Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Rattlesnake Avoidance Training for Dogs

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 News) - A select group of people in Salt Lake put their dogs face to face with a rattlesnake Sunday afternoon to teach the dogs a valuable lesson. They participated in a unique training program that uses a powerful shock collar to teach the dogs to avoid rattlesnakes for the rest of their lives.

The rattlesnake used in the training was de-fanged for the dogs' safety. It was brought to a parking lot at 9th and 9th by reptile expert Jim Dix.

Web Parton, with Snake Safe Training from Arizona, was responsible for training the dogs. He said when dogs encounter rattlesnakes in the wild, they are very curious.

"They see this funny thing, hear this sound," said Parton. "They go put their nose on it to see what it is, and then you're on your way to the vet's office."

Parton's training is designed to break that impulse. The first step was to get the dogs acquainted with the rattler. The dogs spent several minutes sniffing the snake and walking around it.

The second step was not nearly as pleasant. Parton waited for the dogs to get close to the rattlesnake then shocked them with a collar. It made the dogs feel like they had been bitten in the neck.

"They will remember it the rest of their life," said Parton.

That is the whole point of the training. After getting shocked, the dogs completely avoided getting close to the snake. Some of them even barked when they were brought too close.

The training may seem harsh, but experts say, consider the alternative.

"We were down here yesterday doing a class, and a lady's dog just got bit three days earlier," said Dix. "It was about $1,875 (to treat)."

Rattlesnake bites can also be fatal to dogs and humans.

Parton charges $110 per dog for the rattlesnake training.

Dix said he has received several reports this summer of rattlesnakes on mountain trails and even in backyards. He said the snakes like to come out early in the morning and early evening when it is cooler.

The training classes continue at 9th and 9th until Sunday, August 5 at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A New Turtle Phylogeny

Carettochelys insculpta. JCM Natural History
Turtles (Testudines) form a clade with a distinctive body plan unlike any other living tetrapods. The taxonomy and phylogeny of some turtle clades are stil controversial. Previous studies included only a few species or genera Guillon et al. (2012) used an extensive compilation of DNA sequences from nuclear and mitochondrial genes for more than two thirds of the total number of turtle species to infer a larger more robust phylogeny than had been previously produced.

The resulting phylogeny shows a clear separation between monophyletic Pleurodira and Cryptodira. Within the Pleurodira, Chelidae forms a clade which is the sister-group to the Pelomedusoidea, grouping all Pleurodira except Chelidae. The species included in Pelomedusoidea are separated into two monophyletic groups, corresponding to the Podocnemididae  and Pelomedusidae. They observe a clear separation of Chelidae into three clades, corresponding to Chelidinae, Chelodininae and Hydromedusinae, although Hydromedusinae. Chelodininae is the sister-group to all other Chelidae, and  Hydromedusa tectifera, the only species of Hydromedusinae in our phylogeny, is sister to Chelidinae. Four pleurodiran genera were found to be polyphyletic (Mesoclemmys, Elseya, Emydura) or paraphyletic (Pelusios).  Mesoclemmys hogei is grouped with Phrynops, rather than with M. nasutus and M. gibba. Elseya dentata is grouped with Rheodytes leukops and Elseya purvisi is grouped with Elusor macrurus  rather the other sampled species of  Elseya.  Emydura macquarii is grouped with Elseya georgesi and Elseya latisternum rather than with  Emydura subglobosa. Pelusios sinuatus is grouped Pelomedusa subrufa rather than with the other sampled  species of Pelusios. Cryptodira is classically organized into five clades (Chelonioidea, Kinosternoidea, Testudinoidea, Trionychia and Chelydroidea, the latter taxon comprising Chelydridae and Platysternidae). Here, Trionychia is the sister to the group formed by all other Cryptodira. The only species from Carettochelyidae, Carettochelys insculpta, is separated from a group including all other Trionychia. The monophyly of Trionychinae and Cyclanorbinae is also well supported. All species from the same genus are grouped together. Trionychia is recovered as the sister group to all remaining clades of cryptodiran turtles which form a tetrapolytomy including: Chelonioidea, Chelydridae,  Kinosternoidea, and a group formed by Geoemydidae, Testudinidae, Emydidae and Platysternon megacephalum. Within the Chelonioidea, there is a clear separation between Cheloniidae and Dermochelyidae, as between the two families included in Kinosternoidea, the monotypic Dermatemydidae (Dermatemys mawii) and Kinosternidae. However, Kinosternon appears paraphyletic, as Kinosternon baurii is closer to Sternotherus odoratus than to K. flavescens. The fourth clade is composed of a group formed by Testudinidae and  Geoemydidae, and a group formed by Emydidae and Platysternon megacephalum. According to the usual taxonomy, Testudinidae, Geoemydidae and Emydidae together form the clade Testudinoidea. This clade is then paraphyletic in this phylogeny due to the inclusion of  Platysternon megacephalon as the sister-group to Emydidae. Within the monophyletic Emydidae, Emydinae and Deirochelyinae are both monophyletic. All species from the same genus are grouped together except for Emys: Emys orbicularis and Emys trinacris are closer to Emydoidea blandingii  than to Emys marmorata. Within the monophyletic Testudinidae, Gopherinae  and Testudininae are monophyletic. All species from the  same genus are grouped together, except for Homopus. Homopus areolatus and Homopus femoralis are close to Psammobates, whereas Homopus boulengeri and  Homopus signatus are grouped with Chersina angulata. Within the monophyletic Geoemydidae, Batagurinae is monophyletic  and nested within Geoemydinae, which is thus paraphyletic. All species from the same genus are grouped together except for  Batagur and  Kachuga. Batagur affinis and Batagur baska are recovered in a polytomy including  Kachuga kachuga, whereas Kachuga trivittata is grouped with Callagur borneoensis and Kachuga sylhetensis is grouped with Pangshura.

