Why Did We Do It?

Why did we write Herping Texas, and travel around to all those places? I’m sure that some people would wonder why two grown men would keep chasing after snakes and frogs long after the time when you “should” outgrow such things. So I guess it’s a fair question, and I will offer a few answers.

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A guy who still chases snakes and frogs

One answer is that Texas is full of beautiful places, if you go out of your way to seek them out. The reptiles and amphibians that we wanted to see are most interesting, natural, and beautiful when you see them in places that are relatively undisturbed. That’s our opinion, anyway. As a result, we planned trips to preserves, national parks, refuges, private land, and wildlife management areas. All (except the private land) were accessible to most Texans and a few, like the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, were at the edge of cities. Even Big Bend or Guadalupe Mountains National Parks are no more than a day’s drive from most places in Texas.

The Texas Banded Gecko is a pretty common lizard in parts of the Trans-Pecos, but the one we found on a night walk in the Chihuahuan Desert might have been the best one of its kind I had ever seen. It was very quiet except for a light breeze and the occasional rumble of distant thunder rolling across the desert. It was also very, very dark, with a brilliant field of stars overhead. The little lizard was beautiful, especially in that context.

Additionally, we wanted to visit each of Texas’ ten or so ecoregions. The boundaries between them are sometimes indistinct, but each one is like a different country. Obviously the dry desert flats and mountain ranges of the Trans-Pecos are different from the woodlands and wetlands of the Piney Woods. Even across north Texas’ grasslands and woods, the Rolling Plains are very different from the Cross Timbers, the Blackland Prairies, and the Post Oak Savannah. You might find a Marbled Salamander under logs or leaf litter in a bottomland forest on a sunny winter day in the Post Oak Savannah, but on such a day a walk out on the Rolling Plains may be windy, colder, and will turn up no Marbled Salamanders.

Another reason is that the past seventeen or eighteen years have provided us quite a natural history education about herps and their habitats. Maybe it has been more like a practicum course, after reading field guides, natural history books, and journal articles. There was no better place than the Big Thicket to see just how persistent a male snake like a tan racer can be in courting a female, even one who has been killed on the roadway. I cannot imagine a better way of seeing how a mother alligator can be protective of her babies while remaining calm and watchful than in a coastal marsh at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. All that time in the field and the experiences that we wrote about were priceless. We still have plenty to learn, but a large part of what we do know, we learned during our travels.

I have often noticed how safe these places feel, even in the desert at night in the company of Mohave rattlesnakes, or on the slopes of the Guadalupe Mountains. Maybe some of this is related to the sense of peace and well-being that comes from doing something you love in a beautiful setting. It is true that if you want to prove to yourself how dangerous such places can be, you can do it fairly easily. However, with some preparation and experience, common sense, and a desire to watch and learn (rather than a desire to prove something about yourself), you can visit the wild places of Texas free of worry. I feel safer in any of those places than I do in the malls and on the streets of Texas cities.

We could have traveled and experienced all this without writing a book. However, I want to carry all this with me in future years, past the time when I might not be able to hike the Chisos Mountains or wander through the bottomland forest along the Sabine River. I want these memories and photographs in case some of the places disappear, for reasons that could include fracking, being sold off, or being walled off at the border. But the absolutely most important reason is to pass the experiences along to others who may want to go there, or who may want to live it through the pages of a book. Nothing could be more gratifying than to hear someone say, “After reading what you wrote, I had to go visit,” or “Your book made me think of reptiles and amphibians more positively.” We want the book to be an invitation into a world we know and love.

That’s why the dedication of the book is “to all young herpers and naturalists who follow their dreams into the field.”

An Excerpt from “The Cross Timbers”

I wish Steve Campbell was here to see the publication of “Herping Texas,” as Clint and I draw on recollections of Steve in more than a few stories we tell in the book. Steve passed away six years ago, and he was a wonderful and funny friend to many of us. In the chapter on the Cross Timbers I talked about the western massasauga rattlesnake, a small rattlesnake that was once common in prairie habitat west of Fort Worth. One of the stories in which Steve played a part involved a massasauga:

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Western massasauga

“One other observation of a massasauga’s behavior helps explain why people may claim that one or another venomous snake chased them. On a spring night out on the road near Weatherford, Steve Campbell and I came up on an adult massasauga. It was Steve’s first encounter with this species, and so we got out and lingered over it for a couple of minutes, admiring it. The snake remained motionless on the caliche road under our lights, and we talked about the intricacies of its pattern. At some point I wanted to see it in a different position, and I nudged it with my snake hook. It exploded into movement, heading straight toward where Steve had crouched to look at it. He, of course, also exploded into movement, and in my memory it is always something close to a back flip that I witnessed, although I doubt he was that acrobatic. In any case, as he moved out of the way, the snake continued on past him and toward whatever spot it may have considered to offer shelter. There was no chase, and no attack – the snake was simply racing for cover, with no thought of who might be in the way.”


