My new book!
Frogs: Inside Their Remarkable World
by Ellin Beltz

2006 HerPET-POURRI Columns by Ellin Beltz

My 20th year writing for the Chicago Herpetological Society.

1987 . 1988 . 1989 . 1990 . 1991 . 1992 . 1993 . 1994 . 1995 . 1996 .
1997 . 1998 . 1999 . 2000 . 2001 . 2002 . 2003 . 2004 . 2005 . 2006 . 2007

January 2006

Kudos-saurus gabei - a new species of educator

For the third year in a row one hundred percent of Paul and Gabe Sereno's after school program "Project Exploration," have graduated from high school. In a nation where even high-performing California schools lose one third of their students before graduation, to attain this record in the Chicago Public School System is just about inconceivable. Especially to somebody like me who had trouble getting myself and my daughter through the system. What are the secrets to their success? I could tell you, having been privileged to participate in their program while we were still in Chicago; however, the joy of discovery belongs to us individually. So I'm not going to tell you more than that the kids involved and all their donors, friends and guests have a great time, get the inside scoop on cutting edge dinosaur projects and end up doing things they might never expect. Join the adventure. Sign onto their website "," or - better yet - kick down a donation to this most worthy of causes.

How we spent our winter vacation

Since Ferndale's electrical substation is at flood stage (+25 feet) whenever the water gets too close, the power goes off. Curiously, few down here have generators, and those who do have them use them to do real things like charge up the firetrucks and such. The Palace served NYE by lantern light; their old time mechanical cash register worked just fine. Everybody walked with flashlights and the Victorian Village was certainly very victorian (dark and spooky) for at least that one night. We were without power for almost 40 hours, no heat, but we could cook. And of course, gothy me, we had candles galore but had been told to prepare for 5 days of outage and so divided the total number by five and had only started burning our 2nd fifth when the lights came back on. Why the concern about five days? Since Fernbridge, as well as the Petrolia and Blue Slide roads were closed that warning was for five days completely cut off no resupply. Just like our stores won't get resupplied and we won't get newspapers from the outside world again until Confusion Hill gets opened up. Right now if we had a repeat, I think it would go harder on people because their supplies are depleted from the first one. It was a Happy Feast of Lights especially when the power came back on when we were too tired to do anything with it! [Eureka Reporter, December 28, 2005 to January 6, 2006]

Puzzle solved

Fossil snakes from the Miocene era have been found in New Zealand, solving the puzzle of "were they there and now they are gone," or "were they never there at all?" They were there. Python-like constrictor fossils dating to 15 to 20 million years ago were unearthed by workers for the Museum of New Zealand. Also found were tuatara-like and six-foot crocodile-like teeth and moa eggshell fragments. [MOKO, October 2005, newsletter of the New Zealand Herp Society]

"Four eyes" for real

  • A two-headed turtle hatched out in captivity in Wellington, South Africa. Their owner said, "Both heads feed... when it gets scared, however, the heads move in different directions as if confused." [The Week, October 28, 2005 from Alan Rigerman]
  • The World Aquarium of St. Louis bought a two-headed albino rat snake in 1999 for 15,000. Named "We," the female is for sale on EBay, with an asking bid of $150,000. A Harvard herpetologist speculated the animal could live 10 to fifteen years; at about five it's considered to be entering prime breeding years. [CNN, January 2, 2006 from Ray Novotny]

The Living Dead Zone

  • Turtles poisoned by an algae were hospitalized at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium unable to lift their heads, their "eyelids stitched shut to help eye lesions heal," according to the September 4, 2005 Orlando Sentinel. "Red Tide, [Karenia brevis is] a nasty but not uncommon offshore algae bloom that in humans irritates the throat and makes it hard to breathe, and leaves stinky dead fish littering the sand after every high tide... this year [it appeared] ... north of Clearwater to south of Sarasota... [it was] extra toxic and deadly... the worst in more than 30 years... Divers and fishermen have reported a 2,000 square-mile "dead zone" void of undersea life off Pinellas County, where the worst of the Red Tide is concentrated... it's not safe to dive in the Red Tide, and there are no fish to see... `This is like somebody dropping a bomb out here. It's like Hiroshima or something. There's nothing left alive,'" said one man with 40 years experience in and on the local waters. [from Bill Burnett]
  • It didn't stop in hurricane season either. The Miami Herald [October 16, 2006 from Alan Rigerman] reports: "The sea turtles now washing up on Florida's southwest shores are a sad reminder of the assault that has been going on for years against the Gulf of Mexico, courtesy of polluters and lax regulators in Tallahassee and Washington, DC." More than 70 dead turtles and 58 dead manatees are attributed to the growth of the "Dead Zone," a 2000-square-mile area of the Gulf of Mexico in which nothing grows anymore. This year's Dead Zone was described as the largest one ever which is what has been said about it every year since I started writing about it in 1988. []

