It was September12, with ten days of summer left to us before the autumn equinox, and so we decided that the last outing of summer ought to be spent at the LBJ National Grasslands, in Wise County. It was some combination of work on this book I’m writing about spending time in nature, and just enjoying one more day of summer.
Meghan, Paul and I started at one of the pine groves, those patches of ponderosa pine brought in by the Forest Service long ago and planted here in the Cross Timbers. The series of ponds beneath this grove support huge numbers of cricket frogs, leopard frogs, and a couple of other species. In turn, the frogs help support a community of snakes, both the harmless watersnake and the venomous cottonmouth. We walked along, hearing frogs plunk into the water and seeing a few frogs that did not disappear fast enough.
Beyond the pine grove is a gently rolling landscape of prairie patches and oak woodland dotted with small ponds. Among my prairie favorites are little bluestem and Indiangrass, creating a fine vertical texture of straight stems reaching waist-high or even head-high. The flowering tops and seed heads of Indiangrass remind me of candle flames on impossibly skinny candles. And while the Cross Timbers is dominated by oak trees, there are plenty of junipers scattered through the clumps and belts of woodland. Late summer flowers – goldenrod and various asters – add beautiful colors to the mix.
Something scaley was spotted – a snake of some kind – around a big fallen tree branch. We searched intensively for a few minutes, but the tall grasses and the tangle of other plants and tree branches concealed the serpent well. My guess is that it found a deeper place of concealment such as a burrow underneath the vegetation, or else made a quick unseen getaway while we were looking elsewhere.
On the walk back, I spotted something stretched across the damp sandy trail. It could have been a stick or an irregular ripple of soil, but that didn’t look right to me. As I approached, twenty feet away or so, it seemed to draw up into some kinks. I walked up on a fairly dark spotted snake that turned out to be a prairie kingsnake.
I gently picked it up, anticipating some thrashing or even a bite, which would have been briefly uncomfortable but of no consequence. Our nonvenomous snakes mostly have small, very sharp needle-like teeth that make small punctures or scratches but need no special treatment. This kingsnake, however, never thrashed, just moved her body as if trying to crawl away. She never offered to bite. We spent several minutes admiring her (judged to be a “her” because the tail tapered fairly quickly, as opposed to the thicker and longer tails of male snakes, whose reproductive organs are kept inverted inside the first part of the tail), and then released her.
When placed on the trail, she immediately moved to the edge of the leaf litter, nosed down just beneath the thin layer of leaves and vines, and began to disappear under it. The amazing thing was how she gradually disappeared under the leaves without moving them in the slightest or making any sounds. The snake simply dissolved into the prairie!
A little further down the trail, Meghan was determined to find another snake, and her attention was drawn to an area beside the trail with some old fallen branches that offered some cover. Sure enough, she spotted a small snake, fast and agile and therefore hard to get a good look at to verify that it was harmless. I hurried to where she was, and she wanted me to identify whether it was safe for her to pick up. I got a glimpse of scales and said “yes.” Together we lifted a piece of wood and as the snake took off in her direction, she restrained it and picked it up.
This was a baby western coachwhip, a snake that can grow to around six feet in length, although most are not quite that long. Babies are born in late summer and measure a little over a foot long. Based on time of year and length, this little snake had not been out of the egg very long. A coachwhip’s big, piercing eyes hint at its daytime hunting strategy, visually locating lizards or even big grasshoppers and chasing them down. It is hard to imagine winning a race with a determined coachwhip, not because they are so fast in miles per hour but because of their agility in weaving through branches and around rocks.
On the final part of our walk, back through the pine grove, we spotted a watersnake slipping over the banks of one of the ponds and into the water. I got enough of a look at its body shape and especially its movement to know that it was a harmless watersnake. While cottonmouths can move quickly, they never seem to have the grace and speed of a watersnake. While this one immediately slipped beneath the water, a cottonmouth would typically (not always!) ride along the water’s surface, more focused on looking around it or simply sitting still. A watersnake fleeing danger usually swims at high speed, along the bottom, until it finds a place of concealment where it can wait for danger to pass.
We visited other places and stayed until sunset, admiring things like eryngo, that beautiful, prickly purple plant found at the end of the summer. Sunset was subtle but beautiful, offering a wonderful way to say goodbye to summer.
Yesterday, on a slightly muggy early September day, I walked the bottomlands at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge with this year’s class of Cross Timbers Master Naturalists. We “met” last week via Zoom as I conducted the class covering reptiles and amphibians, mostly looking at Powerpoint slides in which I tried to convey as much as possible about what these animals are, how they live, and how to find them. As usual, they are a great group of people who bring a lot of intelligence and curiosity to the class.
Last year, I wrote about Master Naturalists as the “rangers” of north Texas’ wild places, a reference to the Dunedain of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. These rangers were solitary folk who lived in wild places and knew the languages and ways of animals and the lore and uses of plants. They were watchers and protectors of the land. I admit that it is a nerdy reference, but I believe it fits well enough. People who devote themselves to the study and protection of nature are all too scarce, and they protect places and species by preserving the knowledge of them and passing that knowledge along to anyone who wants to know.
On this day I would join these rangers and go into the field to learn more about the herps that live here. The bottomland forest near the marsh is a good spot for finding a variety of reptiles and amphibians. The seasonal floods create fertile soil and create stacks and piles of downed branches that offer shelter for small animals, which in turn serve as prey for larger ones.
