Hibernating Herps and the Wintertime Search for Salamanders

I talked about hibernation today with a small group at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. I love doing anything that may connect people to the natural world to a greater extent, either through knowledge, discovery, or “losing” oneself in a place of peace and beauty. Maybe we did a little of all that today, at least I hope so.

It’s fun to consider “where do they go when winter comes?” It’s fascinating to talk about what it really means to be “cold-blooded” and think about the different strategies herps use to protect themselves from excessive cold. And then it was time to go for a walk, in bright sunshine and temperatures that climbed into the low 60’s.

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West Fork Trinity River

We walked the Crosstimbers trail, starting along the banks of the West Fork Trinity River and then bending to the west and into Cross Timbers woodland, dropping into a bottomland forest along a slough. The river usually provides some wintertime sightings of sliders or cooters, and sure enough, pulled out on a tree branch that had fallen into the water were a red-eared slider and a river cooter. Both turtles have somewhat similar overall forms. Among the differences, one of the easiest to spot is the red patch toward the back of the head of the red-eared slider, which river cooters do not have. However, some red-ears, like the one we saw today, are old dark melanistic males.

IMG_3136In the woods, we talked about possible wintertime shelters for the western ratsnakes, five-lined skinks, and other herps that live in the Cross Timbers. The downed trees or standing dead trees may have cavities that stay above freezing, and burrows beneath the leaves and soil can protect from freezing.

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Flooded bottomland

We also discussed salamanders, and the small-mouthed salamander that used to be seen more often in our area. Why wouldn’t we find them now, when late fall and winter in flooded bottomlands is when and where you would expect them? The refuge has some wonderful bottomland habitat, as well as patches of prairie with small ponds. And yet, there don’t seem to be any records in recent years of small-mouthed (or other) salamanders at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge.

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Leaves beneath the water, overlaid by reflections of trees

The entry about the small-mouthed salamander in James Petranka’s Salamanders of the United States and Canadaindicates that breeding takes place after rains between January and February at about our latitude, and that they favor completely fish-less pools and ditches for breeding (since fish readily eat the larvae). More than some other mole salamanders, these can make use of very shallow pools, sometimes with depths no more than a few centimeters. In the section about conservation, he mentions loss of bottomland habitat as a threat.

So maybe this is the winter to pay more attention to possible salamanders in this part of north Texas. We had a very wet fall and we continue to have some rainfall, and so perhaps we will find one, or discover developing larvae in some ephemeral pool, sometime between February and May. It would sure be fun to go looking!

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Small-mouthed salamander, seen in another place, at another time

Leopard Frogs and “Horse-Apple Soccer”

Two years ago I took a co-worker, her daughter Embry, and Embry’s friend Maddy on a walk through the bottomland forests at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. We had fun and some good discussion about the things that live in the forest. Here are my notes:

We had barely started our walk down the old trail down through the bottomland forest when the girls froze in surprise and fascination. Ahead of us, a whitetail buck stared back at us, his head up and alert and ready to bolt away through the quiet woods. After a moment, he turned and disappeared behind a ridge, leaving Embry and Maddy fumbling for cameras. We walked toward where he disappeared, with as much stealth as we could, and peered around the ridge, but the deer had gone. These moments, even with a common animal like this, are magical and evanescent; one moment he is present, with his black, shining nose, dark eyes, and rack of antlers, and the next moment he has vanished.

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Embry and Maddy

We walked further down the wide track that cuts through the cottonwoods, burr oak, beech, and bois d’arc in this bottomland near a marsh within the refuge. Despite the abnormally warm autumn, many of the leaves were yellowing and some were falling, evidence that the trees knew the significance of the shorter days despite the warmth. Embry and Maddy, alert to every movement in the sedges and leaves, spotted wolf spiders and one that might have been a rather dull six-spotted fishing spider (my spider identification skills were not up to the task). I reassured them that these spiders held no danger and were trying to get out of our way. This was an odd role for me – if I ran into a web with one of the big orb-weaving spiders, I’m sure I would freak out as much as they would. The experience of having a spider on me overwhelms any objective knowledge of their benefits and general harmlessness.

At the edge of the path, I turned a section of fallen log and at one end, head tucked a little beneath an elm leaf, was a southern leopard frog. Its color was dark, with the spots practically obscured along its three to four-inch body. When more alert, they are often brighter and some have areas of pretty green color. At night, they snap up a great many insects, and jump away in long leaps if disturbed. Embry stepped in for a closer photo, positioning her phone over the frog to take a shot. Then I reached down, hoping to capture the frog for a moment and show its bright eyes and powerful legs, but at that moment it made its getaway.

