Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Eek! A snake!

I know the photos are broken. I'm working on it.

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!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Northeast Egg Mass ID

Winter has ended (we think), and the salamanders are on the move! Reports of egg masses are beginning to trickle in here in Vermont and soon they'll be pouring in. Identifying the eggs, thankfully, is not very difficult once you learn how to tell them all apart. Here in Vermont we have only 8 species of amphibian that lay egg masses in the Spring, and that is true for most of New York and New England as well. Those species are the:

Wood Frog
Northern Leopard Frog
Pickerel Frog
American Toad
Fowler's Toad
Jefferson Salamander
Jefferson/Blue-spotted hybrid
Spotted Salamander

In this post I will not be dealing with mid-summer breeders such as Bullfrogs and Green Frogs, or species that do not lay noticeable egg masses such as Eastern Newts, Blue-spotted Salamanders, or Spring Peepers, etc, which all lay individual eggs or groups of 2-3 eggs attached under leaves and debris. Please note that old egg masses that have hatched out or are about to hatch may be tattered, torn, or completely separated into a film. First, I'll start by teaching you about the difference between frog and salamander eggs, then move on to identification of each species.

Frog vs. Salamander eggs

Let's start simple. Frog eggs vs. salamander eggs. Telling the difference between the two is quite easy. Frogs lay individual clear eggs with a visible embryo contained within each egg. With frogs, the outside edge of the egg mass is made up of the eggs themselves. Salamanders take it a step farther and coat the entire egg mass with an additional layer of jelly. These two photos demonstrate the difference clearly:

Frog eggs. Notice that you can easily see the contour of each individual egg on the outside of the mass.

Salamander eggs. Notice that there is a layer of gel surrounding the mass of eggs. This protective film around the egg mass is characteristic of all salamanders in the genus Ambystoma, which includes pretty much all the pond-breeding salamanders you're going to find the eggs of.

Notice that you can still see the outline of each egg within the mass.

Again, frog = no gel surrounding entire mass, you can see the contour of each individual egg.

Salamander = layer of gel surrounding the entire egg mass.

And side by side:

This extra layer of gel on salamander egg masses is thought to provide the eggss some protection against predators such as the dreaded Eastern Newt, which apparently just eats its way past the gel anyway:

Now we'll go down the list egg-mass laying species in Vermont one by one.

Wood Frog

Wood frog egg masses are pretty easy to identify. You would expect to find Wood Frogs breeding in ponds, vernal pools, and marsh edges in or near forested habitat at a wide range of elevations as soon as the snow melts and the ground thaws. A typical egg mass can have between 500 and 2000 eggs. The embryos start out black on top and white on the bottom, as do most open-water amphibian eggs, but as the embryo develops into a tadpole the white is lost. A fully-formed mass that has been in the water for a day or so is about the size of a softball and the clear space between the embryos and the margin of each egg is many times greater than the width of the embryo (see the first photo posted).

This, of course, is a much closer look than you'd normally get. Here's another example.

At a glance, Wood Frog egg masses underwater will look something like this:

Often, groups of Wood Frogs will lay their eggs in close proximity, usually on emergent vegetation or submerged tree branches:

Sometimes amphibian eggs can have an opaque hue to them.  I am not sure what causes this in Wood Frogs although in Spotted Salamanders it is caused by the genetics of the female.

When wood frog eggs are laid, however, the masses are much more compact. Obviously a golf ball-sized frog isn't going to lay a softball-sized egg mass. Directly out of the frog an egg mass is smaller than a golf ball, but swells to full size within hours.

Northern Leopard Frog

Leopard Frog eggs look a lot like Wood Frog eggs with a couple key differences. The embryos are about the same size (2-3mm), but the eggs themselves are much smaller and tighter. The clear space between the margin of the eggs and the embryo is usually the about the same thickness as the embryo itself (remember, the clear space in a wood frog is much bigger). Because Leopard Frogs lay more eggs per mass than Wood Frogs (2000-4000), but the eggs are much smaller, the entire egg masses end up being about the same size (think baseball-softball).

