(Originally posted on our 2012 Field Blog — posted by Renee, content by Sean)
by Sean Graham
Sometimes it’s a little frustrating to experience how unfamiliar amateurs are with snakes. I love snake identification questions because they’re always so humorous. You can ask people practically anything, anything, and they’ll agree that their snake had the feature. Was it brown? Yes. Was it black? Yes. Did it have a big, purple, protruding snout? Er, I guess so, yes. I used to volunteer to field calls when I was at the Atlanta Zoo, hoping to accumulate excellent stories. Inevitably, I’d talk them through their snake’s features and it would always converge on a brown snake with stripes and a diamond-shaped head, and this would always be identified by the caller as a Copperhead. I always asked them to send me digital photos, and the snake would inevitably turn out to be a harmless Dekay’s Brown Snake. The best feature to ask about is whether or not it has stripes. Practically any snake, viewed by untrained eyes, can be said to have stripes. Now, really think about it though. There are some snakes with stripes, such as Garter Snakes and Ribbon Snakes. A lot of snakes have bands, not stripes, but people are always saying they are striped.
So back in September 2007 I was down in Conecuh National Forest–currently also my field site for research in the Langkilde lab–on the Herpetology Class field trip with my PhD advisor Craig Guyer and some other graduate and undergraduate students. We ended up down in a steephead looking mostly for salamanders when a student called out that he’d found a snake.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I don’t know. It’s got stripes.”
“Bands or stripes?”
Ok, I thought to myself, and kept digging through leaf litter, looking for salamanders. I had seen Watersnakes in the steephead, and assumed that the student had found the common Banded Watersnake, Nerodia fasciata. Nothing worth stopping for.
“Wait, those are stripes, not bands,” said Nathan Burkett-Cadena, a really good naturalist and grad student in the class. I perked up, and bashed through the anise and bamboo-vine to see what they had. There are only a few truly striped snakes within the Conecuh, and I would have thought that even the dimmest undergraduate would have instantly guessed “Gartersnake” for either one of them. The fact that he hadn’t, and that Nathan didn’t know what it was, left far more interesting possibilities. I caught up with Nathan and the undergraduate, who was clearly holding a Queen Snake, Regina septemvitatta.
I had read through Bob Mount’s 1980 unpublished report on the amphibians and reptiles of Conecuh National Forest and didn’t remember this species on the list. So, we carefully posed the specimen on a green patch of moss and took nice photos of it. I can still remember how the photo looked. But if this story has any moral, it is to be sure to voucher your records right away. I downloaded my pictures to the hard drive I was using at Auburn, and never got around to accessioning the Queen Snake photo voucher into the Auburn Museum Digital Herp Collections. It wasn’t a new county record, just a new record for the forest, so it wasn’t a priority for me and I thought I’d get around to it one day. Then the hard drive mysteriously disappeared. The photo–as well as many other valuable photographs–was lost.
Now I should probably mention why any of this matters in the first place. For decades in herpetology, the state of the art for distribution information has been vouchered specimens. These are specimens collected and preserved and verified by an expert–usually a museum curator. Any range map for any species of amphibian or reptile you’ve ever seen is the result of hundreds, or even thousands, of dead, pickled specimens collecting dust in museums. The cool thing about all this dead herp flesh is that if you have any question about one of these records, you can go look for yourself to see what the specimen is. These specimens can also be valuable for other purposes; you can get really important information on morphology, seasonal activity, diet, and reproduction by examining museum specimens. They are the herpetologist’s bread-and-butter. One of Langkilde’s coolest observations regarding the apparent short term evolution of Fence Lizards in response to fire ants–the fact that they used to have shorter legs in the past–came from measuring old museum specimens.
Recently, due to alarm over declining populations of amphibians and reptiles, photo vouchers have become acceptable, at least for new distribution records. No need to pickle the critter. You can take a picture and let it go. Still, old school herpetologists still do a lot of collecting, and situations can occur where a photo cannot be used to establish the presence of a species, such as in cases of species that are difficult to identify unless they are in hand, or in cases in which photos evaporate. One thing most herpetologists probably all agree on is the dubiousness of sight records. These have only recently begun to become used in herpetology, and since many herpetologists are egotistical perfectionists, it is easy to see why many are reluctant to accept a record–especially an important one–on the simple word of an observer.
One of my goals for a project I initiated while doing Fence Lizard research down in Alabama was to consolidate all known information about the amphibians and reptiles of Conecuh National Forest into a big monograph. Due to our concern over declining populations of these spectacular animals, it has become very important to establish baseline information about their numbers, so that future researchers will have something to say about their status. Birders are light years ahead of us in this respect, because birders keep excellent records and have been keeping them for decades. In an attempt to keep up with birders, I published a study on baseline information about the amphibians and reptiles of Tuskegee National Forest in the Alabama Museum of Natural History bulletin series. Since there is more data for Conecuh National Forest (there have been four unpublished surveys done for the forest service on herps within the forest proclamation boundary), and more species, the next one will be more ambitious. One goal was to get every single species known from the forest properly vouchered, so there would be no doubt what was here when people look back 20, 100, or a thousand years from now. The best vouchers are specimens, so we spend a lot of time looking for nice, fresh road kills to put in the museum; guilt-free collecting. Next best are photo vouchers. You will find a few sight records–filthy little things you shouldn’t completely trust–in our manuscript.
I ran into this problem in the preparation of my previous paper on the herps of Tuskegee National Forest; several species we found commonly were not represented by any museum specimens. Obviously this was because collectors didn’t think they were noteworthy enough to collect, but who knows, what if 500 years from now they are rare and people think that nothing’s changed? This has been the primary problem in documenting declines in amphibian and reptile populations, and one of the primary reasons for this manuscript–to establish a baseline for future comparison. And so I was kicking myself for some time about not properly vouchering our steephead Queen Snake, even though Guyer and I both saw it and agreed on its ID. Queen Snakes are probably pretty rare in south Alabama, and in some places they can be difficult to turn up. Another opportunity was unlikely. I had learned my lesson. If I ever got another chance to collect a Queen Snake, I was going to voucher it.
Will Sean prevail and voucher a Queen Snake in Conecuh National Forest? Stay tuned for next week’s installment to find out, and to meet George.