Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A new systematic arrangement for skinks

One-quarter of all lizards are skinks, and they have been traditionally placed in the single family  Scincidae. 1,579 species of skinks are known and they compose the largest group of saurians.  Other large lizard families, such as Gekkonidae and Iguanidae have been partitioned into multiple families , based mainly on evidence from molecular phylogenies. Subfamilies and informal suprageneric groups have been used for skinks, defined by morphological traits and supported increasingly by molecular phylogenies.

In a new paper S. Blair Hedges morphological diagnoses all nine families of skinks (Scincomorpha).

Recently, a seven-family classification for skinks was proposed to replace that largely informal classification, create more manageable taxa, and facilitate systematic research on skinks.

Representatives of 125 (84%) of the 154 genera of skinks are available in the public sequence databases and have been placed in molecular phylogenies that support the recognition of these families. However, two other molecular clades with species that have long been considered distinctive morphologically belong to two new families described in this paper:  Ristellidae and Ateuchosauridae.

The Ateuchosauridae is a family of lygosomoid skink possessing diagnostic characters: Meckel's groove not recorded; parietals small or absent and nuchals absent ; the outer preanal scales overlap the inner preanals; scales on digits in two rows; the iris is nearly as dark as the pupil. Also, the frontoparietals are paired; the frontal is long and constricted, longer than frontoparietals plus interparietal; and the prefrontals are small and separated. Ateuchosauridae is distributed in Japan (Ryukyu Archipelago), southeastern China, and northeastern Vietnam.The family includes the Chinese forest skin shown below.

The Ristellidae contains the genus Lankascincus  (10 sp.) and Ristella Gray (4 sp.). This is a family of lygosomoid skink with: more than 11 premaxillary teeth; Meckel's groove is completely obliterated (closed) by the overlapping and fusion of dentary; parietals meet behind interparietal; parietal bordered along its posterior edge by two or more temporals; nuchals usually absent (undifferentiated); outer preanal scales overlap inner preanals; scales on dorsal surface of fourth toe mostly in a single row; iris variable. Ristellidae is distributed in southern India and Sri Lanka.  The family includes the genus Lankascincus shown below.

The family Acontidae  holds 26 species of African and Madagascar skinks. Including the Acontia sp. shown below.

The family Egerniidae holds 58 species in nine genera including the Tribolonotus shown below. The family occurs in Australia and Australasia

The family Eugongylidae  holds 418 species in 37 genera. including the Lampropholis guichenoti shown below. The family occurs in Australia and Australasia

The family Lygosomidae 52 species including the Mochlus guineensis  shown below, the family is Asian

The family Mabuyidae has 190 species and is Neotropical in distribution. Copeoglossum aurea shown blow is a member of this family.

The family Sphenomorphidae has 546 species and has an Asian and Australian distribution. It includes the Sphenomorphus sabanus from Borneo below.

The family Scincidae contains 273 species that are distributed from Africa and Asia to the Western Hemisphere and includes Plestiodon fasciatus shown below.

Hedges SB 2014. The high-level classification of skinks (Reptilia, Squamata, Scincomorpha). Zootaxa 3765:317-338.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The amphibians and reptiles of Mindo, an Ecuadorian cloud forest ecosystem

If you have not yet found the Tropical Herping web site, I would encourage you to visit it. Alejandro Arteaga and colleagues have done an outstanding job building this elegant and information filled website. What follows is a short article from the site and some  photography. 

By Alejandro Arteaga, Lucas Bustamante and Juan Guayasamin

After four years of extensive fieldwork, the research team at Tropical Herping unveiled the richest community of amphibians and reptiles in any cloud forest locality above 1000 m. The team found an array of 101 species, and the results were published in the book The Amphibians and Reptiles of Mindo. But more than just the numbers, it is the value of the species what matters. The array includes some of the rarest and most bizarre amphibians and reptiles on earth, along with many that cannot be found outside Ecuador, and many others that are on the brink of extinction.

