Saturday, October 13, 2018

California Waters: Frogs on the SoCal Coast --- Guest Post --

Anna’s Hummingbird drinks from the 
stream near the beginning of our hike.
Venture off-trail in the deep woods and you might come across a bear track. Not the worn path the deer leave, but offset indentations, footfalls landing on top of each other until they are imprinted into the earth. The ease of maintained routine suggests that the bear knows a comfort here.

Even if we had missed the steps, the heaps of dung and fresh scrape on the tree would have been hard to ignore. We were outside of man’s domain. And today this is the sort of place you have to go – up in the mountains, deep in the woods, off the trail – if you want to find native frogs in southern California.

The author's father, an outdoorsman and retired zookeeper.
Hours before encountering the bear sign I had met my dad at an airport in the middle of Los Angeles’s urban sprawl. Having spent the last six years working in community education in urban India, I wanted to see what had been happening with California’s herps.

In the 2000s I took part in herpetological surveys throughout the West Coast, one of many amateurs recording reptile and amphibian populations through citizen scientist projects (especially www.naherp.com). I wanted to return to these wild places and see how the most vulnerable herp populations were coping. What impact had another decade of drought, development, climate change and the spread of invasive species 
had on their sustainability?

That's how I found myself well off the beaten path, in the world of bear tracks and tree scrapes, looking for frogs hanging on in their last reserves.


The remote survivor

The non-venomous Coast Mountain
Kingsnake is a lizard predator.
 My father and I woke up that morning to beautiful yellow blooms and buzzing hummingbirds. Whiptail and sagebrush lizards scurried away as we began our hike, highlighting that high elevation SoCal dynamic where dry brush abuts mountain pine. Around one turn a rockfall betrayed someone’s retreat from the canyon rim, the steepness of the source suggesting it may have been a bighorn who displaced the rock. A few hours in we were delighted to observe a Coast Mountain Kingsnake crossing our path.

But there were no frogs.

No frogs in the creek. No frogs sunning on the rocks. No frogs in the tributaries. No frogs in the side pools.

The population I was looking for is so small that I couldn’t risk missing anything. I stalked upstream, examining every surface and every depth. By the time I reached the area I knew to be their prime habitat I was scrutinizing everything twice, pausing beforehand to let my eyes creep over the logs and banks in the hope of locating an undisturbed frog before I approached, then checking again from the opposite side as I passed in case a disturbed frog or a different angle would reveal something new.

Years earlier I had found several frogs in these pools. Now, in the same places, I found nothing.

The Southern Mountain Yellow-legged Frog was 
once much easier to find in these streams.
Not that they are all gone. Hours into our hike and at least twenty minutes past the point where I had expected to see a frog, I finally spot it. A Southern Mountain Yellow-legged Frog, one of the rarest frogs in the United States.

It would be the only frog I see on this hike.

The fate of the ranids

When you think of a frog, your mental image will probably match a ranid, the family of frogs known as “True Frogs." Ranids epitomize the prototypical “frog shape” and are the most widely distributed group of amphibians in the world. Yet 99.99% of Southern Californians will never see a native ranid in their life.

This is what happened:

This California Red-legged Frog was spotted at a
 reintroduction site in the Santa Monica Mountains.
The California Red-legged Frog (Rana draytonii), the "celebrated jumping frog" of the Mark Twain tale, once ranged throughout the southern Californian coastal lowlands. By 1970 it was in trouble as urban development inundated any land that wasn’t mountain or desert. In 1996 the frog was placed on the Endangered Species List and began acquiring habitat protections, but the damage was done. Now it is absent south of Santa Barbara save for two relict populations on the outskirts of LA County. Fledgling reintroductions into new streams are being attempted.

The Foothill Yellow-legged Frog (Rana boylii), previously found in the foothills and middle-elevations of the coast ranges all the way to the cusp of Los Angeles, was unable to deal with dams and stream diversion. Along the coast it is now extirpated south of Monterey County. Inland in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains only a couple populations are hanging on.

