The first day of June seems like the first day of summer, and today it definitely felt like summer. The temperatures topped 90ºF today with humidity above 40%, and the lens of my camera fogged as soon as I took the lens cap off. But it turned out to be a great day to take some photos of a young person photographing a snake. I had that in mind as a possible cover photo for my book that’s working its way through the publication process at Texas A&M University Press.
Readers who want to learn about the
natural history of reptiles and amphibians will find, in that book, plenty of
vignettes of snakes, turtles, frogs, and other herps living their daily lives.
In the process, they will read about how they eat, how snakes move, the
adaptations of American Alligators for aquatic life, how Marbled Salamanders
lay eggs in just the right places, anticipating spring rains, and so on. Later
chapters talk about how readers can go into the field and find these animals,
along with some cautions about getting guided practice and experience in order
to stay safe. Although I think the book is practical and well-researched, there
are places where I try to describe how a day spent in the field can make you
feel. The book is full of objective facts, but I hope the subjective
experience, the beauty and sense of peace, shine through.
At any rate, my goal this morning was to get a photograph of a young lady doing what field herpers do: photographing some stunning creature. My luck is not the kind where you just go and hope you find something; I brought along a trusty Great Plains Ratsnake, “Lucky” by name, as a photographic subject. If you watched the TV interview with me about the book, Herping Texas, on the College Station PBS affiliate, you have seen Lucky. I brought her along to give the camera something to focus on much more telegenic than the co-author! And today, she posed nicely and stayed put while I took several photos of Embry photographing her. Embry remained cool and poised while the temperatures rose and I wiped the condensation off the camera lens. It was truly like a sauna out there.
The rest of our walk included lots
of butterflies. Embry’s mom and I identified Tiger Swallowtails and a Common
Buckeye, along with the smaller sulphurs and a Pearl Crescent. Not all the
invertebrates were as welcome as these butterflies; the black-and-red paper wasps
(a species in the genus Polistes, I
believe) were very active today. I did my best to advocate for them, saying that
they really didn’t want any trouble, and we walked past several without any
problems. Embry and I traded stories of childhood trauma involving
invertebrates – she with wasp stings and me with a tarantula.
At the marsh, we saw a young American
Alligator sunning itself on some broken remnants of a boardwalk, and we looked
for Green Treefrogs. These frogs make the night quite magical when a chorus of
male frogs is calling with their honking and quacking voices across the marsh.
During the day, they hang out quietly on vegetation and are usually well-camouflaged
and often not seen. However, Embry’s mom took the treefrog prize today, spotting
one of them snoozing away on the stem of a big reed. And while I took a so-so picture
of it, Embry’s was a much better photo. The treefrog was a highlight of a muggy,
hot, but wonderful morning walk. A big “thank you” to Marsha and Embry!
I spend as much
time as I can in woods and prairies, or wading creeks and watching turtles slip
into the water or cricket frogs jump away as I approach. From my first
gartersnake in the early 1960s to now, I’ve spent a lot of time in the field,
looking for reptiles and amphibians. But that first gartersnake led to a sort
of addiction. Ribbonsnakes, watersnakes, box turtles, massasaugas – a list of
species that seemed ever-widening as I discovered more of the herpetological
That world expanded to more of the natural world when, as a young teenager, I spent some of the most valuable time of my life in a couple of Texas museums. I learned how my favorite animals were connected with other species, predator and prey. I learned about plant succession, symbiosis, food webs and the like, as we spent time in the field, patient teacher and eager learners like me, eyes opening to layer upon layer of the lives of forests and prairies, worlds within worlds.
It was as if my mentors and my experience in the field revealed a real and beautiful world to me. I waded in clear streams running along rocky bluffs, where map turtles basked on limestone boulders and little aquatic predatory larvae would transform into beautiful dragonflies soaring on cellophane wings. I learned about tallgrass prairies teeming with diverse plants and animals, adapted so that they required periodic fires and occasional grazing by bison in order to keep on being prairies and not be overrun by shrubs and trees. This seems to me to be the “real” world, while urban landscapes of steel and concrete are an alternate reality in which I may have to spend time, but never quite feel at home.
are more likely than most people to understand this “real” world and find
beauty in some things that others would overlook, or maybe be repulsed by.
Flipping tin to find snakes in the cool of the morning, we might think about
how ingeniously an ectothermic animal can make use of its surroundings to get
to the right temperature. The sun heats those sheets of corrugated tin and
might help get that racer up to speed and ready for a day of chasing down prey.
