Vernal pools are often a wonderful, seasonal mecca for many different kinds of herps, and consequently, for many different kinds of herpers. These temporary ponds form when snowmelt gathers in low areas of a forest, and they are generally dried up by the end of the summer. Anything laying its eggs in a vernal pool—Wood Frogs, Spotted Salamanders, American Toads—is gambling that the larvae will have time enough to metamorphose before the pool dries up.
I spent last week off campus for a course in Field Herpetology offered through UVM. One of the highlights of the week was visiting a vernal pool abutting a road that teemed with Gray Treefrogs. Most Vermonters are familiar with the deafening call of Spring Peepers throughout the warmer months. The sound at this pool was similar, but with the melodic trill indicatory of our only native Hyla species. So eager were these cryptic frogs to get on with the business of creating the next generation that some males had already claimed the larger females and were hitching a piggyback ride across the road.
The warmth of late spring also brings out overachieving American Bullfrogs. Just behind our temporary residence, at least four male bullfrogs called from an overflow pool. On the last night of our stay, four other students and I witnessed a display of bullfrog aggression. How does something that feels like a stress ball with legs show aggression? First, they make a noise reminiscent of spit hitting a spittoon. They face each other and slowly move closer together. If neither frog backs down, one will jump on top of the other. Mind, they are in the water, so the defendant merely gets dunked under water. It is up to him whether he will try to take back the territory or swim away to establish a new one.
Everyone knows that larval frogs are called tadpoles. This also goes for larval toads, and both can also be called polliwogs. As yet, there is no word for a larval salamander or newt, besides well…larval salamander or larval newt. I felt that the Caudata were left out of the name game, and someone in my class suggested “sadpole” for a larval salamander. While I do like that name, perhaps something else would work better. The word “tadpole” is derived from a word meaning “toad” and another word meaning “head.” (If you don’t understand why this would be so, go look at a new tadpole.) Perhaps “salapole” would work?
While Vermont is home to ten different salamander species, we only have one lizard. Though these two types of animals look superficially similar, salamanders are amphibians and lizards are reptiles. Plentiful in more southern states, the Common Five-lined Skink is anything but common in Vermont. In fact, the small, striped lizard is so protected in Vermont that even herpetologists are not allowed to handle it. Coming from a background in southeastern Virginia, it feels so strange to me that some of the animals I saw most often growing up are so rare here.
Eastern Ratsnakes (formerly Black Ratsnakes) are another species frequenting Virginia and found less commonly in Vermont. These animals are most threatened by mortality from people who simply fear them irrationally. Yes, ratsnakes can grow to six feet or more. However, they eat lots of those little rodent pests that hang around your home, and they are nonvenomous—in the unlikely event that one bit you, you would be perfectly fine.
We are blessed with just one very secretive, very docile species of venomous snake, preserved by state biologist Doug Blodgett. The Timber Rattlesnake, formerly calling over two dozen Vermont towns home, is limited now to just two populations. I find it odd that many Vermonters would rejoice over this news while simultaneously living by the old motto, “Don’t tread on me”—a motto which, on our country’s very first flag, was coupled with the image of a rattlesnake. Why does the live-and-let-live attitude not extend to one of our few state-endangered species?
More common species that we encountered included many gravid (pregnant) Common Gartersnakes and a variety of Northern Watersnakes. Gartersnakes, like most of our other keeled species, give live birth. If you catch a female garter and gently press your thumb down her belly, you can feel each embryo shift under your finger. Watersnakes are also live-bearing, and quick to bite when picked up. Although they are considered venomoid, their venom is only dangerous to the small animals that serve as their prey items. I was bitten three times by a feisty, larger Northern Watersnake, and two days later I could not even see the bite marks.
Watersnakes are also commonly killed by humans because they are large snakes, but they play an important role in our aquatic ecosystems. Both of these snakes love to release a foul-smelling musk on would-be predators. I’d much rather be bitten than musked. At one point, I turned a rock to find five juvenile watersnakes—and got four in hand before they could slip into the pond. None of them bit me, but I’m fairly certain that all four emptied their musk glands on my hand and arm.
Just seven species of turtle make their home in Vermont. The state biologist assigned to turtles is Steve Parren, and he provided a great, interactive presentation that included his pet Snapping Turtle, Mr. Wiggles, for our class. According to Steve, Mr. Wiggles was hit by farming equipment and relinquished to his care. Although Steve has had the little chelonian for four years, he has not grown at all and remains about 6” long. He also has sustained some locomotor issues and is by far the most docile snapper I have ever seen. I wonder how far his neurological damage extends, and if it is responsible for his amicable disposition.
Steve focused particularly on the Wood Turtle. This is a medium-sized, mostly terrestrial turtle that really looks more like a tortoise with its pyramidal shell scutes, thick, stumpy legs, and box-turtle-like head. They are a species of special concern in the Green Mountain State. Their far-roaming nature makes them much more susceptible to road mortality. They are also a popular pet and overcollection (illegal in most of the states wherein these turtles are found, including Vermont) threatens our wild populations.
We practiced turtle trapping and caught one very pissed off snapper. Our hapless reptilian demo assistant allowed us to get comfortable with picking up a large turtle by the back legs. Previously, I have always picked up turtles by the rear of the shell, because that’s about the only place their mouths will not reach. According to state herpetologist Jim Andrews, picking up a large turtle in this method will actually cause damage to the shell as the scutes will separate. Using the tail as a handle is also a no-go—the vertebrae in the tail will also start to disconnect. You really have to ferret your hands in under the shell and up onto the thighs, but it is possible to safely handle a very angry, large turtle in this manner.
Our final turtle highlight was when we happened upon a female Painted Turtle nesting on the side of the road. These iconic animals dig flask-shaped nests. Unfortunately, the increase in mid-trophic predators such as raccoons and coyotes has become a hindrance for many turtle species. The mammalian predators dig up and eat the eggs almost as fast as they are laid.
In the few hours of down time I had this week, I dug out the rattlesnake skull Jim brought and used it for drawing practice. My second attempt headlines this post—a close-up of part of the skull as seen from above. And this brings me to the most important note in these near-1400 words: any animal that is listed as endangered, threatened, or special concern in Vermont is illegal to handle, harm, possess, or offer for sale. This includes parts of the animal, such as skeleton, skin, shell, or really anything else. Jim has a special permit as the state herpetologist. The herps in Vermont with this special status are:
- Jefferson Salamander
- Blue-spotted Salamander
- Four-toed Salamander
- Fowler’s Toad
- Boreal Chorus Frog
- Spiny Softshell
- Spotted Turtle
- Wood Turtle
- Northern Map Turtle
- Eastern Musk Turtle
- Common Five-lined Skink
- North American Racer
- Timber Rattlesnake
- Eastern Ratsnake
- Eastern Ribbonsnake