Herping Texas: The Quest for Reptiles & Amphibians, Michael Smith & Clint King. Texas A&M University Press (release date November 5).

Ghosts of Alligator Snapping Turtles

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Skull of an Alligator Snapping Turtle

When Carl Franklin calls, you know there’s going to be something cool happening as a result. This time, today, it was the skeletons of two Alligator Snapping Turtles that could be salvaged for the university – did I want to come along? Well … sure! The two unlucky turtles were beside Catfish Creek in Anderson County, and we were soon making the hundred mile-or-so drive southeast of Fort Worth and Dallas. (It was a plus that the skeletons were supposed to be pretty clean; if he had invited me along to salvage a couple of rotting corpses, the decision might have been different.)

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Carapace (upper shell) of one of the turtles

The Alligator Snapping Turtle is a behemoth; it has a carapace as long as 29 inches and weighs (in the wild) as much as 175 pounds, according to Carl’s Texas Turtles website. In addition to that large upper shell, it has a long tail and very large head, making it the largest freshwater turtle in the western hemisphere. This turtle is found in bayous, rivers, sloughs, and lakes in east Texas (and follows the Trinity River drainage up to the metroplex), and it spends so much of its time underwater that people may not see it, even if it is living in their midst. People also may not see it because it is generally not common and in many places it is declining due to things like poaching. It is legally protected in Texas, but taken by poachers in unsustainable numbers.

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The carapace includes fused spine, ribs, and other bones (a view underneath the carapace)

It also may be killed, as these two turtles probably were, by fishermen who consider them a nuisance or believe that they could deplete the fish they are trying to catch. The Alligator Snapping Turtle does eat fish, though not in numbers that should worry any angler. They also eat lots of other things including acorns that drop into the water, plant material, mollusks, frogs, smaller turtles, and perhaps an unwary nutria. They are fairly well-known for the little fleshy part of the tongue that is wiggled in the floor of the turtle’s open mouth like a worm – a lure to attract a fish or maybe a crayfish or mud turtle. Whatever comes to the lure may cause those enormous hooked jaws to slam shut, and then the predator becomes the prey.

Although, as probably the most passionate turtle researcher in Texas, Carl might have been able to bring us straight to these specimens by sniffing them out or detecting their auras or something, we had GPS coordinates to go by. And so, we found them easily, discarded beside a place where people go fishing. One had a bullet hole in its carapace, and each had an apparent bullet hole in the skull. After we took a few photos, we carefully placed each carapace into a plastic bag and added skulls and other bones that were still present, along with a number of scutes. These specimens will add to the documentation of this species in Anderson County.

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The mushrooms in lowland habitats were pretty

Before heading back, we took a drive through Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area, which is not too far away. Clint and I visited there in early March, and it’s always a good place to visit. As we drive through it, we saw what looked like a chunky brown line stretched out along the edge of the road. It was a Northern Cottonmouth, an unsurprising and a welcome find. We hopped out of the car to get some photos, and the snake responded to our approach with some good old-fashioned mouth-gaping. The snake got its “cottonmouth” name from this bluff display, which it often uses instead of attempting to bite. It simply gapes its mouth, exposing the pale tissues lining the mouth. This one’s fangs were clearly visible, along with its several rows of teeth (including two rows down the center of the roof of the mouth, the “palatine” teeth). This little cottonmouth never actually tried to bite. It simply sat there, sometimes closing its mouth but responding when we moved by gaping again, or widening the gape.

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Northern Cottonmouth, gaping. The fangs are folded and sheathed, extending back to about the eye; the rows of palatine teeth on the roof of the mouth should not be mistaken for fangs

After several photos, we wanted to get the snake off the road so that it would not be run over. This was a little problematic, as neither of us brought a snake hook. Carl handed me a windshield shade with which I gently poked the snake. It neither turned to leave nor struck at this object. We did eventually pester the snake until it left, and it never attempted to bite. This sort of encounter always makes me think of a well-known study in which Whit Gibbons and Michael Dorcas found lots of cottonmouths out in the wild and tested their defensive behavior – some might say “gently pestered” them – and found that for the most part, cottonmouths either try to get away or bluff and often do not attempt to bite. Of course, fair warning, you should always treat a cottonmouth with the respect it is due and assume that it would bite if pestered.