In the study area, Mindo, there are 10 species of glassfrogs. One of these is new to science and was not included in the book. This makes Mindo the best place in the world to see these marvelous creatures, which are famous for their partial or total ventral transparency. As it turns out, a visitor may spot five species in just one cloud forest stream.

There are five species of vipers and one is probably new. Among the included species, the Osborne's Lancehead (Bothrops osbornei) and the Spotted Lancehead (Bothrops punctatus) are believed to be Ecuador's rarest species of vipers and also the most venomous. The Ecuadorian Toadhead (Bothrocophias campbelli) is also extremely difficult to spot, but if you are planning to encounter one, Mindo is the place to go.
The Osborne's Lancehead (Bothrops osbornei) is one of the
 rarest and most enigmatic vipers in the world. Less than 20 
individuals have been seen throughout the course of history.
 © 2014 Tropical Herping
One single feature sets the Pinocchio Rainfrog (Pristimantis
appendiculatus) apart from the other nearly 530 species of
amphibians in Ecuador.It has an exaggeratedly elongated
 fleshy tubercle at the tip of its snout. © 2014 Tropical Herping.
With 27 species of rainfrogs, Mindo is the single most species rich locality in the world when it comes to this notoriously varied group of frogs. Not only is the variety of rainfrogs impressive, but also how little is known about them. In fact, one species, the Mindo Rainfrog (Pristimantis mindo), is described in the book as a species new to science. Besides their enigmatic variety, another amazing feature of rainfrogs is their lack of a tadpole stage. Instead, the adults lay terrestrial eggs that later hatch into miniature versions of the adults. Mindo is home to seven species of arboreal lizards, the anoles. One of these, the famous Pinocchio Anole (Anolis proboscis), was thought to be extinct for nearly fifty years. Now that is has been rediscovered, researchers and tourists around the world are visiting the valley of Mindo to study and admire the lizard.

Finally, from the 101 Mindoan amphibians and reptiles, 31 occur only in Ecuador, 72 are threatened with extinction, and two of them are already extinct. 

Ecuador's most wanted: the Pinocchio Anole (Anolis proboscis). 
This lizards was thought to be extinct for nearly fifty years, 
and still after its rediscovery in 2005, it remains hard to locate.
The concentration of endangered species is one of the highest in the continent. What is at stake is one of the most fragile, rare and fascinating communities of amphibians and reptiles in the world. However, there is still a lot you can do to help conserve this natural heritage, from supporting local lodges, reserves and research institutions to spreading the word about the marvelous amphibians and reptiles of the cloud forest.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Tree climbing crocs

An American alligator perches in a 
tree  in the Pearl River Delta, Mississippi. 
Photo credit: Kristine Gingras, courtesy 
of  University of Tennessee
Two species of paleo crocodilians (Mekosuchus inexpectatus  and Trilophosuchus rackhami) have been hypothesized to have been arboreal, they share a  small body size and have a lighter build than most other crocs and have been commonly referred to as "drop crocs."

Now, Vladimir Dinets and colleagues (2014) review the evidence that living species of crocodilians can and do climb into trees, a behavior overlooked by science until now.

People around the world have observed and photographed the arboreal abilities of many crocodilian species, but herpetologists hadn’t studied the behavior. Now, research documented tree-climbing Australian freshwater crocodiles, American crocodiles, Central African slender-snouted crocodiles and Nile crocodiles. The paper also presented anecdotal reports of many other croc species taking to the trees.

The crocs weren’t just clambering onto easily reached low branches. The animals could climb vertical trunks. Sometimes climbing all the way to the trees’ crown.

Most of the tree-climbers  were young and still relatively small, two meters (6.5 feet) or less in length. The animals may have been climbing the trees to bask in the sun, since the areas where the animals were observed in trees often lacked other suitable sun bathing locations, noted the study’s authors.

The slender-snouted crocodile of central Africa is quite adept at arboreal behavior. They  roosted on branches both night and day. One specimen climbed though a tangle of branches to rest on a branch five meters from the river bank and four meters above the water.