Not all of the herps to be found in the bottomlands are big and charismatic – as a matter of fact most of them are small creatures with a small-scale repertoire of traits and skills with which they go through life. One of them is DeKay’s Brownsnake, previously known as the Texas Brown Snake. It is a fairly nondescript brown-colored snake that grows to about a foot long, with a faded brown stripe down the middle of the back and a suggestion of little dark spots down the back on either side of the stripe. Babies are live-born, and unlike the adults they have a light collar of cream-colored scales just back of the head. August appeared to have been the due dates for these snakes throughout the bottomland, because we found several of the roughly four-inch babies.
Although small and humble, these snakes are well-adapted to find food in the soil and leaf litter of the forest floor. Along with worms, slugs, and soft-bodied insects, Brownsnakes eat snails, but they do not consume the shell. The account of these snakes in Werler & Dixon (2000) tells of research by Rossman and colleagues in Louisiana on snail-eating in Brownsnakes and the related Red-bellied Snakes. They noted that the snakes had teeth that were long and slender, perfect for grasping the soft parts of snails. After biting the snail, the snake pushes its prey until the shell becomes braced against some object. Next, the snake twists its head and neck, holding the position for ten minutes or more, until the exhausted snail relaxes the muscle holding it to its shell. At that point the snake can pull the snail’s body out and swallow it.
In every respect except size, this snake is an impressive predator with a fascinating adaptation of structure and behavior, allowing it to tackle an animal whose shell should keep it safe from predation. One of them I caught to show students wanted to disregard even its small size in demanding my respect. It flattened its little head and body and struck at me several times, despite its inability (at about 3-and-a-half inches) to harm me in any way, even with those extra-long teeth. After everyone had a look, I released it to find refuge below the branches and leaves on the forest floor.
The really common amphibian was the Coastal Plains (aka Gulf Coast) Toad. We found many of these, ranging from very small metamorphs – just recently transformed from tadpoles – to young toads that were not fully grown. Dustin McBride, a Nature Center staff member who was with us, could make out the tiny identifying marks such as the shapes of parotoid glands better than I could. As they grow, these little toads develop a characteristic dark pattern with a light stripe down the back and dark bands down the sides, with very prominent cranial crests (bony ridges on the head) and raised parotoid glands behind the eye and eardrum that are fairly triangular in shape.
We lifted or turned large branches or pieces of bark to see what was beneath, always careful to return these pieces like they were. We picked those pieces because they looked like good refuges for an animal to use, and we didn’t want to mess up those qualities of size, placement, and humidity underneath that makes a log or branch a useful refuge. Under one of them was a beautiful little Western Ribbonsnake.
I love Ribbonsnakes and all the other members, like the Gartersnakes, of the genus Thamnophis. The Ribbonsnakes are slender and graceful swimmers and wanderers through creeks and marshes, and they particularly like to eat frogs. I suspect this one was taking a few of those little toadlets for meals, and it will gladly chase the Cricket Frogs that will show up in the bottomlands now that we have had some rain.
There were also Leopard Frogs and a Little Brown Skink that managed to get away from us before everyone got to see it. The bottomland forest had once again been a good place to learn about some reptiles and amphibians and how to find them. I hope the Master Naturalists, those rangers of the Cross Timbers, will remember this day and the stories and life histories of little things like the DeKay’s Brownsnake.
Werler, J.E., & J.R. Dixon, 2000. Texas Snakes: Identification, Distribution, and Natural History. Austin: University of Texas Press.
I knew that having Jim Frisinger join us would be a harbinger of good birding. Jim teaches birding at Southwest Nature Preserve and is the first one we think of when we think about birds at the preserve. And sure enough, even though this morning’s walk was part of a survey of reptiles and amphibians, it turned into a pretty good birding walk as well.
We got started just after 7:00am, meaning that I had to get up before sunrise, but that’s OK, we needed to get there before the day heated up. It is now mid-August, with serious summer heat, and it climbed to 102°F later in the day, with the heat index feeling like 107°F. The survey plan is to walk in one of three habitats, either in the morning, mid-day, or evening, and we rotate among those options. Last week, Jim Domke and I did a mid-day walk, trying to avoid heat exhaustion and clearly demonstrating what Jim figured any idiot would know – the blistering mid-day heat of an August day is not the best time to see wildlife. This morning was much better.
One of our destinations, the smallest pond at the preserve, was a casualty of summer. The water had completely evaporated, leaving concentric rings – an outer one of drying Water Primrose, surrounding an area of cracked, dry mud, with a bulls-eye center of wet mud. The temperature was 74°F and the humidity a steamy 89%. I walked through some of the vegetation and around the circle of dried mud, scaring up grasshoppers but no Blanchard’s Cricket Frogs. The two Jim’s (Domke and Frisinger) and I talked about where the frogs and turtles would have gone. Maybe the frogs dug under the mud, expecting to estivate during a period of drought. In a pond this small, I said I thought that the turtles may have migrated the short distance to the nearest pond with water. I did notice that several seed pods of Halberd-leaf Rosemallow (see the July 18 entry) had dried and cracked open.
Next, we walked to the north pond, whose water level has dropped but not by much. A group of about six young anglers were fishing, and Jim Domke extracted a promise that they would clean up before leaving. Domke carries a bag in each visit and picks up the litter left by visitors to the preserve. He is an unsung hero for this and deserves appreciation from all of us, because people leave a surprising amount of trash around the preserve. The kids did indeed pick up their stuff!
On the trail a few feet from the water, we saw two Little Brown Skinks. They were roughly two-inch juveniles, little even as Little Brown Skinks go. These lizards did not slow down for photographs, and quickly disappeared into leaf litter and cracks in the mud. And as always, there were Blanchard’s Cricket Frogs hopping around at the water’s edge, and at least one amorous boy was calling, trying to attract females. His episodic “grick-grick-grick” calls were a Call Index of one in frog monitoring jargon, an isolated call not overlapping with other Cricket Frog calls.