The Southern Mountain Yellow-legged Frog (Rana muscosa), at one point surveyed in over 165 high-elevation mountain streams, has been reduced to ten small populations scattered across the San Jacinto, San Bernardino, and San Gabriel Mountains. Dams and development did their damage, but the most comprehensive blow may have been the introduction of carnivorous trout to fish-less streams. The largest of the existing populations is now only a few dozen frogs. Reintroduction efforts are underway, but in recent years existent populations have blipped out faster than the new ones have taken hold (in fact, the frogs may now be down to only 7-8 populations). More viable but still endangered populations of this species are found in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains.

There are still frogs in Southern California. The two chorus frog species that provide a soundtrack for many a Hollywood movie, Pseudacris cadaverina and Pseudacris hypochondriaca, have maintained much of their historic range and even persist in some city parks. Invasive bullfrogs from the east coast are a ravenous presence.

But for half of the state, the native ranids are almost gone.


Toads in low places

Arroyo Toads require sandy sections of creek,
which also attract vehicles and partiers.
I emerged from the tent and laced on my hiking shoes, lathered with quaternary ammonium the previous night to prevent the spread of frog-killing chytrid fungus. There was a long hike ahead and the sun was coming up hot. But I had a question well worth the effort.

Had any Arroyo Toads (Anaxyrus californicus) reproduced this year?

When looking for cryptic species, larvae are a cheat code. The mass reproductive strategies common in amphibians (known biologically as r-reproduction) ensure that many more tadpoles are produced than will ever become adults, and these tadpoles concentrate in specific habitats. Most years that you search for the Arroyo Toad, tadpoles will be the easiest way to find them.

But this isn’t most years. 2018 was a drought year, one of the worst recorded (though 2015 was as bad or worse, an ominous warning about how frequent such droughts are becoming). And Dr. Sam Sweet had warned me that Arroyo Toads in the coastal ranges hadn’t bred at all this year.  Sam, a UCSB ecologist who monitors coastal amphibian populations, had suggested that the lack of early rain kept those toads and other aquatic amphibians from getting the signals they needed to start reproduction.

I wanted to know if the inland populations were the same.

That query is what led to a sixteen mile round-trip hike in the sun. By some estimates there are only twenty or so viable populations of Arroyo Toad left, and every one is vulnerable. I was heading to an area where surveyors just a decade earlier had located hundreds of tadpoles in half-a-dozen breeding locales. Would they still be around this year?

A California Kingsnake, one of two
 snakes seen along the route.
The early portion of the hike was promising. A Great Basin Collared Lizard sunned on a rock, one of five lizard species spotted along the route. A few minutes later a California Kingsnake slowly paralleled the trail. Unlike the previous hike this route was well-trafficked, and so there were some human encounters too.

I took advantage of the maintained trail and passed most of the stream without a look. Arroyo Toads employ a reproductive strategy which requires open, sandy banks (Sam posted a fascinating breakdown of the Arroyo Toad's unique habitat ecology here). If you don’t have the banks, you won’t find the toads. Unfortunately, the flatter, slower sections of creek necessary to build such sandbanks are only found in certain canyons, and those canyons were often the first to get dammed.

American Bullfrog tadpoles.
Three hours later I reached the spot. I scanned sandbanks for juveniles and poked around vegetation in open pools and within the shade of boulders. Not all of the flat spots were contiguous, so it took a couple hours of climbing up the canyon and then dropping back down to the water to check every likely spot. Sweat began pouring off my arms.

And all I found were bullfrogs.

Bullfrogs are a bane to native herps. Introduced to California a century ago, they reproduce in warmer, dirtier, and more human-altered waterways than native frogs can tolerate, but spread right through many of the best native-frog habitats as well. The adults will eat everything they can get their mouths around.

On this day bullfrogs were the only amphibian I could find in the pools. Had the season been too dry for the toads’ mating cues? Was there a viable population of adults still hiding under the sand, waiting for the next good rain? Thankfully, Arroyo Toads have a lifespan of around five years and 2017 was a great season for rain. But four years of droughts hit before then, limiting the number of toads that were left to breed. More drought is on the way.

These particular joyriders at least 
stayed out of the toad habitat.
In the early evening I backtracked six miles to reach a different locality by nightfall. Adult Arroyo Toads are active in the early night, and I was hoping some would be around even if they weren’t breeding. As I got closer to civilization I began seeing more casual day-trippers, including locals with jeeps and 4WD pickup trucks who had driven right up to the creek. The sandy banks that Arroyo Toads love are a target destination for partiers who splash through the pools, cut cookies in the sand, and then relax with drinks on the peaceful shores.

