The Lizard Log

The Langkilde Lab in Action


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Not SLACing off

On July 1, 2014, I officially started my new job as an assistant professor of biology at Wabash College in Indiana, leaving the Langkilde lab behind. (But can you ever really leave the Langkilde lab? The answer is ‘no’, based on all the data analysis and manuscripts that need finishing …). With the new job came a whirlwind of teaching-related activities: writing syllabi, grading, preparing lectures, designing lab activities, grading, purchasing supplies, grading, meeting with students, attending teaching workshops, and grading. (Also, grading). This has been rewarding and interesting work, especially since I have very intimate class sizes (5 and 16) and am teaching topics that I’m really interested in. But, since this blog focuses on the life of academic biologists outside the classroom, I’ll forgo discussing teaching and instead talk about my experience so far trying to launch a research program in the context of a teaching college.

 

Wabash College is a small liberal arts college (aka, “SLAC”). As such, the primary responsibility of the faculty is teaching rather than scholarship and research. However, the college expects, and provides opportunities for, faculty to remain active in their fields. And, I would argue, this increases the quality of faculty teaching and creates priceless educational experiences for students who become engaged in faculty research programs. As a consequence of Wabash’s support of research, I was fortunate to have my own lab space, the opportunity to use several animal rooms, access to the college’s private virgin forest ~30 miles away, a generous amount of start-up funds to purchase equipment and supplies, and regular access to faculty research support funds.

 

My lab space was previously occupied for many years by a small mammal field biologist, Dr. David Krohne (see his textbook here – I think the one reviewer of it is holding back a bit with the stars …). I therefore inherited an interesting array of scientific equipment. Many binoculars and cameras (which, unfortunately, were mostly film cameras) lined the shelves, including some night vision gear. Equipment for building field structures and managing study sites included all kinds of saws, wire, hammers and nails, and metal stakes and tags. There were several slide projectors and many slides of photographs of plants and field sites of unknown significance. I filed away notebooks full of data, including some data collected by Krohne’s own predecessors. Most interestingly, I found a student zoology thesis project from 1964 documenting the amphibians and reptiles of Montgomery County (where Wabash College resides). Many of these herps had never been noted to occur in the county (and may not anymore), which lead me to track down the former student to see if he’d be interested in publishing these county records. As it turns out, this student was William S. Parker, who became a professor and herpetologist (and also studied fence lizards, like the Langkilde Lab!) I’m planning to work with him to publish these records, which would make this my first publication with a Wabash undergrad (albeit 50 years after he graduated!).

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In addition to these interesting data, student theses, and equipment, there were also more unusual scientific artifacts like stuffed animal specimens, including a bat (randomly sitting in a drawer) and a passenger pigeon.

 

One idea I initially had for a research project was to study some interesting potential behavioral, physiological, and ecological differences between two species of related salamanders (the red-backed salamander, Plethodon cinereus, and the zig-zag salamander, P. dorsalis) which I anticipated would occupy Allee Memorial Woods, the college’s forest property. With my limited time, I’ve only been able to visit the woods when taking Ecology students there for lab activities. Fortunately, this provided me with 8 2-hr sessions in the woods over September and October during which I could either survey for the salamanders myself while students collected data, or could use the students to help search for salamanders as part of a lab exercise teaching study design and fieldwork protocols. The latter proved most useful – several of my students uncovered a location where several red-backed salamanders, a single zig-zag salamander, and a slimy salamander (P. glutinosus) all occurred within a couple meters of each other. Subsequently, the weather became cool and damp enough that red-backed salamanders began turning up all over the forest (though at disappointingly low densities). However, only that single zig-zag salamander was ever found. So my plans have met the reality of the situation on the ground: so far (and maybe it will change in the spring) zig-zag salamanders are not abundant enough to support the types of projects I hoped to do. However, new opportunities also presented themselves. The first, I realized that the color polymorphism that occurs within red-backed salamanders – a well-tread topic of research – could make a good system to explore some of the same questions. The red-backed salamanders are abundant enough that I could collect reasonable numbers of them, and I could readily keep them in the animal rooms – making them easily accessible to undergraduate research assistants with limited time between classes. Second, I learned more about another study system and made fortuitous connection with another researcher.