Various turtle heads popped up in the water and using binoculars I could see on many of them the tell-tale red patch behind the eye that defines the Red-eared Slider. River Cooters are sometimes seen at the preserve, so it is important to try to observe the head pattern.
At this point the tops of the trees were bright from the rising sun, though the ground was still in shadow. The temperature was 79°F and the relative humidity 76%. Walking back, at the same spot where we saw skinks a few minutes before, we saw a large Little Brown Skink and a couple of juveniles. As before, they spotted us and were in frantic flight back across the trail to the trees by the time we saw them. I tried to capture one of them for a photo, but as soon as I tried to gently pin one down with my hand, it slipped into the cracks in the mud and was gone. These little lizards have very smooth, glossy scales and small legs, so that they shimmy across the ground almost like little snakes.
We wondered why we were seeing skinks in groups, and Jim Domke raised the possibility of a mama herding her babies to safety. I am less quick than I used to be to dismiss such ideas, though I doubt this is what we were seeing here. Researchers are increasingly documenting maternal care among pit-vipers (a group of venomous snakes that are pretty advanced among reptiles, in terms of their evolutionary status). Rattlesnake mothers have been documented to keep their young with her after they are born for a brief time until they shed their skin the first time. They may gather in rookeries to give birth and seem to have some ability to recognize kin. Clearly, some reptiles are capable of much more advanced social behavior than we typically expect. Were we seeing a family group of skinks on the trail? A possibility that seems more likely to me is that as the woodland floor becomes quite dry, these lizards come to the pond’s edge to drink and/or hunt the tiny invertebrates that congregate there. However, there is not much cover at the pond’s edge and when confronted with a predator (or lumbering human observers) they run for the cover of the leaf litter and cracks down into the soil. This is just speculation. My best answer is: “I don’t know.”
Our final destination was the north shore of the biggest pond, where the preserve has the north and west shores and residential housing has the east and south shores. As we arrived, a Great Egret took off with slow, powerful strokes of its snow-white wings. Turtle heads emerged from the water and looked around, a group of eight or so curious reptiles that watched the egret fly off as the humans arrived.
Along the water’s edge, a group of small fish foraged along the surface and among the submerged stems of Water Primrose. These were surely Western Mosquitofish, though I did not net any to confirm it. Their size, shape, and movements all indicated that they were mosquitofish, those surface-feeding fish that feed voraciously on zooplankton and invertebrates, including mosquito larvae. Females grow much larger and bulkier than males and may have a black spot at the back of the body cavity where the ovaries are located. They are not particularly colorful, though there is a bluish iridescence you can see in the right light.
Further along the shore, a turtle in the water just offshore caught my eye. It was that round shell and a curious head shape that grabbed my attention, and it did not hang around for a photo. It must have been a softshell! I was sure I’d seen a snorkel nose and a pancake-shaped shell – and then it returned to the surface to breathe, staying just long enough for me to take a quick and rather poor photo. It was fairly small, either immature or a young male (females grow quite a bit larger). There is only one other iNaturalist record of the Spiny Softshell at the preserve, and this was another!
That observation made this a really successful survey walk – what could be better? Well, a really fine bird observation would not make it better, but it would sure round out our walk in a beautiful way. On the walk back, we saw a couple of Great Egrets again, standing in their tall, bright white elegance along the shore. And then, after they had flown, a smaller bird flew in to take the place of the one who had been standing on a log in the water. His crest of feathers suggested a young man with a Mohawk on his way to see Green Day perform Jesus of Suburbia, as he landed on his log and eyed us with suspicion. His Mohawk flattened and he began to look at the water around him, periodically glancing up at us just to make sure he wasn’t going to have any trouble from us. He (or she) was a Green Heron, maybe a young bird whose brown and white streaked chest had not filled in from the sides with the reddish-chestnut brown of an adult.
This heron was surprisingly tolerant of three old guys hanging around, two of them taking photos. While we watched, he hopped down as low as he could get on the log and watched the water intently. We waited – he waited, and then there was a quick stab of his long bill into the water, bringing back a juvenile sunfish. Was there a hint of a self-satisfied smile on that long beak, and a glint in his eye as he looked up at us? Probably not, but his skillfulness was impressive. In fact, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology tells us that these birds sometimes even drop bits of bread or insects on the water to lure a fish in close enough to be caught.
The temperature had risen to 84°F and 74% humidity and it was time to leave before it became really hot. This had been a great walk, with the thought-provoking observations of Little Brown Skinks, finding a Spiny Softshell, and then the chance to share a few minutes with the Green Heron. I knew Jim Frisinger would be some kind of good luck charm!
(This one first appeared in my earlier blog, “The Great Rattlesnake Highway,” in March of last year. I describe how my field herping evolved as I learned more about the animals and places I love.)
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.
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.
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?
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 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.
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)
The long, hot day was surrendering to darkness at the preserve. The trees and shrubs around the edge of the pond were black silhouettes and the sunset was fading. Shades of gold and rose would soon slip into the dusty gray-black that passes for night sky in a big city whose lights perpetually fight the darkness. We had listened to frog calls and scanned the pond margin with flashlights to look for frogs or a watersnake beginning its nightly hunt. In that last rosy light above the pond, things were dipping and flying, feeding on the insects that buzz around the water. Some of the acrobats had the strong, angular wings of swallows, birds whose flying maneuvers are amazing. But then we noticed that others had stubbier outlines with more flapping. Bats! It was not surprising to find them, but since I rarely get a chance to actually observe them, it was a wonderful treat!