Gibbons, J.W., & M.E. Dorcas. 2002. Defensive Behavior of Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) Toward Humans. Copeia, Pp. 195-198.

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A pond near where the cottonmouth was seen

An Excerpt From “The Big Thicket”

100_0498One chapter of Clint’s and my book, “Herping Texas,” covers the Big Thicket region. In the chapter, I talked about finding tan racers, including one that had been run over on FM 943, as follows (p. 33):

“I would take this specimen for the museum collection at the University of Texas at Arlington, but I hated putting this slender and graceful serpent into a plastic bag. I would much rather have seen her for a moment alive, slipping from pavement through roadside grasses like a bolt of lightning and into the safety of the forest. Like other racers and coachwhips, these snakes are alert and visual, with large, bright eyes set beneath a small ridge that gives them a stern expression – like that of a hawk. They scan their surroundings and detect movement of lizards or other small creatures, and they are swift and agile predators. Such an animal deserves better than to be run down on the road.”

Turns out that there was a second racer nearby, slipping out of sight and then boldly returning, so that I was able to catch him for photographs later. What could explain it? I hope you’ll read the book and find out!


Herping Texas: The Quest for Reptiles & Amphibians, Michael Smith & Clint King. Texas A&M University Press (release date November 5).

Texas Field Notes – October Issue

The October 2018 issue of Texas Field Notes can now be downloaded and read from the Texas Field Notes page. Not only does this issue explore the Lower Rio Grande Valley, but it includes contributions from Marianna Trevino Wright and Andrew Brinker. Marianna writes about the biological as well as cultural and social impact of the border wall whose construction seems imminent. Andrew writes about the turtle survey he and his Paschal High School students have been conducting on the Trinity River in Fort Worth.

Texas Field Notes Oct-2018Over the course of several visits, the Lower Rio Grande Valley is becoming one of my favorite places, along with the Big Thicket of southeast Texas and the Big Bend region. The Valley has such an amazing diversity of habitats and wildlife species, many of them found nowhere else in Texas or the U.S. Between the chain of fast-growing cities like Brownsville, Harlingen, McAllen, and Mission, and the conversion of land for agriculture, we are lucky that there is any native habitat left in the Valley. But the places that do remain are real treasures, worth working hard to save.

In the struggle to keep wild places and wildlife as meaningful parts of the lives of Texans,  we all acknowledge that young people and kids are crucial. Unless more young people grow to love the land and its communities of plants and animals, nature will be left with no one to advocate for it as old-timers and their memories fade away. Andrew Brinker is doing the kind of work that is priceless and necessary, getting high school students out in the river trapping, measuring, and studying the turtles in the Trinity River. These are no superficial outings where the kids see something cool and then forget about it. They are doing real biological work, and generating data truly worth sharing. Thanks for all you’re doing, Andrew!

So please download and read the October issue, and let me know what you think. I can pass along any comments to Marianna and Andrew, too.

Hanging Out with Master Naturalists – II

This past week, I taught the herpetology section of the training for an incoming group of Master Naturalists. I’ve done this several times before, and it is an honor – and it’s fun. For twenty years, the Texas Master Naturalist program has trained and supported a great many volunteers who do all kinds of good things for the wild places and wildlife of Texas. Some of them are experts about one or more subjects, and their training is designed to make sure that they become literate across a broad range of natural history topics. What a great thing that is, to be among people who understand the natural world like they do.

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The classroom training happened at the Hardwicke Center, Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge

On the evening of the eleventh, they sat through three hours of photos and discussion of everything from turtle skeletal structure to the various strategies herps use to find food and defend themselves from predators. They listened to some of my stories from the field and how urgent the conservation needs of herps are (along with most other species of plants and animals). They stuck with me and asked some great questions. Talking with them was a blast!

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Bottomland forest near the marsh

Then came the “field trip” portion of the training, yesterday at the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. The class was divided in two groups, with half of them canoeing with Michael Perez while the other half spent about 90 short minutes with me at the marsh boardwalk and the bottomlands near the marsh (and then they switched places and the other half spent time with me). They were ready to see herps and not shy about picking their way through the deadfall and leaf litter of the forest floor. We had talked about cottonmouths, emphasizing their nonaggressive nature as well as the respect and caution that their venom should inspire. I try to get people to be careful and alert without being afraid, and I didn’t see anyone who looked afraid. And unfortunately, we did not see any cottonmouths on that particular day.