With some of the species examined the ability to climb decreases with increasing size and mass. Hatchlings are lightweight and can even climb vertical brickwork . In the  wild, Australian freshwater crocodiles frequently climb into low branches above the water, either by climbing directly onto the tree close to the water, or by climbing onto the tree from the bank and then along a branch.

The authors note that the ability to climb vertically reflects crocodilians’  spectacular agility on land and their ability to pull the body along an angled surface. And, that the degree of arboreality of extinct crocodilians and many other Archosaurian taxa cannot always be ascertained from fossil material. Any small, highly terrestrial crocodilian, such as the recently extinct Trilophosuchus rackhami could have been be arboreal to some extent.

Dinets V, Britton A, Shirley M. 2014. Climbing behaviour in extant crocodiles. Herpetological Notes 7:3-7.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Global sea turtle harvest exceeds 42,000 per year

A new study has found that 42 countries or territories around the world permit the harvest of marine turtles -- and estimates that more than 42,000 turtles are caught each year by these fisheries.  The research, carried out by Blue Ventures Conservation and staff at the University of Exeter's Centre for Ecology and Conservation, is the first to comprehensively review the number of turtles currently taken within the law and assess how this compares to other global threats to the creatures.

All seven marine turtle species are currently listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Frances Humber of Blue Ventures and a PhD student at the University of Exeter, who led the research, said: "This is the first study to comprehensively review the legal take of turtles in recent years, and allows us to assess the relative fisheries threats to this group of species. Despite increased national and international protection of marine turtles, direct legal take remains a major source of mortality. However, it is likely that a fraction of current marine turtle mortality take is legal, with greater threats from illegal fisheries and bycatch."

The first marine turtle harvest legislation was instigated in Bermuda in 1620 to protect "so excellent a fishe" and prohibited taking any turtle "under eighteen inches in the breadth or diameter."

But large scale commercial taking of turtles continued all over the world for centuries, with global capture peaking at over 17,000 tonnes in the late 1960s. For example, during the peak of Mexico's sea turtle exploitation in 1968 it is estimated that the national take was over 380,000 turtles.

Increased conservation awareness at an international scale has led to greater protection of marine turtles, with 178 countries now signed up to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) restricting the international trade of turtle products.

The direct take of turtles has continued legally in many regions and countries, often for traditional coastal communities to support themselves or small-scale fisheries supplying local markets with meat, and sometimes shell. The fisheries are an important source of finance, protein and cultural identity, but information can be scarce on their status -- despite often being listed as one of the major threats to turtle populations.

The researchers collated data for all seven species of marine turtles from over 500 publications and 150 in-country experts.

They estimate that currently more than 42,000 marine turtles are caught each year legally, of which over 80% are green turtles. Legal fisheries are concentrated in the wider Caribbean region, including several of the UKs Overseas Territories, and the Indo-Pacific region, with Papua New Guinea, Nicaragua and Australia together accounting for almost three quarters of the total.

The data indicates that since the 1980s more than 2 million turtles have been caught, although current levels are less than 60% of those in the 1980s.

Bycatch -- the unwanted fish and other marine creatures trapped by commercial fishing nets during fishing for a different species -- is thought to be a far higher cause of death for marine turtles, likely running into hundreds of thousands each year.

Illegal fishing also continues to be a major cause of mortality, with the researchers estimating a minimum of 65,000 turtles taken from Mexico alone since the year 2000. The scale of global illegal capture is likely to be severely under reported due to the difficulties collecting information on such an activity.

Dr Annette Broderick, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter's Penryn Campus in Cornwall, added: "We were surprised to find that there are 42 countries with no legislation in place that prohibits the harvest of marine turtles, although for many of these countries these harvests provide important sources of protein or income. It is however important to ensure that these fisheries are operating at a sustainable level."

Humber, F., Godley, B. J., Broderick, A. C. (2014), So excellent a fishe: a global overview of legal marine turtle fisheries. Diversity and Distributions. doi: 10.1111/ddi.12183

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Dusky sea snake (Aipysurus fuscus) may disappear into a hybridization swarm

A University of Adelaide-led project has found that the endangered dusky sea snake (Aipysurus fuscus) is even more at risk of extinction than thought because of surprising cross-species hybridization.

