The Lizard Log

The Langkilde Lab in Action


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On a frog hunt

 

Earlier this Spring some explorers from the Langkilde Lab went on a trip to Connecticut to take part in some exciting field work with Lindsey Swierk, former lab member and current postdoc at Yale University.

Lindsey is investigating the possible impacts that urbanization and road noise might have on wood frogs’ (Lythobates sylvaticus) mate calling behavior. To do so, our team went out to collect male wood frogs from vernal ponds of different degrees of urbanization in the area of Madison, CT – from deep into the woods, to a friendly neighbor’s backyard.

Lindsey’s research is important especially because frogs are extremely dependent on acoustic signaling as a form of communication and mate attraction. Most likely, these animals are still not well adapted to urban environments with intense noise (think of heavy traffic and construction work), despite being exposed the them for a considerable amount of generations. If sound suddenly becomes an unreliable cue for mate selection and predator detection, the dynamics of natural and sexual selection could be altered, potentially removing adaptive traits from natural populations. We don’t know exactly how (or if) wood frogs cope with these changes in their surroundings. Amphibians are some of the organisms most sensitive to environmental change, and to protect them, it is crucial that we better understand these impacts.

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Hi there!

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This trip was an excellent experience: it was the first time some of us got to work with frogs. Also, the residents we came in contact with all seemed captivated by our work and science in general – a great opportunity for us to exercise our science communication skills. Special thanks to the folks at Field House Farm, LLC, we had a great time!

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There’s always time for a little posing

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Between behavioral trials, some lacrosse with the kids at Field House Farm

Finally, I was really happy to have my first contact with a real, colorful, living salamander! Being from Brazil, where these charismatic creatures sadly do not occur, I felt accomplished after having this much anticipated encounter.

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My first salamander – Ambystoma maculatum!

Besides all the field work, we also went out to explore the New Haven area, local restaurants (Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana is highly recommended!) and part of Yale University’s campus. We also got to spend time with Lindsey’s family, two adorable dogs included, but most importantly, we learned about our mate Cam’s great culinary skills after a taste of his famous baked ziti – great company in the field indeed!

As you read this, Lindsey is processing the overwhelming amount of data obtained in this field season, so make sure to check her website to hear about her results in the near future.

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Team Swierk – a job well done!


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Even Mining Bees Do It

Animal life of all sorts was springing into action in Central PA this past week. The other day as I was prepping my bike to head into the lab, I noticed a fair bit of activity centered on the pair of dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) just outside my door. Dandelions are one of the first flowers to appear in the Spring and serve as important early sources of food for many pollen-oriented insects.

Upon further inspection, I noticed that a solitary female bee was feeding on one of the dandelion’s pollen and attracting attention from several suitors. Right as I returned with my camera, one of the male bees latched on to the female, and I settled in to observe the proceedings:

In the footage, you can see the male bee attempt multiple matings with the female (and seem to succeed several times). The female seems largely ambivalent to his attentions, preferring to devote herself to the delicious pollen repast in front of her and grooming her shapely antennae. At several points, other, less fortunate suitors make a quick pass at the lucky couple, but do not dislodge the primary male. The bees appear to be members of the genus Andrena, a diverse group of solitary mining bees found throughout the world (Thanks to Dr. Heather Hines for ID help!). These bees are a sign of Spring in many areas. Male bees often become active first and search for emerging females to mate with. Afterwards, they may conduct mate-guarding to prevent other suitors from fertilizing their mate’s eggs and increasing their offspring (and fitness). Happily, we had just talked about this in my Animal Behavior class (Biol 429), so I was able to use the footage you see above as an intro to my next class.

As the weather gets warmer (barring this past weekends’s snow (!) here), I’m looking forward to seeing many more species becoming active and all the neat behaviors they’ll be displaying.


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Here Be Dragons

In August, my two older brothers and I went to Komodo National Park in Indonesia for a week of scuba diving and backpacking.

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Departing the plane in Surabaya: this photo was actually taken midmorning. The hazy skies are due to smoke from the rampant slash and burn agriculture which is devastating virgin forests on Borneo and other islands.

