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.