We could find a red-spotted gartersnake in Oregon and imagine the long-running
arms race these snakes have had with rough-skinned newts. The newts’ skin produces
a neurotoxin that is fatal to many animals and there is even a human fatality,
someone who is said to have swallowed the newt on a dare. That toxin that the
newt secretes from skin glands, tetrodotoxin, protects the newt from most
predators, but not from the red-spotted gartersnake. Perhaps early on the
tetrodotoxin killed some of the gartersnakes, but some with greater tolerance
for the poison survived. This new generation of snakes was more able to eat
most of the newts, but populations with stronger toxins were still protected,
and passed along their genes for more powerful secretions. And so it
progressed, with newts developing stronger toxin, followed by gartersnakes
developing greater resistance. Stories like this teach us so much about
predation, evolution, and survival. They continue to hook some of us into a
greater fascination and love for the natural world.
And so we go on hikes to look for reptiles and amphibians, and in the process may learn more about the living world around us. Successful searches depend on our understanding a few things about habitat, and we learn more about how an upland oak forest is different from a bottomland forest with its periodic flooding and rich soil. Finding herps depends on understanding a bit of their natural history, and so we learn to look in places favorable for shelter and prey, and we discover how a species’ activity can shift from daytime in the cooler spring and fall months to nighttime in the hot summer. Somewhere along the way, the natural world (which can seem foreign and exotic to some people) comes to feel like home.
That home is shrinking. What used to be a continuous mural of forests, plains, mountains, and deserts across the continent has been clipped into fragments and marked over until it is now a series of portraits and thumbnail images of what once was. A report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) says:
“Compared to pre- European settlement status, over 95 per cent of the tall grass prairie grasslands in North America … have been transformed into human-dominated landscapes. … over 50 percent of all wetlands in the United States have been lost since European settlement, with up to 90 per cent lost in agricultural regions.” (IPBES, p. 27)
Focusing in on herps in particular, the situation is very concerning. Amphibians are in decline globally, and similar declines in reptiles have been discussed for going on two decades (Gibbons, et al., 2000). Habitat loss and fragmentation, toxic pollution, invasive species, climate change, diseases, unsustainable use by humans, all these things are threatening herps and other species.
To borrow a movie (or book)
metaphor, it’s like The Neverending Story, in which a young boy reads a book telling
about a fantastic world that is being consumed by the “Nothing,” gradually
disappearing, bit by bit. Like in our world, where forests are cut, grasslands
ploughed, and the animals disappear along with the land. As Bastian reads, he
gradually discovers that by reading the book, he has entered the story, and has
become a character in it. And by going into the field, we have entered the
story, and we are a part of whatever happens to wild places and wildlife. What
can we do to fight the Nothing?
Among the things we can do
is to keep the remaining wild places as healthy as possible. This is important
not only in tracts of wilderness, but also in small local preserves. For
example, in a woodland we know that some herp species might be sheltering under
big loose sections of bark on dead trees. The easiest way to search would be to
pull those sections of bark off, but that would destroy a bit of microhabitat
that was used by lizards, snakes, and other animals. Once the bark is pulled
off, it cannot be put back. So maybe
it’s a big woods with a number of other dead trees, and it might seem like
we’re just doing something that is going to happen anyway, eventually as the
wood decays. But we probably don’t find what we’re looking for under the bark
of that first dead tree, so maybe we go on to the next one and peel the bark
off of it. Soon, we have done a lot of damage.
I would rather carry a small flashlight in the field and shine it into
such places, so I can see what is there without destroying the places where
these animals live.
“Rock-flipping” is a
time-honored, though back-breaking field herping practice. Big, flat rocks with
just the right amount of gap under them can be great places for herps to
shelter. The environment under them can be just right – they may gather the
radiant heat of the sun when needed but insulate against severe heat, and the
humidity will be a little higher than in exposed places. The easy way to flip a
rock is to simply turn it over and leave it there, but that destroys the “just
right” conditions under the rock. I am so thankful for those herpers to go out
of their way to re-position the rocks just like they were. Researchers
in Australia looked at whether herps used rocks that were left out of place and
found that they did not. A rock that had been carefully put back in its
original position was much more likely to be used by lizards and snakes. They
also found that the temperature and humidity were different under rocks that
had been moved by humans. A field of rocks that have been turned over and left
is the herp equivalent of a place that has been invaded by the Nothing.
Diseases are significant threats to
wildlife. Many of the well-known threats are fungal, like white-nose syndrome
that has killed millions of bats. More recently, snake fungal disease has
emerged as a significant disease in wild snakes, causing fungal lesions of the
skin and mouth. One of the biggest culprits in world-wide amphibian die-offs
are a couple of species of chytrid fungus. They attack the delicate skin of
frogs and salamanders, thickening the skin and harming its ability to exchange
gases and water. Field researchers working with amphibians have adopted protocols
to make sure they do not spread any such fungus, and we should consider some of
the same measures. We might, for example disinfect nets and other equipment as
well as the parts of boots that have gathered mud, before visiting a different
location. Bleach solutions work well for this.