Going to see Varanus komodoensis in Indonesia was most certainly on my herp bucket list, and so when my older brothers mentioned that they wanted to take a trip somewhere and Komodo was an option, I naturally jumped on it. My brothers wanted a place where we could backpack and also go scuba diving, and it turns out that Komodo has some of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world. Komodo National Park consists of a series of small islands (Including Komodo and Rinca, where one finds the dragons) between the relatively large islands of Flores and Sumbawa. It is a part of the Lesser Sunda Island chain. The Lesser Sundas are bio-geographically fascinating. They essentially form an arc of mid-sized islands directly to the east of Java – extending almost to Papua New Guinea. On the far western end of the arc is Bali – a popular vacation destination. Incidentally, we had a longer than expected layover in Bali on our way to Flores: Mt. Raung in eastern Java erupted while we were in the air and disrupted air traffic through the whole region. We had a mid-air reroute to Surabaya on Java and then barely made it into Bali where we missed our outgoing flight! We managed to get onto a standby flight early the next morning, though, and our schedule was left essentially intact.

Directly to the east of Bali is the Island of Lombok. Between these two islands runs the famous Wallace Line. The Wallace Line is the biogeographic barrier between the Asian and Australian Faunal regions. It was first identified by Alfred Russell Wallace – one of my professional heroes. Wallace collected zoological specimens throughout Indonesia, and I re-read his incredible travel memoir The Malay Archipelago during this trip.

Of all the Lesser Sunda Islands, only Bali is on the Asian side of the Wallace Line. However, the line is not a clean break. If it were, one would expect to go from seeing tigers and elephants in Bali to kangaroos and wombats on Lombok. This isn’t the case. While there actually are tigers on Bali (at least there were until they were hunted to extinction in the 20th century), crossing the Wallace Line instead takes you into a sort of transition zone between the true Asian and Australian faunal regions. A place where one can find a bizarre mix of species – like cockatoos flying over herds of native wild boar – as well as endemic species like the Komodo dragon. This region is referred to as Wallacea.

Incidentally, it isn’t just a transition point in terrestrial biogeography. The incredible biodiversity of Komodo’s reefs is due to the fact that the National Park lies at the interchange between the Pacific and Indian Oceans – resulting in an incredibly biodiverse marine ecosystem as well. The diving was incredible – but I’ll stick to the herp stuff for this blog entry.

The vacation was spent on a live-aboard dive boat, and we spent days alternating diving and trekking (really mostly just herping on the Islands!). We went on 2 big hikes, the first on Rinca island where we found the majority of the cool herps for the trip. The second was a 2-day hike to Mt. Satalibo, the high point of Komodo Island. We spent the night camping on the summit and then bushwhacked down to the tiny ranger station at Sebita where we were picked up by our dive boat’s zodiac.

Before either of those scheduled hikes, though, we had some downtime between dives. We were quite close to Komodo Island, and even though it was midday and blazing hot, I couldn’t help myself from getting on land. I asked Andrew and Daniel if they wanted to come with, and they said yes – so I directed one of the crew members to fire up the zodiac and drop us off for 30 minutes or so. He thought we were crazy to go on the island by ourselves but dropped us off just the same!

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Daniel and Andrew in the grassland on Komodo with their sticks for defense! I had assumed – correctly – that we wouldn’t encounter any dragons with the midday sun beating down on us like it was.

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Daniel and Andrew with the dinghy in the background. The tan and gold colors of the islands contrasted beautifully with the blues and greens of the surrounding ocean.

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That night we went to a spot frequented by the dive boats in the area. The mangroves are packed with flying foxes – and there were thousands of them! Each one of the dark flecks in the sky in this photo is a fruit bat leaving the mangroves and headed to forage in the moist forests on nearby Flores.

The next day we began our first hike on Rinca Island. Rinca and Komodo are home to the majority of the dragons in the world. I was excited to finally get in some serious herping. Our first spotting was a mammal though: a semi-aquatic crab-eating macaque in the mangroves by the dock.

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First dragon of the trip! This was a juvenile dragon basking in the morning sun by the ranger station. Like deer by any National Park headquarters in the US, the dragons near the ranger stations on both Rinca and Komodo were habituated to humans. Once we got off the common tourist trails we found that the lizards acted much differently.

