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.