This walk was part of what is becoming a survey of the reptiles and amphibians (“herps”) of the 59-acre preserve, with incidental observations of whatever else we find. I plan to visit the place every week, with walks that include trails through primarily wetland, woodland, and open or “edge” habitat where meadows or glades open up in the Cross Timbers forest. We will note the time of day as well as temperature, humidity, and sky conditions. Over time, we will have looked for herps in each of these habitats at least once a month, as the seasons change and hopefully as the years roll by. Could we glean some information about whether things are changing? I hope we can offer some educated guesses. The survey is a citizen-science effort by people who are not trained researchers, but what we record can be valuable.
On this particular evening, “we” were Jim Domke, Annabelle Corboy, and me. Jim is a newspaper guy, and now a freelance writer and photographer. He writes about nature and cares a lot about the preserve; Jim is the guy who always brings a trash bag to help clean the place up while hanging out with nature nerds. Annabelle is a retired IT person who is now part of Friends of Southwest Nature Preserve. She is a curator for the preserve’s project at iNaturalist and is a great advocate for the citizen science efforts that help document the plants and animals at the preserve.
We started our survey visit on the trails at the edge of the big pond. The shoreline is dotted with cattails, the occasional willow, and plenty of water primrose along the edge of the water. In that tangle of primrose and other low plants, Blanchard’s Cricket Frogs hopped and then disappeared against the dark mud or dove under the water and tangled plant matter. As I watched for a chance to take a photo, a disturbance in the water caught my eye. An adult common Snapping Turtle had come up for air but pulled back down upon seeing me. There was no time for a photo, but that face was unmistakable – the chunky head, the almost-smiling jaws, and those yellow-green eyes with the dark dashes radiating out from the pupil to break up the pattern. In a moment, it was gone, but I was delighted since this was the first common snapper I had seen at the preserve.
That illustrates one reason for doing this kind of survey – to confirm observations of infrequently-seen species. People have reported sightings of the Snapping Turtle at the preserve three times in three separate years. It is very plausible that Snapping Turtles keep to themselves under the water and simply are not seen very often. More observations of them would help to confirm whether a stable population of this species is living in the ponds at the preserve.
Other turtles such as the Red-eared Slider are common in those ponds, and we observed a big female being pursued by several smaller turtles, presumably males courting her. The frequency with which this species is documented, including individuals of different ages (I recently photographed a baby at one of the ponds, and we see half-grown individuals as well as big females and old melanistic males) strongly suggests a healthy reproducing population. And they manage this despite heavy predation on their nests. At the next pond we visited, we saw three excavated turtle nests with broken, dried eggshells. Chances are good that female sliders wandered away from the water until they found a suitable spot, dug nests and deposited eggs, and then covered them with soil and a wish for good luck. Nevertheless, predators such as raccoons are avid nest-raiders and help themselves to turtle eggs, over-easy. I don’t know what the odds are for a turtle nest to successfully incubate and hatch at the preserve, but clearly it is a roll of the dice.
Along the way, there are many other species to see. I photographed a number of grasshoppers such as the big Differential Grasshopper in vegetation around the first pond. That and the delicate little Forktail Damselfly and the orb-weaving spider whose web shone brightly in the flashlight beam all made our walk richer, but none of us are invertebrate experts, and so we added them as incidental observations. The same is true with plants, although Annabelle and I were delighted by the Halberd-leaf Rosemallow that we photographed at the smallest pond. Annabelle knows a good bit about plants, but it would take a dedicated team to systematically survey the plants at the preserve.
We ended up walking most of the way around the pond at the north end of the preserve, and as I mentioned, it was rapidly becoming dark. We spent five minutes monitoring any frog calls, standing quietly with flashlights off. Blanchard’s Cricket Frogs began calling with their quick little “clicks,” sounding like two pebbles being hit against each other. There is a system for grading how many frogs of a given species are calling. This evening, the “call index” for these cricket frogs was a “2,” meaning that multiple individuals were calling and their calls overlapped some, but it was still possible to count how many frogs were calling.
It had been an interesting two hours, with the exciting observation of the Snapping Turtle, then finding the raided turtle nests, and that last leg of our visit with bats, swallows, and frog calls. We heard a Chuck Will’s Widow with its high, whistling call in the distance. I can’t wait to come back for another visit!
I’ve been busy lately writing and putting together a couple of free downloadable PDF publications, one of which was the June issue of “The Treefrog Times.” In that issue, I wanted to include a little fun exercise for kids to think about what strengthens wings to enable birds and insects to fly. I drew a feather with no central shaft and a dragonfly whose wings had no veins. I said that “you can’t fly with floppy wings” and asked kids to draw in what was needed. Today I challenged six-year-old Elijah (see “Passing the Creek Along to a New Generation“) to figure this one out. It was such fun!
After a quick glance at a photo of a feather, he drew in the shaft, and a look at a dragonfly photo helped him do the same for the dragonfly. Elijah then wanted to challenge me, and he started sketching things to see if I could draw in what would make it stronger. He sketched things like moth wings and a plant’s leaves, easily transferring these ideas about structural strength. Then he sketched a pig and asked me what made it stronger. Strong and not floppy? Well of course – bones! I sketched them in, and then it was my turn to challenge him. I sketched a bat so we could talk about the arms and “fingers” that support bat wings, and I also sketched a skeletal turtle (inspired by the pig) and asked what made the shell strong. He didn’t hesitate a second to draw a series of plates. He might have been thinking about the external scutes rather than underlying bony plates, but that was fine with me – plenty close enough for the six-year-old’s version of a herpetology lesson!