The lone zigzag salamander (Plethodon dorsalis) that I have found so far.

The lone zig-zag salamander (Plethodon dorsalis) that I have found so far.

 

At Allee Memorial Woods, there is a long history of studying a local population of eastern box turtles (Terrapene c. carolina). Research began in the 1950’s by a former Wabash faculty, Elliott Williams – working with William S. Parker – that produced a 30 year population study. As a charming species with a historical connection to Wabash and of conservation interest, I quickly started toying with potential ways I could work with box turtles. Just as I started considering these ideas, I was put into touch with Steve Kimble, a post-doctoral researcher at nearby Purdue University who wanted to survey the turtles at Allee for infections by ranavirus, an emerging pathogen that we know little about. With Steve in the lead, I tagged along to set up a crowdfunding campaign to provide funds for genetic tests of ranavirus and (most excitingly) the use of trained box turtle-tracking dogs. The project was successfully funded and the dogs were brought in over a weekend. I again implemented my teaching responsibilities into the research program by bringing several students from my Ecology course (one of which needed an opportunity to make up a field trip later in the semester), and the students got a novel experience by assisting with processing the turtles. The dogs turned up 15 turtles. This was less than expected, but we don’t know yet whether we ought to attribute this to a population decline or relatively cool weather.

One of the box turtles found by the turtle-sniffing dogs. This one had a rather bold disposition, which naturally intrigued me.

One of the box turtles found by the turtle-sniffing dogs. This one had a rather bold disposition, which naturally intrigued me. He had a metal tag attached to his shell, that we determined indicates he was born some time prior to 1948!

 

We are still waiting on the ranavirus test results, but I’m thinking about ways I can continue to utilize the box turtles for my research questions and integrate them into my teaching. I observed, and Steve confirmed, that some turtles tended to be very shy (hiding in their shells for a long period time) while others seemed bold (readily emerging from their shells and apparently unfazed by the human presence). Having studied behavioral variation (personality) before, I was very excited about the possibility of studying personality in these turtles. Tadpoles and salamanders are great study organisms, but the turtles will have a key advantage: they are much larger, meaning I can collect blood samples (to link physiological status to personality) and I can attach radiotransmitters for tracking their movements in the field (to link broad-scale behavior in nature to personality). The first lab activities of the semester in my fall Ecology class are centered around exposing the students to research techniques and familiarity with working in the field, in order to prepare them to develop original group projects. I’m thinking radiotracking turtles and conducting personality assays in the field will make for a really good lab activity, and will give me ~10 field assistants for each of two days – not a bad way to kill two birds with one stone.

 

Finally, I’m continuing my tangential work on scorpion evolutionary ecology and behavior. Scorpions require little care, which makes them good for a busy teaching schedule in which I have only scattered blocks of time to do research. Furthermore, their unusual nature and (appearance of) danger make them an exciting subject of study for undergraduates. This has drawn two strong students to me who have already started collaborating with me on a scorpion study. Thus far, they have proven reliable and have produced enough data to begin to reveal interesting trends. By recruiting strong students and using a ‘forgiving’ study system, I’ve already been able to begin putting together a scorpion research project without detracting from my teaching responsibilities.

My laboratory scorpion colonies.

My laboratory scorpion colonies.

So that is the story of my first few months trying to remain an active researcher while focusing my attention on being an effective and dedicated teacher. It creates many challenges, but they are not insurmountable when the projects are scaled to the resources available, the student assistants are talented, the study systems are convenient, collaborative opportunities are utilized, and teaching is blended seamlessly into research. I can’t really assess the success of any of this yet, though, so I’ll have to return to this blog in a couple years when I’ll know how everything turned out. But, I think I’m off to a good start!


