Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Humans Can Be Bizzare, Too by: David Steen Ph. D.

There never seems to be much of a shortage of articles or blogs about how some animals are truly bizarre, weird, or otherwise outrageous. These discussions never resonated with me. Animals have incredible and diverse strategies, behaviors, shapes, and sizes that allow them to persist and thrive in their environment. It would never occur to me to think of these animals as weird.

No, for the truly strange, we must look inward. How weird is it that humans hold annual celebrations in which the main focus is rounding up and killing animals for entertainment? How bizarre is it that this is socially acceptable and encouraged?

These thoughts occurred to me recently as I was reading a number of newspaper articles promoting, excuse me, reporting on the events associated with the Sweetwater, Texas Rattlesnake Roundup. How else can we explain why skinning a recently decapitated and still-squirming animal is considered, "laugh-inducing"? Is it really that much fun to cut up an animal, feel it's still-beating heart, and then slap your bloody handprints on the wall? If so, I have to admit that I have been looking for entertainment in entirely the wrong places. I think it's much more interesting if the snake's heart is beating when the skin is still on.

I wrote last week about how the organizers of the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup raised their rattlesnake bounty this year in hopes of gathering more snakes. It didn't work. As this press-release, excuse me, newspaper article, notes in relation to a rattlesnake-eating contest, it was once again a below-average year. Whether the roundup organizers are correct in attributing low rattlesnake densities to weather patterns, there seems to be no arguing the fact that there have been less rattlesnakes crawling around Texas lately. I guess this means people should
try harder to round up what's left? After all, those bloody handprints on the wall aren't going to get slapped on themselves.

Now that is what I consider bizarre.

David A. Steen received his Ph.D. from Auburn University, his B.S. from the State University of New York-College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and his B.S. from the University of New Hampshire. He researches the ecology and conservation biology of wildlife and blogs about his work at www.LivingAlongsideWildlife.com. His copyrighted work appears here under a Creative Commons license.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Why we Shouldn't Litter

Few things in this World get me as riled as littering. Not only is it unsightly, but it often has detrimental consequences on wildlife. Tonight my daughter was coming in the backdoor and yelled for me to "come quick!" I hurried to see what the problem was and she had found a black snake with a piece of plastic PVC pipe wrapped around its midsection. There as no possible way this snake would have survived had my daughter not found it and we had not been given the opportunity to rescue it.

I picked the snake up and immediately it musked and bit me. Which is exactly the type of behavior one can expect from a snake that has been snatched up by a giant. You can see the blood on my finger. It is nothing more than a superficial scratch.

The snake is probably 3 to 4 years of age and measures nearly 2 feet in length. The piece of pipe had grown into its skin and my fear was that it was so embedded that we would not be able to remove it without causing further damage.

We decided to try and saw the pipe off. My husband helped me, and it took about 20 minutes to finally free the snake of its PVC entrapment. I need you to understand something too, my husband does not like snakes and I really think he secretly fears them. He bucked up and helped me save this snake when he saw the condition it was in and how important it was to me. He really came through for me and for this snake in need.  The wound that was exposed did not look too severe so I made the decision to release it in a safe place in the yard.

I hope this snake heals and goes on to lead a productive snakey life. 

Littering is an ongoing problem faced by wildlife on a daily basis. We as humans often discard our trash without a second thought. We wrongly assume that someone else will take care of it. We throw trash out of our car windows, simply because we don't want our cars littered with trash. For some reason we prefer it laying along the highways, roadways, walking trails and other natural areas. Why can we not take the trash home with us and dispose of it properly? Why can we not pull into the nearest gas station and dispose of it in the trash bin? Do we really need to throw it out for all the World to see? I don't know about you but there is nothing I hate worse than hiking a beautiful trail, only to have it disturbed by fast food packages, pop or beer cans, bottles, plastic bags, etc. 

There are many stories that abound of animals that have been in similar situations including the one here Common Snapper trapped by six pack ring 

In Missouri we have an ambassador of trash by the name of Peanut. Peanut's story can be read here Peanut the Turtle

If you plan to be outside this spring, summer and fall, if you pack it in, please remember to pack it out. Our wildlife will thank you.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Rare Fungus Killing Endangered Rattlesnake Part 2

Well, I am back from Claxton Georgia and have great news: the newly formed Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival went off without a hitch! It seems safe to say that the local rattlesnake roundup is now a thing of the past and will now be replaced with a new fair that expresses a truly celebratory attitude towards nature and wildlife. More will be posted on this very soon (as soon as I can get the videos uploaded) but for now I have a follow up on the Chrysosporium fungus that is killing Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) near Carlyle Lake, Ill.

This is a lethal process that has been going on for at least three years but scientists are just beginning to truly understand it. So far no clear cause has yet been identified and most of what has been thrown around is speculation. Livescience.com compares the Chrysosporium to Geomyces destructans, which is more commonly known as the "White Nose Syndrome" that has been appearing in bat colonies across North America. While the two may be similar and are, as the Livescience article mentions, related, it is highly misleading to say that they are "not too distant relatives". The two belong to the same Phylum but nothing else. This is not the only inaccuracy being circulated by a reputable science website. Scientific American wrote that there was a similarity in the molecules of the infected rattlesnake to those found in a captive black rat snake and that this suggests the fungus spread to the wild rattlesnake population from released or escaped pets. According to Dr. Matthew Allender, the scientist in charge of investigating this outbreak, there is no evidence for such a speculation as of yet.