What a blast we had, and his understanding of the animals was strengthened in the process – wow, a bat’s wing is really kind of like a hand?! If you know someone that might have a blast with this, go to the Treefrog Times page at jsdragons.com and download the June issue (the one that starts with an article for folks who are a little older, about reptiles surviving summer’s heat). Have fun!
We’ve spent way too much time in the house, binge-watched Netflix until we get pulled into the screen and sucked dry. We’re trying to get through a crisis where people are dying and others are wondering how they will make a living. Uncertainty and stress pile up, and we crave an escape from all of it. Some of the preserves and natural areas around the city are open – and your thought is: “put on the Nikes and grab the water bottles, let’s go!” I get it; those preserves and natural areas are places I want to go, too. I just hope we can use them in ways that let them survive in good shape.
I watch you cut through the temporary fencing at the preserve so that you can take the short cut, climbing straight up the hill. You may not have noticed that this hill is composed of fine sand from the sandstone rock under the soil and exposed at the top as a scenic ridge. The oaks, yuccas, vines and other plants hold that sand together and create a thin soil. It is enough to support the cacti, wildflowers and other plants, but your footsteps break through that thin network holding the sand together, and the wind and rain wash it away. That happens later, and you do not see the consequences of your short cut, so it seems OK to you.
I also see you fishing at the ponds, maybe showing your child how to bait the hook and wait patiently for a bite. Sitting quietly with someone you care about, taking in the sights and the feel of the breeze, that is a wonderful experience that every child should have. I sure wish that you could bring a small trash bag with you, because the fast food wrappers and bait cups should not stay behind once you have left. It would also teach responsibility and thoughtfulness if you would pack out that broken fishing line and the floats and bobbers that we see caught in the shoreline vegetation. Small animals often get tangled in that fishing line and strangle or starve. This also happens later, and so again you do not see the consequences of what you leave behind.
We visit these places for a variety of reasons, and I know that this is OK. One of my reasons is to watch birds and other wildlife. Even urban preserves can support a good number of animals, from the cardinals, doves, and hawks in the air to lizards on the tree trunks, frogs on the banks of the ponds, and sunfish in the water. When your group passes me on the trail, loudly talking about the topic of the moment, I wonder if you know what we all just missed as the wildlife scatter. Keep in mind that I know you have the right to jog along the trail or amble along in social groups (although during this pandemic I very much wish that you would stay some distance from each other). Once you pass, I’ll wait for the wildlife to re-emerge. Lately, though, as everyone visits the preserves, it is more challenging because sometimes there is little break from the stream of hikers.
We all get to make use of these places, and I do try (I promise) to remember that different ways of using them can be just fine. Some of the things people do, though, are not so fine. Let’s compare some ways of visiting parks and refuges. Some visitors come for a little diversion and a workout opportunity, and going off-trail, moving or destroying barriers, and ignoring signs asking people to stay on the trail seems like no big deal – “rules for other people, not for me.” For some it is a pleasant place to bring their burgers and onion rings, and since no one thought to station trash cans along the trails, what can you do but toss the Styrofoam cup and food wrappers into the woods. Who wants to carry a handful of trash for the rest of their walk?
Other people come for exercise in beautiful surroundings, with a commitment to leaving the place like they found it. They may jog through the place without stopping to look for birds or flowers, but they stay on the trail. Others might come for the solitude – or relative solitude – of a walk through a woods or prairie. They may be birdwatching, or might be looking for particular plants or flowers, or some other part of the natural world that has survived the surrounding city. You might pass these people sitting quietly somewhere or squinting through some binoculars. Chances are they are not interested in taking short cuts, and they know that they should not go off-trail to see some particular plant or animal.
The two uses of preserves and parks – one as a momentary convenience and the other as a place valued because of relatively undisturbed nature – are not the same. That “relatively undisturbed” part is the key. Users who trample the plants and create erosion, paint or carve graffiti, or litter, those folks are using the preserve up. Each visit brings the place closer to just some urban vacant lot, although the process is very gradual so each discarded cup, each carved initial, each off-trail excursion seems like no big deal. There is much less damage from the other users who walk or jog along the trails, pack out anything they bring in, and leave the place just like they found it. Yes, the noise and presence of people may make wildlife more scarce, and even foot traffic on trails can do a little damage. But these are impacts from which nature can recover.
So, my friend, here’s what I ask, respectfully and in the hope that we can all use the lands that belong to all of us: please leave it like you found it, and please visit in ways that allow others who are present to use it too. You are in an uncommon and wonderful place, and the slower and quieter you are, the more you are likely to discover that. Quite often you are getting a glimpse of what the surrounding area used to be like before the land was settled and developed. You can get a look at things that are in many cases being lost to us. They are disappearing in our minds and in our imaginations, and often they are disappearing literally, in terms of numbers. So when you are there, remember that we get to use it but we do not get to use it up.
In about 1962 or ’63 I was given a gift that lasts a lifetime. I was introduced to a certain creek in western Tarrant County with clear running water rippling over white limestone and gathering in shaded pools. In deeper, still water the sunfish guarded their nests and hid in shadows. At about twelve years old, I would spend entire days there, chasing chalk-white earless lizards over jumbled limestone rocks and plunging into the water to catch the nonvenomous watersnakes that were common at the creek. With a friend or two, I’d wander the fields along the creek and sit where the grass and soil ended and the creek flowed twenty or thirty feet below us, watching turtles basking in the sun. It’s hard to imagine a more carefree existence than spending a day discovering the life of that creek.
I brought home mosquitofish, a surface-feeding little fish looking like a guppy without the fancy tail. Their blue iridescence, seen only with light at certain angles, is subtle but definitely caught my imagination. I was also drawn to the blackstripe topminnow, another surface-feeding fish like a little torpedo with a thick black line down its side.
