Monday, June 25, 2012

Timber Rattlesnake Research Continues

The research continues on the farm my husbands family owns. This year so far 8 timber rattlesnakes (Crotlus horridus) have been found.

One evening a friend of mine joined me to search for these elusive snakes. We also had her niece (age 7) and a young friend from my 4H Herpetology group named Gage (age 10) with us. After a couple of hours and overturning hundreds of rocks it was nearing dark and all we had to show for ourselves was a couple of ringneck snakes. We made the decision to head back to the car and leave as we were losing light. We walked by a large pile of limestone rocks and I poked my stick under one particularly large rock and heard the tell-tale sound of a rattlesnake buzzing its rattle. We both got excited as I attempted to turn the rock over with my snake stick. It became apparent that this was not going to happen, as the rock was far too heavy. We desperately wanted to see this snake that was hiding oh so close yet seemingly oh so far away. I told the kids to step back and announced I was going to flip this rock by hand. Now normally I would not even consider doing something like this, but I felt certain it could be done safely in this instance. The rock was 5 or 6 inches thick and had a sort of lip molded into it. I decided if I grabbed that lip and lifted I would not have to actually put my hand directly "under" the rock. I carefully lifted this rock, it proved heavier than I originally thought and I had to seriously put my back into it. Cindy excitedly announces that there were TWO rattlesnakes under the rock. I got so excited I nearly pee'd my pants and dropped the rock. Fortunately I was able to control my excited emotions and kept a firm hold on the rock and then gently let it fall back towards me. Sure enough there sat two gorgeous timber rattlesnakes, coiled up next to each other. Much debate took place about whether it was a male and female, or if they were same sex and just happened to be there together.

Gage and Cindy's niece were both as excited as we were about seeing these snakes. After making sure both children were a safe distance from the snake, we had to decide what to do. Should be let the snakes go, or should we capture them so we could check them for P.I.T. tags? The decision was made to capture them. Cindy and her niece returned to the car to retrieve the bagger, and I remained with Gage and kept an eye on the snakes. Several minutes after Cindy left, one of the snakes became antsy and decided to depart. I simply couldn't let it get away, so I managed to keep it there with the snake stick. I did not want to pin it down and risk hurting it, so I just had to keep guiding it back towards the other one with the tip of the stick. Finally Cindy returned and coaxing them into the bag went off without a hitch. We carried the bag back to the shed and found a large blue barrel to put the snakes in. It took us awhile to get them out of the bag and into the barrel, but we finally managed to get the job done. The fact that they came flying at a high rate of speed out of the bag, right at my chest and then when gravity kicked in they dropped straight down into the barrel did nothing to ease my frazzled nerves at handling such a highly venomous snake. I breathed a sigh of relief, and was thankful that the snakes didn't actually hit me in the chest. Once they were safely contained, we had to laugh, and joke about how inept we had to have appeared.

We contacted Dr. Mills our local herpetologist, and the one who has been helping me document the rattlesnakes on our farm. We made arrangements to meet early in the morning to document the data from these two snakes. Gage gained permission to miss school so he could take part in this educational activity.

Gage and I met Dr. Mills at 8:00AM and got started immediately with getting data from the snakes. Dr. Mills and I measured, weighed, and sexed both snakes and discovered that these two snakes were both females and neither one had been previously P.I.T. tagged. So these were two new snakes. We currently have 5 females and one male tagged on this farm. The first female was 2'8" and the second was 3'. Both seemed fat and healthy and most likely of breeding condition.

Gage was our data-meister and recorded all the numbers we threw at him. Gage absolutely loves herps. and has a real passion and genuine interest in learning about them.

Once all the data was recorded we returned both snakes back to the rock where they were found and released them. The snake stick is posed on the rock to show you the size of the rock they were under.
I am so thrilled that the population seems to be doing well at the location.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Five-Lined Skink

Five-Lined Skinks (Eumeces fasciatus) are one of the few lizards that live in NW Missouri. The majority of the lizard species to call Missouri home are found in the southern regions of the state. It is always exciting therefore to find one of these beautiful little skinks. They are fast moving, often secretive species that can be found around ponds, lakes, cellars, green houses, rock piles and log piles. They grow up 8.5 inches in total length. young males have a bright blue tail that fades to light blue or fades completely as they age. The one pictured here has an extremely faded blue tail, so he is an older juvenile male that has almost reached adult maturity. Some specimens lose the stripes with age as well. Older mature males have a dark orange head which has also earned this species the common name of Red-headed skink.

These skinks range as far north as southern Ontario, and as far south as Florida. They can be found nearly anywhere in the Eastern United States. In Canada they are endangered and therefore protected there. In Missouri it is legal to possess them as a pet, but they can be difficult to raise and often hide making them hard to observe. Truly they are best left in their natural habitats and observed there.

Adult males can be extremely territorial and will often act aggressively towards any intruding males within their territory. Adult males will tolerate females, and juvenile males within their given territories as they are not viewed as potential competition for mates. Males will approach females that they intend to mate with and bite down on the neck of the female. He will then use his tail to line up both of their cloacal openings. Males possess a hemipenes, which is essentially like possessing two penis'. He will insert one hemipene at a time to fertilize the female. Fertilization is internal and the female will lay eggs sometime in May or June. The female will guard the eggs which cuts down on predation and increases the odds that her offspring will survive. She will typically choose old rotting stumps, logs, under rocks, or under leaf litter as a prime egg laying location. She will deposit up to 18 eggs that will hatch in a couple of months. Once hatched they will reach sexual maturity in about 2 to 3 years, and will live up to 6 years.

(Male and Female cuddling up to each other)

Like many lizard species, skinks will drop their tails if grabbed. This affords them a certain amount of protection from predation. A potential predator who grabs the skink by the tail will find himself with a mouthful of tail and little else as the lizard beats a hasty retreat. The tail will regenerate itself, by gradually growing with each molt that the lizard experiences.

I recently received a phone call at the office where I work from a gentleman who was accustomed to seeing these lizards in abundance in his yard had noticed this year he had no skinks. He wanted to know if there was some place he could buy these lizards or could find these lizards to restock his property. He missed the skinks and could not understand where they could have gone. I asked him if he had altered his landscape in any way....he said he had not. He had not noticed any increase in predators either. I told him there was no way to buy these lizards in Missouri as it was illegal to sell them. I also told him that finding them in the wild in abundance would be difficult and there was no relocation or restocking program for things like skinks. I also advised him that it isn't a good idea to do that sort of thing anyway, as it increases the potential for diseases to spread to your local populations. I suggested to him that the lack of rain we've been experiencing was probably the culprit for his skinks suddenly disappearing. They are moisture loving lizards and probably could no longer find adequate damp locations to thrive. I told him to be patient and that hopefully when the rains come, the skinks will return. I was thrilled that he loved his little skinks so much and I hope they do come back for him.

This is the first year we've noticed them in our backyard, and we've found several near our goldfish pond and a few inside the greenhouse. I hope they are happily eating numerous insects and helping control harmful insect populations. It is always fun to spot one of these little beauties as it tries to hide in the brush pile, or rocks long our pond. Those bright orange heads and bright blue tails give them away however.