This follows a pattern of unexplained drastically declining populations of sea snakes in the reefs of the Timor Sea in north-west Australia over the past 15 years.

Published in the journal Biological Conservation, the study found that at one of only two remaining coral reefs where they are still found, dusky sea snakes had hybridised almost completely with the closely related olive sea snake.

"Genetically-pure duskies might now only be found at one remaining reef ̶ the isolated Scott Reef, an area of about 160 square kilometres in the Timor Sea, about 300km north of the Kimberley coast," says project leader and lead author Dr Kate Sanders. "Such loss of biodiversity because of hybridisation is an important conservation problem and there are dire implications for the conservation status of the dusky sea snake."
Referred to as the "miners' canary" of coral reef health, sea snakes bear live young rather than eggs and are the only fully aquatic reptile.

The sea snakes are Australian native animals. They evolved in Australia from a land snake ancestor and have been highly successful in adapting to a marine environment. There are 62 species, found mostly in Australia and South-East Asia with the greatest diversity previously on the isolated reefs of the Timor Sea.
"Five Timor Sea reefs previously supported the highest diversity and abundance of sea snakes in the world, but the largest reef, Ashmore, has lost all of its nine resident species over the past 15 years," says Dr Sanders.

In this study the researchers collected and released sea snakes on the remaining four reefs by snorkeling with nets. They used DNA fingerprinting to show that endangered dusky sea snakes frequently interbreed with closely related olive sea snakes which are much more locally abundant and wide ranging.

"These reefs are largely undisturbed by fishing and habitats have remained intact so we had assumed the populations would have been stable," Dr Sanders says. "But when we surveyed at Hibernia Reef, we were very surprised to find interbreeding at that level, with the two species almost completely hybridised to produce a so-called 'hybrid swarm'.

"Hibernia is one of only two reefs that have supported dusky sea snakes following their extinction at Ashmore Reef. Now it seems that they are on the path of genetic extinction at Hibernia too. Olive and dusky sea snakes diverged about 500,000 years ago. The loss of biodiversity through this 'reverse speciation' is of particular concern because we don't know what has driven this change on our reefs. It certainly requires close monitoring and further investigation."

Kate L. Sanders, Arne R. Rasmussen, Michael L. Guinea, 2004. High rates of hybridisation reveal fragile reproductive barriers between endangered Australian sea snakes, Biological Conservation, 171, March 2014, Pages 200-208, ISSN 0006-3207, dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2014.01.013.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Suizo Report--CM12 "Jerry" and CM17

02/17/13  Howdy Suizo List,

It has been so long since I've done a Suizo Report that I've forgotten how it's done. But we'll give it our best shot.

Probably less than half of this list will ever remember the days before digital photography. And if you DO remember, when was the last time you had your 35mm slides on a light table?

With me, it was two weeks ago. I was looking for a few images to scan for an upcoming presentation. What I was after were a few images of Gila Monsters and Tortoises from the Suizos. It so happens that with my 35mm slides for the Suizos, I also have Black-tailed Rattlesnakes, Lyresnakes, and people in that particular binder. Everything image in this binder is carefully labeled, and set up in such fashion that all the animals are grouped according to species, in chronological order.

On the first page of this binder, I about fell out of my chair when I looked at the third black-tailed rattlesnake we ever found on Iron Mine Hill. By golly, it was Jerry, AKA "CM12."  We  could make a long story out of  seeing  Jerry 12 years after  putting a transmitter  in him, but none of us has the kind of time that takes. We'll let the images do the talking for a minute:

Image 1, CM12, image taken 9 April 2000. Note the fact that he is an adult snake in this image. It is a shame his rattles are broken. But we can see that the first few segments are wide and straight. This is usually an indication of an older adult snake, but again, the broken string does not allow for that. My notes are pretty brief, they only indicate that a 36 inch long adult blacktail was found on NW Iron Mine Hill on this evening. (We did not process snakes back then).