As darkness fell the partiers and off-roaders disappeared. A pair of beavers patrolled the pond they had created in a sluggish stretch, slapping the surface of the water when I approached. As I pushed through the brush to reach an open bank, a fluttering led me to a California Towhee, trapped by the fishing line entangled around one of its feet.  

This Arroyo Toad has survived droughts,
bullfrogs, hikers, partiers, ORVs, and a dam.
I freed the towhee and was rewarded minutes later by a lone Arroyo Toad sitting on the sand bank. They don’t have much to them aesthetically, but to me the sight was gorgeous. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear any calls on this bank, and over the course of an hour and a half of searching in prime activity time I only heard a couple quickly aborted trills.

Walking through Arroyo Toad habitat gives a sense for how profoundly we alter even that habitat we haven’t developed. Trash litters the area. Makeshift roads cut through the same banks that the toads bury themselves into. And there may not be an historic Arroyo Toad locality left in the Transverse Ranges that can be approached without passing a dam.

Dams are the #1 enemy of stream-breeding amphibians like the Arroyo Toad and Foothill Yellow-Legged Frog. It’s obvious that building a dam destroys most animal populations in the newly flooded area. But the full impact is much worse – the dam also prevents downstream spots from getting flooded when they most need it (in winter to maintain sentiment banks) and creates artificially high flow when they least need it (in summer when such flows wash away eggs and tadpoles). Soon not only the populations in the flooded area but all populations downstream of the dam are wiped out, leaving smaller populations isolated in narrow canyons upstream. These disjunct remnants are too far apart to reinforce each other and become vulnerable to traumatic events. The floods of 1969, which may have wiped out the last remaining Foothill Yellow-legged Frogs in the San Gabriel Mountains, were one such event which may not have been so devastating if the populations hadn’t already been imperilled.

As I took my leave of the stream, a Big-eared Woodrat emerged from a gap in the canyon wall. A California Vole rustled in the dead leaves next to the trail. My presence spooked a Striped Skunk, which then ran off into a nearby boulder field and nearly smacked straight into a beautiful Bobcat. While watching the bobcat I found a Baja California Chorus Frog (Pseudacris hypochondriaca) in a pond. Later a Western Toad (Anaxyrus boreas) would cross my path (Western Toads utilize a wider range of habitat than the much more endangered Arroyo Toads), while Burrowing Owls watched from the slopes above.

Full disclosure – it took two nights of searching
the area to come up with these.
Even as I mourned the significant human impacts, it was a blessing to see that there was still wildlife to call this spot home.

Frogs are not doing well on the southern California coast. Besides the species I already named, the Western Spadefoot (Spea hammondii) is also extirpated from 80-90% of its historic range here, largely due to the development of lowland habitat. The Western Toad (Anaxyrus boreas), once among the most ubiquitous amphibians in southern California, seems to be retreating from many of its historic localities. And it’s not just frogs – other reptiles and amphibians reliant on water, such as the California Newt (Taricha torosa), Southwestern Pond Turtle (Actinemys pallida), and California Red-sided Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis infernalis), are meeting the same fate. Even terrestrial herps on the California coast have seen their ranges shrink.

Southern California is vulnerable to development for obvious reasons. But it shouldn’t be seen as a unique case. The basic issues of development and dams and poor allocation of water resources are issues that afflict human communities everywhere, and unless you’re off the grid completely then you yourself are in some part contributing to the demand.

The more we develop, the more we build, the more we consume, the more populations of frogs will wink out. What are those of us complicit in this consumption to do with human development and all that comes with it?

About the Author

Jon Hakim got his love of wildlife from his father, who took him on long days in the woods herping and hiking in rural Oregon. Since 2007 Jon has surveyed extensively as a citizen scientist with the Herpetological Education and Research Project. He currently lives in a slum in India with his wife Rose and daughters Chhaya and Sophia, reaching out to disadvantaged youth and families while also teaching Hindi literacy and training literacy teachers across the country. You can read about his herping adventures across Asia at Bangkok Herps.  

References:

Thomson, Robert C. California Amphibian and Reptile Species of Special Concern. University of California Press. Kindle Edition.

