teammates that participated for the day, we quickly documented green anoles, cottonmouths, loggerhead musk turtles, fence lizards and southeastern crowned snakes, all of which had never before been documented in the county. We also captured box turtles, skinks, slimy, three-lined and dusky salamanders and heard gray tree frogs calling. One of the highlights of the day included capturing river frog tadpoles. When adults, these frogs are about average-size for a frog, but their tadpoles are giants, nearly six inches long. They are so large I mistook them for catfish when I first sighted them resting on the bottom of a slow moving stream.
River Frog tadpole
We spent our time targeting areas where creeks intersected with the road, these tend to be relatively accessible spots where we can quickly jump out of the car and examine the most promising spots. It was a successful day, and when I arrived back at the campsite that night after about 12 hours of mucking around the county’s swamps, I was eager to hear how my teammates had fared. And so the weekend went, we knew that we were documenting many different species but we could feel UGA breathing down our necks. They seemed confident and we overhead them around the fire as they were discussing their plans for what they would do with this year’s trophy.

Invigorated by the competition, we finished the weekend with a flourish. As we tallied up our points, we admired the highlights of the past few days. DJ McMoran and Matt Connell had found a greater siren, a completely aquatic salamander that was over a foot long. They had captured it in a net as it lay in a pile of leaves at the bottom of a creek bed. Over the course of the weekend, we had found Chamberlain’s dwarf salamanders, musk turtles, broad-headed skinks, gopher frogs, chicken turtles and many others. We were particularly excited about finding the gopher frog; this is a state-listed, protected species that hadn’t been documented where we found it since the 1970’s and it’s exactly the kind of sighting that our bioblitz competition was designed for. We met the UGA representatives at the pre-ordained time and place and compared our species lists and scores. We held our breaths as UGA revealed their points. Auburn University had won again! It was close though, and UGA had documented a number of species we hadn’t been able to find, such as the alligator snapping turtle and northern water snake. Overall, both teams documented an astounding 40 new amphibian and reptile county records, making the event a great success and furthering our understanding of these little-known species.

The 2008 Champions

Loggerhead Musk Turtle


Tucker L said...

Sounds like a fun event. Although I am focused mainly on birds, I am interested in reptiles and amphibians as well and would like to learn more about them. Are there any books on them that you would suggest I use to help me learn about and identify these interesting creatures?

David Steen said...

Tucker, thanks for your comment. I have found the best book for identifying amphibians and reptiles is the Peterson's Field Guide. There is one for eastern/central US by Conant and Collins and one for western US by Stebbins.

For natural history information, I recommend Turtles of the U.S. and Canada by Ernst and others (a new edition will be out shortly). Salamanders of the U.S. by Petranka, Natural History of Watersnakes by Dorcas and Gibbons, and Snakes of the U.S. and Canada by Ernst and others.

Hope this helps.


Frank Baron said...

Belated congrats and here's hoping you do/did well again this year.

David Steen said...

Frank, thanks for the congratulations. Let's just say that the dynasty remains intact. I'll be working on putting together the story soon.