Image 2, CM12, image taken 26 March 2012. This was the day after he was captured for a transmitter. This is very close to 12 years after the first encounter. Note how every pattern on the head is exactly identical 12 years later, not to mention the body pattern. I know that Jeff and Melissa will be on these first two images like scum on a pond--same snake, eh youse two? 8-)

Image 3, CM12, image taken by Marty Feldner, 15 February 2014. He's still going strong, nearly 14 years later.

So, how old is Jerry? 20 years? Sure--he could easily be 20. And he could be older than that. I'm always interested in hearing about how long snakes, as well as herps in general, can last in the wild. Feel free to lay any similar incidences on me.

The fourth image is of our female CM17, "Ms. Gus." Much to our dismay, her transmitter stopped working in early January. (Three months early). There is NOTHING more frustrating than a dead signal when you can actually see the animal--but can't get to it. She was wedged deep in a crevice at the time, crowbars and dynamite MAY have gotten her out--but not alive. All we could do is watch and wait, and hope we could find her out basking before egress sent her down the path of being lost forever. On the morning of 15 February, I noted that her rear flank was about 25mm deep in her crevice. She was close enough to possibly grab, but I decided to wait, and drag Marty back with me in the afternoon. This with the hope that the warm weather would cause her to come out further.

At 1600, Marty and I stood before her crevice again. While she did move out any further, neither did she back in. She was exactly as viewed earlier that morning.

There was a somewhat tense discussion that followed, the gist of which was if we tried to grab her and blew it, she would be long gone. If we made the grab, there was no turning back. If we had to break her in half getting her out with lawn-mower starting-like yanks--that is what we would do. Marty eased the situation be moving a small boulder that was blocking the forced egress that was intended. I hooked the tail out, Marty got the rear with tongs, and she just came right on out!

My last Suizo Report, ancient history ago, dealt with Gus and Ms. Gus. Having lost Gus to a predation event was bad enough. To lose Ms. Gus on account of a failed transmitter was almost a death knell to the study. We saw the pair mating, and we saw Ms. Gus have the kids. This is the year when we track Ms. Gus AFTER parturition. Will she drop kids again this year? Up until two days ago, we were not sure we would know that. And while anything can still happen between now and August, we at least can proceed with confidence that we have a fighting chance of finding out.

As the image shows, she has recovered nicely from her ordeal of last August.

Holohil still make the best transmitters out there. And they are very nice people to do business with. But there is no way they can ever feel our angst when the batteries die prematurely in their units. A new transmitter can never replace a lost child!

This here is Roger Repp, signing off from Southern Arizona, where the turtles are strong, the snakes are handsome, and the lizards are all above average.
Best to all, roger

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Odontobatrachidae, a new family of West African Frogs

Berlin scientists discover new frog family in West Africa
Dr. Gesine Steiner Pressestelle, Museum für Naturkunde - Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions- und Biodiversitätsforschung

To the left. Top. Odontobatrachus natator: one 
species of the new frog family. Photo: Mark-Oliver 
Rödel. Bottom. Scan of the skull: the unusual 
teeth are one unique anatomic character of the
 new frog family Scan: Michael F. Barej.

In Africa morphologically very similar frogs live along fast flowing rainforest rivers and at waterfalls, the Torrent Frogs. While studying the phylogeny of these frogs, scientists from the Berlin Natural History Museum and their colleagues from Switzerland came across a scientific sensation. The West African species apparently were not closer related to the other African species. In fact they represent a family already separated from other frog groups since the Cretaceous, the time when dinosaurs dominated life on Earth.

Many new frog species are still discovered and scientifically described each year, in particular from the tropics. Usually not much is known about the biology and phylogeny of these species. However, the distribution and relatedness of species may deliver important insights to scientist concerning the history of our planet, such as e.g. climate change and the evolution of particular ecosystems. Therefore scientists from the Berlin Museum of Natural History, with their colleagues from Switzerland, aimed at uncovering the phylogeny of African torrent frogs.

