While the lizard crew tours exotic locations like Alabama, Tennessee, and even the British Virgin Islands, and Jenny faces alligators while pursuing treefrogs in Florida, I spend most of my days at a farm in central Pennsylvania with some rundown barns. I should say, I spent most of my days there. My experiments just wrapped up, which is why I finally have time to contribute to the blog. I’ve mostly been occupied there with running tadpole experiments in pond mesocosms (essentially, fake ponds I make using 300 gallon cattle watering tanks) but I’ll talk about that another time. Like most research, my work (though worthwhile and punctuated with excitement) is full of drudgery and boredom: weighing and counting thousands of tadpoles, conducting many hundreds of behavioral observations, cutting down weeds, fixing and cleaning equipment. Often these activities are accompanied by downpours of rain or the sun beating down. Luckily, I’ve been able to enjoy my time out there the last couple years more than you might think. That’s partly because I have not been alone at the farm.
I’m not talking about the wonderful people I’ve had assisting me at various times. I’m talking about all the herps that have shown up on my little plot of land, in the barns nearby, and a hundred meters or so into the forest that my plot borders. I may not be in a particularly exciting place, but I’ve found 22 species of reptiles and amphibians there. Many of these were new to me, though they may be pretty plain to other people. Here’s a rundown, with some highlights about each find. Most of these pictures are mine, though not all were taken at the farm.
Eastern Milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum) – This friendly little guy was just hanging out under an overturned cattle tank. This was a particularly exciting one for me. I’ve wanted to find a milksnake since I was a kid. They occur in Minnesota (where I grew up) but I never got to see any. As beautiful as I had hoped. The juvenile that Sean found just yesterday, though, blew this one out of the water in terms of beauty.
Eastern Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) – I knew these snakes were in the barns because I’ve been finding their skins for a long time. Then last year, Dan Knapp and I finally caught one. They are the longest snakes I’ve got to see in the wild and are full of personality. It got better this year when Jennie Williams, Jason Langshaw, and I found them hiding in the rafters of one of the other barns. As many as six at a time! We are working on documenting something unusual we saw: they all shed their skins on the same day, and then disappeared from the barn. A clue to what might be happening is that the humidity peaked the day before, which could help them slough off the old skin.
Eastern Garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) – They are abundant, and love hiding under my mesocosms. I rarely attempt to handle them, but not because of their bite. They often poop a foul-smelling musk that I hate intensely. You win, garter snakes.
Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) – The only lizard I saw, and I only caught a fleeting glimpse of its vivid blue tail before it disappeared into a pile of rocks and cement.
Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) – The only turtle, crawling through the woods along the trail we walk to study the Valley and Ridge Salamanders (below).
Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) – These little frogs are heard often and seen less. I found one trying to get into my mesocosms, perhaps hoping to lay some eggs in these convenient new ponds.
Wood Frog (Rana sylavatica, aka Lithobates sylvaticus) – My main study organism, the tadpoles of which are used in all my experiments. Turns out, they also bred in a little pond in a small patch of forest surrounding by fields.
Green Frog (Rana clamitans, aka Lithobates clamitans) – One of these handsome frogs found its way into a kiddie pool that had once held tadpoles.
Northern Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens, aka Lithobates pipiens) – I used to see these everywhere growing up in MN, but not anymore. They are the species most famous for declines in the Midwest and strange deformities. Happy to see that they are still around.
Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor) – One of my favorite herps. I kept a couple in an aquarium growing up. Their calls can be pretty loud when contained inside a bedroom. I think I named them after Lion King characters (my recollection: Mufasa and Nala or something like that. Timon and Pumbaa were the hamsters who, incidentally, hated each other.) At the farm, they are a bit of a nuisance: they will lay their eggs anywhere with water, including my experimental mesocosms. But it is hard to dislike their grinning faces. Plus, their tadpoles are very cool, with tails that turn bright red when predators are present: http://www.pitt.edu/~relyea/Site/Tadpole_movie.html
American Toad (Bufo americanus, aka Anaxyrus americanus) – Another common but charming amphibian. Since I had kiddie pools out this year, toads were able to get into them when I finished some of the experiments (and had not yet replaced the lids). The trills of amorous males were so relentless that it almost got to be annoying to a frogophile like myself. What I love about toads is how bold they can be though: unlike my main study organism (wood frogs), you can pretty much walk right up to a calling toad and he’ll still stand there with his throat proudly inflated.
Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) and Jefferson’s Salamander (A. jeffersonianum) – A few of these have shown up in the spring under the mesocosms before I move them into place. I’m not sure if they were resting in transit to/from a breeding pond or if this is where they stayed during the winter. Very hard to find them outside of the breeding season, so I count myself lucky.
Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) – On rainy days in the spring, newts start crawling around my mesocosms, hoping to gain entry. Somehow they can tell there is water in them, despite the fact that the tanks are about 2 ft tall. More surprisingly, they can get into the tanks! The sides slant outward, so I’m guessing they must do it when the weeds get tall enough for them to climb. Still impressive in my book (and annoying when running my experiments, since they like to eat tadpoles).
Valley and Ridge Salamander (Plethodon hoffmani) – These wormy little salamanders are common in the woods behind my field site. Common enough, in fact, that I have been working with Sean and Chris to study the natural history of these poorly-known plethodontids. So far we’ve found that they are quite different from their sister species, the better-known Redback Salamander (P. cinereus). Redbacks are territorial and faithful to individual shelter sites, whereas P. hoffmani wander from site to site, and seem to not mind sharing them with others. They are doves to the hawkish Redbacks.
Wehrle’s Salamander (Plethodon wehrlei) – Jennie made this unusual find. Turns out, Wehrle’s Salamander is not supposed to be in that area! She’s documenting it now as a range extension for this species. Wehrle’s Salamander: it’s not just an Allegheny Plateau salamander anymore.
Northern Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus) – Likes the same area (and the very same hiding spots) as the Valley and Ridge Salamanders. It looks, however, like they come out later in the year (when it is warmer and drier) – about the same time the Valley and Ridge Salamanders begin to disappear as they seek refuge from the summer heat. It seems they’ve reached a timeshare arrangement.
Two-lined Salamander (Eurycea bislineata) – Okay, I never saw this one. Chris claims he found one. I’d really like to see one myself – they look really cute in all the field guides.
Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) – I’ve found these denizens of the stream edge to be pretty flighty: overturn their rock, and they practically leap into the water.
Northern Spring Salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus) – Justin Bohling’s herpetology class came out to the farm for us to lead them on a field trip. It was quite successful, turning up a total of 6 salamander species. We found a single juvenile Spring Salamander in the creek that cuts through the Valley and Ridge Salamander habitat.
Northern Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber) – This brilliantly-colored salamander was another find of the herpetology field trip.
Four-toed Salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum) – Chris and I were quite surprised to stumble upon a Four-toed Salamander sharing a shelter site with a Valley and Ridge Salamander. These unusual salamanders are specialists on mossy wetlands, where they lay their eggs in mounds of sphagnum. It was only after much wandering in the woods that we found any potentially suitable moss. In any case, this little fella seemed out of place.
Well, that’s everything I can remember. With my dissertation research completed, I won’t be spending much more time out there at the farm. While I’m happy to be done with the long field days, I will miss the farm. Mostly because of all these little surprises that show up there.
Now if I took a trip down south, I suppose I could come up with 22 herp species in far less than 3 field seasons. But this is good enough for the Keystone State.