The phylogenetic position of Platysternon megacephalum has long been enigmatic. The first analyses based on morphological characters,  led authors to relate P. megacephalum with Chelydridae (Chelydra serpentina and Macrochelys temminckii). However, some molecular studies found that P. megacephalum was grouped with Testudinoidea (using small nucleolar RNA; , based on 12S, cytB and RAG1). In the phylogeny that Parham et al. (2006) obtained with complete mitochondrial genomes,  P. megacephalum  was included in Testudinoidea as the sister-species to Emydidae. This study finds good support for the same hypothesis.

The entire paper can be found online.

Jean-Michel Guillon, Loreleï Guéry, Vincent Hulin, Marc Girondot . 2012. A large phylogeny of turtles (Testudines) using molecular data. Contributions to Zoology 81:147-158.

Friday, July 27, 2012

London's amphibians and reptile populations mapped

A common frog in garden pond - relatively abundant
across London, according to the first map of the capital's
reptiles and amphibians. Photograph: Ashley Cooper/Corbis
Laurie Tuffrey guardian.co.uk,

First atlas shows amphibians are widespread in the capital, but snakes and other reptiles are largely confined to its outer rings.

From smooth newts living by the Tate Modern to common frogs across London, amphibians are widespread in the capital, but snakes and other reptiles are largely confined to its outer rings, the first map of the city's amphibian and reptile populations shows.

The map shows London's native amphibians - common frogs, common toads, smooth newts, palmate newts and great crested newts - to be relatively populous across the city, while native reptiles - slow-worms, common lizards, grass snake and adder - are far more sparse, confined mainly to the outer boroughs.

Contributions from the public will help improve future editions as well as conservation efforts, say the team behind the London Amphibian and Reptile Atlas.

Sophie Hinton, Connecting London's Amphibian & Reptile Environments project officer, said: "There are still lots of gaps in the information we have managed to collect over the last year," adding "we need a London-wide, long-term effort".

Hinton explained that surveys had turned up populations in unexpected areas: "There were some great habitats hidden away in surprising locations - for example, there are smooth newts in the Tate Modern pond right in the centre of London, which, with regard to its placement on the distribution map, some may find surprising."

Hinton added, though, that the surveys revealed a worrying number of absences: "We established survey sites on habitats where no monitoring had previously taken place, which seemed ideal for slow-worms, for example, and after numerous attempts, we didn't find anything.

"This may have been down to the strange spring and summer weather we've been having which created less than ideal surveying conditions, but it may also just be because there aren't any animals there." Earlier this month, the National Trust said the summer's record wet weather had been disastrous for wildlife, in particular for birds, bats, butterflies, bees, amphibians and wildflowers struggling in the cold wet conditions.

The map draws on data from the Greenspace information for Greater London project using a mixture of recent surveys and pre-existing data going back to 2002.

Habitat loss from development has contributed to a considerable decline in amphibian and reptile numbers in the UK, putting several species including the great crested newt, common toad and grass snake on Natural England's priority species list.

Snakes on the menu in Vietnam

A 5-course snake feast in Vietnam
Lance Richardson
San Francisco Chronicle
They say that when the king's daughter went sailing on the Nguyet Duc River (now the Duong), a snakelike leviathan capsized her boat by conjuring giant waves. It was the 10th century A.D., and many Vietnamese people worked rice fields along the river just as they do today. One young man, seeing the serpent, dropped his tools and dived into the water to defeat it.

Variations of the legend have him saving the princess or simply retrieving her body; all, however, have a grateful King Ly Thai Tong showering him with riches. The man refused it all: He wanted nothing more than land near modern-day Hanoi to found a village for his people.

To reach Le Mat, colloquially known as "snake village," my friend and I climb onto the back of a motorbike and direct the driver northeast, out of the Old Quarter toward the fringes of the city.

Le Mat holds a festival to celebrate the legend of its founder each March, though the importance of snakes is an everyday reality here. Snake wrangling has been passed down through centuries and generations; snakes are bred in Le Mat, used in medication, alcohol, tonics - even as an aphrodisiac.

We pull up in an alleyway and enter Trong Khach, where a small lagoon is surrounded by open sitting rooms made from bamboo. A woman seats us on reed mats, then steps aside for a man who clutches a writhing snake in his fists.

"Now we kill the snake," he says, pausing for approval. Snakes are eaten in Le Mat, too.

People around the world consume different animals: The Swiss eat horses, Mexicans eat grasshoppers, Koreans eat silkworms. While there's a reprehensible black market thriving in Southeast Asia, cobras and grass snakes are purpose-bred in Quoc Phuong Farm, or south of Le Mat in the forests of Binh Dinh. These particular animals are not endangered - though, to prevent endangered species inadvertently falling into the mix, a visitor should only frequent higher-profile restaurants like Trong Khach.

