Saturday, April 2, 2011

Snowmanders

Conditions in the Champlain Valley have been ripe for a migration for some time but we simply haven't had the rain. Tonight we were supposed to get a foot of snow but at the last minute the storm pushed east and it spattered slush all day with no accumulation. It started to snow for real as soon as it got dark but the roads were wet so I decided to go out. The site I went to is notorious for having extremely large numbers of Ambystoma laterale. The best night was on March 28, 2005. That night we found 1,467 Blue-spotted Salamanders crossing about 200 yards of road over the course of several hours. Tonight the temperature was 1C, the hillside was 50% covered in snow that had not melted from the winter, and a dusting of new snow was beginning to accumulate so my expectations were extremely low. Along with Jim Andrews, I was pleasantly surprised though to find around a hundred laterale marching across the road as well as a wood frog and a spotted salamander.

This was the first salamander of the night and I assumed it would be one of only a handful
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The next one was found walking across the margin of the road where snow was beginning to accumulate
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It's amazing to me that these salamanders can function at such low temperatures. Their only requirements are that they remain moist and that they not be frozen.
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Most of the salamanders at this site appear to be hybrids trending toward laterale. I think most of them are probably LLLJ or LLJ karyotypes.
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Group photo
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Four posing for a photo
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Some more snow walkers
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The lone maculatum of the night
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It had sort of a double tail. This usually happens in response to a partial break in the tail; a second tail or nub grows out of the wound instead of healing normally on occasion.
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A hybrid jefferson/blue-spotted female (large and pale) next to a smaller pure-looking male. Almost all males are a pure species and while hybrid males do pop up on rare occasions, none have been confirmed in Vermont
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This girl had just made it across the road and was on her way to the swamp
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This one had just made it up the snow bank on the downhill side of the road and was peering off, as if deciding whether or not to jump
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And lastly, a juvenile. Juveniles are not migrating to breed but in cases where foraging and overwintering needs cannot be met at the same place you can often find all age classes migrating at the very start of spring.
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It looks like conditions may be better some time next week. With any luck we'll have another 1000+ night though that has only ever happened twice.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Snow Herping

So up here in Vermont the amphibian migration has not yet taken place. The temperatures and snow cover were about right for a week but it never rained and then got cold again. Now there is a foot of snow forecasted for tonight.

Yesterday it got up to 45 degrees and I met up with a couple friends to do some snow herping.

There is an island way out in the middle of a swamp that I checked out a few years ago because it looked like a good spot for a mass gartersnake emergence. It is a small island with a mile of swamp and flood plane in every direction and, while the swamp is great foraging habitat for gartersnakes, the island is the only place where the snakes can get below the frost line but remain above the water table. For the past three years, including yesterday, I have documented the first reptiles of the year in VT there.

We departed at noon and kayaked through a flooded field along a river for about a mile.
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Before too long the ice closed us into an increasingly narrow channel.

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I have to say, barreling through ice on a kayak is super fun

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After traveling as far as we could north in the channel we had to get as far as possible west toward the island through the swamp. The theory was that as soon as we could not continue on kayaks the ice would be thick enough to mostly support our weight.

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And we docked. Lots of post holing into wet muck to look forward to, that much was promised.

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It's always handy to take a paddle with you to test water depth wherever the ice was thin or melted. There was no concern about going over our heads but there were plenty of chances to at least flood our mud boots.

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Such as here

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The edge of the island had a bunch of these cool nematodes crawling around through the sphagnum. They are some sort of horsehair worm which parasitize insects such as grasshoppers. When the worm is mature it messes with the insect's brain and causes it to commit suicide by drowning at which point the adult worm bores its way back out of the insect and swims off. Cool!

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Once on the island I brought the gang to my "special" rock. Last year on March 5 it had 16 Hemidactylium under it. This year it only had 6.

As flipped:

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Cleaned off a bit.

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Other people brought cameras too

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One of my friends found the first snake of the year basking on some raised ground surrounded by snow.

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Our first mammal of the trip

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In-situ gartersnake that was just chillin' out on some snow. He is named "stumpy"

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Out of the 15 snakes we only caught 1 of them, all of the others were left in-situ

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Most of the snakes were more curious than scared. While taking photos some of them crawled toward us. Their breeding drive seems to be very high this time of year. It's almost as if anything that moves is a potential mate until proven otherwise.