These morphologically very similar frogs are specialized on rapidly flowing rainforest streams and waterfalls in West, Central and East Africa. The researchers applied genetic and anatomic methods in their study and were thrilled when they discovered that the West African species apparently were not at all related to the species from the other areas. Whereas the discovery of new frog species is not unusual, even the identification of a new genus is already very rare. Thus Michael Barej, the first author of the study, stated, that to him it was like “hitting the jackpot. I needed to cool down when we discovered that we might have discovered a new frog family. It felt simply too unreal.”

However, the scientists could indeed show that the West African torrent frogs split from other frogs already in the Cretaceous, the time of dinosaurs. Apart from genetic differences and with the aid of computer tomography Michael Barej and his colleagues also discovered various unique anatomic characters.

Consequently they erected a new frog family, the Odontobatrachidae, for these West African frogs, just published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Zoology. The scientific name of the new family stems from the Greek words for tooth and frog, and is based on an anatomic uniqueness. The frogs of the new family are characterized by long and bent teeth in the upper jaw and massive fangs in the lower jaw, a very unusual setting for frogs. It is not yet clear what these teeth are used for. Maybe the frogs feed on other frogs, as it might be indicated by the discovery of a small frog skeleton in the stomach of one of the larger individuals.
The discovery of this new frog family is also of importance to the conservation of tropical biodiversity. The “tooth frogs” only occur in small forest remnants in the West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast. Mark-Oliver Rödel from the Berlin Museum of Natural History emphasizes that this discovery further underlines the uniqueness of the West African biodiversity hotspot and he hopes that the new family may be helpful in future efforts to protect these forests, not only for frogs.

Barej, M.F., A. Schmitz, R. Günther, S.P. Loader, K. Mahlow & M.-O. Rödel (2014): The first endemic West African vertebrate family – a new anuran family highlighting the uniqueness of the Upper Guinean biodiversity hotspot. – Frontiers in Zoology 11:8 doi:10.1186/1742-9994-11-8.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Two fossorial snakes and the prairie chicken vs developers in Kansas

Snakes and prairie chickens pit development against species preservation in Kansas
February 9
The Kansas City Star
The red-bellied snake, Storeria occipitomaculata

TOPEKA — Barely a half-foot long without a drop of venom, the redbelly snake hardly seems  a threat. Unless you’re a developer or public official in Johnson County.

Listed by Kansas as a threatened species, the reddish brown reptile with the orange belly is complicating growth in Johnson County.

County leaders are reluctant to dip into taxpayers’ wallets to preserve a snake habitat disrupted by new development. So they are waging a battle with the seldom-seen snake that’s not much longer than a typical worm.

They’re asking the Kansas Legislature to remove the redbelly and the comparable smooth earth snake from the state’s threatened species list.

That sets up a familiar debate pitting the cost-saving demands of development against species preservation that some see as environmental overreach.

“You’ve got an economy that’s struggling to recover, and this adds costs to every development and every business that wants to build,” said Doug Mays, a lobbyist for the city of Olathe. “That’s a problem.”

The debate over species protection grows more pronounced in the Kansas Legislature as powerful utility and agricultural interests press lawmakers to relieve the financial burden of complying with more regulations.

There have been fights to limit the state’s endangered species law by critics who say it protects animals that may be rare in Kansas but remain abundant elsewhere.

Lawmakers are also considering a measure to block the federal government from protecting the lesser prairie chicken in Kansas.

“There appears to be a major movement afoot to try and undermine all the protections available to threatened and endangered species,” said Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas.

He called it a “war on wildlife.”

Businesses say they want the state to enforce the endangered species law in a way that  allows a different balance between conservation and economics.

“We want to be good stewards,” said Aaron Popelka, lobbyist for the Kansas Livestock Association. “The accusation that we’re trying to undermine species conservation is completely off base.”

Some lawmakers say the issue leaves them torn because it pits the economy against the environment.

“That’s a hard one,” said Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Winfield Democrat who sits on the House Natural Resources Committee.

