Field Herping While Defending Our Home

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 world.

Juvenile Plains gartersnake

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.

The “real” world

Field herpers 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?

Loose bark provides refuges for herps and invertebrates

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.

Plenty of rocks to flip – but put them back!

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.

A beautiful desert kingsnake from Brewster Co., Texas

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 collection.

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 mortality.

Eastern hog-nosed snake

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.

AmphibiaWeb. https://amphibiaweb.org/declines/declines.html (accessed 2/9/19)

Cook, R.P. 2004. Dispersal, home range establishment, survival, and reproduction of translocated eastern box turtles, Terrapene c. carolina. Applied Herpetology, Vol. 1, Pp. 197-228.

Gibbons, J.W., Scott, D.E., Ryan, T.J., Buhlmann, K.A., Tuberville, T.D., Metts, B.S., Greene, J.L., Mills, T., Leiden, Y., Poppy, S., & C.T. Winne. 2000. The Global Decline of Reptiles, Déjà Vu Amphibians. BioScience, Vol. 50, No. 8, Pp. 653-666.

Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. https://www.ipbes.net/system/tdf/2018_americas_full_report_book_v4_pages_0.pdf?file=1&type=node&id=29404 (accessed 2/9/19)

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 Report.

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.

Sosa, 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.

Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. Wood Turtle. https://vtfishandwildlife.com/learn-more/vermont-critters/reptiles/wood-turtle (accessed 2/10/19)