You explore a hillside all
afternoon, being careful to pull rocks up just enough to look underneath, and
then put them back just like you found them. Under one of those rocks, you find
the most magnificent kingsnake! Its scales are a beautiful, glossy black, each
one with a little dab of canary yellow, speckled from head to tail. Do you pick
it up? Just take a photograph, or stare in quiet admiration? Or do you take it
home? Unlike birders, herpers get to pick up and hold many of their finds. In
many cases, perhaps with a hunting license or other permit, we can take
reptiles and amphibians home to keep in cages or terraria. Whether that is a
good thing is a long and complicated argument.
First, let me tell you about my
experience over the years. When I got started, I collected most of the reptiles
that I found. My parents accepted my hobby and helped me build cages, and I
brought home coachwhips, ratsnakes, box turtles, the occasional snapping
turtle, and others. Chances are, I did little harm to most of the populations –
I was just another predator, a two-legged boy taking a ribbonsnake rather than
a two-legged heron stabbing the snake with its long bill. Predation is a fact
of life for wild animals, and unless the predation is too high, the population
withstands it. (By the way, it is worth noting that collection by herpers is
just like being captured and eaten by a raccoon or hawk or other animal – the
herp is dead as far as the population is concerned.)
When increasing numbers of
collectors work over a small area, the losses can drive populations down in
that place. This is especially true for turtles, which mature slowly and live
long lives. A female turtle has to lay lots of clutches of eggs over her long
lifetime, because many eggs and young are killed and eaten, and only a few make
it to adulthood. This makes every adult box turtle or snapping turtle very
valuable. They have to stick around for a long time in order to contribute to
the population. Removing a box turtle takes away many years of reproductive
potential from the population. Being run over on the highways is a big threat
to turtle populations, but collection can harm them, too. In Connecticut, wood
turtles were studied both before and after an area was opened to hiking by
permit. The population of turtles was gone in ten years, likely because of
people who meant no real harm collecting them and taking them home (Internet:
Vermont Fish & Wildlife Dept.).
Over the years, I collected fewer
herps. This was partly because a large collection of reptiles demands a lot of
time and work if you care for them properly. It was also because I noticed that
a velvety-black coachwhip cruising gracefully through grassland and scrub loses
a lot of its magic once it is at home, in a box. As I came to appreciate them
more, I didn’t want to see them confined in a tiny area from which they would
gladly escape if they could (and on occasion they did). I learned more by just
watching, about how they moved and hunted when undisturbed. I remember watching
a watersnake periscope up and look around, and then take a leisurely swim
across the creek. I watched a racerunner lizard nervously make its way across
sand and grass with quick, jerky movements as if barely restraining its energy.
It grabbed an invertebrate to munch it down, and turned this way and that to
look for prey and watch for predators. More and more, these moments seemed more
valuable to me than chasing the herp down (maybe breaking the lizard’s tail in
the process) to collect it.
I don’t want you to think that I am
a purist who never captures anything. If it can be done without harming the
animal, I may capture it briefly and pose it for a photograph. I also think
that some collection of herps for scientific collections is justified – those
collections have increased our understanding of these animals greatly, and we
need scientific collections. But I found that I did not need much of a personal
What would I do with extra
animals kept at home, ones that I didn’t want to keep? I couldn’t (or shouldn’t
have) let them go, for several reasons. First, of course, I would never release
anything that was exotic. Quite often, something that isn’t adapted to the area
will simply die, but if it doesn’t, it can become quite a problem. I’d learned
about invasive exotic species, starting with the story of the cane toad,
introduced into Australia to control the cane beetle. Apparently the toad did
not help with that beetle, but it did eat lots of other things, adding extra
pressure on native wildlife. The toad’s toxic secretions were also a problem
for wildlife species that attempted to eat it, further harming local wildlife.
There are plenty of other stories of exotic wildlife that have gotten loose or
been released, such as in Florida.
Thinking about the problems
with spreading diseased like chytrid or snake fungal disease, I would not want
to release a native animal, either. Being collected is a source of stress, and
even if my local ratsnake was feeding and acting healthy, I cannot be sure if
that snake might be harboring some pathogen that got established because stress
can compromise the immune system. With weakened immune functioning,
microorganisms that had been present at low levels might now flourish, and my
ratsnake might pick up new pathogens while in my collection, because I did not
practice hospital-level infection control when taking care of that collection.
