Reptiles and Amphibians

Tadpole 101 and Identification

Tadpoles (Photo: Benny Mazur, Flicker Sharing)

Tadpoles (Photo: Benny Mazur, Flicker Sharing)

Do Tadpoles Really Have Teeth?

It's Spring, and despite the weather doing its bipolar dance of 40's to 70's and back, the animals and plants are already starting to bloom, call, sing, mate, and lay eggs.  Here where I live spring peepers are vociferously calling every night. Soon they will be joined by cricket frogs, bull frogs, leopard frogs, green frogs, grey tree frogs, pickerel frogs, wood frogs, and toads. Already there are quite a few tadpoles of mixed origin gracing our vernal pools and ponds, which leads me to today's post about tadpoles. Tadpoles are the larval stage of amphibians. Most people only think about tadpoles as being frogs, but don't leave out their moist cousins (which have larval tadpole stags too) such as salamanders and toads. With that said, let's dive into the world of tadpoles.

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An Introduction to Spring Peepers

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Spring peeper sitting on a finger (Photo: Flicker Sharing, Speklet)

Spring Peeper Basics

As surely as crocuses and daffodils mark the arrival of spring, so too do the calls of spring peepers (Pseudacris cruicifer). If you live in the Eastern US you're hearing the northern spring peeper (Pseudacris cruicifer crucifer), and if you live in the Southeastern US (roughly from Texas and Georgia to Florida, along the Gulf coast) then you might be hearing the southern spring peeper (Pseudacris cruicifer bartramiana). Both subspecies belong to a genus of frogs in the family Haylidae (hay-la-day), which is commonly known as the "chorus frog" family. These guys can belt it out! There are mountain chorus frogs, upland chorus frogs, striped chorus frogs, and more. Remember the singing frog from Bugs Bunny? Chorus frogs, and spring peepers, would qualify as champs up there with this guy.

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10 Facts About How A Snake Can Smell

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Garter snake with forked tongue (Photo: Ken Hipp, Flicker Sharing).

The World of Snake Smell-Tasting

When you ask people what creeps them out about snakes, it's often something like, "They're slimy" (which they aren't) or "When the stick their tongue out at me it's scary." This got me to thinking about an idea for this blog  post, because most people don't really understand why a snake sticks it tongue out at you and what it's really doing. There's a lot more going on than snake razzberries or just "smelling", especially when the tongue goes back in the snake's mouth. So, here are 10 facts about how a snake can smell:

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Answers The Question: What Do Snapping Turtles Eat?

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Juvenile common snapping turtle (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Food Preference of Snapping Turtles

You're driving down the road on a perfectly nice Spring day and you spot a turtle. Being the good Samaritan that you are, you decide to get out and help it.  First, you have to identify it, then figure out if it's going to bite you, and if it's safe to move.  I've found myself in this position countless times, usually in sandals and standing a few feet from said turtle wondering if it was going to try to bite. How can you tell if the turtle you're facing is a snapper? Check out these photos:

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Frogs Make Sounds and Hear in Surprising Ways

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Green tree frog calling (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Frog Sounds and Listening

As warm weather is setting in the chorus of frogs is starting up once again. Every time I pass a pond or water filled ditch I'm amazed at the cacophony. One pond I like to visit is devoid of any man-made lights or nearby sounds, so when you close your eyes and listen, just sitting in the dark is like being in a sensory deprivation chamber of just frog calls, quite stirring. This all got me to thinking, how do frogs make sound? Also, since they don't have external ears how do they hear those sounds?

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Turtles Breathe Through Their Butts

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Red Eared Slider (Photo: Brent Myers, Flicker Sharing)

Vent Breathing Through Cloacal Bursae

In a previous post I talked about the difference between hibernation and brumation in turtles. Essentially turtles don't sleep all winter, they have punctuated periods of activity. However, turtles do not brumate under water,  they usually dig burrows or bury themselves in leaf litter or mud to overwinter. One of the questions I'm asked frequently is,  "How do turtles breathe while they are buried?" A similar question was, "How can that turtle breathe while napping under water?" (This was usually aimed at a local terrapin that lived in a tank in the education center). The answers are similar.