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This one was pretty feisty though and struck my camera.

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The first snake was seen a little later up against a tree with some snow stuck to its body. The rostrum is a little scuffed up which is how the snake was recognized as the same.

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We never did find any other salamanders. In the past there have also been laterale and Storeria dekayi at that site and it is the only place I have ever seen Brownsnakes breeding. Maybe in a week or so they will be back out. Pleased though, we headed back into the snowy swamp.

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The water level had dropped by half an inch while we were out there which made backtracking through the ice a bit more challenging than anticipated.

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We then mozied our way back through the flooded field and watched a beaver swim around along the way.

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And some token birding

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I'll be heading back out as soon as this next round of snow melts. Most likely the Ambystoma will have surfaced and, with any luck, Storeria as well. We got there well in advance of the main gartersnake event but I suspect that shortly after the ground is exposed again and we have a couple sunny days there should be breeding balls. I can hardly wait!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Eek! A snake!

A few days ago I was interviewed by a local high school student who is doing a senior exit project on herpetology (you go girl!). One of the questions she asked me was "what sparked your interest in herpetology?" While I can't remember a time I didn't love salamanders and frogs the moment that jumps out at my most is of my first snake.

I don't remember exactly how old I was but might have been in kindergarten at the time. I was out with the neighbor's kids, who were a few years older than me, exploring the cow pasture behind our house when we found a snake. My neighbors told me to back off because their mom hated snakes and said they were dangerous. They then proceded to beat the snake to death with sticks until it was so worked into the ground it was barely visible. I told them to stop but they didn't listen. A few hours later I went back to check it out and when I pulled it out of the ground saw that there were things moving around inside its open stomach. Alarmed, I dropped the snake and two tiny babies crawled out onto the grass. I took them home and tried to save them, (my mom made me keep them outside), but they died within hours.

It didn't make sense to me that this animal, which seemed helpless, could have been dangerous or threatening in any way. I later learned it was a harmless Gartersnake and got into the habit of taking all the snakes from our neighbor's side of my yard and moving them to the far end of the cow pasture where they could not be killed. This habit soon flourished into a diversified interest in all reptiles and amphibians that would later come to define who I am today.



A lot of people have fears of snakes and, unfortunately, very often these fears result in snakes being killed. The snakes usually aren't killed because they are a threat, they are killed because they are there. Yes, some snakes can be harmful to humans if bitten (in the US those are vipers and coralsnakes), but even they will not bite unless provoked. Venom is a last line of defense for these animals and is only used in defense if a snake is in fear for its life. Most people bitten by these snakes were messing with them, either trying capture or one-- we recently had our first rattlesnake bite in over 50 years in Vermont and guess what, the guy had tried to pick it up. If people would simply leave the snakes alone most bites could be avoided.

So why are people so afraid of snakes? Infants and toddlers are not usually affraid of snakes but older kids and adults often are. I've spoken to many people who have said they were fine with snakes when they were young but are uncomfortable around them now. I believe that we have a genetic predisposition to easily learn a fear of snakes at a young age. While experimenting on kids is usually frowned upon, we share a lot of our genes with chimpanzees and, as chance would have it, there was a study on chimps that supports this idea.

Back in the 80's Susan Mineka observed that wild chimps are afraid of snakes but captive-born chimps are not. She put young chimps in a room with a rubber snake and had the chimps reach over the snake to retrieve food; they willingly did so. She then showed the chimps a video of a wild chimp reacting with fear to the presense of a snake and found that after exposure to this video, most of her captive chimps were afraid to reach over the rubber snake to retrieve the same food; some even cowered in the corner of their enclosures. She then took the video, transposed the image of a flower over the snake, and played it to the chimps. When required to reach over the same type of flower to retrieve food, all of them did so without paying any attention to the flower. This study provided very strong evidence that chimps learn a fear of snakes more easily than of other things.