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Toad with some characteristics of both Woodhouse’s and Central Plains toads

They were certainly alert, spotting lots of things in the leaf litter that most people would miss. We found just-metamorphed toadlets and cricket frogs. Someone came up with a rough earth snake, and another spotted a baby Dekay’s brownsnake. One of the toads we saw had spots suggesting that it was a hybrid between the Central Plains toad (previously the Gulf Coast toad) and Woodhouse’s toad. Even though it requires a pairing between not just two species but two different genera, such hybrids do happen, and it was cool to see one.

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Green treefrog

The boardwalk was wonderfully productive. Each group got to see and photograph green treefrogs resting on leaves and stalks of the big Phragmites grasses, and one observant person spotted a young ribbonsnake basking on some vegetation. Looking at the photograph later, I saw that it was digesting a meal, possibly an unlucky green treefrog.

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Western ribbonsnake, digesting a meal

In a world preoccupied with … well, with things that seem less than wonderful, it is a privilege to spend time in forests and marshes with people who get excited about finding a small skink in the leaf litter or finding a particularly diverse group of lichens growing on a fallen branch.

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Lichens

The Clouds Tease, and the Lizards Have a Party

The afternoon sunshine was cooking some clouds, and to the south and then to the east the cumulus grew to cumulonimbus with blue-gray around the base and some curtains of rain here and there. It was sunny at Southwest Nature Preserve but it seemed likely that the surrounding clouds would keep the temperatures down. If I didn’t mind getting wet, the outflow winds from an approaching storm would really feel good – and then when it started to rain, well, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad either. So I parked the car and walked down to the fishing pond to see if recent rains had brought the water level up.

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Maximilian Sunflower

One of the pleasures of walking to that pond is all the Maximilian Sunflower along the way. I was first introduced to this native prairie flower when Jim Eidson showed me around Clymer Meadow (a Nature Conservancy property in the Blackland Prairie). The plant sends up tall, unbranching stems with long, narrow leaves folded lengthwise into a sort of “V” and produces beautiful yellow flowers.

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A young Green Heron

The water level had come up a little, and as I walked the boardwalk, I spooked a medium-sized bird that flew to the opposite bank and stood there (perhaps grumbling, “See, you made me miss a perfectly good little sunfish; I almost had it”). Luckily, I got a workable photo so that I could go through the books – and Cornell’s “All About Birds” website – to identify it. My conclusion was that it was a young Green Heron, and my ID, posted on iNaturalist, was confirmed. It is said to be one of the smallest North American herons, and it prowls the banks of wetlands looking for fish, frogs, crayfish, insects, or just about anything. Adults are much less streaked than the bird I saw; they have what is described as a deep green (almost charcoal) back and crown with a reddish chestnut chest.

 

My next visit was to the smallest pond, where an egret was walking around the far bank. I recorded a small video clip of it entering the water under a willow, rather elegantly walking through the water. (I’m afraid I didn’t have a tripod or even a stick to balance the camera, so it is not as steady as I would like.)

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Clouds to the east, hinting of rain

I walked the trails through the woodland and up to the ridge while watching the clouds and picking up a few little muffled drumbeats of thunder. It was sunny, humid, and therefore hot, and the preserve’s lizards were having a party. I saw several dart off the trail and into the leaves or behind brush. They were almost surely Texas spiny lizards who had been chasing insects but headed for the nearest tree as I approached. As I was coming down from the ridge, I was suddenly confronted by a Texas spiny lizard sitting on a small cut stump, facing me. I looked at him; he looked at me. These lizards are wary and fast, and he didn’t lose any time getting off the stump and running into nearby brush. Another one, further down the trail, stopped on a fallen branch and did a great imitation of a patch of bark stuck on the wood.

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Texas Spiny Lizard, camouflaged like a little patch of rough bark

When not seeing birds, reptiles, or other animal life, the preserve never fails to offer up something beautiful. One such offering was a collection of rounded, red-orange shelf fungi growing on a downed branch. Moments like this make a hot, muggy walk really worthwhile.

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Shelf fungus

Late Summer, Reaching Ahead to Fall

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Marsh, FWNCR

I visited the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge today, seeing how it was doing with the rain and more moderate temperatures. Since higher humidity meant a higher heat index even with temperatures in the 80’s, it was a little sultry, but nice. It has been dry, and the cracked and drying mud in parts of the marsh shows it. The marsh is almost always an inviting place, the only exception being the time over fifteen years ago when it completely dried except for some small pools, and Carl Franklin and I hopped down to the dry mud and walked across it. In one upstream pool we found a swirling pit where a number of trapped gar were swimming, gulping air, and wondering why their world was shrinking so dangerously small. Compared to that year, the marsh always looks good.