And even if the animal is
native and could be proven to have no disease that it could spread, there’s one
more problem. Out in the wild, as they grow and move around in their habitat,
herps generally stay within an area referred to as the “home range.” They get
to know the landmarks and resources of an area and generally stay within that
home range. The size of the home range varies a great deal across different
species and to some extent for different individuals. A home range might be
bigger for larger, active animals and when the resources are limited, forcing
the animal to move over a larger area to find what they need. When we capture a
reptile and later release it somewhere else, trouble often follows. The animal
may not settle down, continuing to search for “home” and having a greater
chance of being killed. This problem has been studied, and the results are
often similar. Plummer and Mills (2000) radio-tracked eight resident eastern
hog-nosed snakes and eight that were translocated. The resident snakes moved
about within their home ranges but the ones that had been moved traveled more,
often in straight line movements, and were three times more likely to die
during the study. Nowak & van Riper (1999) translocated western
diamond-backed rattlesnakes in Arizona and found that the translocated snakes
moved greater distances, and some found their way back to their original home
range while others experienced greater mortality. Overall similar results have
been seen with box turtles (for example, Cook, 2004; Sosa & Perry, 2015):
when moved out of their home range, adults often move greater distances, may
not stay in the area to which they have been moved, and may have greater
There have been a few successes when translocating herps, but overall the news has not been very good. Sometimes moving an animal is justified. When a herp is found in some high-traffic, developed location where it will be killed or be unable to find food and shelter, then moving it to the closest available place with suitable habitat may be the best we can do. Otherwise, moving the animal just because we think we know where it would live a better life, or in an attempt to re-establish it in some place where that species has disappeared, is really not a good idea.
So I guess that over the years I have learned a lot of “don’t do this” stuff. But you know what? It’s really stuff that lets me do what I love in a way that helps me protect the places and animals I love. Think of them as ways to fight “the Nothing” while still having a great time exploring forests, wetlands, and deserts, and seeing amazing animals.
Nowak, E.M., & C. van Riper. 1999. Effects and
Effectiveness of Rattlesnake Relocation at Montezuma Castle National Monument.
Flagstaff, AZ: USGS Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center Technical
Pike, D.A., Croak, B.M.,
Webb, J.K., and R. Shine. 2010. Subtle
– but easily reversible – anthropogenic disturbance seriously degrades habitat
quality for rock-dwelling reptiles. Animal Conservation, Vol. 13, Pp. 411-418.
Plummer, M.V., & N.E. Mills. 2000. Spatial Ecology and Survivorship of Resident and
Translocated Hognose Snakes (Heterodon
platirhinos). Journal of Herpetology, Vol. 34, No. 4, Pp. 565-575.
J.A., & G. Perry. 2015. Site Fidelity, Movement, and Visibility Following
Translocation of Ornate Box Turtles (Terrapene
ornata ornata) From a Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in the High Plains of
Texas. Herpetological Conservation & Biology, Vol. 10 No. 1, Pp. 255-262.
On December 30th of 2018, I hit the road to San Antonio Texas for New Year’s Eve, a tradition that I have had for about the past twelve years. We have gone mostly to get our fix of some really good Mexican food. Typically, I don’t eat Mexican food north of San Antonio.
I try to take advantage of any opportunity to find herps when I am in a different region of Texas. One of the endemic species of turtles that occurs in this region is the Texas Cooter (Pseudemys texana). With a fairly wide range across the central part of Texas, it can be a fairly easy species to locate.
The Texas cooter was the very first species within the genus Pseudemys that I found as a kid. One summer in the mid 90’s my family took a little trip to San Antonio and Austin. My dad took my sister and me to swim at the famous Barton Springs pool. It was there I found a big beautiful female texana hanging out on the limestone in the shallow part of the swimming area. I picked her up and checked her out. I called my parents over and we all admired her. You can see the look of delight on my face in these pictures. After we took pictures I followed alongside her for as long as I could until she finally disappeared into the deep end under the diving board.
Lucky for me in these past few years I have been able to work with and admire many Texas cooters. As a part of the Turtle Survival Alliance – North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group, we have two long term population monitoring sites. Both locations, Comal Springs and Bull Creek in Austin, are places where Texas cooters call home. Since I see these turtles on a regular basis, I and others have noticed an interesting difference in the look of P. texana from Comal Springs and the ones from areas surrounding Travis county. Since this has been something of interest to us turtle nerds, I make sure to document the differences and similarities in photographs. Carl Franklin even makes a point to do this on the Texas Cooter page of the Texas Turtles website.
“Did you say cooter? *Aheh-heh-heh hehh*
Yes, we turtle nerds get this question quite a bit from non-herp people. Cooter? Why do we call it cooter? Cooter is derived from an African word for turtle: “Kuta.” When slaves were brought to America the word “kuta” got vernacularized into “cooter.” There ya go!