Because snakes are not culled from the wild, so-called moral objections are actually cultural ones (unless a person is a staunch vegetarian). The Western fondness for beef horrifies the Hindu population of India, after all.

The method of execution remains a point of contention, however. Several blogs show travelers luxuriating in the gory details, posing for blood-splattered photographs. We leave the deed to the experts, who wield their knives with minimum theatrics and work fast and efficiently. While I take no pleasure in watching a snake's heart sliced out, it has a curious psychological effect, just as filleting a fish straight from the ocean does. Being intimately acquainted with the grisly process of preparation means a subsequent meal is loaded with significance. You are shocked into appreciation of an animal as food source.

The woman presents us with four shot glasses filled with rice wine. Two are stained red with blood dripped from the snake and curdled with a spoon; the other two are green with bile squeezed from the liver. Though the snake heart is said to enhance virility in men, I draw my line in the sand when the woman offers it up. The tiny organ is passed across the table to my companion and she downs it in a moment, comparing the slick consistency to a freshly shucked oyster. Then we drink the glasses of blood and the glasses of bile; the taste of both is disconcertingly familiar.

Most of a meal in Le Mat is made up of five courses of snake prepared in various ways. It comes as gruel for starter, shredded white flesh mixed up with mushrooms in a warm broth. Then we have it sautéed with lemongrass and chile, needle-like bones making for a painful second course. It comes deep-fried in balls, and wrapped up in spring rolls with a heady dose of ginger and soy. It comes on glutinous rice, with long sections of chewable ribs that look like mouth guards. The meat is sparse and thin, resembling chicken in its bland sweetness - some cliches exist for a reason, apparently.

After finishing at Trong Khach we step out of the restaurant into a bustling carnival, where children play games for plush toys and adults share pho in sociable clusters around the central square of the village.

The festival honoring the founder has not yet started, but things are still settling down from Tet celebrations. We must look like a startled pair, wandering between the sideshows. The snake feast has left us feeling distinctly ambivalent. As an exotic ritual, the meal is intoxicating; I enjoy it in spite of initial wariness.

Yet meat has become so divorced from its origins in America that to watch an animal slaughtered at your table is to be graphically reminded of the costs of certain choices. Eating snake in Le Mat makes you reflect on your own culture - but, in the end, isn't that one of the reasons we travel?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A transitional snake from the Late Cretaceous of North America

Researchers at Yale have identified an ancient slithering creature from the time of T. rex as the most primitive known snake, a finding with implications for the debate over snake origins.
Gila monster (top), Coniophis precedens (middle),
and the modern pipe snake.
(Illustration by Nicholas Longrich)
“It’s the missing-link snake,” said Nicholas Longrich, a postdoctoral fellow in Yale’s Department of Geology & Geophysics and the lead author of a paper about the lizard-like snake published July 25 online in the journal Nature. “It’s the ‘Lucy’ of snakes.”

The paper argues that snakes descend from terrestrial rather than marine ancestors, as recently proposed by others, and that snakes emerged once lizards developed long, limbless bodies for burrowing.

A relatively small creature with a serpentine body and a lizard-like head, the ancient protosnake — Coniophis precedens — represents an extremely rare transitional life form and sheds light on the divergence of snakes from the broader family of lizards.

“It moves like a snake, but it doesn’t feed like a snake,” said Longrich, who noted that Coniophis’ body is made up of vertebrae characteristic of snakes, allowing it to slither “beneath the feet of T. rex.”

 In contrast to modern snakes, this elongate creature’s jaws remain fixed, limiting the size of its prey, probably to salamanders and other small lizards, according to Longrich.

Fully evolved snakes have jaws that unhinge, allowing many species to eat mammals and other prey larger than themselves. Over time, this competitive advantage contributed to exceptional diversification. Snakes today are the most diverse lizard group.

For [more than a century] Coniophis was known primarily by a single isolated vertebra, and hardly anything was known about its anatomy or lifestyle, much less its place in snake evolution. Longrich and colleagues established their more detailed picture after identifying additional tiny bones that had been collected but never studied.

“Compared to what we knew before, this is now one of the better-known snakes from the Cretaceous period, 145 million to 65 million years ago,” he said. (Coniophis itself is from 65 million years ago.)

These additional bones — pieces of upper and lower jaw, teeth and additional vertebrae — lay in existing museum collections around the country, including Yale’s Peabody Museum.

Small and light, ancient snake bones are rare, and evidence of transitional forms more so. This leaves snake origins poorly understood.

All known Coniophis fossils come from floodplains in eastern Wyoming and Montana — from the same soil deposits as mammals and terrestrial lizards, including the dinosaurs T. rex and Triceratops — indicating that snakes evolved as terrestrial rather than as marine animals, Longrich said. (They might have been able to swim, but did not adapt specialized features for it, he said.)

Coniophis’s status as the most primitive snake does not make it the oldest known snake. Rather, it appears to have been “a living fossil” in its own time, co-existing with more advanced snakes, as chimpanzees and humans still do, Longrich said. “It’s not the direct ancestor of modern snakes, but it tells us what the ancestor looks like,” he said. “A lot of evolution happened around it.”

The other authors of the paper are Jacques A. Gauthier, professor of geology and geophysics at Yale, and Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar, a former Yale graduate student now at Harvard. Gauthier also is curator of vertebrate paleontology and vertebrate zoology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

The paper is titled “A transitional snake from the Late Cretaceous of North America.” The Yale Institute of Biospheric Studies and the National Science Foundation provided support for the research.