Notice how tight the egg mass is? Wood frogs have much more clear space between the embryos. Here's a picture of an undisturbed Northern Leopard Frog egg mass.

Leopard Frogs typically lay their eggs in lake and river flood planes where sedimentation and silt can build up pretty quickly. Remember that Wood Frogs tend to breed in ponds and vernal pools. Sure, there is some overlap in breeding habitat between Leopard and Wood Frogs, but knowing the typical breeding habitat for each species can help in many cases.

Pickerel Frogs have very similar egg masses compared to Leopard Frogs, but notice how the Leopard Frog eggs are black on top and white on bottom. Pickerel Frog eggs are brown on top and yellow on the bottom. Other than that the eggs are pretty much the same.

Pickerel Frog

If you can identify Leopard Frog eggs you can identify Pickerel Frog eggs. The egg masses are almost exactly the same except instead of the eggs being black on top and white on bottom, Pickerel Frog eggs are brown on top and yellow on bottom. Pickerel Frogs are usually found higher in elevation than Leopard Frogs, usually found breeding in upland ponds or small lakes, compared to Northern Leopard Frogs which most often breed in lowland flood planes. Habitat counts!

You might read that Pickerel Frog egg masses are plinth-shaped. I didn't know what a plinth was and had to look it up. Other sources say the egg masses are spherical, which is more consistent with my observations. Anyway, for what it's worth, this is a plinth:

American Toad/Folwer's Toad

Where I live, the American Toad is the only frog that lays its eggs in a long string. A single strand could have between 2,000 and 20,000 eggs depending on the size of the female. Breeding occurs in the warmer months (mid-summer in Vermont). As far as I know, there's no telling the difference between American or Fowler's Toad eggs. If you live in a place with both species then you can use habitat as a clue, but not a very reliable one. American Toads TEND to be found in hardwood forests with loamy soils. Fowler's Toads TEND to be found in coastal or flood plane habitat with sandy soils.

Once sediments settle on the strands actually recognizing them as eggs can be difficult to someone unfamiliar with them.

I've never seen Fowlers Toad eggs and don't know if there is a good way to tell them apart. At least I'm being honest. If you have photos or ID tips, post 'em! My understanding is that the eggs are indistinguishable from one another. Interestingly, these toads are the only frogs in the northeast that will lay eggs alongside flowing streams and you can often see schools of their tadpoles moving around in brooks, especially in the pools adjacent to brooks where the current is a little slower.

Spotted Salamander

Spotted Salamander egg masses are made up of about 50-250 eggs, can be as large as a grapefruit, and are very dense/firm. Usually they are laid in ponds, vernal pools, and marsh edges without fish, but you'll find them in pond with fish too. If you pick up a Spotted egg mass it will usually hold its shape in your hand. The eggs are usually attached to sticks, branches, and vegetation below the surface of the water.

Even as the egg mass ages and the embryos develop you can see that it is firm and continues to hold its shape when pulled from the water.

Just like Wood Frogs, you'll often fine huge numbers of egg masses all in one spot. Interestingly, some Spotted Salamander egg masses are a grayish opaque color. This is caused by a genetic trait of the mother and is common in some places.

And again, Spotted Salamander egg masses expand after being laid. Obviously the eggs don't take up the volume of a softball while still inside a hot dog-sized salamander.

Jefferson Salamander

Pure Jefferson Salamander eggs are laid in masses of 20-30 eggs but females usually lay multiple masses. Sometimes masses are laid in a line down a single stick and, once they swell with water, may fuse into one another and appear to make up a single mass. The masses closely-resemble those of Spotted Salamanders but, in addition to being much smaller, are not firm. If you pick up a Jefferson mass the eggs will run through your fingers or break off the stick before even making it into your hand.

And here's a freshly-laid Jefferson Salamander egg mass next to the salamander who laid them:

Blue-spotted Salamander

Blue-spotted Salamanders do not lay egg masses. Their eggs are attached individually or in groups of two or three on the underside of leaves. Hardly anybody ever sees them, I don't have any photos of them, don't bother looking for them.

