While it still seems like the weather is feeling March Madness here in State College, with all our wavering between warm and cold, rain and snow, I spent a couple of days of my spring break in the panhandle of Florida, camping, letting my skin remember what humidity is, and, of course, herping! While the only herps I’ve seen up North so far are spring peepers, the season is considerably more advanced down South. In the Apalachicola National Forest and surrounding areas, I encountered temperatures >80 degrees, trees with leaves, and even got a mild sunburn. In the midst of driving to campsites and hiking, I also stumbled on a small sampling of the huge herp biodiversity present in this forest. The first herp I came upon was this juvenile cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) on the road to my campsite. His stopping in the middle of the sand road made him a nice target for a huge pick-up barreling down the road, but, after some creative car parking and arm waving, I managed to convince the other driver to leave this little fella in a non-flattened condition.
As I prepared to use my handy snake hook to help him off the road, this snake was kind enough to give an open-mouthed smile for the camera with a cottonmouth’s trademark, white grin.
Much of the forest consists of pine flatwoods, but there are also sandhill areas and intergrades between these habitat types. In these areas, I found plenty of our old friends, the Eastern fence lizards (Sceloporus undulatus). Both males and females were out basking, and in some cases, beginning to establish territories for the upcoming season. I also found a young male with fully developed badges who was only 44 mm long (snout-vent length)…an early bloomer!
In the amphibian category, I turned up a few Southeastern slimy salamanders (Plethodon grobmani) by rolling over downed logs (and carefully replacing them!). This species is part of the slimy salamander complex and has a neat pattern of white blotches underneath and golden flecks above.
I also traveled to Ochlockonee River State Park in Florida, right next to both the National Forest and St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. This was a neat little state park with a few trails and some great opportunities for canoeing/kayaking on the river.
The park also had some interesting animals, including even a mammal, the generally rare, but locally common white squirrel! These squirrels are just mutants of the normal Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), that were introduced to the area within the past century. They’re not albinos, as they still have pigments in their eyes and usually a darker stripe down the back, but they do appear rather striking. I had no idea that these squirrels were in the park, so I was initially pretty surprised to find one hanging out right next to my campsite.
Of course, the park also has an abundance of herps. I came across several barking treefrogs (Hyla gratiosa) on the sandy trails at night as they were moving to and calling in the flatwoods ponds.
The last herp of the trip in Florida was the same as the first, a juvenile Cottonmouth crossing the road. This one picked the same characteristic posture as the first and also had a very pretty yellow tail tip which is common among some juvenile pitvipers.
I also found several other species, including oak toads, southern toads, southern leopard frogs, bronze frogs, ornate chorus frogs, and an eastern diamondback rattlesnake (which didn’t sit still for long enough to grab photos), and a very squashed pigmy rattlesnake (which sat too still…:*(
As field season ramps up in the lab, we’ll have more research updates right here (as opposed to updates on recreational herping).
In other news, the lab is also preparing to send a contingent to the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (SSAR). After dominating the awards last year, we’re off to a promising start this year. Both Mark Herr and I received 2015 SSAR Conference Grants from the Gans Collections and Charitable Fund covering our registration fees for the meeting! We’ll have more news on that front this summer!