Longrich, N.R. et al. (2012) A transitional snake from the Late Cretaceous period of North America. Nature, advance online.

Suzio Report, Early to Mid July 2012

Howdy Herpers, 07/23/12

The monsoons have arrived here in Tucson, but thus far, it has been a mixed bag. Some places are getting pounded, some are not. Our beloved plot is receiving a fair amount of rain, it could be far worse. We THINK that there was a successful reproduction on the part of the spadefoot toads in early July. This would only be the third time in 11 years that this has happened--if it happened. On 7 July, we saw a big puddle loaded with their tadpoles. This was from the big 4 July rain we had. Another good soaker fell on 10 July, but by 14 July, the puddle was dry. As there wasn't the usual gelatinous mass of tads on the mud left over, we think they made it.

Before last weekend, we had 14 animals transmittered. We are now down to 13. Our female
atrox #87 appears to have become a plot biscuit for a mystery predator. We found the transmitter
on the ground yesterday. See image 5 for the last look of her that we will ever get.

Of the 13 animals now left, 10 have less than a year of seniority under watch. This means we
are unfamiliar with their home ranges, and are having an extremely difficult time keeping on top
of them. The 4 new tiger rattlesnakes are the biggest surprise, as both males and females are traveling WAY out into the bajada. We have 2 new male molossus, and they are also tearing
up my knees.

We have noted explosive lizard activity, and signs that many of the common lizard species are going into a second breeding season. All in all, this years' monsoon is showing signs of being a well-needed winner.

We'll let the pictures tell some of the story.

Image 1: A zebra-tailed lizard in full mating colors, 7 July 2012. 
Image 2: A Sonoran whipsnake, found by Marty Feldner during a combination road cruise and hike we made in the northern Suizos, 7 July.
Image 3: Regal horned lizard, also a Marty find, 7 July.
Image 4: Our pregnant female atrox CA133, also 7 July. She had 6 kids last year, and appears to be ready to go this year as well. 
Image 5: This is the last look we will have of female CA87. Note the healthy body girth on this snake. She dropped 12 kids last year, and was looking dismal health-wise before the monsoons set in. She had regained her mass, and everything appeared to be looking better for her. We had hoped for many more years from this snake, but we don't always get our way...........
Image 6: This was our first look at the newest male molossus, CM14, "Marty the Prick" since he was captured and released. The colors on the rattle tell us he has just shed his skin. He is now merrily bopping around Iron Mine Hill, giving us fits.
Image 7: A gophersnake encountered on 11 August--note the aggressive flattened-head posture. I only see this kind of behavior rarely. 
Image 8: The remaining images are all tigers. This is CT8, "Zona," the longest-running tiger in the study.
Image 9: Male CT10, "Jeffery." He is by far doing the best health-wise of any tiger on our plot. When found, he was tracking down a pocket mouse that he had just nailed. He apparently nails a lot of them.
Image 10: Female CT11, "Steven." He is one of the two most wayward tigers on the plot.
Image 11: Female CT12--currently without a name. This is the first decent in situ shot we've had of her, and it appears that she is digesting a meal.
Image 12: This is one found at Sabino Canyon. Note the color difference between this one and the others above. Steve Ressel and I found it in the exact spot where Jeff Moorbeck and I found a tiger very similar in color over ten years ago. I've been too lazy to backtrack and match the photos. It also appears to have been marked--note the white on the rattle. I suspect it was from Matt Goode's study, back in the day when Danny Brower was scouring the area.
Well, there is much, much more to tell. But it will all have to wait. Best to all, and looking forward to seeing many of you in the days ahead.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Request for Snake ID

My name is Suzanne Osier.  I am a sailor and birder living aboard my boat and finishing a circumnavigation.  I am moored on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal in Fort Sherman. The San Lorenzo Protected Area is my temporary 'backyard'.  A few days ago, I found a snake and I can't seem to make it fit to the snakes on the speices list in my area.  On your blog, Serpent Research, you invite people with photos or comments to share to please post them.  I know how to make a comment, but I wasn't sure that I could post a photo, so I'm emailing you. I have posted the photos on a few sites, but I have been able to get a positive ID.
I have no books aboard about snakes, but I often use a site put out by the US Forest Service to help me with the flora and fauna of the area (San Lorenzo Protected area):

I know that not all species found here are listed, because I have seen some myself (birds), but it is an excellent site and a good place to start. Basically, the San Lorenzo Protected area is divided into two parts. The Fort Sherman side of the Chagres River and the Pina side. Some species found in the Fort Sherman side are not found on the other side and vice-versa. I am posting a species list here. I have googled almost all of these snakes trying to find a match. The snakes on the list that are two-toned are yellow and black and this snake was the color in the photo. Maybe it's just an individual with color variation?

I hope I'm not being a pest, but I'd really like to know what this snake is, and you seem to know a bit about snakes. I apologize for the bad photos; the snake was crossing the road and I jumped out of an air-conditioned car to photograph it. My lens was a bit foggy.

Thank-you in advance for any help.