During the day on New Year’s Eve while my non-turtle friends went to do non-turtley things, I set off to find some cooters in Bexar county. It did not take me long! I ventured to an area off the San Antonio River walk in a very developed location. One of those parts of the city that has recently been renovated with hipster breweries, coffee shops and apartments. To my surprise, I spotted some cooters right away. In Texas we can have all types of weather at any moment in time, and even all at one time. (Seriously!) The weather was rather chilly, overcast and cloudy and 57°F at about 2:30pm. Not what one would normally think of as turtle or herp weather. I have noticed that if days are warmer before leading up to a cooler/ overcast day I still have a decent chance of seeing turtles.
I photographed these turtles as they sat alongside red-eared sliders and of course the always handsome melanistic male sliders. I made note of the stripes that ran down the side of the cooters’ heads and necks. Many have thicker yellow stripes toward the back of their heads near the ear. Their head shapes always stick out to me. I don’t exactly know how to describe it, but there is an almost blunt shape to their faces. They have a bicusbid upper beak, meaning that the upper jaw drops down in two little points, leaving a notch at the center, just below the nostrils. Along the carapace, at the edges, the underside of each marginal scute has a pinkish-orange circular or ring-shaped blotch. The back legs and feet often carry the same coloration. The carapace can be olive to brown with yellow lines creating a reticulating or even swirl pattern. They also possess amazing bluish/green eyes.
I walked a good distance down the river. As I neared the section where I needed to turn around, I noticed a great blue heron with feathers fluffed up. It looked as if it felt cold, and temperature was cold, that is for sure! Seeing birds is a great side-benefit to exploring waterways for turtles. In these winter months I do become more of a bird nerd since turtle/herp activity slows down. On my walk back, I noticed a little blue heron hunting for whatever creatures it could find under the bank. I watched this little blue heron for quite a while to see what it caught to eat. As I pressed on, I came across a snowy egret that was also hunting. This little snowy egret was shuffling its feet below the water, at what looked to be the top of the mud or sediment. I watched it flush out whatever it could from the muddy water and then eat it. I am sure this is a behavior well known among birders and ornithologists. It was cool for me to watch!
On the rest of my walk, I spotted a few more turtles and many of the same turtles I saw earlier. I finally called it a day and headed back to my friend’s house to partake in “normal” New Year’s Eve festivities.
New Year’s Day, 2019.
All I really had on my mind with it being a new year was getting out to see what turtles, and particularly what texana, might be out. My friends decided to join me on this stop at a very popular and well-known San Antonio city park. It was 51°F – much colder, more cloudy and overcast than the day before. I was starting to think that I was not going to see any turtle activity.
However, it did not take me long to spot a small Texas cooter and red-eared slider “basking” on a small log. I was pretty happy with that, thinking that those were all I would see. We all decided to call it quits since it was so chilly. On the drive out of the park I spotted more cooters out on logs and tree limbs in the water. I quickly pulled over and photographed five more cooters. Again, I thought it was still pretty awesome that they were out in such chilly weather!
Texas has three endemic species of turtles that is, they are found only in Texas. These are the Texas cooter, Texas map turtle, and Cagle’s map turtle. The Texas cooter distribution is throughout central Texas in the Colorado, Llano, San Saba, Brazos, Guadalupe, Nueces and San Antonio river systems. We even have speculated that they may be as far up as Tarrant county. We have caught a few during our Trinity River Turtle Survey that have quite a “texana” look to them. (This is a discussion for another time maybe!) Here are some pictures that may show a bit of the difference between cooters in Comal County, Travis County, Bexar County and even Gonzales County.
For a while P. texana was grouped under Pseudemys concinna (eastern river cooter). It was described as P. texana in 1893.
As I mentioned before, these turtles are bicusbid. The insides of their mouths are pretty interesting. Along the surfaces of the jaws are “tomiodonts,” which look almost like stalagmite and stalactite formations. These structures probably come in handy since Texas cooters are known to be primarily herbivorous. ( these images courtesy of Carl Franklin showing tomiodonts for three different cooter species throughout Texas)
Perhaps the newest bit of information that we have found is that females grow to 13.5 inches (34.3 cm) and adult males reach 11 inches (28 cm) in straight carapace length. This data was collected from our Comal springs study site.
There’s still lots more to be learned about this Texas endemic. Hopefully, 2019 will continue to grace us with more knowledge on this species.
As 2018 comes to a close I have spent a lot of time looking back on this previous year of herping and what my friends and I have begun to refer to as “turtling.”
