by Jenny Erickson, Amphibian Monitoring Coordinator
Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians, with the name originating from the Greek herpeton, meaning “creeping thing.” For many years reptiles and amphibians have been grouped together in this field of study. Known as “herps,” reptiles and amphibians are in fact aptly named. They are often slow moving and move along or close to the ground. They are typically very shy and secretive and try hard not to be found. Even though they are not easily seen, they should not be readily forgotten.
It is said that we should think globally and act locally. This has never been more accurate than when it comes to helping our reptile and amphibian populations. Loss of habitat, fragmentation of existing habitat, contamination of habitat, and believe it or not, collecting for personal pets or the pet trade all contribute to their decline. These issues may seem daunting, but there are things we all can do to help our local herps.
Keep the Wildlife Wild!
Recently, I acquired an Eastern Painted Turtle. I was not looking to add this turtle to our current menagerie, but there were few options for this young turtle. He had been collected from the wild as a hatchling and was raised in a school science class. He was then given to someone who, after a brief time of caring for the turtle, could no longer keep him. Unfortunately, there are not many people or places willing or able to take on the care of an aquatic turtle, which can be quite involved, and even though the turtle was collected from the wild, it was not legal to release him back into the wild. The laws in Virginia are extremely specific regarding the number and type of reptiles/amphibians that can be taken from the wild, how long they can be kept and still be legally released (30 days or less), and where they can be released. Second, they cannot be a species of concern in Virginia. Fortunately, the Eastern Painted Turtle population in Virginia is currently stable and the laws allow for their collection on a limited basis. Unfortunately, many of our reptiles and amphibians are seeing a population decline. Collection from the wild, specifically for the pet trade, has taken its toll on the stability of these populations.
In addition, reptiles and amphibians have unique needs and require very specific care. It is our responsibility to give them more than just the bare minimum (or worse…lack of appropriate care altogether). They have unique lighting and heating requirements, food requirements, and enclosure size requirements which should always be much larger than the minimum recommended size. Many of our herps, especially turtles, can live an exceedingly long life, so a long-term commitment is a must! Proper care can be expensive and time-consuming, but lack thereof can be devastating to the health of the animal. There are also more responsible ways to add a reptile or amphibian to your household. The best way? Visit a local rescue group or animal shelter. There are reptile-specific rescue groups who take in animals who are no longer able to be cared for.
Every late winter/early spring through midsummer frogs, toads, and (in our area) a couple species of salamanders migrate to their breeding grounds on warm and wet nights. This migration often involves crossing roads. These amphibians are small, slow moving, and are at ground level, making them harder to see, and they are unable to avoid being hit by cars. We are often asked how people can help. Being aware of the conditions that prompt the migrations can make everyone more aware of when there will be higher concentrations of amphibians on the roads.
Physically helping amphibians across the road is a viable way to help but comes with some important guidelines. First, make sure it is safe to stop and to move them. Areas of high traffic and/or poor visibility can make this task more dangerous, remembering that amphibian migrations occur at night. We are also seeing more incidents of impatient drivers who are not tolerant of pausing while someone is helping move an amphibian, as well as people driving more dangerously, which can increase the hazard. In addition, amphibians are extremely sensitive to toxins which include any lotions, bug sprays, etc., that may be on your hands, so having disposable gloves in your car will help ensure that we are not harming them while trying to help. Also especially important…the amphibians know where they are going! Only help them cross by placing them on the other side of the road in the direction they were heading.
Where Has All the Water Gone?
Marshes, swamps, bogs, fens, vernal pools…these vanishing wetlands are critical to the breeding and development of many species of amphibians. With a few exceptions, amphibians require an aquatic environment for breeding, laying eggs, and development of the young. For example, our vernal pools are critical for species such as Jefferson Salamanders, Spotted Salamanders, Marbled Salamanders, and Eastern Spadefoots, to name a few. These sensitive wetlands fill with water during the winter, giving our early breeding amphibians a place to breed that is free of fish. Once precipitation slows and the temperature rises, these vernal pools dry, leaving behind a dry depression in the ground. When we clear a forested area, we can be unknowingly (or knowingly) destroying these vital breeding grounds. It is not just the vernal pools that are disappearing, but all of our various wetlands are on the decline. Less water means fewer amphibians. Being a voice for protecting our wetlands will not only help our herps but also the numerous other plants and animals that call these wetlands home.
Show Me the Way to Go Home?