Species List from US Forest Service:
Boa constrictor Boa constrictor
Annulated tree boa Corallus annulatus
Culubridae Black racer Chironius carinatus
Large scaled black tree snake C. grandisquamis
Mexican milk snake Leptodeira annulata
These snakes are found on the Pina side:
Parrot snake Leptophis ahaetulla
Liophis epinephalus
Mexican vine snake Oxybelis aeneus
Green vine snake O. brevirostris
Siphlophis cervinus
Elapidae Central American coral snake Micrurus nigrocinctus
Viperidae Fer de lance Bothrops asper

Friday, July 20, 2012

Indian snake charmers urged to switch to fakes

The following story is adapted from the Daily News of India.

PETA is urging India's snake charmers to use fake animals during the upcoming Naag Panchami festival. PETA claimed snakes were cruelly captured in suffocating bags, kept in tiny boxes, starved or forced to drink milk.

On Friday, the animal rights group PETA on called on India's snake charmers to use fake reptiles during an upcoming serpent festival and spare the animals their annual torture.

The Indian unit of US-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said snakes were abused during the annual Naag Panchami festival, which is celebrated in honour of a Hindu serpent god and is scheduled for August 30-31.

PETA claimed snakes were cruelly captured in suffocating bags, kept in tiny boxes, starved or forced to drink milk. Their teeth are often violently torn out, and many snakes' mouths are sewn shut, it added.

"There is no place in a civilised society for yanking snakes' teeth out and sewing their mouths shut," PETA India campaign coordinator Chani Singh said in a press statement.

"PETA India is calling on snake charmers to rein in this egregious abuse by using fake snakes for God's sake," Singh added, saying that realistic plastic or rubber snakes could be used instead.

PETA's statement was swiftly condemned by the Bedia Federation of India, a non-profit agency which represents the nomadic snake charmer community.

"How can PETA accuse us of torturing and abusing snakes? We worship snakes, we would never want them to suffer and die," Raktim Das, the general secretary of the federation, told AFP.

Das said the call by PETA was nothing short of a publicity stunt aimed at making life more difficult for their 800,000-strong community which had been "living a life of penury" in the wake of strict wildlife laws.

"Our livelihood has been snatched from us. There is no alternative employment opportunity for us. Where do we go and what do we do to earn a living?" Das said.

A boy tries to touch the effigy of a snake on sale in Bombay during the "Naag Panchami" festival in 2002.

The snake charmers have long been a favourite with tourists in India but the practice was proscribed under wildlife legislation implemented in 2002.

The Naag Panchami festival goes ahead regardless, with devotees worshipping snake pictures, idols or in some cases live serpents.

A small number of charmers can still be spotted around major tourist sites in places like New Delhi, risking arrest as they cajole foreign visitors into taking a snapshot for a small fee.

Snakes in the North American Landscape

Loss of species is thought to result ftom reduction,. degradation, and fragmentation of habitat, But, for many species we few ideas why habitat change impact6s their populations. Reptiles are thought to be in an extinction crisis and many snake species are of conservation concern. Snakes are of conservation concern throughout North American, and important for the variety of ecosystem services they provide, including rodent population controll. Yet effective management and conservation of snakes is often hindered by a lack of basic natural history knowledge and the lack of studies to assess general population trends. Steen et al. (2012) compiled detection/nondetection data for 13 large terrestrial species from 449 traps located across the southeastern United States, and characterized the land cover surrounding each trap at multiple spatial scales. They used occupancy modeling, while accounting for heterogeneity in detection probability, to identify habitat variables that were influential in determining the presence of a particular species. Twelve competing models were used for each species, representing various hypotheses pertaining to important habitat features for terrestrial snakes.

They found considerable interspecific variation existed in important habitat variables and relevant spatial scales. For example, kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula) were negatively associated with evergreen forests, whereas Louisiana pinesnake (Pituophis ruthveni) occupancy increased with increasing coverage of this forest type. Some species were positively associated with grassland and scrub/shrub (e.g., Slowinski’s cornsnake, Elaphe slowinskii ) whereas others, (e.g., copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix, and eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake, Crotalus adamanteus) were positively associated with forested habitats. Although the species that studied may persist in varied landscapes other than those we identified as important, data was collected in relatively undeveloped areas. Thus, the findings may be relevant when generating conservation plans or restoration goals. Maintaining or restoring landscapes that are most consistent with the ancestral habitat preferences of terrestrial snake assemblages will require a diverse habitat matrix over large spatial scales.

Steen, D. A. et al. 2012. Landscape-level influences of terrestrial snake occupancy within the southeastern United States. Ecological Applications 22:1084-1097.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Frog Deformities & Disease

Climate change, habitat destruction, pollution and invasive species are all involved in the global crisis of amphibian declines and extinctions, researchers suggest in a new analysis, but increasingly these forces are causing actual mortality in the form of infectious disease.

Amphibians are now, and always have been hosts for a wide range of infectious organisms, including viruses, bacteria and fungi, scientists said in a review published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

But in recent decades, disease seems to have taken a more prominent role in causing mortality. Because of multiple stresses, many induced by humans, amphibians now succumb to diseases they may historically have been better able to resist or tolerate.

"There's more and more evidence of the role of disease in the biodiversity crisis, in both amphibians and other types of animals," said Andrew Blaustein, a distinguished professor of zoology at Oregon State University and author of the recent analysis.

"It's normal for animals to deal with infectious organisms, often many of them simultaneously," he said. "But in the face of pollution, a reduced immune response, climate change, evolving pathogens and many other stresses in such a short period of time, many species now simply can't survive."