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Toad Houses: Fun and Useful For The Garden

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Toad houses are a great way to encourage natural pest control in your garden or around your home, but you don't need to buy a toad house, like this one, you can easily make one (Photo: Paxabay shared images).

How to Build Toad Houses

If you're like me you don't like to use pesticides or harmful chemicals to prevent insects from entering your home or chewing all the plants in your garden. One of the most effective ways to reduce pest insects is to encourage their natural predators. Toads are one of the predators that do a great job helping clean gardens of insects and harmful pests.

Here in the Eastern US we have the common American Toad (Anaxya americanus). There is also the Eastern American toad, the dwarf toad, and Fowler's toad in our region. In the Western US  there is the Western toad. Regardless of the species, they all play an important role in their ecosystem,  they LOVE eating insects!

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A common American toad (Photo: Karen McDonald).

As you know toads are amphibians, but unlike frogs they can move farther from water, because they do not rely on moist skin to breathe. However, they do need water or ponds to reproduce. To support a population of toads in your area you need to provide the standard food, water, and shelter. The food will  be the insects around your house or garden, but you will still need to provide water and shelter.

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Water is required for toads to reproduce, but they can travel much farther from water than frogs (Photo: Karen McDonald).

Water can take many forms, from damp vegetation to shallow dishes of water (changed regularly to prevent mosquitoes), or even nearby ponds and streams, but toad houses are where you can get very creative!

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Copper Head Snakes and Water Snakes

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Copperhead snake (Photo: Michale McCarthy, Flicker sharing)

Identification of the venomous copperhead snake and the harmless northern banded water snake

In the Eastern US one of the biggest fears of homeowners and people who work or play outside near the water is venomous spiders and snakes. However, in fear of these creatures, other non-venomous and beneficial species are often misidentified and killed. Today's post is how to tell if a snake is a copperhead snake (Agkistrodon contortorix) or the harmless northern banded water snake (Nerodia sipedon). Both look similar, but they have some key differences.

Let's Begin with Copperheads....

Copperhead snakes are the most common venomous snake in the Eastern US. They are in the pit viper family (Crotalidae, pronounced Crow-tAl-a-day). They are also in the genus Agkistrodone (pronounced ag-kiss-trow-doe-ne), which includes the cottonmouth or water moccasin. It is a shy snake that is usually not aggressive and its bites are rarely fatal, though they can be painful.

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An Introduction to the Teaching and The Citizen Science Website Journey North

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Journey North, a Citizen Science Website for Everyone

Journey North is a Citizen Science Website That Tracks Phenology (life cycle changes in plants and animals) and Seasonal Changes

Spring weather has briefly visited us this week, though the cold is coming back soon. But invariably we're seeing the first signs of Spring everywhere. This weekend the first osprey was spotted locally, geese are migrating, red-winged blackbirds are singing out their territories, and I heard a lone spring peeper. With thoughts of spring it's a good time to make you aware of a wonderful resource for citizen science. The website Journey North is designed as a tool for individuals and classrooms, as well as informal educators, to use for tracking seasonal changes and migrations. The term for tracking the seasonal life cycle changes of plants and animals is called phenology. This website provides the tools to track the phenology of robins, humming birds, whales, barn swallows, worms, first leaf-out, eagles, flowers blooming, caribou, whooping cranes, and so much more. They also specialize in providing tracking maps and information for recording seasonal changes in sunlight and weather.

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Examples of projects found on the Journey North website and "teaching" pages.

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Want to Learn Frog Calls? Resources for Mid-West to Eastern North America

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Cricket frog (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Where To Find Helpful Frog Call Resources

As Spring nears It's time to consider brushing up on your frog calls, either for personal fun or so that you can help with amphibian surveys. There's nothing like being able to pick out specific species of frogs by their calls. It's like learning the notes of music. Now I'll admit that I'm rusty, every year Spring rolls around and I find myself dragging out the ear buds and MP3 and practicing. I usually get a whole bunch wrong, but it's fun relearning.

