Sunday, October 26, 2014

Goodbye, Summer. Hello, Autumn!


What an amazing summer! My research with reptiles and amphibians at Selu Conservancy has been one of the best experiences of my life. I most certainly have a deeper appreciation for the wildlife that surrounds us. I always used to think that in order to see interesting animals that I would need to go to the zoo. I was completely wrong. There are exquisite creatures well within reach. My goodness, are they ever wonderful!
Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus)

So I guess you could say that my favorite part of research is the animals I get to work with. The reptiles and amphibians are just one piece (ok, a large one) of what has been involved in my research. This summer was more than just coo-ing over adorable toads, frogs, salamanders, and snakes. I also learned a great deal of very useful skills, got to meet a lot of interesting new people, and met some challenges.

Yes, that's right. Challenges. As in all things in life, my plans for this summer didn't always turn out the way I wanted them to. I have a few funny stories (soon to come) and some insights I am forever grateful to have.

I definitely discovered that blogging in the middle of a summer of fieldwork and Organic Chemistry (that's right, O-chem over the summer!) is not easy. As you can tell, I fell behind on my blog posts.

That being said, I now have the opportunity to share my experiences after taking the time to reflect on them.

 Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans)

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Where for art thou?

I often get asked, "how do you find salamanders, snakes, and lizards?"

It is really quite complicated.

People listen intently to the secret of finding these elusive creatures as I reply, "you flip over rocks and logs."
Turning over logs and rocks sounds easy. However, reptiles and amphibians are exothermic. Exothermic means that they cannot regulate their body temperature internally. Their body temperature is relative to the environmental temperature. In the spring and summer you'll want to look under rocks and logs that protect reptiles and amphibians from the scorching sun. Even if you don’t find any creatures, you have to put the flipped object back into its original position. Otherwise you are disturbing the habitat. You can flip over hundreds of things and not find a single snake, lizard, or salamander. If you are searching for reptiles or amphibians, you are truly at the mercy of Mother Nature. Even experienced scientists searching for reptiles and amphibians can come up empty-handed.

Visual encounter surveys can also be conducted on a larger scale using large numbers of people. For instance the Virginia Herpetological Society hosts an annual herpetological survey each spring at a designated natural area in the commonwealth. The survey is planned months in advance and serves to inventory the species of reptiles and amphibians that are in a given area. This year's survey was held in James River State Park in Gladstone, Virginia.
The survey was conducted by partitioning an area into manageable sizes for small groups. Each group heads out to its designated area for a set amount of time and starts looking for reptiles and amphibians. This means turning over logs and rocks and observing the surroundings. Each species of reptile and/or amphibian encountered is recorded along with the number of individuals of each species found.

For the VHS annual survey, my group was in charge of surveying an area of 180 acres starting at 9am and ending at 3pm. At first, we didn't find much. We started off walking through an area dense with pine. As the day progressed we ended up surveying around a creek that was within our area. We found a green frog (Rana clamitans) and several types of salamanders including redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus), slimy salamanders (Plethodon gluttinosus), Northern dusky salamanders (Desmognathus fuscus), and Northern red salamanders (Pseudotriton ruber).

Further into the afternoon we happened upon several Eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina) including one baby about the size of a silver dollar. The baby box turtle was crossing a trail and one member of our team spotted him. We even found a tiny worm snake (Carphophis amoenus) under an old, rusty tin can next to an old cabin.

There are several lessons to this story:

1. These beautiful creatures can be found, but the weather and surrounding environment may play a huge part in whether you will find them.

2. Planned, large-scale surveys are simple to participate in, but take preparation and time and require many people.

What does this mean for you?

If you are interested in reptiles and/or amphibians and enjoy a lovely day walking through the woods, join the Virginia Herpetological Society and participate in their annual survey. Your participation contributes to county and state records. These records help to track species diversity and abundance, and may provide important information on animals that are threatened or endangered. For example, eastern box turtles, which are not currently listed as “endangered” nationally, are considered vulnerable (by IUCN), meaning that they have a high risk of becoming extinct in the wild. We encountered several box turtles on our survey which may mean that the population at James River State Park is relatively abundant and healthy. We want to keep it that way and create other safe and healthy habitats for box turtles to call home. You can help contribute to box turtle records by simply surveying your back yard. If you find a box turtle, you can report it on the Virginia Herpetological Society's website. Click here to go to see the form for reporting box turtles.


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Matti's Mystery Snake

In my previous post I revealed that DPunct has a specific origin. One species of snake that I will be marking this summer is the ring-necked snake whose scientific name is.......
Drum roll, please.........
Diadophis punctatus! And voilĂ ! The origin of DPunct!
Photo courtesy of the Virginia Herpetological Society
Why did I choose ring-necked snakes as the namesake of my blog? These little dudes are ADORABLE!
In southwest Virginia the specific sub-species is Diadophis punctatus edwardsii which is the northern ring-necked snake. These little guys are often a velvety black color with a light-colored ring around their necks. Their ventral scales (AKA their bellies) range from yellow to red. Their average length is only around 10-15 inches.
You can read all about them and other local species on the Virginia Herpetological Society's webpage.
Clearly evolution wants to keep these little dudes around! Evolution put a ring on it..........

Please excuse the corny joke. I couldn't resist.
Want to learn more about the Virginia Herpetological Society? Check out next week's post!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Radford University’s Best Kept Secret

Only fifteen minutes from Radford University’s campus is one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
I might be a little biased, but Selu Conservancy is seriously gorgeous.

Selu Conservancy is just seven miles from Radford’s campus. The 380 acres of conservancy contains a boathouse equipped with canoes, a variety of woodland trails, a ropes course, a retreat center, an observatory, and countless other delights.

However, none of Selu’s treasures compare to the opportunities it provides for Radford students. Take me for example. I’m just a biology major with an affection for reptiles. How did I find myself at Selu with a summer of research ahead of me? I had a handful of faculty (specifically my advisor and a certain chemistry professor) that nudged me toward research. I kept hearing “hey, do you like snakes?” and “there’s this professor looking for research students.” It didn’t take many nudges to get me to the door of Dr. Matt Close, RU’s resident herpetologist (a herpetologist is someone who studies reptiles and amphibians). I have a hands-on learning style and his research appealed to me for that reason.

Dr. Close’s research is mainly centered on snake functional morphology. Morphology is the study of the form and structure of an organism, and let’s be honest, snake morphology is fascinating. What do you think it would be like to have no limbs and an extremely (and I mean EXTREMELY) mobile lower jaw? And those are only two examples of super cool snake morphology.

 Several grant proposals later and a semester of academic papers and species identification behind me, I now find myself preparing for a summer of field work.
See! That's me holding a baby box turtle!
As of right now, the majority of my time is spent building traps. And what am I trapping? Snakes, lizards, frogs, salamanders, and any other reptile or amphibian that makes its way through the sink holes of Selu. But specifically, my research focuses on marking two species of snakes. By marking them and recording how many I recapture I’ll be able to estimate the size of the population of these two species. To make this even cooler, one of the species I’ll be marking is the namesake of my blog, D. Punct.

So, which snake do you think I named my blog after?

A.     Hog-nose snake

B.     Ring neck snake

C.     Worm snake

D.     Copperhead snake
Stay tuned for the answer in my next post and feel free to leave a comment if you have a guess!