I recently E-mailed Dr. Allender an inquiry about this. His response was that there is currently no evidence whatsoever that this fungus originated in captivity or is related in any way to those in captive snakes. Furthermore, there is a lack of evidence that any human activity is behind the emergence of this particular pathogen. Of course all of this could change pending the discover of a smoking gun but until that happens these speculations remain just that. Dr. Allender also remarked upon the irresponsibility of making such inferences. This is something that all writers and bloggers must keep in mind when they report on such things. They are free to make such conjectures, as they should be, however, it is always important to make a clear differentiation between one's own hypothesis and that of the researcher one is reporting on.


Perry, Wayne. Live Science. (February 24, 2012). Mysterious Rattlesnake-Killing Infection Emerges. Retrieved March 16, 2012, from http://www.livescience.com/18634-endangered-rattlesnake-fungal-infection.html.

Platt, John R.(2012, Feb 23). Killer Fungus Targeting Endangered Rattlesnake. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/2012/02/23/killer-fungus-targeting-endangered-rattlesnakes.

Dr. Matt Allender (personal communication, Feb. 27, 2012).

Friday, March 2, 2012

Central Newt

Joey and I made an impromptu trip to Springfield, MO to do some antique shopping and to visit with a fellow blogger and friend named George Sims of Bugs of Booger County. George had told me about a fellow neighbor who has a woodland pond full of newts and tadpoles. I was anxious to see the pond and to capture some newts. Unfortunately I had forgotten my muck boots, but lucky for me George was willing to wade in the pond and capture some for me. 

The setting of the pond is so beautiful and serene. The water was like glass as it reflected the images of the trees on its surface. George worked his way round the ponds shoreline and  used his handy-dandy strainer to scoop up leaf-litter near the shore. Each time he had either a newt, aquatic insect or a tadpole. 

 I enjoyed walking around the pond and photographing the various lichens and mosses that were very plentiful in the woodlands. Their textures are so beautiful.

Here is George sneaking up on his quarry. His technique seems to work because I now have 8 newts to bring home with me. I will keep 5 and 3 of them will be turned over to MWSU for their voucher collection of herps. They will be preserved and used for future classes as a teaching tool. The pond was a brisk 57 degrees as George bravely tromped and sloshed through it in shorts. The air temperature however was absolutely gorgeous at 74 degrees on the first day of MARCH! 

Central newts (Notophthalamus viridescens louisianensis) are a common occurrence in the Southern half of Missouri, but up in the northwest corner where I live they do not occur at all. So these are a real treasure to me. We will be heading home tomorrow with my new little friends. Hopefully they will do well for me and survive. Central newts are small at only 3 to 4 inches as adults. They have a somewhat unusual lifecycle. Males locate females and approach them with the intention of mating. He will grab the female and hold onto her tightly in a position called amplexus. He may remain wrapped around her for several hours all the while using his tail to fan a delectable scent called a pheromone in her direction. He wants to make sure that the smell reaches her nostrils and has the desired affect of making her receptive to receiving his spermatophore. He will release her and perform a dance of sorts in front of her, if she is interested in finalizing the mating process she will rub her nose against his body or tail. It is then that he deposits his spermatophore on the bottom of the ponds edge or other shallow water. He will try to guide her to his packet so that she can take it up into her body via her cloaca or vent. If she is not impressed with his attention she will turn tail and run. 

Once mated she will lay up to 400 eggs one at a time on aquatic vegetation. It will take her several weeks to complete the task of laying eggs.  When the eggs hatch the newly born gilled aquatic larvae will remain in the water. By late in the season (August) they will transform into juveniles called efts, they lose their gills, and have formed lungs. They will leave their watery home and head to land. They will live on land for 1 to 3 years depending upon subspecies and location. While on land they will be reddish or brown in color and have a rounded tail. They also lack any evidence of sexual maturity. Once they return to the water at 2 to 3 years of age they will make a transformation into the adult form and become sexually mature. They will then begin seeking mates. 

The adults are olive-brown  on their back with a bright orange-yellow belly. There are numerous black spots on the belly and there may also be red spots ringed with black on the back or along the tail. The color division between the belly and the back is definitely noticeable. There are some specimens that lack the spots or have very few spots. 

They can be found in woodland ponds, swamps and roadside ditches that hold water. They are rarely found in large numbers in ponds that also contain fish, as fish are fond of the the newly hatched newts and the newts would stand little chance of surviving. Newts feed on worms, small crayfish, tiny mollusks, small tadpoles and even salamander larvae. As terrestrial efts they feed on small snails and insects. On land they hide out under leaf litter and logs or under rock piles. 

These little salamanders are active year around in their aquatic habitat and are often seen swimming around under the ice of the pond they inhabit. They may be active during the day or night. Efts and the adults have few predators because of a toxic secretion they produce from mucus glands located all over their body. These secretions can be deadly to some animals. The efts are thought to be up to 10 times more toxic than their adult counterparts. 

As we walked around the pond and explored the area, we noticed hundreds of tadpoles. We recognized some as Green Frog Tadpoles, but many others were hard to distinguish as they were much smaller, they could have been a younger generation of green frogs. After finishing collecting our newts we left the pond and headed back to Georges house. We sat on the front deck and we treated to a beautiful view of the rolling Ozark hills.

George's dog Dobbie was happy to have company and stayed close by and offered up lots of kisses and affection.

We hope to make a trip back to this beautiful area and visit with George and his wife again. Perhaps kayaking the beautiful streams and rivers that the Ozarks have to offer. Or hiking and searching for bugs or snakes. Our antiquing hasn't proved very productive yet, but as we drive home tomorrow I hope to get in some more shopping. If you would like to read Georges post about our little adventure please visit his blog Bugs of Booger County.