The current extinction rates of amphibians -- which existed even before dinosaurs roamed Earth -- may be more than 200 times the background rate of extinction, the scientists note in this report. From an evolutionary perspective, amphibians that survived for hundreds of millions of years may be undergoing a major extinction event.

Because they have both terrestrial and aquatic life stages amphibians are exposed to various environmental forces more than some other animals, scientists say, and a higher percentage of them are threatened with extinction than are birds or mammals. However, similar concerns may become apparent in many animal species, including humans, as environmental changes and stresses grow, they said.

Among the observations in this report:

• Infectious disease around the world is increasing at an unprecedented rate.

• Natural stresses such as competition and predation have been joined by human-induced stresses, ranging from pollution to global warming.

• These forces can reduce immune competence in amphibians, even as climate change, invasive species and other factors increase pathogen spread, persistence, growth and mortality.

• Some amphibians deal with stress by hormonal changes such as increased production of glucocorticoids, but on a sustained basis, that approach can further suppress their immune system.

• Warmer winters and night-time temperatures may reduce the cycle of pathogen die-offs that would naturally occur in colder regions.

These forces are complex, the researchers noted. The effects of climate change on amphibian disease, for instance, my cause some pathogens to increase in prevalence and severity, while others decline.

Understanding the driving forces behind these changes, the scientists said, will be important not only to address amphibian declines but also to deal with emerging infections in many other plants and animals, including humans. Such impacts can affect wildlife conservation, economic growth and human health.

Andrew R. Blaustein, Stephanie S. Gervasi, Pieter T. J. Johnson, Jason T. Hoverman, Lisa K. Belden, Paul W. Bradley, and Gisselle Y. Xie. 2012. Ecophysiology meets conservation: understanding the role of disease in amphibian population declines. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, June 19, 2012 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2012.0011 pages 1471-2970.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Herpetofauna Extinction Crisis

The following is a press release from the Center for Biological Diversity.

Amphibians and reptiles are amazing creatures with clever adaptations that have allowed them to brave the millennia. Consider the Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard’s scaly hind toes, which resemble snowshoes and keep the lizard from sinking into sand as it sprints away from predators; or the eastern diamondback rattlesnake’s heat-sensing pit organ, which helps it find the small, warm-blooded prey on which it feeds. Such diversity is vital to functioning ecosystems and enriches humankind’s enjoyment of the natural world.

But today, the world’s herpetofauna are among the most imperiled species on Earth. Ubiquitous toxins, global warming, nonnative predators, over collection, habitat destruction and disease are key factors leading to their demise. Globally, 664 species of reptiles, or more than 20 percent of the total evaluated species, are endangered or vulnerable to extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s 2011 Red List. The situation is worse for amphibians. More than 1,900 species of frogs, toads and salamanders — fully 30 percent of the world’s amphibians — are at risk of dying out. Moreover, scientists lack sufficient information to assess the status of nearly 25 percent of the world’s herps. These species are slipping away faster than scientists can study them.

The Center outdid ourselves in protecting these amazing creatures on July 11, 2012, when we made the biggest-ever move to protect amphibians and reptiles in the United States, filing a mega-petition requesting Endangered Species Action protection for 53 amphibians and reptiles in 45 states. The petition asks the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect six turtles, seven snakes, two toads, four frogs, 10 lizards and 24 salamanders under the Act. To learn more about amphibians and reptiles, read our FAQ and then sign up for future alerts about how you can help save species.

Almost since its inception, the Center has worked to protect reptiles and amphibians. By filing petitions that urge federal wildlife agencies to provide Endangered Species Act protection for imperiled herps — and following up with lawsuits when necessary — the Center has obtained federal safeguards and critical habitat for dozens of amsphibians and reptiles, from the Chiricahua leopard frog to the Mississippi gopher frog to the Tucson shovel-nosed snake.

Stemming the herpetofauna extinction crisis means attacking it on every front; the Center’s conservation efforts are almost as diverse as the animals we’re working to protect. To reduce impacts of toxic pesticides on the California red-legged frog, the Center secured a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that prohibits the use of 66 toxic pesticides near core habitats. And a follow-up lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeks permanent restrictions on these deadly toxins. The Center’s campaign for fish-stocking reform aims to protect the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog and other amphibians from nonnative trout, while litigation against the Forest Service has helped curb grazing-driven habitat destruction for the Oregon spotted frog.

While threats like our warming climate require efforts across the globe, threats like human persecution can be addressed by working at the level of communities or regions. For example, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake is facing population declines due in part to “rattlesnake roundups,” which are contests calling for hunters to collect (and later kill) as many snakes as they can in a year. Through our campaign to outlaw rattlesnake roundups, the Center aims to convince local communities to turn these gruesome contests into wildlife appreciation festivals. Freshwater turtles are also being threatened by human persecution, namely by overcollection for the food and the pet trade. Our successful ongoing campaign on behalf of southern and midwestern turtles has prompted several states to regulate turtle harvest, an important step toward reversing their alarming declines.

Though amphibians and reptiles represent some of the most rapidly disappearing species on Earth, they’ve long been underrepresented when it comes to wildlife protection. So in 2010, the Center made certain that animals like the California tiger salamander have their very own champion by hiring the nation’s first full-time attorney dedicated to conserving herpetofauna.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Suzio Report - Late June

Howdy Herpers,                                                        07/03/12

First off, happy birthday to Dennis Caldwell. I hope you will all check in and wish him well. The dude is like Peter Pan--he never grows up, and never grows old. Have a good one buddy, and live forever!