We waited for our guides and then set of on a hike across the island. Although we’d set everything up ahead of time, when we actually got there none of the professional guides wanted to go on the hike that we’d scheduled – it was too long! It took some negotiating, but we finally got some guides that were willing to take us on the planned route.

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A swarm of bees making a hive in the monsoon forest.

I started flipping logs and rocks along the trail looking for herps. Our guides were laughing at us and told us that they see snakes only very rarely. That might be true, but it only took us a few minutes on the trail before we’d found our first snake.

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I glimpsed a snake slithering in the cracks of a dried-up buffalo wallow. I grabbed it with the tongs and there it was – my first ever live Elapid!

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A Javan Spitting Cobra – Naja sputatrix

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I quickly tubed the snake (wearing sunglasses!) and showed the guides – who at this point were past the “Americans are INSANE” stage and into the “Wow this is actually really cool!” stage. This was their first time touching a cobra, and they loved it! Showing people that snakes are something to be respected and admired, rather than feared, feels awesome.

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The spitting cobra lived up to its name and doused my go-pro while I was getting some close up footage!

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Water buffalo spending time in a pool during the heat of the day. Our guides told us that this pool was one of the few that didn’t dry up completely in the dry season, making it a favorite ambush spot for hungry dragons.

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Next one of our guides spotted this Island pit-viper Trimeresurus insularis high up in a tree.

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I flipped this gecko underneath driftwood. I’m totally unsure about the species, but I think it’s a species in the widespread genus Cyrtodactylus.

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This giant centipede was under the same piece of driftwood as the gecko! Unfortunately I don’t have anything good to show the scale but the centipede must have been 9-10 inches long. Easily more terrifying than the cobra – and quite capable of making a meal of the gecko!

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Our guides asked if we’d be interested in seeing a bat cave that they knew of. Of course we were!

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The day after Rinca: more diving!

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After a full day of diving my brothers retired to eat some dinner. I still had energy, and we had anchored off of Komodo Island – where we would begin our hike early the next morning. I hopped on the dinghy and went to see what I could find at night and found this gecko foraging in the intertidal zone! I think that it’s a Hemidactylus of some sort.

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After returning to the boat with a single herp for the night, I was ready to eat some food and drink some beers and get ready for the following day. Incredibly, I would get one more herp for the night back at the boat!

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With tongs at the ready, we managed to get this banded sea krait! She may have been attracted to the boat’s lights.

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She sure looks like she’s ready to lay eggs!

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The crew told us that the local lore said that it was good luck to have a sea krait swim up to a boat. This boat was new and it hadn’t happened yet – so the captain was particularly excited! It was his first time touching a snake of any sort, and definitely the first time one had been on his boat!

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The next day we began our trip to the top of Mt. Satalibo. For reference, almost nobody does the hike we did. The head ranger managed to scrounge a tent that they give to film crews to use on the porch of the ranger station to keep bugs away. What we did is definitely not part of the normal menu – and by the time we made it back to the boat the next day we were well aware of why that is.

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A dragon that was NOT habituated to humans.

This was the first non-habituated dragon that we encountered. I was amazed by how curious it was. Curious in a predatory sort of way. I absolutely don’t want to be sensationalist, but the fact is that the dragon saw the group of us and immediately began a slow and steady walk towards us. When it got particularly close, the guides repeatedly hit it in the head with their forked sticks. In response, the dragon backed up and then tried to circle around and come from a different angle. It was a fascinating experience. The dragon wasn’t sprinting at us – it was merely walking. However, I have no doubt that if we were to stand still and allow it to approach, that it would have sunk its teeth into one of our legs. It wasn’t in a rush like we normally see predatory encounters, so it was an alien experience – but I am quite certain that that dragon wanted to eat us. That obviously doesn’t make it malicious, but the experience is one that I cannot get out of my mind. It simply wanted to eat us if we didn’t cause much trouble. As it was, the guides hit it in the head several times (which I am led to believe is standard procedure), and eventually it retreated and stared as we walked away.