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Another view of the marsh

I walked a little through the nearby woodland at the crest of a hill that drops down into bottomland forest. It was warm and damp and green, close and thick, guarding its secrets: invertebrates that work endlessly within the leaf litter, creating new soil, and skinks that slither within the layers of leaves and thin the ranks of spiders and insects.

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Woods just above the bottomland

In a nearby pocket prairie, the little bluestem stood in brush-strokes of blue-green with a line of trees behind it. Little bluestem is perhaps my favorite prairie grass. The seasonal change from blue-green to rusty orange is a big part of the beauty of the prairies.

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Little bluestem (with some forbs in the foreground)

I’ve seen several references to fall lately, as if the beginning of another school year and the changing of the calendar to September means that the season has changed. Today was a late summer day; fall does not arrive until September 22, at the equinox when the length of day and night are roughly equal. I am looking forward to fall. It seems like every year, it becomes more of a favorite season, as temperatures drop and sunny days come with that low slanting light. I want the memory of 114-degree (F) days to fade, and I’m ready for the leaves to turn (hopefully some color other than brown). But while I’m waiting, the nature center today was a beautiful place to be.

Prairie on the Plains

Epitaph

Over the past few years the prairies, forests, marshes and deserts of my beloved Texas have provided me with countless natural treasures and memories in the field in pursuit of material for the upcoming book, Herping Texas. I have enjoyed sharing some of these and other adventures with readers, but the time has come to move on, and I am hereby ceasing all connection, contributions and affiliations with the Great Rattlesnake Highway blog and Texas Field Notes. I will also cease publication on my accompanying blog, Coleopteraholic. I have several reasons for this decision, one being the pursuit of an education in Biology. I have enjoyed a good cruise down the Great Rattlesnake Highway, writing about my adventures afield and sharing them with an unparalleled audience of naturalists. Thank you all for your time, advice, comments, readership, and loyalty.
I would not feel justified in the aforementioned changes without contributing one final article, so I have written on Crotalus viridis, the prairie rattlesnake, which has always been one of my favorite snake species, and was the reason I first headed down the actual Great Rattlesnake Highway all those years ago. That transmogrified into a symbol for herping Texas, and I felt there would be none better to conclude with. I hope you enjoy it.
This being said, I won’t draw out these goodbyes any longer than necessary. Thank you all again. Enjoy and appreciate your own great highways, wherever they may take you. Happy herping.

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Prairie on the Plains

A full, late moon hung low in the sky like a glowing orb, governing the mesquite-dense  hills of Haskell County. Darkness engulfed the land, but my headlights cut through it with twin cones of illumination that fell upon the tubular form of a serpent on the highway. It was unexpected to see anything out and about in the grip of this relentless high pressure-laden drought that plagued these dog days of late July. The air was hot and arid, the ponds and stock tanks reduced to concave depressions of red clay, cracked and peeling in irregular squares.  The yellowed mesquite tops and dried stalks of Indiangrass, their withered heads bent in submission to the heat en masse, like a congregation of tormented mourners, provided a testament to the area’s dire need of some serious rainfall. The mercury had soared to 104 degrees Fahrenheit earlier, another day of baking, indifferent sunshine. I had been cruising down the Great Rattlesnake Highway at a low rate of speed, hoping to attract Palo Verde root borers (Genus Derobrachus) to the headlights, which is an easy method for collecting this largest of North American longhorned beetles. I had not seen a snake in several weeks, and had assumed everything had gone underground to estivate until the cooler weather of fall was in the air.
I spun the truck around and doubled back, and when the snake came into view I noticed it was not a western diamondback (Crotalus atrox)  as I had suspected due to the species’ incredible abundance in this region, but something else. Western diamondbacks are instantly recognizable in the beam of the headlights by their brightly banded black and white tails, which, like most species of rattlesnakes, they typically hold aloft while crawling. I couldn’t see any rings on this one, which narrowed the possibilities down to either of the two other species native to the rolling plains, the western massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus tergeminus) or the prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis). The massasauga, while not as common as the diamondback, is nevertheless quite prolific here, although it is a comparatively diminutive serpent, rarely exceeding twenty-four inches in length. The snake in question was around three feet long, and while I occasionally come across massasaugas of this size, it is rare enough to make it highly unlikely, especially on this hot, dry night under a full moon when nothing else seemed to be moving.
As I put the truck in park and exited the vehicle with flashlight in hand I noticed the distinct dark-hued basal segment of the rattle, which is yellowish in western diamondbacks and the same color as the other segments in massasaugas. I could also see the raised supraocular scales above the eyes that seem to somehow give this species a permanently angry scowl. I didn’t need to get close enough to locate the three or more internasal scales which meet against the rostral plate that distinguishes the prairie rattler from all other Texas rattlesnake species. The aforementioned characteristics, coupled with the oblong, slightly irregular chestnut-brown blotches edged in cream and fading to a series of pallid bands toward the tail was enough for me to know exactly what I was looking at.