My lifelong fascination, passion, obsession with reptiles and amphibians and more specifically chelonians has driven me to see some incredible things in some pretty neat places. I have an even more ambitious list for 2019.
My highlights of 2018
These consisted of kicking off a spring break turtle survey with an amazing group of kiddos called the “Spring Lake Adventure Club” or SLAC / SLAC-ers. They got to learn the ins and outs of “turtle surveying 101.” They even have their own blog! I’ll talk more about them in future blog posts. https://chroniclesofslackers.wordpress.com/
This year also marked the first full year of the Trinity River Turtle Survey led by our pal Andrew Brinker. The Trinity River Turtle Survey (TRTS) is a mark and recapture long term population monitoring study. https://www.facebook.com/trinityturtlesurvey/
Also, we continued into the second year of a study on alligator snapping turtles in Harris County.
In April I traveled to Pennsylvania to take part in a wood turtle study/survey led by some of my fellow turtle nerds or as I like to refer to them, my Turtle Family. Pennsylvania was not only a stop to check out wood turtles but a chance to get in some herping of some other amazing species. My buddy Andy Weber not only blew the trip out of the water by catching spotted turtles and painted turtles, but the cherry on top was when he was able to find me a hellbender salamander! This large and elusive salamander is also known as the “snot otter” or “old lasagna sides.” It lives up to its nickname of “snot otter” thanks to the amount of slime it produces when being handled or grabbed. The term lasagna sides refers to the wrinkly folds of skin that run down the side of its body. This helps the hellbender capture oxygen in the quick moving water in which it lives. The hellbender is on the top of many herp nerds’ list of “herps to see in the wild.” It is also a species facing environmental threats and is being studied by herpetologists. Talk about an incredible moment!
In May I spent five days with my turtle family turtling and herping across parts of central Texas. We found everything from narrow-mouthed toads, cliff chirping frogs, broad-banded water snakes to Cagle’s map turtles.
During the start of the hot summer, I traveled to east Texas with buddy Brett Bartek and found southern painted and Sabine map turtles that are only found on that side of the state.
After all that, perhaps the biggest find of the year was discovering juvenile and very old alligator snapping turtles in Tarrant County with Carl Franklin and Andrew Brinker (more on this later also!).
The Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) Conference took place in August in Fort Worth. TSA is a nonprofit organization that is, as its website states, “dedicated to zero turtle extinctions” across the globe. This conference is likely the largest assembly of the world’s biggest turtle nerds. I not only presented at the conference but once the conference concluded I took my friend Dr. Shailendra Singh, who is the Director of TSA-India, across as much of Texas as possible. In two days I helped him find 12 species of Texas turtles including all of the Texas endemics and traveled about 710 miles.
Together with Carl Franklin, I presented about Texas turtles for the Cross Timbers Master Naturalists. After that Carl, Andrew Brinker and I traveled to Austin to speak to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. We were there with others to advocate ending the commercial collection of Texas turtles. To our delight, it passed unanimously!
The fall months continued with more herping and turtling. It was a very rainy year so our trapping had to slow down at times due to such high water levels.
Now with these winter days shorter and colder, I spend this time not only reflecting but thinking about many other things relating to ecology and natural history of Texas turtles and herps in general.
“So WHY turtles?”
One question that many of us get asked is, “So WHY turtles?” and “What is your favorite turtle?”
My favorite turtle is any turtle! However, there are a few species that have a special place in my heart. They are not the most flashy, extravagant, or even elusive. One of them is probably the most “common” of our turtles. That common (and neat, to me) turtle is the melanistic male red-eared slider. These melanistic males are so handsome, from the shape of their shell, the color change that happens to the shell, to the darkening and even blackening of their face. I have seen them from chocolate brown, olive green, grayish to completely black. Perhaps my fondness is because this was one of the first turtles I found as a kid. Perhaps I am just curious about when the dark pigments begin to take over and the whole package that comes with them being melanistic. What is the overall function or advantage in them being melanistic? We still have so much more to learn! We see them so frequently it is easy to write them off, saying “Eh more sliders” as we scan the water looking for whichever may be the target species for that day. They are certainly the most requested ID on Texas Turtles Facebook page that is run by Carl Franklin and me. The Facebook page is associated with the Texas Turtles website, a source for lots of information about our native chelonians.
After a day of turtling when I am processing and looking through the turtle pictures from that day, I stop on the images of these “old man” sliders which are fascinating to me. I have made a few observations with these guys here at the end of this year, perhaps I will be able to document and look into them in 2019…..
It was sunny all day, with barely a wisp of clouds and little breeze. Weather Underground reports that it reached 68F in Arlington today; I did not have a thermometer at the preserve but it’s safe to say that it reached the mid-60’s.