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Soon after encountering that dragon, the bushwhacking became incredibly difficult. I have had the privilege of going through some thick and thorny vegetation during my research in the lab. The “Blue-creek hell hole” that lab alumnus Sean Graham and I went through to collect Cottonmouths comes to mind. I can say that without a doubt, the bushwhacking on Komodo Island was the worst I’ve ever been through. I want to come up with a way to describe the horrible-ness of the Thorn Forest on that island, but I cannot. Anything that I could write about it would detract from the reality of how bad it was.

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After the “Thorn Forest” we arrived the highest elevation forest type. The late Walter Auffenberg wrote several lengthy monographs about Komodo dragons and the herpetofauna of Komodo Island. While he was curator of Herpetology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, he decided that he wanted to research Komodo dragons. To accomplish this, he simply moved with his wife and small children to Komodo Island and began research! His writings made up the bulk of my pre-trip research. He categorized the vegetation communities on the Island and referred to this semi-moist forest as Quasi-Cloud Forest. It was clearly distinct from the lower elevation forests – with more evergreens and bromeliads indicating a wetter environment.

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We reached the top of Mt. Satalibo and set up camp. Backcountry camping on Komodo is something that almost nobody does. Once we set up camp and got a fire going, I actually asked the guides how frequently they camp on the island with tourists. The answer was something like “We did it one time with a crazy Dutch guy like 5 years ago.”

At about 1am I gave up sleeping. Naturally, I hadn’t brought any cold weather gear on our Komodo Island hike, and it was amazingly cold up at the top. First I, then Daniel, surrendered and just spent the rest of the night huddled with our guides by the fire. Somehow Andrew managed to sleep through the whole night. Once it got light enough we began our hike down. The plan was to hike from where we had camped on Satalibo down to the small ranger station of Sebita. We had scheduled things rather tightly and had a flight to catch in the afternoon but figured that we would be able to make it down to Sebita relatively quickly.

I’ll just say up front that we did not make our flight. The bushwhacking the day before had just been a taste. I knew we were toast early on, when I checked my GPS and found that 2 hours into our hike we had made it a grand total of 750 meters. We spent hour after hour going through a thorn forest that – like before – I won’t try to describe based on principle. Everything had thorns. Every branch, every tree trunk, every vine. There was one single tree species that had no thorns; I remember it vividly: at even the lightest touch it would hemorrhage black ants that would cover everything. I was stung early on in the hike, and hours later my arm still throbbed.

We spent hour after hour hiking through an endless thorn forest, going prone for significant stretches when it was too thick to crouch or crawl on our hands and knees. Turns out that when the guides had “done this before” with the Dutch gentleman that they had gone back down the way they came to the main ranger station – not to Sebita. This was everyone’s first time doing this bushwhack. At the utter mercy of the Island, I started laughing at the hilarious helplessness of our situation. There was nothing to be done but push through the thorns and the ants until the end. It was the most difficult day of hiking in my life so far, but I am glad we did it. My respect for the ecology of that island is utterly cemented.

After making it to the ocean we got on our boat and figured out flights for the next day,  I even managed to make it home in time for one final week of field work in Pennsylvania before the semester started!


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Winter Is Coming; Herp While You Can

Since my summer has been full of writing and conferences and decidedly empty of time spent working with reptiles and amphibians, I decided to take advantage of a recent family wedding (congrats Tanya!) and do some herping in North Carolina, a state I haven’t spent much time in since my undergraduate days in the Herpetology Lab at Davidson College.

Even before arrival at my final destination, I spotted a promising sign: a green anole (Anolis carolinensis) out basking in the afternoon sun near the Forest Service office.

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Ahhhh, sunlight.

I camped in the Uwharrie National Forest, a relatively small national forest with some nice campsites on Badin Lake.

Yep, pretty nice alright.

Yep, pretty nice alright.

While it’s been getting chilly here in State College, the climate in NC is still rather balmy with daytime temperatures in the 70’s and nighttime temps warm enough for a little reptile activity, at least on the roads. Unfortunately, warm roads with cars and cool weather are a pretty good recipe for snake deaths, and the first snake of the trip was a DOR (dead-on-road) scarlet kingsnake (Lampropeltis elapsoides). These gorgeous snakes are coral snake mimics and can be an unusual find.