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The prairie rattlesnake is one of North America’s most widespread serpents, ranging across most of the central-western United States, from Montana south into Wyoming, eastern Colorado, and most of New Mexico. It is the predominant rattlesnake species on the Great Plains to the east as well, from southwestern North Dakota, Nebraska, western Kansas, and the Oklahoma Panhandle. In Texas it is found in grassland habitats, from the high plains in the panhandle, south to the isolated desert grasslands of northeastern Brewster County in the upper Chihuahauan Desert region (Stebbins, 1966). It is quite cold-tolerant, enough so to occupy such northern latitudes as eastern Alberta and western Saskatchewan, Canada, an area where few other snakes are able to survive. Here, it congregates in winter hibernacula in large numbers, although in Texas it is more prone to gathering in smaller groups in abandoned mammal burrows or in the broken, heat-cracked labyrinths on the eastern slopes of canyons (Savage, 2004). In my earliest days of snake hunting post-high school, the prairie rattlesnake was at the top of my bucket list of hopefuls, especially after learning of its occurrence in the form of a handful of museum records at the eastern end of its Texas range, in the shortgrass mesquite and prickly pear dominant rolling plains of Haskell and Throckmorton Counties (Werler & Dixon, 2000). So I set out for the open road, and spent countless nights cruising the blacktop with red eyes and iron will. Eventually I chanced upon a DOR (dead-on-road) specimen in western Throckmorton County, and this served to goad my fanatical search into overdrive. Over the coming years I would find many prairie rattlesnakes in Texas, my first half-dozen or so around the Lubbock area some two hours to the west, and a few more in the Trans-Pecos east of Alpine, but it would be over a decade before I would finally find my first live Haskell County viridis. After that blessed, long-awaited day, I turned up a DOR in neighboring Stonewall County, which ended up being a county record and is now floating in a jar of formalin somewhere in the bowels of the University of Texas at Arlington’s Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Center. The current snake in front of me was my second Haskell County specimen, and one of only four that I have ever found east of the Lubbock area.

 

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In Situ photograph of my first live Crotalus viridis, taken in May of 2003 in Garza County east of Lubbock
All this talk of isolated records and localities is hardly reflective of the species as a whole. In fact, generally speaking, it is one of the most abundant serpents across much of its range, especially in the Great Plains, where it has been reported to outnumber all other large snake species in some areas. Here in Texas, though, prairie rattlesnakes are only locally common at best, and even then only when the habitat is optimal. This particular population clings determinedly to the eastern margins of its shortgrass habitat, encircled by ever-expanding acres of cotton and winter wheat. These areas are comparatively easily occupied by the prairie rattlesnake’s cousin, the western diamondback, which I have found as consistently in cultivated areas as I have unaltered landscapes. It seems that, while able to withstand and survive seemingly inhospitable temperature extremes the western diamondback is incapable of, the prairie rattler is much more susceptible to habitat alteration. It needs its prairie, and when the prairie is gone, it undoubtedly will go as well. Unfortunately this habitat is disappearing at an astonishing rate, and prairie rattlesnakes are not the only species being affected. In the 2016 Plowprint Report by the World Wildlife Fund, the statement is made that temperate grassland ecosystems are offered less protection than any other biome in the world, and that their destruction affects species on a level equivalent with rainforest loss, as well as the unique services they provide, such as carbon sequestration, which stores carbon dioxide and slows atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases (WWF, 2016). According to the report original grasslands have been reduced to fifty percent of their former size, with over fifty million acres put beneath the plow for cropland in the last decade. (Gaworecki, 2016).