We have all seen the turtle crossing the road or sadly perhaps one that was hit by a car while attempting to cross. Many of our native turtles have a fairly small range but can travel extensively through that range daily. Much like the amphibians, our turtles are close to the ground and slow moving, making them hard to see and therefore more likely to be hit by a car. Helping our turtles cross the road has similar guidelines to our amphibians. Make sure it is safe to do so, and handle them as little as necessary. The most common turtle one will encounter crossing the road is the Eastern Box Turtle. Unfortunately, their numbers are declining due to habitat loss and fragmentation. Fragmentation of habitat, such as building a road, can transect the range of individual box turtles, making them more susceptible to being killed on the road. Box turtles are easy to move off the road, but remember to only move them off the road in the direction they were going. Remember, they know where they are headed. Box turtles are not aquatic and are not searching for a body of water, so please do not relocate them to a pond or lake. Also, any activity that removes individual box turtles, especially breeding females, can cause extirpation of that localized population. It is also illegal to relocate wildlife to a new location in Virginia, and relocating box turtles to areas that we deem more appropriate falls under the umbrella of that law.
All We Are Saying Is Give Snakes a Chance!
Snakes. To many people, even the thought of a snake sends shivers down their spine. As a career herpetologist, I find that snakes are far more wonderful than many people realize but are far more misunderstood. The basic needs of snakes are quite simple; they eat, breed, find a place to warm up if they are too cold, and find a cooler place if they are too hot. The problem arises when people encounter snakes while they are fulfilling these basic biological needs.
Snakes have many physical characteristics that cause people to be unsettled by them. They lack limbs, so they locomote by contracting and relaxing muscles in conjunction with the friction of their scales. There are four major modes of locomotion: rectilinear, lateral undulation, sidewinding, and concertina. Snakes also do not blink. They do not have eyelids as such, but rather they have a transparent scale called a “brille” which covers and protects the eye. Possibly the most unsettling characteristic is a snake’s tongue. Snakes investigate new things by flicking their tongue which allows them to bring scents from the air to the vomeronasal (or Jacobson’s) organ, which interprets the smells. This helps snakes find mates, food, and potential hazards.
Why all this talk about snakes? Well, they are one of the most misunderstood and feared groups of animals and are susceptible to injury or death because of this. I have identified countless snakes that were killed by people who encountered them both inside and outside of their house. We are also seeing a higher incidence of snakes (and other wildlife) being killed by glue traps, which are very inhumane and do not discriminate which animals get caught on them.
The practice of killing what we fear or do not understand is contributing to the decline in snake populations along with habitat loss. As we develop more areas, these snakes have fewer places to go where they do not encounter people. Snakes are actually quite beneficial to us. They are free rodent control! They are highly effective at what they do, and some of our most common snakes prey upon rodents. It is hard to find free things nowadays, so this is a great benefit! Some of our local snakes eat smaller prey such as slugs and others that are considered pests in our gardens. These snakes are very shy and spend quite a bit of time in the substrate. Educating ourselves about the behaviors, biological needs, and benefits of snakes may not make more people love snakes but can at least hopefully get more people to understand their value and decrease injury/death of these animals.
Yes, painting turtles. This is not referring to the beautiful native Eastern Painted Turtle, but rather to the practice of painting the shell (carapace) of turtles, mainly Eastern Box Turtles. Thankfully, this practice is not as common as it once was, but it is still occurring and can have devastating effects on the individual turtle. The shell of a turtle is part of the animal, unlike the shell of an animal such as a hermit crab, which utilizes abandoned shells. The turtle shell is made up of two main parts, the carapace (top) and the plastron (bottom). The shell has plate-like scales called scutes. Turtles rely on the sun to absorb nutrients, which painting the shell inhibits and can cause catastrophic developmental problems. Turtles also use their coloration to help them camouflage, which keeps them safe from predators. Painting a turtle’s shell different colors makes their camouflage ineffective. Paint also contains chemicals that can be absorbed and cause health problems for the turtle. See this article from the Virginia Wildlife Center for more information regarding painting turtles.
In addition to the recommendations above, there are other things you can do to help our herps and learn more about them.
Be an activist! Our area is feeling the pressure of rapid development, which means that many of these natural areas can be lost forever. Here is a link to how your voice can be heard in Loudoun County.
Participate in the FrogWatch program. FrogWatch is a national program where data is collected on the local level and submitted to the national level to help monitor populations of frogs and toads.
Sign up for one of our night amphibian walks! There is no better way to experience the wonders of our local amphibians than to join us on a walk when the amphibians are most active…at night! Check our Events calendar often as these amphibian walks will be scheduled when the amphibian activity starts to become active, generally in the late winter/early spring.
We also started offering library programs that focus on our reptiles and amphibians. Keep your eyes open for these educational opportunities.