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DOR snakes often look a little bug-eyed…:*(

A full day of hiking around Badin Lake, and through streams and backwoods resulted in a decent turnout, including many of the usual suspects:

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Bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeiana) were common along the shoreline of the lake and in adjacent streams.

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The most surprising thing about finding this black racer (Coluber constrictor) was that it didn’t bite me….what?!?

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This little brown skink (Scincella lateralis), was moseying through the leaf litter in a sunny patch along the lakeshore. And yes, that is its “official” common name. Scientists are so creative!

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Northern cricket frogs (Acris crepitans) were abundant throughout the forest and easy to spot as they used their outrageously long jumps (> 3 ft for a frog <2 in!) to escape approaching humans (me).

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Northern dusky salamanders (Desmognathus fuscus) were holding out in a small spring seep in an area surrounded by muddy creeks and lots of horse poop.

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Upland chorus frogs (Pseudacris feriarum) were active, but not chorusing, on a cloudy day.

 

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This hatchling midland water snake (Nerodia sipedon pleuralis) was none to pleased to be removed from its natal creek (and bit me numerous times, as watersnakes are wont to do).

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However, it calmed down (a bit) when return to its aquatic environs.

On the way back to PA, I couldn’t resist targeting one specific species, the Peaks of Otter salamander (Plethodon hubrichti). This species is found only along a 13 mile stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Peaks of Otter (surprise!) in southern Virginia and is under review to be considered federally threatened or endangered due to its very limited range. This salamander is named after the eminent citizen naturalist Leslie Hubricht (who also discovered the Red Hills salamander) and was so named after a bit of scientific skullduggery (you can read the story here). Finding this species was no problem thanks to a tip on a great locality from ex-Langkilde Lab member Sean Graham. I’d found a few, snapped a couple of pics, and was on my way home in under 15 minutes.

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These ‘manders were all dirty from their stay under the local rocks, but, as I didn’t want to disturb the population too much, I settled for some slightly less polished photos.

And of course, I couldn’t resist stopping at some of the awesome overlooks scattered along the Parkway.

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Even on a cloudy day, the fall colors were still very nice (even for a colorblind viewer!)

And with that, I’ll enter a long, dark winter of writing and working towards finishing my dissertation!


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Sweet Home Alabama

This summer marks the 10 year anniversary of working on the fence lizard / fire ant system. And I got to spend it at the Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center. It was like coming home. I used to spend 3-4 months a year there but haven’t been back since 2011 (a cost of reproduction). And this year I got to share this with my mom and 5 year old.

Me, my mom, and my 5 year old hanging out with a gorgeous indigo snake.

Me, my mom, and my 5 year old hanging out with a gorgeous indigo snake.

Driving down the road that leads to the Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center (and all roads apparently lead to the Center) my heart rate increased, and I couldn’t stop beaming. It was wonderful driving through the longleaf pine forests, an amazing ecosystem that is being restored thanks for the efforts of organizations such as the Longleaf Alliance, and past gorgeous Cyprus swamps. I couldn’t wait to get there.

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A longleaf pine forest sunset – the view from behind our dorm.

Solon Dixon was pretty much like I remembered it, but there were a few noticeable changes. They have built a gorgeous new classroom facility – I need to find an excuse to take a class down here to take advantage of it.

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Solon Dixon’s fancy new classroom facility.

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Auditorium inside the new classroom facility.

And they had to gate off the road to the amazing freshwater spring as some folks were tearing it up looking for sharks teeth (this area used to be under the ocean many eons ago). This is a gorgeous but freezing cold freshwater spring that provides welcome relief on a hot Alabama afternoon.

David doing his best "creature from the black lagoon" impersonation.

David doing his best “Creature from the Black Lagoon” impersonation.

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A resident of the spring.

Michaleia getting to know another visitor to the spring.

And since Solon Dixon is only a little over an hour from the gulf coast, we had to take a trip to play in the gorgeous white sands, and sample some of the best ice cream in the south!

Loving the white sand beaches!

Loving the white sand beaches!

Henderson Beach State Park

Henderson Beach State Park

Amazing frozen custard! And the chance to become a hotdog for a few minutes.