I haven’t written a lot about Southwest Nature Preserve lately, but it is one of my two “homes away from home.” It is a surprising and fortunate thing that these 58 acres of Eastern Cross Timbers habitat have been saved, right here in the metroplex. The rocky hillsides with Woodbine Formation sandstone and blackjack and post oak woods mixed with juniper are prime examples of the Eastern Cross Timbers. The little “pocket prairies” of little bluestem and other native grasses fit right in. There are lots of other little treasures and surprises among the plants: Glen Rose yucca, false indigo, and farkleberry can be found there. And a meadow dominated by yucca, Texas bull nettle, and other plants has the deep sand needed for the Comanche harvester ant to have multiple colonies. Four ponds provide a home for what seems to me like a great diversity of dragonflies and damselflies. The ponds also support cricket frogs, leopard frogs, some watersnakes, and an assortment of sliders and cooters, which are a source of delight for herpers like me.
There is something to delight the soul of a naturalist all the year round, and I never regret a single walk there, even after what I’m sure are hundreds of times I’ve walked up to the ridge on “Kennedale Mountain,” visited the ponds, and passed through the little prairies. I was there yesterday at sunset to mark the winter solstice and returned today to enjoy the first afternoon of winter there.
The red-eared sliders were sunning at the ponds, one with the characteristic yellow and green pattern and red patches on the head, and at least one that was an old melanistic male.
Two turtles at the north pond
Some insects are hiding and dormant, others may have died with the brief spells of freezing we had a while back. Others were out and about, winter or not. A dragonfly skipped around and landed in front of me, bringing a particular bit of scarlet magic to the hillside.
Among the leftovers from the fall were a few clusters of oak leaves holding on to red color, and in places the sunlight shining through them was like flame on the woodland floor. The little bluestem still have seeds clinging to the stems, catching the sunlight as if the tiniest white birds had brushed against them and left little white feathers there.
A cluster of red post oak leaves
The north end of the preserve has its share of honey locust trees with clusters of long thorns, each with a cross piece of two additional thorns. Their seed pods are long and flat and are often twisted. One tree still held several of these pods.
Honey locust seed pods
One additional treat waited at the pond at the southwest corner of the preserve, where a boardwalk skirts one edge of it and extends out over the water for fishing. A great egret was looking for something to eat, but straightened and watched me carefully. Despite my slow approach, the bird would not stay, and I was able to take a couple of photos as it flew away.
It was a good start to a winter that I hope provides lots of opportunities for visiting all the preserves and natural places in north Texas.
You may recall that Clint and I visited the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area last spring (Late Winter in the Savannahs and Bottomlands) and had all good intentions of returning to this Anderson County location during the summer. After all, it is a place with velvety-black eastern coachwhips, the occasional box turtle, plenty of five-lined skinks, and it has its share of copperheads and cottonmouths. What could be better? However, I missed traveling to this spot except for a brief visit with Carl Franklin on September 29 where we were able to photograph a very nice cottonmouth.
Now that winter is approaching, we have had some cold weather, and the leaves are dropping from the trees in the bottomlands at Gus Engeling, my thoughts turn to salamanders. And so yesterday, Viviana Ricardez and I rolled the dice (and a few logs) to see if we might spot a salamander or two.
A flooded patch of bottomland at Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area
According to the Texas Amphibians field guide (Tipton, et al., 2012), The western part of Anderson County should be within the range of the small-mouthed salamander, the eastern tiger salamander, and the dwarf salamander, and we’d be within rock-throwing range of at least one more, the marbled salamander. Because of the extraordinarily wet autumn this season (you may recall the record rainfall and flooding in north and central Texas within the past two months), it seemed possible that some salamander breeding might already have taken place and there could be larvae in some of the pools. Low places that temporarily fill with water are great for amphibian breeding because they don’t have fish that would eat the eggs and larvae. In any case, a visit to this patch of the Post Oak Savannah ecoregion on a fine late autumn day seemed like a great idea.
Viviana is a veteran of lots of turtle field work, though she is ready to see any herp species that come her way. She told me of a trip to Pennsylvania during which she saw several salamander species, including our biggest, baddest, most wonderful salamander, the hellbender. We could not possibly top that on this walk, but we would have fun seeing what we could find.
A tiny crayfish from our net
We sampled several pools, pulling a dip net across the bottom and investigating the leaves, twigs, and whatever critters it might catch. Larval salamanders would look a little like tadpoles, but longer and with a feathery frill of external gills behind the head. Late in their development they would have the four small legs typical of the salamanders of the genera Ambystoma (small-mouthed and tiger salamanders as well as others) or Eurycea (including the dwarf salamander). Instead, what we found in the dip net included a few freshwater shrimp a some tiny juvenile crayfish.