“What we really have to be concerned about is if it is a linchpin species, if it’s one that’s really going to disturb the balance of the ecosystem.”

The fight over species started this year when Secretary of State Kris Kobach urged lawmakers to pass a bill barring the federal government from protecting the lesser prairie chicken in Kansas.

Kobach wants Kansas to assert sovereignty rights challenging what rules the federal government can impose on the state.

Federal wildlife officials say there has never been a case where a state nullified enforcement of the federal Endangered Species Act. Montana tried to nullify the federal species protection law in 2011, but the bill died after critics said it would cost the state roughly $1 billion in federal funds.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is deciding whether to place the bird on the federal endangered species list because development and farmland are consuming its habitat.

The bird’s geographical territory, including southwest Kansas and parts of Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma and New Mexico, has been reduced by 86 percent since the mid-1800s.

Threats to the bird include wind farms, oil and gas production, herbicides, drought and livestock grazing.

Kansas Electric Cooperatives and the Kansas Farm Bureau back the bill.

Designating the bird as endangered or threatened could stymie the state’s wind industry by limiting placement of wind turbines. It also could double the cost of building power transmission lines.

Gov. Sam Brownback recently sent a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service asking that the bird not be listed as endangered. Such a designation would hurt the state’s agriculture and energy sectors, he said, and the state is ready to challenge the federal agency in court.

Last year, utility and agriculture interests backed a Kansas bill limiting the species placed on the state endangered list.

That bill stemmed from construction of a feedlot in southwest Kansas that would have encroached on the longnose snake, which was on the state’s endangered list.

Ultimately the feedlot came up with an alternative plan and avoided paying as much as $50,000 for preserving the snake’s habitat.

As with the case of the snakes in Johnson County, the longnose snake is rare in Kansas because the state is on the outer edge of its geographical home. The longnose snake is not threatened nationally.

The Kansas Livestock Association pushed the bill, claiming Kansas regulated the environment more stringently than the federal government.

The bill’s critics argued that it would eviscerate the state’s endangered species law.

Kansas Wildlife and Parks Secretary Robin Jennison said the bill would have slashed the state’s endangered list of 60 animals by nearly half.

He also pushed back against charges the state leaned in favor of environmental interests.

From 2008 to 2012, the agency reviewed 9,127 projects. Just 50 of them led to environmental restoration.

The department’s enforcement of endangered species rules, he told lawmakers, is “hardly heavy-handed.”

In Johnson County, officials blame the redbelly snake and the smooth earth snake for driving up the cost of water and sewer lines.

Olathe spent $50,000 to preserve habitat for the snakes when it expanded its Cedar Creek sewer plant for $46 million.

Johnson County spent $95,000 mitigating for the snakes on two sewer projects totaling $30 million.

Johnson County WaterOne is spending $130,000 in habitat preservation for a $67 million water line project serving the southeastern part of the county.

“Granted, it sounds like it’s not much, but it’s still unjustified dollars,” WaterOne lobbyist Darci Meese told lawmakers. “It would be difficult for the public to understand in most cases why we’re trying to create a habitat for a snake no one can seem to find.”

The redbelly and smooth earth snakes live largely unseen in wooded areas under rocks, leaves and logs.

From 2009 through 2013, the Kansas Biological Survey recorded reports of two smooth earth snakes in Johnson County and five others in Wyandotte and Leavenworth counties. One redbelly snake was reported in Leavenworth.

A redbelly snake has never been reported in Wyandotte or Johnson counties, although a suitable habitat exists there, said Bill Busby, associate scientist for the biological survey.

The Brownback administration opposes using legislation to take the snakes off the list. Jennison said there is protocol for scientifically evaluating whether animals should be on the list.

The state has received petitions seeking to remove nine species, including requests from Olathe, WaterOne and Johnson County to remove the snakes.

Biologists will study the petitions and make a recommendation to the parks and wildlife secretary.

Jennison urged legislators not to micromanage the endangered species list.

“We have thrown science out the window,” he said, “if we make the act of listing our species a political decision.”