Jefferson/Blue-spotted Salamander hybrids

Hybrids between Jefferson and Blue-spotted Salamanders exist. The two pure species cannot breed with one another however a hybrid line of almost entirely parthenogenic females can breed with either pure species. It's a very complicated subject that I'd be happy to talk about in more detail another time. Hybrids more closely-related to Blue-spotted Salamanders will lay individual eggs or small clusters of eggs under leaf matter. Those closer to the Jefferson Salamanders will lay egg masses that basically look like those of pure Jefferson Salamanders. Hybrid egg masses, however, usually have a high proportion of nonviable eggs that do not develop. The dud eggs are usually gray and swell up quickly. The gray swelling is caused by the water mold saprolegnia. Saprolegnia can be seen in amphibian eggs of any kind but it is very common in Jeff/Blue-spotted hybrids.

Here is a good photo of a hybrid egg mass. Observe how a bunch of infertile (whitish) eggs are in the center of the mass. You can't determine with 100% certainty this is a hybrid egg mass, but any egg mass that looks like it is from a Jefferson Salamander, is within a zone of hybridization, and has more then one or two infertile eggs should be considered most likely that of a hybrid salamander.


These are not amphibian eggs. They are colonies of microscopic animals similar, but not related, to corals. They are firm, have these weird crusty things on the outside, and no embryos on the inside. People confuse them for amphibian eggs a lot, but now you know better.

That is all. Have fun herping! And remember to submit reports to your local herp atlas. For Vermont that would be this one: VT Reptile and Amphibian Atlas Project. Use google to find your own if you don't already know.

In addition to that, or if your state doesn't have a herp atlas, report your findings to Herp Mapper :)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

It ain't like the picture in the book...

I know the photos are broken. I'm working on it.

Most people who have spent much time using field guides to identify animals know that what you find in nature does not always look like the example drawings and photos displayed in the book.  It is impossible for a single picture, or several, to represent the full range of variation typically seen within a species, let alone the aberrant individuals that look nothing at all like others in the same area.  For that reason it is important to learn multiple field marks for each species and in many cases, use what is available to rule out similar species.

A recent thread on the Field Herp Forum demonstrates this quite clearly:
Variation in P. Cinereus

Red-backed Salamanders are known for being quite variable but speaking honestly, there could have been a similar thread for every species of herp on the east coast.

For example, here is a photo of a Northern Dusky Salamander, Desmognathus fuscus, that is solid orange (they are normally dark brown or solid black at this size):

One of the best field marks for identifying a Northern Two-lined Salamander, Eurycea bislineata, is the bright yellow pigmentation under the tail.  And yet here it isn't:

This past spring I encountered a Salamander that did not look like any others I had ever seen and I think it makes a great example to demonstrate my point.  Here it is:

Leucism is a form of albinism in which pigment is entirely lacking from the skin but remains in all other tissue, including the eyes.  The result is a completely white animal with no useful markings or patterns for identification.  This salamander looks pink, except on the tail, and this is because you are actually looking through the skin at capillaries.  I will use this Salamander as an example of how to successfully identify these oddball finds.

With such an animal the important thing to do is to start at the most basic level and rule out other genera and species rather than jump immediately to any conclusions.  Usually there are some species you do not need to rule out.  We know it's a salamander so we can start there.  Geographic range will immediately help.  This Salamander was found in Vermont and the only species to choose from are:

Eastern Newt
Blue-spotted Salamander
Eastern Red-backed Salamander
Four-toed Salamander
Jefferson Salamander
Spotted Salamander
Spring Salamander
Northern Dusky Salamander
Northern Two-lined Salamander

There are certain species on that list that are so different that we can rule them out without thinking twice.  The Mudpuppy, for example, always has external gills and never leaves the water.  It is also nearly a foot long, so it's off the list.  We can take the Newt off too because the specimen found did not have dry, rough, skin.  While there is no reference for scale in the above photo, this salamander was much larger than a newt.