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Getting a Job at a Small College

This is my last post before I officially leave the Langkilde Lab. While I’m incredibly sad to go, it’s also very exciting to set up a new lab (an academic child of the Langkilde Lab) at my new home. I will be an assistant professor of vertebrate biology at Wabash College in Indiana, a very small liberal arts college with rigorous academics and excellent resources for research. Maybe some day I’ll return to write a post about what this job is like, but for now I thought I’d share some lessons learned about applying for a faculty position at smaller, teaching-oriented schools. In some ways I’m not all that qualified to give advice on this: I only ever went through this process once, I only had a handful of phone interviews, and I only attended one on-campus interview. But, I did it successfully and learned a few valuable things along the way, both by experience and by reading lots of advice from others.

 

1. Applying for jobs is going to take time. I sent out approximately 60 job applications, including (in most cases) a cover letter that introduced myself and why I wanted (and could do) the job, a teaching statement describing my approach to biology education, and a research statement delineating my interests and future projects I’d like to undertake. That’s a lot to do, and it has to be done a little differently each time (see #2 below). I applied for everything I could remotely see fitting into because I need to work. Luckily, I didn’t have to accept one of those jobs that I didn’t really want. There were jobs that I seemed perfectly suited for that summarily rejected me without even a phone interview. In some cases they may have already had a candidate in mind, in other cases there might have been some other quality that they were looking for that wasn’t communicated in the job description, and in probably the majority of cases there was someone similarly well-matched to the position who was just much more experienced. So unless you are really at the top of your field, you have to apply for a lot of jobs in order for the right combination of circumstances to lead to a job offer. And you have to increase the number of job applications by stretching into applying for jobs that don’t quite sound like you. I applied for jobs as a vertebrate biologist, an invertebrate biologist, a physiologist, an ecologist, and an environmental statistician. And across all different fields, I had cases where I got past the first round of selecting applicants. I credit this too #2 below …

 

2. You apply for specific jobs. With small schools, they often have very particular teaching needs, and faculty are generally expected to teach a variety of courses rather than just a single one in the specialty. At Wabash, I will be teaching ecology, comparative vertebrate anatomy, introductory biology, and freshman seminar courses surveying topics from a breadth of perspectives in science, the arts, and humanities. In applying, I had to demonstrate how I was prepared for and what I would bring to each of those courses, highlighting how different experiences listed in my CV make me a suitable candidate for that job. That takes a lot of work because there was an extremely diverse group of courses across all the jobs I applied to. I also spent a lot of time trying to understand the particulars of the school so I could address how I would fit in there. Does the school emphasize certain things like experiential learning or close mentoring relationships? Do they have certain facilities or equipment that I could make good use of? For my research program to function at a smaller school, it is also important that it can continue at low cost, which for me makes local study systems important. To that end, I researched native organisms that I’d be comfortable working with and described natural areas near the school that I could take advantage of. In short, I became very familiar with departments, entire schools, and the surrounding areas with each application, and worked hard to consider how my approach to teaching and research would be realized in that setting and to convey that image in a compelling way to the search committee.

 

3. Teaching schools have different expectations than the graduate school’s that train us. While high profile research is perfectly welcome and exciting at smaller schools, the primary responsibility is to the undergraduate students. A good research program is one that is practical given the circumstances of the school and, moreover, creates opportunities for students to be engaged in the scientific process as part of their extracurricular education. I don’t need to be pursuing research questions that will draw international renown so much as I need to be a mentor and teacher of those students who work with me. I like to think that I will try to change my field, but my first duty is to change my students’ lives. Fortunately working in the Langkilde Lab prepared me well for this. I have been lucky to work with a number of excellent students, many of whom served as research assistants and some of whom became collaborators/mentees. As I applied for jobs, I had several papers published or in review with student co-authors, and think this was a strong element of my application.