Nafis, Gary. California Herps: A guide to the reptiles and amphibians of California. http://www.californiaherps.com/

I want to thank Sam Sweet, Jeff Lemm, and Chris Rombough for some insights on particular species.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Announcing a New Round of Grant Funding from The Alongside Wildlife Foundation: Costa Rica Frogs to Nepalese Leopards

   As you know, this year my foundation started a small grants program to support wildlife conservation projects around the world. In June, we announced the first round of awards to a variety of projects focused on everything from Arkansas dragonflies and Oklahoma ants to Nigerian monkeys and Pakistani wolves. Thanks to our growing army of recurring small donors we have now awarded almost $6,000 this year. I wanted to highlight the projects that have received funding in the latest round of awards here (and yes, perhaps entice you to become a recurring donor so we can start doing even more).

Sometimes people tell me they feel silly signing up as a recurring donor for just a (tax-deductible) $1-2 a month and I tell them actually this would be great! If a quarter of my online followers signed up at this level we'd instantly become one of the world's largest wildlife conservation charities. 


Sagar Raj Kandel

Sagar (Tribhuvan University) received funding to support his project focused on leopards in and around Banke National Park in Nepal and his work to learn more about their abundance and diet. The goal is to generate data that will help inform conservation plans and reduce conflict with local communities. Funds will be used to defray costs associated with laboratory analysis of prey samples.



Marie-Michaire LIMA

Marie-Michaire (Laboratory of Applied Ecology, University of Abomey-Calavi) received funds to purchase camera traps that will allow him to figure out what mammal species are living within Lama Forest in southern Benin as well as produce material that can be used in educational materials that will help others learn about the species hanging on in this protected area.


Hannington Ochieng

Hannington (Busitema University) received funds that will be used to compensate women and children as they survey for invertebrates in the Aturukuku River in Uganda - the data they collect will generate important information about water quality and help generate strategies for how it can be improved. Funds will also be used to purchase an overhead project so that Hannington can communicate findings to local stakeholders in community meetings.

Marina Garrido Priego

Marina (Osa Conservation) received funds to help form the first conservation action plan for the Golfo Dulce Poison Dart Frog, a highly-endangered species found only on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica. Marina will use the funds to conduct surveys that will help establish the current distribution of the species and also conduct workshops with local communities that will help them learn more about the species in the region and opportunities to get involved with conservation efforts. 


Want to help us do even more to create and promote science-based solutions to living alongside wildlife in perpetuity? Please consider joining our growing network of recurring small donors here.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Snake Identification Challenge of the Week is Back!

Dear Dr. Steen,

My wife and I encountered this snake (video attached) along the Irondale Furnace walking trail in Mountain Brook, Alabama. The trail runs alongside a part of Shades Creek near the Mountain Brook Club golf course.

If the attached video gets to you as recorded please maximize your volume. You will hear this fellow (or lady) intensify it's rattle when it realized that it was being followed....

Thanks a bunch for your help to identify this snake and for your writings and blogs to enlighten us on these reptiles.

Doug R.
Alabama





Hi my name is jason and I would like your help in identifying this rattlesnake.  It was caught in Pen Argyl Pennsylvania.  It was over 2ft long and it was pretty docile until we went to put it into the bucket . Then it coiled up ready to strike but it didn't strike, it only rattled it's rattles . Thanks for your time and assistance 

Jason L.
Pennsylvania







My cat found this baby snake in our house in South Carolina. These are cell phone pictures. Sorry they aren't better. I am hoping it's a harmless snake. My young son is scared to go to sleep tonight. Can you tell me what it is?

Thanks so much!

Nancy M.
South Carolina


What Are These Snakes?
-----

Snake Identification Post Ground Rules

-Guesses are welcome and encouraged. Don't worry if you're not an expert, wrong guesses allow us to talk about how to distinguish between the various species and that's why I run these posts.

-If you can't explain why you think a snake is a particular species, go ahead and just say what you think it is. But otherwise please do let us all know how you identified the animal. If you're wrong, we can explain why. If you're right, this helps everyone learn how to identify snakes, which is the point of these posts.

-This is not a pop quiz, any kind of research is encouraged and I hope you will engage with other commenters to try to figure these snakes out. I will eventually chime in with my thoughts.