Assuming that we have enough in common with chimps to believe that something similar might be going on in humans, it is not such a far stretch to think that with enough positive experiences around snakes, most people can unlearn their fears of these animals. Even if some people never become comfortable with snakes it would at least be nice to get them to a point where they can refrain themselves from killing snakes in the future. Where humans originated, Africa, snake bites killed people, and fear of snakes was a benefitial trait, but it will not help us nearly as much here.

In Vermont, I have TAd a field herpetology class for the past few years and in most years there is at least one person who is afraid of snakes. In most cases, when we catch a snake in the class and show it around these people start off keeping a distance but after seeing other students handling them regularly the next step is to get a little closer and look, but not touch. Before long most folk want to just touch the snakes with 1 finger, with someone else holding the head away. From that moment on it's not very long before people want to hold a snake. I've seen it countless times. The young woman below is a perfect example:


Ok, that's a very small snake, but it wasn't long before she upgraded.

This guy was so proud of holding his first snake that he had me take this picture so he could send it to his mom that night.



The woman below is one of my good friends and was a housemate of mine for a while. She spent weeks getting to know my captive-bred kingsnake, Theo, and was catching snakes in the wild soon after:


Even coming across a venomous species, if you can get to know and understand their habits and needs, can be a very rewarding experience. A good friend of mine was pretty uneasy around the idea of herping in copperhead habitat until we found one and she had a chance to observe it up close. It was so calm and non-threatening that she's now interested in finding and looking at copperheads on her own.


I spent a summer working on a veggie farm a number of years back and a high school girl working part time freaked out when a gartersnake came out of a tomato patch toward her. She said she hated snakes and had always been terrified of them. I caught it and within 5 minutes of talking about the animal to her she wanted to touch it as long as I would hold the head. Two days later I caught another and asked if she wanted to hold it on her own. "Are you serious?" she asked, in complete shock. I said yes, she paused for a moment, and then decided she was ready. A week later she caught one on her own. She traded sides pretty quickly, but I've seen the entire process wrap up in 10 minutes before. It can take years though, and some people never get there.

There was a guy in the field herp class a couple years back who I was pretty proud of. He is a friend of mine and talked to me months in advance about the fact that he had a gut-wrenching fear of snakes. He knew the snakes we'd see in the class were harmless but was very apprehensive about it. He never did get to a point where he could touch a snake that spring but it took a lot of courage for him just to take a class where he knew he would have to confront that fear. Toward the end he was more comfortable looking at snakes from a distance but still had a way to go. I thought then that he may get there eventually and hoped he would. The first step is always going to be recognizing that your fears are irrational and he accomplished that very quickly.

He was, however, willing to catch and handle snapping turtles. In my personal opinion, that takes way more courage than handling even the largest colubrid snake:



Just a few weeks ago he shot me a message to say that he'd seen this blog post and to show me this photo. Congratulations Chris!


Some folk present more of a challenge; I'm still working on my step dad. He's at least stopped killing them, I think, but it will be a long time before he's ready to willingly be in the same room as a snake, let alone handle one. Every now and then I send he and my mom documentaries about snakes and they watch them together, it seems to be helping. He admits to having been OK with snakes as a young kid but it all ended when somebody put a ratsnake in his sleeping bag at camp.

I think that with enough postive exposure anybody can get past their fear of snakes, even folk like my step dad. We may be programmed to learn a fear of snakes very easily, but time after time again I have seen that fear unlearned -- it just takes a little more time and patience (some times a lot more) to overcome that barrier.

It's hard for me to picture a life without snakes and I feel strongly that people who are afraid of them or who simply hate them with a passion are missing out on a part of the natural world that can be very rewarding. Finding, photographing, or when appropriate, catching snakes is just plain fun, I can't think of a better word for it. Does this guy look like he's having a bad time?


Just look at the joy these animals can bring some people...


This woman is much more afraid of a snake's musk than its bite. What's the saying, "it's musk is worse than its bite?"


This guy just got done being bitten by a chipmunk, but not the snake he is holding, (For the record, chipmunks are nasty beasts and you should all send your kids inside if you see one. Squirrels too.):


And then there are folk who have been wrangling snakes for so long you can't even remember what they look like without a snake in their hands:


There are also folk like me who are just crazy about snakes, and crazy in general:


I hope you enjoyed this short essay (or really long post). Until next time!