 

4. You might not know what you want. Many faculty positions appeared rather unappealing at first glance (and some still do!). Researching the school and describing how I would contribute to them often changed my perspective, and I started picturing myself making a great career for myself there. For instance, some areas I never thought I’d want to live have abundant or unusual biodiversity that would support spectacular research projects. The job at Wabash as I first perceived it was not what I had hoped for: anatomy seemed like a less desirable course to teach, an all-men’s college seemed like a strange environment to be in, and a small rural town seemed unappealing. But all of this has changed. I found as I prepared more for teaching comparative anatomy that a dormant curiosity and passion for the topic was ignited, and that I could teach it in an exciting way beyond rote memorization. The students at Wabash are a group of dedicated and academically-oriented young men with lots of respect for the faculty and their school (by and large, at least compared to most schools). The small town is charming, centrally-located with respect to urban areas and large university towns, and has such low cost housing that we could afford to purchase a nice home within a mile of the college right off the bat. They also have uncommon research support for a school of that size; indeed, many much larger schools lack the facilities, equipment, and start-up funds available there. This isn’t intended to be about how great Wabash is, but rather just a way to highlight how the perfect job that I pictured wasn’t what I found (and may not exist). Instead, I found something else that is perfect that I wouldn’t have expected. You can surprise yourself with what you end up liking.

 

I hope these reflections on the job hunt are helpful to others who might be considering a similar career. And with that, I say goodbye for now to The Lizard Log!

-Brad


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The Desolation of Anax

Fence lizards, fire ants, and wood frogs are certainly the current stars of the Langkilde Lab. While their names may be on the marquee, there are a number of other players with small – but important – parts in our lab. Eastern newts, chiggers, valley-and-ridge salamanders, green iguanas, and jumping beans are just a few of the critters who have turned up in various projects. My favorite supporting character in my work, however, is the dragonfly larva.

A larval Anax junius dragonfly. Photo by Brad Carlson.

Most people are familiar with dragonflies as aerial predators, welcome almost everywhere for their voracious appetites for mosquitoes and other pesky insects, which they deftly intercept in mid-air with remarkable accuracy (link). But their predilection for hanging around wetlands and ponds hints to a lesser known aspect of their lives. Their young, called larvae or nymphs, hatch from eggs laid on submerged aquatic plants and develop under water before climbing out and emerging from their shed exoskeleton as a flying adult. During the larval stage, however, dragonflies spend their lives feasting upon small aquatic animals with similar gusto as the adults. (In fact, baby dragonflies also like to eat the aquatic baby mosquitoes, giving mosquito populations a one-two punch). Some types of dragonflies, particularly the “darners” (family Aeshnidae), are also some of the most voracious predators of my primary study subject – tadpoles. In several projects, I’ve used the larvae of Anax junius (aka, the green darner) as a predator of tadpoles. Anax dragonflies grow rather large and are perfectly equipped to eat even fairly large tadpoles. And the tadpoles know it – I and other researchers have documented well how tadpoles that detect a dragonfly feeding on other tadpoles exhibit strong antipredator responses, becoming less active, hiding more, and growing larger tails. But how do these dragonflies, with their apparently small jaws and bodies that lack any fins for swimming, manage to feed on tadpoles?

 

He doesn’t look too dangerous …

 

This is the cool part. First thing to know is that dragonfly nymphs dart very quickly through the water by means of jet propulsion. They draw water into their expanded abdomen to breathe, but when they need to move quickly they force this water rapidly out of their anus by compressing the abdomen and increasing the internal pressure. A stream of water jets out with enough force to rapidly launch the dragonfly forward and, if it is out of the water, can wet your face like a squirt gun. This helps them catch tadpoles, small fish, and other prey that move much faster than the dragonflies can crawl. I’ve watched dragonflies shoot out from their perch into the open water to snatch a tadpole, and then casually wiggle their legs to help them drift back to their resting place.