We also visited some upland areas, and one beautiful pond that, as Viviana pointed out, had few snags for turtles to pull out on and bask. Otherwise, it was a delightful spot that should harbor all kinds of herps. I won’t say that Viviana is single-minded in her devotion to turtles, but if she was a character in Game of Thrones, she would be known as the Mother of Turtles. In fact, some do call her that!
We walked through a patch of cut and burned land that Texas Parks & Wildlife Department is attempting to restore to the savannah that was once typical in this part of Texas. Some native grasses are attempting to come back, although the shrubby growth that swallows up parts of the WMA are trying their best to reclaim this spot. Before this part of Texas was tamed, periodic fires helped keep the woody plants down and helped grasses dominate the spaces between the trees. Small, prescribed fires are the best friend this patch of habitat could have.
Returning grassland, with the forest edge in the background
We returned to the bottomlands, and as we walked the sand and clay road toward a tributary of Catfish Creek, there was Old Man Turtle, to greet Viviana. The old man was a red-eared slider, with the typical pattern of greens and yellows now gone and replaced by dark pigment. Old male sliders often become melanistic in this way, with the carapace (upper shell) a sort of charcoal or vaguely olive-gray color with black borders of the scutes of the carapace. The head, neck, and limbs similarly darken, with the thin green lines breaking up into dots and dashes of darker and lighter gray or olive.
The Old Man – a melanistic male red-eared slider
Viviana, of course, spotted him first, and she picked him up to examine the details of his shell and pattern. There was a notch, an old injury, on his marginals just a little to the right of center near his neck. There were subtle but lovely shades of yellow darkening to gray on his forelimbs and parts of the shell.
His response might have been, “Good day, Khaleesi – to what do I owe the honor of your examining me?” Truly, you would think that this would be the only fitting response to Viviana’s joy and respect when she handles any of these turtles. However, he was not thrilled with being interrupted in his walk to the nearby creek tributary, and his opened mouth was not exactly a grin.
An exchange of gestures
After a series of photos of this delightful old turtle, we let him finish his trek across the road, plunging into the creek and immediately vanishing into the dark water. We were grateful to make his acquaintance, and happy to see him return to his watery domain as a free turtle.
We did not find salamanders, but we got to walk through some wonderful autumn woodlands and savannah, and meet Old Man Turtle of Catfish Creek!
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
It has been a hot and dry spring, and the beginning of summer looks no different. Rainfall totals for Dallas-Fort Worth ranged from 0.77 inches in April to 1.87 and 1.27 in May and June, respectively. We got only a little over three-quarters of an inch of rain in April. The previous three Aprils had rainfall from 3.4 to 5.6 inches (all these numbers from the National Weather Service). I headed for the Southwest Nature Preserve knowing it would be hot and dry – what else should I expect on the fourth of July?
Texas spiny lizard
Right away there was a rustle in the leaves, and a brightly-marked Texas spiny lizard stopped at the base of a tree, looking over his shoulder to see if I was going to cause trouble. As my hands moved to the camera, he climbed up the tree a couple of feet. When I moved a little closer he scrambled to the other side, in the typical spiny lizard fashion, always staying two steps ahead. Further down the trail I found another of these lizards, hanging head-down and clinging to the bark, tail curving away from the trunk in a slight arc. Here was one way to get through the heat of the day, hunting insects in the shade of an oak tree.
The second Texas spiny lizard
The pond on the northwest side of the preserve is one of my favorite spots to visit, and today it had not dried up, but was certainly shrinking. Along the water’s edge, a new generation of leopard frogs hopped to safety in large numbers. There were little ones not much bigger than the tadpoles that they were last month, and some that must have made the transition from tadpole stage much earlier in the spring. Here at poolside, a frog doesn’t let the heat bother him or her much. There’s always a quick dip in the water to cool off, and plenty of shade under plants such as the water primrose.
Southern leopard frog
Dragonflies patrol the skies over the preserve, and a well-focused image of those delicate, veined wings and wrap-around compound eyes is always worth trying for. I got a couple of passable images today, one that appears to be a widow skimmer and another that was identified on iNaturalist as a common whitetail.
Widow skimmer dragonfly
I also stopped to admire the lichen on a fallen branch. This working partnership between algae (or cyanobacteria) and fungi always seems to produce a sort of abstract art, and it’s always worth a look.
Lichen – or abstract art – or both
That was my celebration of the 4thof July, a short walk focused on a love of the land and the wisdom of those who set aside places like this to remain in a fairly natural state. In Woody Guthrie’s words: “From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters / This land was made for you and me.”