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Leopard frog

At some point we came to a pool of water, four or five feet across, with tiny disturbances in the surface of the water here and there. What could this be? We talked about how bottomland forests flood from time to time, and the rain-swollen river and marsh stretch out to cover the ground where we stood. The flood waters carry fish along, and when the waters subside, smaller fish may be trapped in pools like this. A couple of dozen mosquitofish swam among the leaves and along the surface of the water, creating little disturbances when they suddenly turned or darted away. The girls showed a slight revulsion when I mentioned “mosquitofish,” until I explained that they were small fish that ate mosquito larvae. Embry was determined to catch one, circling around and trying to ambush one. Her mom commented, “You won’t catch it,” correctly judging that human hands are not effective tools for catching such a lightning-fast little fish. Nevertheless, it was delightful to watch Embry spot one and then another of these fish and make a quick grab into the water. Her enthusiasm made this common little fish new and exciting.

Isn’t this one of the things we treasure about children? I might have walked past this pool and noted that there were mosquitofish in it, with little reaction. Thanks to Maddy and Embry, I remembered what it is like to want to see them close up, and try my hand at grabbing one, in the process learning a great deal about how fast fins can propel streamlined bodies through the water. I once again see the crosshatched pattern of fish scales on a partly translucent body, and the iridescent blue that these fish show in the right light. I promised myself to bring a dip net on the next walk through the bottomlands.

They taught us the same lesson regarding the lowly bois d’arc tree, also known as the Osage orange or “horse apple” tree. They are medium-sized, somewhat thorny trees that grow well in deep, moist bottomland soil. The iron-tough wood was prized by Native Americans for making bows (thus the French “bois d’arc” or “bow-wood”). And, as most kids used to know when we spent more time in the woods, they produce a green, wrinkled fruit that roughly resembles a green orange or maybe a bumpy green apple. Just the right size for throwing, but completely unsuitable for eating. They are a fibrous, spherical collection of seeds that oozes a milky substance if cut. But the girls knew another thing that you could do with these horse apples. They could be kicked like soccer balls!

And so, there was an impromptu soccer game in the woods, with Maddy crowding Embry out to move the ball to the goal (under the fallen log over there), and Embry giving one a little side-kick to position it for the goal shot. Horse apples rolled over a layer of leaves, between downed logs, and past stately cottonwoods and oaks. It was great!

We also encountered several places where feral hogs had rooted the ground up to find things to eat, and we talked about how these animals didn’t really belong here but a few might do only minimal harm. Turning the soil might even be seen as a plus, but these hogs reproduce quickly and there is little to hold their population in check. Large groups simply tear up habitat and eat everything in sight, and a sow, surprised with her piglets, can be quite dangerous. So can any hog in close quarters, so we would certainly not want to approach them if we saw any.

Cottonmouths were another species that we might have run into in the bottomlands. These venomous snakes are common in the bottomlands around Lake Worth, and on an autumn day with temperatures in the 70s, it would not have been surprising to see one. Embry and Maddy were on board with looking for snakes, but were not so sure about cottonmouths. That is hardly surprising, as many stories as people tell about being chased or attacked by these snakes, which are really quite nonaggressive if left alone. I told them there should be no problem as long as we saw it first and avoided stepping on it, and I said it was my job to spot them. That settled, we resumed our walk, the girls confidently in the lead as we explored the woods.MS-willow-FWNCR-5Nov16

IMG_0699At the farthest extent of our walk, at a very old, twisted willow at the edge of the marsh, we found and photographed a gigantic black ant on the tree, which discouraged some climbing that the girls had considered. Embry had no hesitation to bring the phone in close, finding the ant at the end of my finger (I pointed but did not touch!). Afterwards, I asked each one if they had any thoughts about today’s experience.

“At first, I thought about whether there might be something that could hurt me,” Embry offered, “but then I knew it was OK.” She had enjoyed a walk through these woods with curiosity and confidence. Maddy added that the things that lived in this place really did not want to hurt you. I loved hearing that. This was a place that offered beauty, tranquility, and fascination, along with a few things that needed a little watchfulness and care. Even the “creepy” things turned out to be fascinating. I hope that they will carry this and a hundred (or a thousand!) experiences of nature with them through their lives. Maybe they will hold on to that sense of wonder at seeing fish in a pool, or a frog hiding under a log. I hope, as adults, that they can still be playful with horse apples and bring their own kids to walk through the woods and have the delightful surprise of seeing a whitetail deer staring back at them along a forest trail.