We had an interesting weekend. What's the point in having an interesting weekend if we can't broadcast it to 300 of you?

On Saturday morning, Patti Mahaney and I assailed the Valley of the Truly Happy. Patti was kind enough to find us a cerberus, which is the reason for going there. Then, on Saturday night, Mr. Slone led me up our hill, down our hill, back up our hill, and back down our hill. Then we went to the far NE side of our hill, and then headed a kilometer or so west. Yup--the herps are moving all over the place now. And with so many new ones, we have no clue as to which way they are traveling. 

This makes for much flandickery and excessive boot and body wear when tracking them.

We'll let the pictures tell part of the story.

Pics 1 and 2: Patti's cerberus. A GORGEOUS male.

Pics 3 and 4: Our female atrox #121, "Tracy." The first image was taken on 24 June. She looks in need of a plot biscuit. The second was as we found her on 30 June. 
She got a plot biscuit!

Pics 5 and 6: Our new tiger female #CT12. This is the first we have seen of her since releasing her in early June. If you look at the rattle in the first image, you will see that there are 2 uncolored rattles downstream of the basal. This would indicate a recent shed. In fact, I would guess that all of our snakes have shed recently. The second image is where she settled down and waited for us to leave.She traveled from the top of the hill, near AD5, all the way to the bottom of the southeast side of the hill.

Pics 7 and 8: Our molossus #10, "Susan." What the image doesn't show is the strips of our flesh being gaily festooned to the catclaw jungle that rises above her. Two of our molossus seem to heavily favor catclaw, which may be why we find so few of them out there. It's hard to herp inside those pernicious plants.

Pics 9 and 10:  Now there's something you don't see every day! A nice leopard lizard snoozing away in a creosote bush. This is the first Gambelia to be seen on the plot in over a year and a half. What a way to find one. Check out that last image. He's kind of letting it all hang out!

That's about all that's fit to spit. We are expecting some major cloudbursts tonight, and I'm very hopeful that forecast holds up. Could be a gorgeous morning in paradise tomorrow.

Best to all, and happy 4th!


Were All Dinosaurs Feathered?

The new fossil find from the chalk beds of the Franconian Jura evokes associations with a pet cemetery, for the young predatory dinosaur reveals clear traces of fluffy plumage. It also poses an intriguing question: Were all dinosaurs dressed in down?

The fossil of the fledgling saurian, probably newly hatched when it met its end, is remarkable in many ways. First of all, juveniles are extremely rare in the dinosaur fossil record, so every new discovery provides insights into dinosaur nurseries. Moreover, this specimen is perhaps the best-preserved predatory dinosaur that has yet been found in Europe. And Sciurimimus albersdoerferi, which lived during the Jurassic Period some 150 million years ago, displays one very striking feature – its whole body must have been covered with a thick plumage of feathers.

All the feathered dinosaurs so far described belonged to the lineage that gave rise to modern birds. “However, Sciurumimus belongs to a much older branch of the family tree of predatory dinosaurs,” says LMU paleontologist Dr. Oliver Rauhut, who is also affiliated with the Bavarian State Collection for Paleontology and Geology, and led the investigation into the structure and affinities of the sensational new find. “Its plumage may be telling us that all predatory dinosaurs had feathers.”

Were all dinos decked out with feathers?
Several fossil finds have revealed that the pterosaurs – which were capable of flight and are the closest relatives of the dinosaurs – bore hair-like plumage on their bodies. Their fluffy coats resemble the downy feathers that can be recognized in the new fossil. This observation is very significant, as it suggests to the researchers that not just the pterosaurs and the predatory dinosaurs, but all dinosaurs may have had feathers. “If that is the case, we must abandon all our notions about giant reptiles encased in tough scales,” Rauhut says.

As the German-American research team led by Rauhut has been able to show, the new specimen represents a young megalosaur. The genus name Sciurumimus means “squirrel-like“ and refers to the animal’s bushy tail, while the species designation albersdoerferi honors the private collector who made the fossil available for scientific study. “When the skeleton was irradiated with UV light, we were able to discern fragments of the skin and the plumage as fluorescent spots and filaments,” says co-author Dr. Helmut Tischlinger.

Cute little dino kids
The juvenile Sciurumimus tells us even more. For instance, as in the case of other dinosaurs, its eyes were proportionately much larger than those of adult animals. In other words, young dinosaurs conformed to the “babyface” model. Secondly, it has long been suspected that not just the form of a dinosaur’s face, but also its whole mode of life, was subject to change during lifetime. “And indeed, this individual has a very different set of teeth from those found in adult megalosaurs,” says Rauhut. “That enables us to conclude that their diets also changed as they got older.”

The young Sciurumimus, with its slender, pointed teeth probably preyed on insects and small animals. Fully grown megalosaurs, on the other hand, often exceeded 6 m in length and may have weighed more than a ton, and could give other large dinosaurs a good run for their money. That may also be true of the new species. “We know that dinosaurs were able to grow at terrific rates; diminutive hatchlings could reach adult lengths of several meters,” Rauhut points out. “And even if they might have looked fluffy, they were certainly among the top predators in the food chain.”