-Assume I know what kind of snake is in the picture. I run these posts because they are outreach opportunities. Please don't send me private e-mails with your guesses, include them below.

-Remember, the person that sent me the picture is probably reading your comments. Although it is frustrating to know that many of these snakes have been killed, these people do want to learn more about them. More snake knowledge will lead to fewer snakes being killed. Don't hate, educate.



Enjoy what you read and learn here? 

Monday, July 23, 2018

A Tadpole Bigger than a Can of Soda --Guest Post--

Two months ago, while netting a mostly drained pond, American Museum of Natural History’s Southwestern Research Station (SWRS) volunteer Alina Downer felt something large bump into her legs as it swam through the knee-deep mud. At first, she thought it was a fish but when she reached down she was surprised to see a very large bullfrog tadpole. The team named him Goliath.


   I am a herpetologist --someone who studies reptiles and amphibians-- and a graduate student at the University of Arizona staying at the SWRS for my field season and when I heard Dr. Michele Lanan boasting of Goliath’s size. I just had to see him for myself. I posted a picture of Goliath to Twitter and within hours the post had thousands of likes and hundreds of comments. I was surprised and happy about all the (mostly) positive reactions to Goliath. I was in awe of his* size like everyone else. As far as we can tell Goliath is the largest tadpole on record. 

Bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus) are native to the central and eastern regions of the United States. The largest of tadpoles usually grow up to six inches, and adults can be over eight inches long. Unfortunately they are not native to the western US; they were introduced there as a game species, for food (frog legs!), and to act as pest control.

 In southern Arizona, bullfrogs have altered ecosystems and have been one of the main reasons for the decline of native species such as the Chiricahua Leopard Frog (Lithobates chiricahuensis) and the northern Mexican garter snake (Thamnophis eques megalops) both of which are listed as threatened. Bullfrogs eat anything they can fit in their enormous mouths, including these native species, birds, fish, and insects. They also harbor large parasite loads and the deadly chytrid fungus.  

Chiricahua leopard frogs depend on aquatic habitats as eggs and tadpoles develop and adults use them for reproduction and refugia. In 2007 SWRS implemented a plan to reintroduce the Chiricahua leopard frog (listed as a threatened species in 2002) around the research station in wetlands where they had disappeared. The plan had multiple steps and included finding funding, assessing habitat, habitat restoration, starting a captive breeding program, and finally reintroduction to native habitats.From 2011-2014 more than 12,000 tadpoles had been released into seven frog ponds on the SWRS property. Thirteen other ponds were built within 10 miles of Cave Creek corridor in the hopes that the Chiricahua leopard frogs would disperse into them and they did! 

But, it did not make sense to keep reintroducing leopard frogs while there were still bullfrogs around waiting to eat them. That’s where Dr. David Hall comes in. He is the field coordinator of the FROG Conservation Project and a senior wildlife biologist at the University of Arizona and has been working with his SWRS team, local landowners, and Arizona Game and Fish on bullfrog removal and Chiricahua Leopard Frog reintroduction in the Cave Creek drainage for years. The scope of the project is large: bullfrogs must be completely removed from 66 thousand acres in the San Simon Valley in Arizona. It’s a game of strategy- deciding which ponds are essential to target next to stop bullfrogs from moving into Leopard Frog territory. To fully clear the San Simon Valley, they needed to drain four major ponds simultaneously to ensure the bullfrogs cannot migrate to other water sources like natural ponds, cattle tanks, and other stream systems. The best time to remove bullfrog adults are during the evening and night when they are most active. But the team also works during the day to remove tadpoles by seining-- vertically moving a net through a water body. It is best to keep the pond dry as long as possible to ensure that the bullfrogs do not return to the area or hide in the mud, but the length of time depends on many factors including weather and landowner preferences. Once the frogs are successfully removed from the San Simon Valley they will not return, because the distance to the next bullfrog site is too far for them to move on their own.

Back to Goliath.

After capturing Goliath, the team brought it back to SWRS where the Resident Research Scientist, Dr. Michele Lanan, set the tadpole up in a 25-gallon tank and started contacting amphibian researchers to hear their opinions about the giant. Dr. Lanan says that it is hard to study isolated events like Goliath. She believes that he might have a hormonal imbalance that will prevent him from ever metamorphosing into an adult bullfrog. Based on his years of fieldwork with bullfrogs, Dr. Hall believe that Goliath is at least three years old. We are unsure exactly how long Goliath may live without metamorphosing but if it continues to grow it may get to a point where the respiratory or circulatory system will not be able to support the size of the body. 