The snakes, however, were the real prize. I was already hooked on gartersnakes, but the creek was home to incredibly graceful ribbonsnakes, seeming to trace calligraphy over the water as they swam. The bright orange and cream-colored stripes glowed in the sunlight when one of those slender little snakes swam across the water and traced its way through the streamside vegetation.
The creek was a place I returned to over and over. I walked it in summer heat when drought stopped the water’s flow and turned the pools into algae-choked saunas of warm water. I walked it in late fall when the water was almost too cold to wade, and flowed over yellow, brown, and rust-colored layers of dropped leaves. In the winter, I kept visiting even though most reptiles and amphibians were dormant in burrows and crevices. Cricket frogs, however, were out on almost any sunny day that gave them a chance to bask and hunt whatever tiny invertebrates were out and about. Fish didn’t seem to mind the winter’s chill and I could observe them while threading my way along limestone shelves and earthen embankments, trying not to step in the cold water.
Going to college spaced my visits out more but did not stop them. When we lived in Houston, work and distance kept me away. However, when we moved back to Arlington, I found times to visit. The creeping expansion of Fort Worth required that I enter the creek further out. Gradually, the city was gnawing away at my creek, as more land was sold to developers who turned perfectly good nature into bricks, concrete, and turf grass.
This isn’t the story of the loss of the creek, however. It is the story of sharing it and passing it along to new generations. The connection I formed with the creek was forged in childhood, while spending day after day there when school was out for the summer, exploring and discovering as if that time would never end. Maybe it never did end, at least for that place as I internalized it and made it an important part of who I am. I have taken friends to that creek many times over the years. Most of them share a sense that this is a special place, and I hope that they return or else find some place to make theirs. It is too late for the adults to form the same kind of connection that I have with the creek. I am pretty sure that such a bond happens only during childhood, when a place seems to be what people call “larger than life.” What I really mean is “as large as life,” completely occupying that wide open space we give it when we live in it regularly and get to know it intimately. As we become adults, that space narrows; by then we have spent our lives in a lot of places, often in brief and fragmented chunks, making use of places in utilitarian ways. Usually there is little room left in which we can open ourselves to some beautiful place and live in it, getting to know its little mysteries and its seasons in an unhurried way.
I recently took Elijah for a little exploring at the creek. He is in many ways a grandson. I saw him on the day he was born and have watched him grow into a wonderful six-year-old who has been on many walks in nature preserves with his parents and me. I dedicated my forthcoming book to him and to an old mentor of mine, once again mindful of how a love of the natural world is passed along from one generation to the next. And on the day of the walk at the creek, it was just Elijah and me. We were prepared with a net and walking sticks. When wading the creek, the stick becomes a third leg to help balance on algae-coated limestone, and while the old man didn’t fall, Elijah did get a couple of soakings.
Along a part of one side of the creek, in dappled shade, I saw some water pennyworts like parasols on thin little stems. I called Elijah over, saying “Look, they’re like little umbrellas.” At the time, I didn’t know what name to call them when Elijah asked. They were just some kind of pennywort. After another question or two, we moved on. He was on a Pokemon jag so that the dragonflies sailing on the sun-warmed air were “dragonfly-Pokemon,” and the turtles we looked for would have been “turtle-Pokemon.” We did find fish, all of which were too fast for our net. The group of shiners swimming close to the bottom scattered in front of the net, and the sunfish scooted out of reach with a flick of its caudal fin. We saw a small bass as well, but it was getting nowhere near the net.
We had to decide whether to walk into an area where the water was forced into a small channel and ran swiftly – the equivalent of whitewater for the creek. I let him test his strength without getting into the biggest and fastest part and being pulled down. It’s good to get just enough real-life lesson about the power of moving water so that you know when it’s safe to wade and when it will drag you into the current.
After our explore was done and we were back at the car, Elijah asked how I knew so much about nature. I explained that I had been doing it for a lot of years, had read many books, and had hung out with people who knew a lot, just as he was doing with me today. He told me, “When I’m older and I can read better, we will find things and I’ll look them up in the books and we’ll know which plant we saw.” Such a beautiful dream only comes along once in a great while, and I would gladly see it come true. Elijah, you’ve got a deal. I promise. If I can give you the gift of this creek, or a woods or prairie somewhere, I will surely do it.
(I wrote this in The Great Rattlesnake Highway blog, several years ago. I thought it was worth bringing over here before I finally retire the other blog.)
In May of the year 2000, Steve Campbell and I found a box turtle on our way to the LBJ National Grasslands, north of Decatur. It was an old male that had probably walked the fields and fencerows for twenty or perhaps thirty years or more. These ornate box turtles, with their yellow streaks on a compact, dark shell, used to be a common sight in the western cross timbers north and west of Fort Worth. In the last fifty years they’ve become increasingly uncommon in most of the places where they are found. So Steve and I were faced with a problem: what do you do with a turtle found just past someone’s driveway, on a busy farm road at the outskirts of a small but growing city?
Taking it home was never an option for us to consider. The box turtles that are left in the wild need to stay there, because the species depends on adults living a long time and continuing to reproduce, in order to have a chance of surviving. That individual turtle might have done fine if we had collected him; both Steve and I understood its need for a varied diet, an outdoor enclosure with access to direct sunlight as well as water and refuge, and such things. However, once picked up and taken home, it is dead to the population of box turtles. It might as well have been run over, as far as the impact on the box turtle population is concerned. We would like future generations to be able to see box turtles in the wild, and so we were not going to take that turtle out of the population.
