Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Happy Herping

Last week I had the opportunity to spend time in the field with renowned naturalist Geoffrey Hammerson, author of the acclaimed book Connecticut Wildlife - Biodiversity, Natural History, and Conservation (Hammerson, 2004).  Our time was spent searching for anything scaly, slimy, shelled, slithery, squirmy, or a combination thereof, as long as it was of the taxonomic Subphylum Vertebrata – animals with backbones.  And yes, you guessed it, to be more accurate, our query were amphibians and reptiles (Orders Amphibia and Reptilia (often referred together as “Herpetofauna”).  Last week’s weather made for pleasant field work, and we spent one afternoon and four mornings visiting sites in central Connecticut looking for these wonderful creatures.  

Our time in the field took us to a variety of habitats and within various preserves and conservation lands. Among the Amphibia, we had no trouble finding Green, Wood, Pickerel, or Bull Frogs in the wetlands, and American Toad in the uplands.  Northern Dusky Salamanders and Two-lined Salamanders were often found in some of the woodland streams we searched, and Red-backed Salamanders were encountered under fallen logs on the forest floor. Sweeps of seasonal pools using a D-net within forested areas often netted us Eastern Red-spotted Newts, Green and Bullfrog Tadpoles, and larval Spotted Salamanders. 
Spotted Salamander - (Ambystoma maculatum)

Among the Reptilia, Painted Turtles were the easiest to spot, as they were often on display basking in the late morning sun at many of the ponds we visited. At one particular pond, Geoff waded into waist deep water, bent down with both hands under the water surface, and stood up holding a full grown adult male Snapping Turtle!   

Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) - Haddam, CT
Snakes were harder to find, and even harder to capture, suggesting that most don’t want to be noticed, and once they are, they beat a hasty retreat. This proved true for the snakes we encountered in our travels such as Ring-necked, Garter, and especially the sometimes grumpy Northern Watersnake. 

Northern Watersnake - (Nerodia sipedon) resting among water lilies (Nymphaea odorata) and water shield (Brasenia schreberi)
But the highlight of my week in the field with Geoff was when he found a Northern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) – one of Connecticut’s only two venomous serpent vipers (Family Viperidae)! Geoff found the copperhead basking on a rock pile within a utility corridor with herbaceous vegetation. (The Eastern Timber Rattlesnake is the other venomous viper that can be found in Connecticut.)

Northern Copperhead - (Agkistrodon contortrix) – Middlefield, CT
Northern Copperheads are not a species listed in Connecticut’s Endangered Species Act (CTDEP 2010), but nevertheless, they are recognized as a species of Greatest Conservation Need in Connecticut’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy (CTDEP, 2005), and they have been reportedly declining in the state for some time (Klemens, 1993). Despite their ability to use their hypodermic needle-like fangs to administer a lethal dose of venom to their preferred rodent prey, Northern Copperheads are not a major threat to humans hiking in Connecticut’s woodlands.  For one, they are somewhat range- and habitat-restricted (not every large forest tract has a population of copperheads) and secondly, as Hammerson writes in his book: “…copperheads are passive and reclusive. They never aggressively attack a person, but will strike defensively if molested.” 

Despite the menacing appearance of this snake in the photo, it was not threatening us.  Pit vipers have the ability to dislocate both of their upper and lower jaw bones from their skull, so that they can swallow prey larger than their normal mouth opening, and so that the four bones can work independently of each other to work the captured prey back into their mouths and into their throat.  Once prey has been swallowed, the jawbones are re-articulated.   The snake in this picture is realigning its jawbones, and not – as many might assume – threatening to bite us.  

-- Anthony Zemba, Director of Conservation Services - Conservation Biologist / Certified Ecologist  
Photos by Anthony Zemba/Copyright Connecticut Audubon Society

Connecticut Department of [Energy and] Environmental  Protection (2005). Connecticut’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy. Developed by the Connecticut Department of Natural Resources in consultation with Terwilliger Consulting, Inc. October1, 2005. 

Connecticut Department of [Energy and] Environmental  Protection (2010). Connecticut’s Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern Species. State of Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, 2010. :  http://www.ct.gov/dep/cwp/view.asp?a=2702&q=323488&depNav_GID=1628

Hammerson, G. A. (2004). Connecticut Wildlife. Biodiversity, Natural History, and Conservation. University Press of New England, Hanover. 465pp.

Klemens, M. W. (1993). Amphibians and Reptiles of Connecticut and Adjacent Regions. State Geological and Natural History Survey of Connecticut. Bulletin  No. 112.

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