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The eastern edge of the Rolling Plains, taken on one of my first trips to the area in April of 2003

On what remains of the High and Rolling Plains in Texas, prairie rattlesnakes continue to survive in the looming face of “progressive” expansion. They are highly evolved, formidable predators of mammals and birds, from small mice and kangaroo rats to larger species such as prairie dogs and young quail and pheasants (Werler & Dixon, 2000). Lizards are also fair game, especially in the case of younger snakes, whose smaller girth restricts their mammalian diet to only the youngest rodents. In fact, Werler and Dixon refer to several field reports of almost exclusive lacertilian predation by neonate and juvenile prairie rattlesnakes (Hamilton, 1950; Hayes & Duvall, 1991).
The darkness was all around, save for the blue-white glow of my flashlight, which fell upon the prairie rattlesnake some six feet in front of me. It lay motionless, stretched out in the rectilinear fashion typical of rattlesnakes, with the high yellow grama and bunchgrass all around it, the crumbling red clay soil and interloping black asphalt beneath, and the endless plains sky above. I took a moment to observe the intricate aesthetic details that make it unique: the closely-spaced, elongate russet blotches on a mottled beige background, beset laterally by alternating spots of light and dark brown. I caught a glimpse of the nuchal blotch behind the venom-swollen cheeks, ending in a point shaped like a crude arrow; I thought of the potent cocktail of proteins and peptides within, a concoction which is reported to be two and a half times more toxic than that of the western diamondback, although the venom yield is only roughly 1/7th that of the diamondback (Klauber, 1956). I admired the chocolate brown stripe that ran diagonally from behind each eye, their margins traced by the same cream-white that bordered the pattern on the body. It was a truly remarkable and amazing work of creation, admired by some and loathed by many others, but demanding respect regardless.
As if to remind me of this, the snake sprang into sudden action, as most prairie rattlers are eventually prone to do if not promptly left alone. With rattles whirring it threw itself into a twisted coil, full of electricity, its tongue curled up over its nose in a smooth, menacing gesture that left little doubt as to its intentions should I advance any closer. Prairie rattlesnakes are like badgers. They put up with little provocation and display an almost characteristic pugnacious form of self-defense, showing no quarter. While western diamondbacks, massasaugas, and all other species of rattlesnakes I have encountered over the years tend to display a variable range of personality, from placid to aggressive, every prairie rattler I have crossed paths with has exhibited this same line of behavior. They sit still for a minute or two, then suddenly spring into hyperdrive, exploding into restless, sinuous coils, with rattles buzzing, always facing me, daring me to come closer and reap the dire consequences of my foolishness.

According to a statistical study conducted at the University of Florida based on hospital records of snakebite cases, pit vipers were shown to give “dry” bites (bites where one or more fangs punctured the skin but did not deliver any venom) 20-25 % of the time (Johnson, 2012). It would be interesting to break this down even further to species level, as nothing about the demeanor or suggestive body language of a prairie rattlesnake has ever given me the insinuation that they were considering the possibility of dry-biting. In fact, several years ago an acquaintance of mine who regularly handles prairie rattlesnakes in the Lubbock area was accidentally bitten on the pad of the thumb with both fangs by an adult specimen and described trying unsuccessfully to shake the snake loose while watching both venom glands expand and contract, pumping the full load of venom into his system. As reported in Werler & Dixon, he experienced many of the typical symptoms of envenomation by this pit viper, including the metallic taste in the mouth and tingling sensation in the digits, face and tongue. The venom contains a complex blend of both hemotoxic and neurotoxic properties, which can vary between populations, with certain localities being “hotter” than others. Cardiotoxins have been identified in prairie rattlesnake venom as well, and in some populations these combined with significant neurotoxins can lead to paralysis and heart failure. While fortunate in this regard, my acquaintance did lose his entire thumb after a week-long hospital stay and acquired several hundred thousand dollars in medical bills.
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While definitely not seeming to entertain the idea of either fleeing or putting up with any guff, the irascible prairie rattlesnake posed defiantly as I took pictures, a subject worthy of a Gadsden flag emblem and a doubtless testament to its ability to survive for thousands of years in an ecosystem dominated by large herding ungulates, be they native bison or today’s cattle. If it was having any thoughts of turning tail and fleeing it was doing a good job of disguising them. With no hook available in which to move the rattlesnake to the safety of the roadside grass (remember, I had been looking for beetles, assuming snakes were out of the question) I simply backed away slowly and left it to the deserted highway to resume its nocturnal business. I wished it well as I flicked off the flashlight and its form was swallowed up in darkness, the rattle still singing that melancholy death song that has struck fear in the hearts of man and beast for so many centuries. In the dark of the night it sounded even more sinister and foreboding.
“Good luck you little devil”, I told him. “Try to find you a nice place to hide before the sunrise. It’s supposed to be another hot one.”
I closed the door of the truck and put it in drive, leaving the prairie rattlesnake to the rolling plains, and headed back down the Great Rattlesnake Highway, eager for the next adventure.
BIBLIOGRAPHY