Let's refresh on the basics. Most often it's only the male frogs call, and calls are species specific though there are dialects by region (croak, croak, croak yall). Dialects allow males to self-sort and avoid competing with males from other areas that are far away or outside their region. Male frogs call to attract mates and to advertise their fitness to females. Mostly mating is done at night under cover of darkness so frogs use vocalizations instead of visual displays. Calls are produced in the larynx and are amplified by one or more vocal sacs. These sacs are thin membranes of skin that are either directly under the chin or extending from chin to mouth. Female frogs may respond to the males to encourage their advances with short croaks or other sounds (some females object quite vocally if they don't find the male's advances desired).

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Northern Leopard Frog (Photo: Wiki Commons)

When many frogs call at once it's called a "chorus."  Choruses can be quite loud, and the pitch and loudness may increase if there is heavy traffic or noise nearby. Male frogs conserve energy when rivals are not near-by and they have "low energy" calls that simply establish their territory. When competition is high they expend more energy to call more loudly, but what is unique is that they call in a species specific pattern with the other males. This allows all males to be heard without being completely drowned out. This type of cooperation is a unique strategy in the animal kingdom shared by vocal insects and frogs (for those with a mad pash. for reading scientific papers check out this doozy on the call-timing algorithm of the white-lipped frog).  There are probably multiple reasons for this strategy but most likely it has to do with increasing fitness by decreasing energy expended calling, because everyone gets a chance.

Now let's get on to the resources you need to brush up or even learn frog calls for the first time. There are a few things you might find useful before you start.

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Salamander Emergence is Coming Soon, Reptile and Amphibian Hunting Tips

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Spotted salamander (gravid) found during nocturnal survey. (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Herp. Hunting Etiquette Tips for Safe Nocturnal Searches This Spring

Spring thaw is just around the corner, and although it's hard to believe the salamanders will be moving soon they will be coming out withing the next few weeks. Conditions have to be just right for salamanders to migrate from their wintering grounds to breeding ponds. Some of the earliest movers for the Eastern US region are the spotted salamanders though marbles and others are close behind.

To view these early emergent visitors you should look for the the perfect conditions (often nocturnal, including at least 45-50 degree temperatures (Fahrenheit), light rain, and lengthening days. Usually these conditions in our region (Maryland) are met around the second or third week of February though this can be variable from year to year. It's not unheard of to see salamanders moving through snow piles to reach their ponds.

There are environmentally friendly ways to look for salamanders and early herps (meaning the study of reptiles and amphibians, short for herpetological), and methods that can cause major harm to an ecosystem. This post is about spring herp hunting etiquette.

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A Short Comparison of Hibernation and Brumation

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The Difference Between Hibernating Mammals in Deep Continual and Physiological Sleep and Brumating Reptiles in Dormancy with Punctuated Activity

When I teach outdoor programs in the winter it's easy to slip into the habit of suggesting that those animals that don't stay awake and active all winter "hibernate," but this term isn't the most accurate to use. In fact, I wasn't even aware of the fine distinctions of hibernating mammals and brumating reptiles until pretty recently so I thought a blog post might be in order.

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Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) Freeze Solid Over Winter and Then Come Back to Life in Spring

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Wood Frog (Photo: DaveHuth Flicker common use)

Here in North America there are a wide variety of toads and frogs but perhaps none are so unusual as the wood frog. These frogs are found in Eastern North America, Canada, and up into Alaska. On a warm spring night you might hear them singing(click her for sound clip) near bogs, vernal pools, or upland forests but something remarkable happens to them this time of year in the winter, they freeze solid. Now freezing solid isn't remarkable by itself, but what is remarkable is that the frogs will literally come back to life in the Spring after having no heartbeat or brain activity, and they don't breathe, for up to eight weeks! This baffles and amazes scientists, who are actively studying them even now.

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