 

A less green Anax junius feeds on a wood frog (Rana sylvatica) tadpole. Photo by Brad Carlson

 

When it comes time to actually grasp the prey, the larval dragonfly has another trick up its sleeve. Beneath its mandible (mouthparts proper) is a labium – an arm-like structure with sharp hook-like claws at the end. (In some dragonflies, the labium has a less menacing shape more suited to catching plankton). The labium remains neatly folded under the dragonfly most of the time. When prey is near, the dragonfly again compresses its abdomen to produce hydraulic pressure. This time, however, a sphincter muscle in the anus prevents the water from exiting and propelling the dragonfly. Instead, the labium is forced forward by this pressure, unexpectedly extending the reach of a dragonfly that seemed to be at a safe distance. The claws at the tip of the labium grab the prey and pull it back, where the mandibles can begin to tear it apart to be swallowed. The labium holds onto the prey with its recurved hooks so the dragonfly can handle a very large prey item (even one still struggling) while the mandibles go about eating it at a relatively relaxed pace.

 

 

As someone who loves tadpoles, you might think Anax wouldn’t be at the top of my list of favorite creatures. But I’m far too impressed by how these little ‘bugs’ manage to terrorize the pond with their remarkable adaptations, instilling fear in tadpoles and other potential victims. In fact, “anax” means “king” or “military leader” in ancient Greek – a name that certainly suits these tyrants ruling over their aquatic kingdoms.

 


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Not much to look at, but tadpoles have a great personality

Brad Carlson here again. I’m a doctoral candidate in the midst of my fifth and final year with the Langkilde Lab, where I’ve been occupied with a number of projects on amphibian (mostly tadpole) behavior and ecology. There’s one aspect of my research, however, that tends to elicit laughter or raised eyebrows: tadpole personality.

I’m not talking about some tadpoles being stoic, or outgoing, or irritable, or creative – though if I every found evidence of those traits, they very well could be signs of personality. Instead, what animal behaviorists mean when they talk about “animal personality” is a simpler concept that incorporates our ideas of human personality. “Animal personality” is characterized by consistent individual differences in behavioral patterns. If one individual tends to act one way and another individual tends to behave in a different manner, and these individual differences remain for a reasonably long period of time, we have evidence of personality. Put in those terms, I think anyone would agree that many animals they’ve interacted with have personality. My dog, for instance, is shy of strangers, unprotective of her possessions and food, and very quiet except when she’s dreaming. Her best friend – my parents’ dog – is the opposite in nearly every way, and has been for years. (Some of these differences are probably  because we are comparing a pit bull and a 10 lb poodle. By the way, the poodle is the bold one, stealing food and toys from the pit bull.)

Personality has been found in basically every animal that we’ve tested for it. From apes to lizards to hermit crabs to sponges (!), we’ve found that when we measure an animal’s behavior, it often remains similar over time (i.e., consistent) and differs from others of the same species. When I began my research, no one had really looked at whether amphibians – and particularly tadpoles – exhibit signs of personality. That’s unfortunate, because amphibians offer a lot for researchers interested in understanding why personality has evolved (why doesn’t everyone act the same?) and what the larger scale impacts of personality are. So I began investigating tadpole personality.

I hoped I could expect more than the personality of a sponge from my tadpoles.

My goals were 1) to establish whether tadpoles exhibited consistent individual differences in behavior that can be easily measured, and 2) to determine how consistent their behavior remains as they grow from small to large tadpoles and then into frogs. My primary method was filming tadpoles in open-field trials, a standard class of behavioral measures in animal research. In general, an individual animal is placed in an open, empty environment and a variety of behaviors are measured. I focused on the distance moved in the open-field (which for tadpoles was a small plastic tub) and the amount of time they spent close to the walls of the open-field vs. in the central area. Distance moved was my attempt to measure a general personality trait known as exploration-avoidance: whether an animal shrinks away from a new stimulus or environment or whether they “explore” it. A tadpole plucked out of its familiar home environment can either explore this strange new tub (covering a lot of distance) or sit there and avoid all that novelty. The proportion of time spent in the center vs. the edge of the open-field was my measure of boldness-shyness: how risky an individual’s behavior is. A shy tadpole might be expected to remain close to the wall of the tub where it is presumably safe, while a bold tadpole should comfortably cruise around the wide open even though it is vulnerable to predators. Additionally, I also recorded the behavior of the tadpoles in their home enclosures, so that I could tell how much their behavior reflects being in a new environment (the open-field) and how much their behavior in the open-field is simply indicating their overall activity level (yet another personality trait).