Amazing frozen custard! And the chance to become a hotdog for a few minutes.

We share Solon Dixon with the Auburn University forestry and wildlife students. And are fed like kings, including delicious dessert at least twice per day. My first year I blamed the tumble dryers at Solon Dixon for shrinking my clothes until I got home and realized my other clothes had mysteriously shrunk too. Waiting in the lunch line this summer I was met with a photo from years ago when Katie Boronow and I tagged along on a swamp walk with the forestry students. Oh sweet memories…

A photo from 8 years ago. That’s me in the yellow, front left.

Amongst all this fun, there was work to be done. I helped get David going with his project on maternal stress. And collected blood samples and information on badge coloration of female lizards for a project Braulio will be doing to see whether “bearded ladies” are suped up on testosterone. While we were stalking a large female one afternoon, we heard a huge rustle in the leaf litter. We quickly figured out it was not in fact a bear, but instead two males engaged in battle. They moved onto the railroad ties, and Michaleia caught some of the action on video:

We didn’t get the lady… hopefully the males had better luck.

 


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Panhandling in Florida

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.

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Not old enough to have any hairs on his chinny-chin-chin. This little bugger was all of 16 inches.

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.

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No, I was not dangling any delicious rodents just out of the frame.

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!

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A male fence lizard surveying his domain.

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.

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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.

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The view from the riverside trail in Ochlockonee River State Park.

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.

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A slightly blurry picture of one of the white squirrels in the park. You can see the dark eye and beginning of the darker back stripe in this photo. Other squirrels seem to treat them normally, as the normally pigmented gray squirrel seen here was doing his best to court the white one!

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.

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A barking treefrog pauses for a quick snapshot before continuing its journey to a nearby chorus.

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.

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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!


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The Ants of Guana Island

As Chris mentioned in a recently post, we both had the wonderful opportunity to do some research on Guana Island. And it was BEAUTIFUL!

The amazing view from my porch.

The amazing view from my porch.

Such clear water!

Such clear water!

But it was also exhausting! Getting used to temperatures in the 80s and 90s and the incredible humidity was a challenge we were to happy to meet. And it’s hard to complain about doing fieldwork on a beach…

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North beach!

North beach!

We had a number of projects to keep us busy. As Tracy described in a previous post, our lab and our collaborators are interested in how invasive fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) affect one of the world’s most endangered iguanas: the Stout Iguana (Cyclura pinguis).  (remember this guy?) This year, Chris and I wanted to address whether fire ants are capable of preying on iguana eggs while in the nest. Thanks to some of Chris’s previous research, we know that fire ants are potential threats to fence lizard eggs: they are capable of foraging at depths of fence lizard nests, can find artificial nests, and can get through the shell of the egg to obtain a meal.  We wanted to know if fire ants could get to depths approaching those of an Iguana nest, which are deeper than those of fence lizards. To do this, we installed fake “nests” next to clear plastic tubes in the beach and forested area nearby. This involved digging a hole roughly 16 inches into the soil (or sand!) and inserting a tube. We then placed slices of hot dogs (faux “eggs”) along the outside of the tube at a standard depth and filled in the hole with sand. Every afternoon, we checked our mock nests by sliding a small camera down the tube and taking video of the hot dogs through the tube wall. We immediately checked these videos to determine if any fire ants were present (or beetle larvae, as we observed in one case!).

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Chris digging a hole on the beach for our nesting experiment.

Tube in a hole before filling in.

Tube in place before we filled in the hole with sand.

During our stay, we also continued to survey the island for fire ant mounds. Our lab has collected this since we started working on Guana in 2010, and the resulting maps help us monitor the spread of fire ants on the island.

Looking for fire ant mounds...

Looking for fire ant mounds.

Crabs like peanut butter too!

Crabs like peanut butter too!

We also set up baits around the island to see which species of ants are actively foraging in the area. The fire ants love our peanut butter balls, but occasionally a crab would stake claim:

Chris and I had 6 days of hard work and amazing views, but we eventually had to return to the Pennsylvania fall. Next step: data analysis!

Taking in the view!

Taking in the view!

So incredible.

So incredible.

Goodnight Guana!

Goodnight Guana!