Perhaps one way to keep the turtle in the population would be to take it far down a side road, away from traffic, and release it in a meadow near a pond – how does that sound? It used to sound great to me, but it can only sound good if we ignore something pretty important about box turtle behavior. If I was picked up and taken far from home, placed on an unfamiliar street surrounded by strangers, I would set out to try to find home. It probably would not matter that the neighborhood might not look so bad, I would want to find the place I know. I would want to go home. It is similar with box turtles. I do not want to anthropomorphize, trying to make box turtles just like people. However, these turtles do learn and remember important landmarks, and as they grow up, they generally establish a “home range.” This is an area that the turtle uses for day-to-day activities, in the same patch of woods or the same meadow, for most or all of the year. In North American Box Turtles: A Natural History, C. Kenneth Dodd reports that while it is an area of variable size, often it is about the size of a couple of football fields. While some box turtles are transients, most stay within a small area over the course of years. And if moved out of this home range, they generally try to find their way back.
This tendency toward “homing” has plagued efforts to re-populate areas from which box turtles have declined. It also makes it hard to know what to do with box turtles found on city streets or other places where they cannot stay. If you take them to some new place, even an apparently good place, they may wander off. This is generally true of many reptile species – they know where they live and they don’t do well when released far from home. The mortality rate among relocated reptiles is high, presumably from wandering into danger or failing to settle down and find adequate shelter and food.
In a study published last year in Herpetological Conservation & Biology, J. Alan Sosa and Gad Perry reported on their work releasing adult, juvenile, and hatchling ornate box turtles in the Lubbock area. The turtles came from a wildlife rehabilitation facility, where they were brought after being hurt or found in areas that were obviously unsuitable for them. The researchers relocated only healthy turtles, placing them in a variety of locations. Some were released in suburban back yards, others in small undeveloped areas within the city limits, and still others were released on ranchland outside the city. Their whereabouts were tracked using radio transmitters glued to their shells. They found that only 24% of the adult turtles remained in the area where they were released, regardless of what which area it was. There were better results with juveniles and hatchlings, but even then, only 40% of them remained in the area.
And so, if we had taken our ornate box turtle to some place we considered safer and better, it is likely that the outcome for the turtle would be bad, with the turtle failing to settle down and “make a living” in a new place. Imagine how this applies to all the turtles that well-intentioned people take some place and let go, thinking that they’ve done the turtle a favor or helped boost the local population of turtles. And yet, it’s hard to know the right thing to do when you find a box turtle in a suburban neighborhood, in imminent danger from traffic, dogs, pesticides, and many other hazards. Our box turtle’s circumstances were a little better. It was at the edge of a small town, with open fields across the road.
We did about the only thing that our knowledge of box turtle natural history and our commitment to conservation left for us to do. We took the turtle across the road and released it in the nearby field. I thought about the chances that this turtle could go on living in this same patch of grassland, near a line of trees and a little creek, where it probably grew up. It had been lucky enough to survive all these years and not been run over by a car, or collected and put in some dirty aquarium in somebody’s house. Maybe that turtle is still roaming around on the outskirts of Decatur, eating dewberries and grasshoppers, and getting a good soak in the puddles after it rains. Maybe he ran across a female box turtle and together they generated one more clutch of eggs, from which one hatchling (if it was lucky) would survive to adulthood to carry on the species.
On the other hand, I don’t know if that turtle wandered back out on the road the next day, possibly to be run over. There is no way for me to know, but I am sure we made the right decision on that day, sixteen years ago. Over the years since then, I have wandered the LBJ Grasslands many times, but have only seen two or three other box turtles. We need to keep those turtles out there, alive and at home.
Many years ago I was contacted to go to my son’s day care, which had some land and kept a few animals around a small barn. They said that a big snake had been eating the duck eggs, and the culprit had been spotted earlier in the day. I went over and had a look, and as I raked hay away from what appeared to be an old burrow in the floor of a stall, I caught sight of the dark coils of a ratsnake. After pulling about five feet of Texas Ratsnake from her refuge, the next challenge was to get a very unruly snake into the bag so that I could relocate her. A day or two later I took the snake to the wooded corridor of a large creek and tried to pose her for some photos before letting her go. This did not go particularly well; draping a big ratsnake along a log by the woods gives the snake an immediate plan for escape and a very impatient attitude about sticking around for pictures. Of course she turned and bit me. I stood, finger dripping blood into the creek, wondering how many hundred times I have been bitten by Texas Ratsnakes. Meanwhile I did get a photo or two before the big snake climbed into the highest branches of a nearby pecan tree.
I wished her luck, and she would need it. Relocated snakes often do not do very well, because they learn to recognize a particular area (their “home range”) where they live, and when taken somewhere new, even if the habitat is pretty good, they may act as though they are lost, and wander without settling down. Many studies of translocated snakes show that they’re more likely to die, failing to avoid hazards and/or to take advantage of resources in the new location. However, sometimes a snake like this Texas Ratsnake faces a dilemma: stay and be killed or get relocated and “lost.” At least in her new woodland, she had a chance.
While I stubbornly hang onto the name “Texas Ratsnake,” this species was re-named a few years ago after changes in the scientific understanding of the relationships among North American ratsnakes. Its proper name is now the Western Ratsnake, Pantherophis obsoletus. What used to be called the “Black Ratsnake” and “Yellow Ratsnake,” east of the Allegheny Mountains, is now the “Eastern Ratsnake,” Pantherophis alleghaniensis. In the middle part of eastern North America, they are Pantherophis spiloides, a new name for the Gray Ratsnake. West of the Mississippi River, they become Western Ratsnakes, but some habits are hard to break, and so I still sometimes call them Texas Ratsnakes.