A tadpole in an open-field trial.

I first tested this with a set of 8 bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) tadpoles. While initially intended as a pilot test, the data was nice enough that we were able to publish it in Journal of Herpetology recently. Exploration varied clearly among individual tadpoles, with some evidence indicating that boldness might vary too.

Bullfrog personality findings. From Carlson and Langkilde 2013, J. Herp. 47(2):378-383

Bullfrog personality findings. From Carlson and Langkilde 2013, J. Herp. 47(2):378-383

In the primary experiment following the bullfrog study, I kept 50 wood frog (Rana sylvatica) tadpoles in the lab from hatching until 6 weeks after turning into frogs. During this time, I performed the same trials as above, twice at three different tadpole stages and three frog stages. Unfortunately, I don’t have much to report yet as we are still going through the 100+ hours of footage of tadpoles and carefully documenting every little movement they make. Initial looks at the partial dataset suggests that some personality traits may remain consistent as the tadpoles turn into frogs, which is supported by another recent study that did something similar (but not the same) in a different frog species. This is a bit surprising, as you might think it would make the most sense to have personalities than “start over” when they turn into frogs. A certain personality type (e.g. being bold vs. being shy) could be advantageous in the aquatic environment of the tadpole and costly in the terrestrial realm of the frog, and the brain undergoes some significant rearrangement during metamorphosis. But apparently some personality traits lie deep within the individual, so to speak. 

Wood frog tadpoles whose personalities were tracked throughout development.

So that’s the story so far. Tadpoles have personality (more than some people, maybe), and there remains a lot to be understood. I’m still chipping away at this and trying to better understand what has shaped all this variation (one of my “dead ends” is in press …) Biologists still have a long way to go towards making sense of animal personality, but I hope at this point you are maybe thinking about tadpoles – and indeed any animal – in a slightly different way.

Or maybe you won’t – that’s just part of your personality.


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Herping in Happy Valley

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.

An Eastern Milksnake. Photo by Brad Carlson

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.

An Eastern Ratsnake. Photo by Brad Carlson.

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.

Eastern Garter Snake. Photo by Brad Carlson.

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.

A Five-lined Skink. Photo by Michael Holroyd (Creative Commons License).

Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) – The only turtle, crawling through the woods along the trail we walk to study the Valley and Ridge Salamanders (below).

A Wood Turtle. Photo by Eugene Van Der Pijll (Creative Commons Licensed).

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.

Calling male Spring Peeper. Photo by Brad Carlson.

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.

Calling male Wood Frog. Photo by Brad Carlson.

Green Frog (Rana clamitans, aka Lithobates clamitans) – One of these handsome frogs found its way into a kiddie pool that had once held tadpoles.

Green Frog. Photo by Brad Carlson

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.

Northern Leopard Frog. Photo by Brad Carlson.

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

Gray Treefrog. Photo by Brad Carlson.

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.

A calling male American Toad. Photo by Brad Carlson

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.

A Spotted Salamander. Photo by Brad Carlson.

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).

Eastern Newt. Photo by Brad Carlson

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.

Valley and Ridge Salamander. Photo by Brad Carlson

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.

Plethodon wehrlei

Plethodon wehrlei (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Northern Slimy Salamander. Photo by Brad Carlson.

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.

A Two-lined Salamander. Photo by Jamie March (Creative Commons License)

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 Dusky Salamander. Photo by Brad Carlson

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 Spring Salamander. Photo by John D. Wilson (Creative Commons License).

Northern Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber) – This brilliantly-colored salamander was another find of the herpetology field trip.

Northern Red Salamander. Photo by Brad Carlson

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.

Four-toed Salamander. Photo by Brad Carlson.

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.