Oliver W. M. Rauhut, Christian Foth, Helmut Tischlinger, and Mark A. Norell. 2012. Exceptionally preserved juvenile megalosauroid theropod dinosaur with filamentous integument from the Late Jurassic of Germany PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.1203238109

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

3. Field Notes From Tobago

Little Tobago Island is located off the northeast coast of Tobago, it is about 97 hectares, and contains seasonal and littoral forests. Birds of Paradise were once introduced here, they have now been extirpated and are replaced by feral domestic chickens. We made a day visit to the island on June 29 and observed some of the herpetofauna. The most obvious species is Ameiva atrigularis, these lizards are relatively tame, sit quietly on a trail and they will approach you, and some specimens are quite large. There is relatively little beach habitat on the island, but there is a small stretch of sandy beach next to the jetty where Cnemidophorus lemniscatus is present. Gonatodes ocellatus can be seen sitting on tree trunks in the shade. Iguanas are also present, and usually a fleeting glimpse is all you see.  We failed to find Bachia heteropa and Hemidactylus palaichthus species previously reported by Dinsmore (1970) and Murphy (1997).
Ameiva atrigularis foraging on Little Toabo
Cnemidophorus lemniscatus on Little Tobago
As for the snakes, we found only Mastigodryas dunni, a species also present on Tobago. Other snakes reported from the island are: Atractus trilineatus and  Leptophis coeruleodorsus.
Mastigodryas dunni from Little Tobago
Frogs are problematic on Little Tobago. Mannophryne olmonae and Leptodactylus fuscus have both been reported from the island by Murphy (1997) but we have been unable to confirm their presence. Freshwater is in short supply, streams are few and intermittent.  

Surprisingly absent from the island are: marine toads and any member of the genus Anolis.

Climate Change & Leatherbacks

For eastern Pacific populations of leatherback turtles, the 21st century could be the last. New research suggests that climate change could exacerbate existing threats and nearly wipe out the population. Deaths of turtle eggs and hatchlings in nests buried at hotter, drier beaches are the leading projected cause of the potential climate-related decline, according to a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change by a research team from Drexel University, Princeton University, other institutions and government agencies.

Leatherbacks, the largest sea turtle species, are among the most critically endangered due to a combination of historical and ongoing threats including egg poaching at nesting beaches and juvenile and adult turtles being caught in fishing operations. The new research on climate dynamics suggests that climate change could impede this population’s ability to recover. If actual climate patterns follow projections in the study, the eastern Pacific population of leatherback turtles will decline by 75 percent by the year 2100.

“We used three models of this leatherback population to construct a climate-forced population dynamics model. Two parts were based on the population’s observed sensitivity to the nesting beach climate and one part was based on its sensitivity to the ocean climate,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Vincent Saba, a research fishery biologist with the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service Northeast Fisheries Science Center, visiting research collaborator at Princeton University, and a Drexel University alumnus.

Leatherback turtle births naturally ebb and flow from year to year in response to climate variations, with more hatchlings, and rare pulses of male hatchlings, entering the eastern Pacific Ocean in cooler, rainier years. Female turtles are more likely to return to nesting beaches in Costa Rica to lay eggs in years when they have more jellyfish to eat, and jellyfish in the eastern Pacific are likely more abundant during cooler seasons. Turtle eggs and hatchlings are also more likely to survive in these cooler, rainier seasons associated with the La Niña climate phase, as this research team recently reported in the journal PLoS ONE. In addition, temperature inside the nest affects turtles’ sex ratio, with most male hatchlings emerging during cooler, rainier seasons to join the predominantly-female turtle population.

The researchers applied Saba’s combined model of these population dynamics to seven climate model projections assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The climate model projections were chosen based on their ability to model El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) patterns on the temperature and precipitation in the region of Costa Rica where this team has conducted long-term leatherback studies.

The resulting projections indicate that warmer, drier years will become increasingly frequent in Central America throughout this century. High egg and hatchling mortality associated with warmer, drier beach conditions was the most significant cause of the projected climate-related population decline: This nesting population of leatherbacks could decline by 7 percent per decade, or 75 percent overall by the year 2100.

The population is already critically low.

“In 1990, there were 1,500 turtles nesting on the Playa Grande beach,” said Dr. James Spotila, the Betz Chair Professor of Environmental Science in the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel. “Now, there are 30 to 40 nesting females per season.”

Spotila, a co-author of the study, has been studying leatherback turtles at Playa Grande in Costa Rica, the largest leatherback nesting beach in the eastern Pacific, with colleagues and Drexel students, for 22 years.

Poaching of turtle eggs was a major cause of the initial decline, and was once such a widespread problem that virtually no turtle hatchlings would survive at Playa Grande. Spotila and colleagues worked with the local authorities in Costa Rica to protect the leatherbacks’ nesting beaches so that turtle nests can hatch in safety. Bycatch of juvenile and adult turtles in fishing operations in the eastern Pacific remains a threat.

For the population to recover successfully, Spotila said, “the challenge is to produce as many good hatchlings as possible. That requires us to be hands-on and manipulate the beach to make sure that happens.”

Spotila’s research team is already investigating methods such as watering and shading turtle nests that could mitigate the impact of hot, dry beach conditions on hatching success.

Vincent S. Saba, Charles A. Stock, James R. Spotila, Frank V. Paladino & Pilar Santidrián Tomillo. 2012. Projected response of an endangered marine turtle population to climate change. Nature Climate Change doi:10.1038/nclimate1582.