While discussing the possible research avenues with interested researchers, Dr. Lanan has been studying his growth rate, how much he is eating (he feeds on algae), and whether his behavior differs from that of normal tadpoles. Dr. Lanan has shared the news of Goliath’s discovery with other herpetology experts, many of whom were also puzzled by the cause of Goliath’s size and are interested in determining the reason for it. She hopes that research on Goliath might help solve questions about the regulation of amphibian development and paedomorphism. In the meantime, Dr. Lanan, Dr. Hall, and all the members of the frog project hope that their efforts to remove the invasive bullfrogs are successful so that native species will be able to once again thrive in the area. 

The FROG Conservation Project also works on recovering wildlife and habitats in the Cienega Creek area and surrounding areas threatened by invasive species. Dr. David Hall’s team includes Jace Lankow, Sarah Wolfsiffer, Chris Prewitt, Julia Muldoon, and many other volunteers. For the last twelve years Dr. Hall has been investigating the impacts on invasive fish and bullfrogs on native Arizona species (http://frog.cienega.org). The Frog Conservation project partners with many other organizations such as the Arizona Fish and Game Department, the US Fish and wildlife Service, and the US Forest Service, and local landowners, without whom this project would not be possible.

*There is no way to tell the sex on a tadpole from morphology, but I’ll refer to Goliath as a he since he’s been given a male name. 

About the Author

Earyn McGee is a PhD student at the University of Arizona where she also received her Master’s in Natural Resources. She is a NSF- Bridge to Doctorate fellow as well as an NSF- GRFP fellow. In addition to her academic endeavors like ecology and herpetology, Earyn is also interested in #Scicomm and posts to Twitter and Instagram under the handle @Afro_herper.  


This post was made possible in part thanks to financial support provided by The Mindlin Foundation to David Steen to support blogging and science communication activities.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

What Should You Do if You Find a Turtle On The Road?

    Chances are that you have probably seen a turtle trying to cross the road. But roads are dangerous places! 

   Adult female turtles do something that other turtles do not: travel on land to nest. And, this makes them particularly vulnerable to roads. Normally, many eggs and baby turtles are eaten by predators, but this is offset by their long lifespan. If turtles survive to adulthood, then they are tough enough to live for decades. If they lay eggs for many many years then they are likely to produce enough babies to replace themselves in the population. When roads take those adult females out, then the population may decline (this relates to some of my masters research).

   So you see, when turtles get killed on roads it is clearly a big problem for individual turtles but it also affects the overall population too. 

   People often ask me what they should do if they see a turtle crossing the road and I am always immediately clear about one thing: Always Prioritize Your Own Safety. People have been killed helping turtles cross the road and it's not worth it.

   That said, I'm so excited to once again partner with the brilliant Rosemary Mosco (get her new book!) to illustrate why turtles cross the road and what you can do about it (previously we teamed up on Cottonmouth Myths). 


This collaboration was made possible thanks to a grant awarded to me by The Mindlin Foundation and my time was made possible through my work for The Alongside Wildlife Foundation, my 501(c)(3) conservation non-profit Want to support more work like this? Then please considering signing up as a recurring donor.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

About My Viral Video of a Hognose Snake Drinking From A Water Bottle ---Guest Post---


    
    The work day began for us at 4:30 AM. We loaded up the field truck with our equipment and were on our way. It’s not always easy getting up before the sun, but it is worth it knowing that you increase your chances of finding some really fantastic snake species by doing so. 

    Tristan and I are field research assistants for herpetologists Dr. Mike Dreslik and Dr. Chris Phillips at the Illinois Natural History Survey. Our task over the last few weeks has been to explore several sand prairies in Illinois and document the species of herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) we encounter. Surveys like these are critical because they can pinpoint locations of protected species and allow biologists and land managers to implement the best practices to maintain the habitats of these creatures.