In Vermont there are two body shape/size categories of terrestrial salamander.  The small, slender-bodied Salamanders include Eastern Red-backed, Four-toed, and Northern Two-lined Salamanders.  The larger, more stocky salamanders include the Ambystoma genus, Northern Spring Salamanders, and Dusky Salamanders.  Based on the provided photo, the size of the salamander alone should rule out the small and slender species.

For example, compare the Eastern Red-Backed Salamander, Plethodon cinereus:

to the mystery salamander which is about the diameter of my pinky:

Ruling out something like a Spring Salamander, Gyrinophilus porphyriticus, can be done using shape.  The salamander found has a somewhat short but very rounded snout:

Whereas Spring Salamanders have a more truncate/flattened snout:

While the salamander found has a slightly laterally-compressed tail it is very round in cross-section compared to a Spring.  The end of a Spring Salamander's tail is blade-like:

Usually when identifying a Dusky Salamander you look to see if there is a light line from the eye to the back of the jaw.  This field mark is completely useless when it comes to Leucism.  Shape and size can be used to rule out the Northern Dusky Salamander as well.  The salamander pictured would be EXTREMELY large for a Dusky, though not unheard of.  Dusky Salamanders also have very small front legs relative to the back as seen below.  Yes, all salamanders have larger hind legs than in the front but this difference is exaggerated in Duskies:

What is left is the Ambystoma genus.  Is it a Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum?  The important part of the body to look at will be the head.  This specimen has a fairly narrow head compared to that of a Spotted which is known for having a short, rounded, wide head:

The mystery salamander:

And a Spotted Salamander:

The only options left are Jefferson Salamanders, Ambystoma jeffersonianum, Blue-spotted Salamanders, Ambystoma laterale, and associated hybrids.  I included a photo of the vent to show you that this individual is a male.  Males have swollen cloacas during the breeding season, when this individual was found, and hybrid salamanders are effectively all female (over 99% and we've never seen a male hybrid in VT).  Because this is a male we know that it has to be either a pure Blue-spotted or pure Jefferson Salamander:


I'm sorry that I do not have a better photo of an unswollen female vent:

Looking at the head again, remember that our salamander had a short rounded snout.  One analogy I like to use when comparing Jefferson and Blue-spotted Salamanders is that the two species have heads sort of like Volvos or VW bugs.  The Jefferson has a elongated, truncate, squared off head that reminds me a lot of an old Volvo station wagon.

Blocky Jefferson Salamander glamour shots:


compared to a rounded Blue-spotted snout:

For comparison, here is a Volvo (Jefferson):

and a VW Bug (Blue-spotted):

Our mystery salamander looks a lot more like a VW bug:

While the mystery salamander does have a somewhat laterally-compressed tail, its tail is rounded in cross-section relative to a Jefferson.  Take a look at it one more time.  I'll be cheap and use the vent shot again for this:

Now a Blue-spotted (in a defensive pose):

And a Volvo, I mean Jefferson

While the Jefferson Salamander does not have a tail as knife-like as a Spring, it has much more laterally-compressed one than a Blue-spotted (and our mystery salamander).

Finally, if local range data is available, you can use that.  I found this salamander in a part of Vermont where Jefferson Salamanders and associated hybrids are not known to occur and at an elevation (lake level) that is more typical of Blue-spotted Salamanders.  (If you are herping in Vermont, you should check out the herp atlas website -- it has range maps current as of 2005 with an update coming in 2011!)  The mystery salamander is a Leucistic Blue-spotted Salamander.  Here is one of his friends found on the same road just 5 minutes later:

A good field guide, while inherantly limited in the number of pictures and illustrations it can provide, should provide enough detail in its physical descriptions of each species to allow for the successful identification of even the most unusual sightings; it just requires some fine attention to detail on your part.  For folk in the eastern Great Lakes Region and New England, I like the New York guide.  It has the most detailed information available in a portable field guide and a variety of photos to compliment each species description: Amazon Link

Next week: How to differentiate larval Dusky Salamander species using smell.  I've almost got the "click to smell" system up and running but am having trouble getting it to work with PHP5.