Stebbins, Robert C.; A Field Guide to Western Reptiles & Amphibians; Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston, 1966
Savage, Candace; Prairie: A Natural History; Greystone Books D& M Publishing; 2nd Ed; 2011 (orig 2004)
Werler, John E. & Dixon, James R.; Texas Snakes; University of Texas at Austin Press: 2000
Klauber, Laurence M.; Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories, & Influence on Mankind; Vol. II, 3rd Edition; University of California Press; 1997 (orig. 1956)
Rubio, Manny; Rattlesnake: Portrait of a Predator; Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998
Hayes, William K. & Duvall, David; A field study of prairie rattlesnake predatory strikes; Herpetologica Vol. 47, No. 1 (Mar, 1991) pp. 78-81; Allen Press
Murphy, B.P., Andersen, A.N., & Parr, C.L. The underestimated biodiversity of tropical grassy biomes; Phil. Trans. R.Soc.B; 2016
http://www.canadianherpetology.com
http://naturalhistorymag.com
http://uta.edu
Gaworecki, Mike; Grasslands in U.S. Great Plains are being destroyed at an “alarming rate”; 2016; http://news.mongabay.com
Plow print Report (World Wildlife Fund); http://www.worldwildlife.org
http://ccsassociation.org
Johnson, Steve A.; Venomous snake FAQs; Department of Wildlife Ecology & Conservation; University of Florida; 2012; http://ufwildlife.ifas.ufl.edu

Two Short Walks in a Midsummer Heat Wave

A high pressure ridge sits over this part of the country, sealing in the heat. That, plus a jacked-up climate, has resulted in weather that is like God’s own convection oven set for “broil.” Despite the record heat, the nearby Southwest Nature Preserve pulls at me like an arcade game for a little kid, and the weekend could not pass without my wanting to play it just a couple of times.

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The moon, over a shrinking pond

Yesterday, July 21st, I decided that surely a walk at sunset would be OK, so I walked the perimeter of the preserve from about 8:30 to 9:30pm. According to my car, the starting temperature was about 101F. I made my way down the trail to the pond at the northwest corner, where the diameter is shrinking toward hot tub size and the water temperature is just right for that. Walking down onto the spongy exposed mud, there was no sign of the leopard frogs I recently saw, but I did surprise a bullfrog that jumped into the hot tub with a splash. Above the pond, several swifts flew their typical aerobatic, twisting dance, and I hope they caught plenty of insects.

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Sunset through the leaves of a giant oak

The insects were the living things most in evidence. Grasshoppers jumped and flew ahead of my steps, and cicadas droned in the background. I walked around to the yucca meadow, and searched the sand by flashlight. I’m guessing that the Comanche harvester ants had been sheltering deep in their colonies, but I did find one solitary ant, carrying a fragment of something and presumably searching for the opening down to join her sisters.

Back in the woods, I checked Weather Underground, which reported the Arlington temperature as 98F, at 9:00pm. The walk back was quiet; the woods were still and the sumacs were wilted, and no Chuck Will’s Widow graced the evening with its beautiful calls. It seemed that everything except the cicadas had retreated into shelters to wait out the heat.

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The little pond, ringed by water primrose

This evening, in a fit of lunacy, I decided I wanted to see what the place was like in the full flowering of the broiling sun. When I arrived, about 6:40pm, Weather Underground said that Arlington was enjoying 112 degrees of late afternoon sun. I walked down to the smallest pond to see if any water remained. As it turned out, the drying of the pond has been a bonanza for the water primrose, which had an ever-widening band of muddy bank which it has covered in luxuriant growth. The center of the pond still has some water, for now.

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A common whitetail dragonfly perches for a moment on a cattail stalk

I walked over to the biggest pond and saw a little blue heron flying off over the water. Dragonflies were active all throughout the preserve, but the big pond was Odonate Central. I stood on the bank, with no turtles to see and no cricket frogs hopping to safety, trying to zoom my iPhone in for a satisfactory photo of one of these acrobatic little predators. I suppose I felt I had to photograph something.

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The late afternoon sun shining through grass seed

Walking back, I spotted a group of several northern cardinals in a group of oaks and understory plants. I got a good look at a male, and caught glimpses of others through the leaves. I did not linger to see when they would move on; it had been a tough couple of walks, and I was only good for about a half hour today, with the temperature still at 104F when I left. Life goes on at Southwest Nature Preserve, sheltering from the worst of the heat or (in the case of the dragonflies) flying in complete defiance of it. Good for them. I’m headed for shelter.