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A new record size for south Florida Pythons

News outlets are reporting a large  Burmese python discovered in the Florida Everglades is the largest found to date in southern Florida. The past record, for the longest python found in the area 17 ft, 7 inches. It was found in May 2012 and was a gravid female containing 87 eggs, and weighed about 164 lbs. The female snake discovered yesterday (02/04/2014) was found by Bobby Hill, the python control officer for the South Florida Water Management District on Tuesday. The Florida Fish and Wild Conservation Commission reported that today's snake measured 18 ft 8 ins and weighed 128 lbs.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Skink and the Crab - life in a Western Australian Salt Marsh

Photo credit R. Lloyd.
The striped slinks of the genus Ctenotus are the most diverse lizard clade of Australia with more than 100 known species. The Airlie Island Ctenotus is a dark olive-grey to light brown skink with a 64–69 mm body. Until recently it was known from the island and two mainland location.

The skink is threatened by buffel grass, an invasive plant that results in the loss of skink habitat. The weed has been successfully controlled on Airlie Island however, it is unknown whether it has been eradicated and if there is a future risk of habitat loss is on the mainland.

Human disturbance is also a threat to the skink with 3 ha or about 12% of the skink's range cleared of vegetation on Airlie Island  for the development of oil and gas processing facilities.

Many of the mainland skink populations are located close to the shoreline, and it is likely that rising sea levels and floods associated with climate change could impact the species.

Somaweera and Lloyd. (2014) conducted surveys for the skink and found populations along the northwestern coast, which appear to be highly restricted to specific habitats, primarily salt marsh communities adjacent to mangroves where lizards use crab holes for refugia. Genetic analysis of mitochondrial DNA showed very little variation between populations, suggesting a single widespread population or recent radiation.

Ctenotus angusticeps was previously recorded in most habitat types on Airlie Island, such as tussock grasslands and Acacia coriacea shrubland with coastal Spinifex  however then authors focused their survey efforts in salt marsh communities because of observations previously reported in the literature.  The landward fringe of mangroves are numerous and patchy along the northwestern coast. These are quite different from the habitats on Airlie Island and suggest the salt marsh communities are the ancestral habitat for this species, with the island population secondarily adapting to the habitat now present on the island. The authors observations confirm the Airlie Island striped skink is very habitat specific and they report it to be highly dependent on crab holes.

Wherever  the skink was found, crab holes of varying sizes were present and these were used by skinks to evading  attempts at capture. Initially, when adult lizards were observed they hid at the base of low vegetation, followed by retreating down a hidden hole among the samphire and marine couch grass. Juvenile
lizards usually relied on the protective cover of the vegetation to avoid capture, often taking refuge in the dense tussocks of marine couch grass. Both adults and juveniles were sometimes observed to retreat into samphire vegetation, sometimes up to 30 cm above the ground.

This species seems to be opportunistic in selecting retreat sites upon pursuit. To test whether lizards would use crab holes even in the absence of perceived threat the authors used a non-toxic fluorescent powder to track their movements. Two adult C. angusticeps caught early in the day were dipped in the ‘powder’ and
released. The next morning they tracked their movements from the previous day to separate crab holes where the lizards spent the night demonstrating the lizards use crab holes by choice.

The authors also report seeing lizards enter crab holes during rising tides and apparently remained in the burrows until the tide had receded - presumably surviving in air pockets in the burrows. The author's suggest this needs further investigation.

The  high frequency of crab hole usage by lizards in the salt marsh communities leads the authors to suggest crabs holes are an essential requirement for this species. Mangrove crabs could be considered  ecosystem engineers, a group of animals that physically create, maintain and modify their environment. Hence the spatial distribution and abundance of species that use these holes could vary with the distribution of the particular species of crabs.

Citation (on-line, no publisher given)
Somaweera MBR. R. Lloyd R. 2014. Status of the Airlie Island Ctenotus, Ctenotus angusticeps (Lacertilia: Scincidae), with notes on distribution, habitat and genetic variation.