This species may be the subject of more run-ins with people than any other snake in our area. Lots of “snake calls” are generated by people seeing a Texas Ratsnake in their trees or yards. Soon after eggs hatch at the end of summer, babies sometimes turn up in people’s garages and sheds. Lots of them are killed on the road each year. Yet somehow, they continue to be abundant year after year around parks and suburbs (as well as in more remote locations).
This is one of our longest snakes, averaging about 3.5 to 6 feet long, with a record length of seven feet, according to Werler & Dixon’s Texas Snakes: Identification, Distribution, and Natural History. Like several other ratsnake species, the Texas Ratsnake’s body, seen in cross-section, is rounded on top and squared at the bottom, like a section of a loaf of bread. This is thought to aid them in climbing trees.
The adult snake’s fairly broad, flat head is dark gray on top, shading to white on the lips and chin. Starting with the neck, there is a pattern of dark saddles going down the back. The dorsal ground color may be yellowish-gray to gray or charcoal. Along the sides is another row of blotches, these being somewhat diamond-shaped. The skin between the scales of the neck and forebody generally includes reddish or orange color, more visible when the skin is stretched. Some of the skin between the scales within the blotches is light gray to white, showing as small flecks of white in a patch on the lower parts of the blotch. Add to this one further complexity of pattern – many adults have the suggestion of vague, smudgy stripes where the edges of the blotches seem to smear a little and join each other down the back. On the belly, the scales are light on the throat, darkening from front to back with large pale squarish blotches and then a mottling of gray and yellow toward the tail.A young adult Texas Ratsnake with more yellow in the background colorAn individual with lots of gray color, though considerable red can be seen between the scales
Hatchling Texas Ratsnakes have brighter and bolder patterns than the adults, with a light ground color so that the blotches stand out more. On the top of the head, juveniles have some dark spots and flecks, and a broad, dark band across the snout just in front of the eyes. That band then goes through the eyes diagonally to the jawline. The pattern darkens with age.Juvenile Texas Ratsnake
Texas Ratsnakes take advantage of a wide variety of habitats within roughly the eastern two-thirds of Texas where they are found. They occur in east Texas and down the Gulf Coast to Corpus Christi, and in central Texas to a little west of Wichita Falls, out to San Angelo, and southwest nearly to Del Rio. This means that they live in east Texas piney woods, bottomland hardwoods, cross timbers woodland, and savannas from north Texas down through the Hill Country. They are excellent climbers, and this may be one factor in their success, keeping them away from ground-based predators and people at least some of the time. While up in the trees, they may eat birds and their eggs.
My field notes and my memory indicate that I’ve found lots of Texas Ratsnakes in patches of prairie, old fields with at least a creek nearby, and woodlands and forests. During the day, I have been more likely to find them by flipping cover such as discarded plywood or logs. I’ve seen a great many on back roads at twilight or at night, quite often in brushy or wooded areas, or within a short distance of a creek. Undoubtedly they use wooded creek and river corridors to move around in more dry, open areas further west in their range.
Both the accepted common name, “rat” snake, and the often used name “chicken” snake refer to some of their preferred food. A stomach contents study cited in Werler & Dixon, looking at 100 wild specimens in north Louisiana, found mice, rats, and a few squirrels and rabbits in their stomachs. This snake is more than happy to eat birds and their eggs. Coming upon nests, it may eat eggs or fledglings. A big adult reportedly can swallow an adult chicken. While this may not make the Texas Ratsnake popular with either farmers or birders, it is simply doing its “job” and may eat enough rats that it does the farmer more good than harm.
The most memorable activity seen in Texas Ratsnakes may be their belligerent self-defense when cornered or handled. When first approached, the snake may “make a break for it” or may stay where it is. I have often seen one pull its body into a series of short kinks and sit still, hoping that it won’t be seen. Once picked up, the snake thrashes in an attempt to get away, and may bite repeatedly while discharging musk from the other end. While some snake musk is only moderately disagreeable, musk from a Texas Ratsnake is very offensive, a little reminiscent of burnt tires. But the open-mouthed gape while looking for an opportunity to bite is worse. Very commonly, having picked up one of these snakes, it remains coiled on one of your arms as if it were a tree limb while gaping at your hand or other arm as the obvious visible target. If your hand moves closer, the snake will strike, leaving a series of pinprick holes. Occasionally it will hold on and chew. It is important to remember that this only happens to humans who harass and pick up a ratsnake; an observer who simply watches and photographs will not be attacked.The famous Texas Ratsnake gape, ready to bite the attacker
One additional note in defense of the Texas Ratsnake, showing that biting is only self-protective and never because it wants to pick a fight: I have many times been able to pick up a Texas Ratsnake by slipping a hand under it and supporting it while giving it no target that looks like an enemy. A freshly-caught ratsnake may crawl from one arm to the other as long as nothing comes at it like an attacker. However, this is in no way foolproof, and fairly often it pauses and seems to recognize that this is no tree, abruptly biting my arm. And again I would stress that I have never, ever been bitten by a Texas Ratsnake that I was not handling or attempting to handle. They have no venom and they have no interest in becoming aggressive as long as they are left alone.
Spring mating results in the laying of a clutch of five to twenty eggs in June or July. The eggs are laid in rotting logs, in a protected area under leaf litter, in abandoned mammal burrows, or under rocks. It is also known to use above-ground tree cavities for nesting, and the description in Werler & Dixon notes that the tree cavity was used by perhaps four different females for communal nesting. The eggs hatch in August and September, and the baby snakes have much the same temperament as their parents!
(This article is adapted from one I wrote for the January, 2003 issue of the Cross Timbers Herpetologist, newsletter of the DFW Herpetological Society.)