    Just as we arrived at our site, the sun began warming the prairie. We walked slowly across the landscape with our eyes glued to the ground, hoping to encounter a snake. During the summer, many diurnal snakes become active just after sunrise before temperatures become exceedingly hot, so this is a great time to look for them. This particular morning was very warm and the temperature was rising quickly, even at an early hour. Despite the increasing heat, we continued our search, meticulously combing the prairie. 

    After a morning of searching – and multiple previous visits to the site with limited success – our efforts finally paid off. A western hognose snake, Heterodon nasicus, was spotted moving through the sandy vegetation, most likely looking for a meal (these snakes love turtle eggs!). Tristan picked up the snake and she immediately “played dead,” a defense mechanism commonly seen in hognose snakes. Western hognose snakes are state threatened in Illinois and live only in a few scattered places across the state, so encountering one of these snakes in the wild was extremely exciting for us. We brought the snake back to our field truck to collect some valuable data from her: we recorded her length, mass, and sex, and took a scale clip as a tissue sample.

    By the time we finished processing her, the temperature on the sand prairie had risen noticeably. It was a cloudless, windless day as well, which enhanced the heat of the sun. Tristan and I were both in need of a water break. We got our bottles from the truck and sat down with the snake before hiking back to the capture location to release her. With temperatures this intense, the snake would normally be down in an underground burrow by this point in the day, so we thought she may be experiencing slight dehydration. Tristan wondered if she would accept water from us – so we gave it a try! 

    I took the lid off of my water bottle and filled it with water. Tristan held the snake up to the lid and she immediately began to drink from it! She took many gulps of water before it occurred to me that I should record this very cool experience. Even after I stopped filming, the snake continued to drink. We were happy that she accepted water from us and it made us feel good to make up for any inconvenience we may have caused by temporarily removing her from her habitat.

    I enjoy sharing photos and videos from the field on social media (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) because I believe communication between scientists and the public is crucial for the success of wildlife conservation. I wanted my friends to share our unique experience of watching a wild snake accept and drink water, so I posted a clip to my social media accounts. I NEVER expected the clip to receive as much attention as it has! It is incredibly exciting to see the reaction of the public to my video. Snakes have unfairly earned a bad reputation and usually only receive negative attention in the media.

    Responses to my video have been almost entirely positive! Most people that comment on the video state that they have never seen a snake drink before and that seeing this happen helped ease their fears by allowing them to relate to the animal in this way. Some have stated that they didn’t know wild snakes could be so docile. Others are moved by the fact that humans would act so kindly toward a scaly, misunderstood creature and have thanked us for our actions.

    Snake conservation and education is important to us. We consider ourselves lucky to have the opportunity to study these underappreciated animals. Working with rare and understudied snakes such as the western hognose allows us to collect data that can guide conservation actions for the species. Another snake species that we are studying this season is Kirtland’s snake (Clonophis kirtlandii). This snake is also threatened in Illinois and has declined markedly through its entire range. Because it is a small, secretive snake that lives underground inside crayfish burrows, many people don’t get to see how spectacular it is.


    But, we need the public to recognize these animals and their beauty. We need the public to share their observations with scientists. We need to communicate, educate, and conserve. Public observations may be one of the only ways that populations of rare snakes, like Kirtland’s snake, can be documented on a broad scale. Scientists can’t be everywhere at once. Indeed, we all are the experts in our own backyards, stomping grounds, and fishing spots. We just need to do a better job of sharing it*. 

The future of conservation lies in the hands of everybody, scientists and citizens alike. Sometimes this is as simple as submitting a photo to your local biologist or offering a hognose a drink. When will you take a sip? 


*One way you could share your reptile and amphibian observations with scientists is through HerpMapper, a mobile and online application for reporting your encounters! 


About the Author

Taylor West is from northern Illinois and earned her BSc from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has a strong passion for wildlife conservation and herpetology, plans to attend graduate school in 2019, and hopes to eventually become an MD-PhD physician scientist. Currently, Taylor is working at the Illinois Natural History Survey, assisting with multiple reptile and amphibian studies. Her primary focus for this season is Kirtland’s snake research, a project that is important to her because of the relatively understudied nature of the species. Taylor will be performing research in South America later this year and hopes to broaden her understanding of the natural world by doing so. She can be reached at by e-mail here.


This post was made possible in part thanks to financial support provided by The Mindlin Foundation to David Steen to support blogging and science communication activities.