Pond of the unliving dead

I so rarely get "new stories." But here's a great one. Police in Libertyville, Illinois no doubt had heard of a string of alligators captured throughout the midwest this year as thoughtless people continue to abandon unwanted pets or juveniles of this adaptive species continue to wander their way north as global warming raises ambient temperatures. Lest we forget, early visitors to St. Louis remarked on alligators sunning themselves in the Mississippi and promptly ate all they could shoot. I'm sure the local people had used them for omelets and baby gator roasts for centuries by not killing everything they saw, but that's another story, too. For now, let me tell you of what happened on late summer day in Libertyville, in a pond that hooks up to the Des Plaines River over a little dam. The pond is in a subdivision and a resident saw an alligator floating in the pond weeks while he was walking his dog one sunny afternoon. Huge panic. The police are called, can't find an "alligator expert" which is curious because I know at least two or three right there, including CHS's own gatorman Bob Bavirsha. Be that as it may. They then took matters into their own hands and shot the gator. Only then did they find out it was an inflatable plastic pool toy placed outside as a joke by some resident. The police chief said "I suppose it sounds kind of silly... [but] we did shoot it and hit it with one shot." One wonders, of course how "we" can use one bullet, but other than that, it's a great story and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. [Libertyville Review, September 1, 2005 from Ray Boldt] Other gators this year included one 3-footer caught in East Loon Lake in Antioch [Daily Herald, August 4, 2005 from Ray Boldt], and one 2.5-footer that was shot for "safety reasons" which had been swimming in the St. Joseph River near South Bend, Indiana. [South Bend Tribune, June 8, 2005 from Garrett Kazmierski]

Egg carton

  • "Inappropriate material" trucked in from near an interstate was used to build dunes apparently kept many turtles from nesting along a 3.7-mile dune project. Adult turtles took one sniff and turned back around, leaving nothing but a "false crawl" behind. [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, November 12, 2005 from Alan Rigerman]
  • An endangered Kemp's Ridley laid a nest of 49 eggs near Volusia, Florida too near the flood line, so volunteers moved them to a better location. Only three Kemp's nests have been laid on Volusia beaches since 1988 according to the county's environmental management department. [Orlando Sentinel June 11, 2005 from Bill Burnett]
  • The first provable green sea turtle nest in Virginia was found this year. The Orlando Sentinel reports "State and federal wildlife officials are agog by the discovery [of 124 eggs and well-defined crawl] along a stretch of beach lined by vacation cottages... a few females previously have laid eggs on beaches as far north as North Carolina's Outer Banks. [August 6, 2005 from Bill Burnett]

Ou`est le python?

Wrapped in giant constrictors, "snake men" on South Beach are freaking people out while harassing tourists for tips. One resident wrote, "These men should be prohibited from approaching anyone who is not wearing a sign that says `Where is the zoo?'" [Miami Herald, November 21, 2005 from Alan Rigerman]

A Tale of Two Agencies

  • "Massive development planned for a vast stretch of wetlands... on the Lake-Sumter county line could threaten a prime breeding ground for whooping cranes - one of the world's most endangered birds." At risk are 6,000 acres conveniently located near a new $18 million interchange on the Florida Turnpike. Developing the interchange was expected and planned to increase development in the area, an obvious instance of two agencies on two different pages. A crane expert with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said, "Sooner or later there is nowhere else [for wildlife to go], and we're almost at that point." The proposed development will provide homes for 17,000 humans, replacing the homes of a large percentage of the 500 known whooping cranes in the world. [Orlando Sentinel, December 10, 2005] Contributor Bill Burnett, wrote "Normally I would not send an article on birds. But it deals with all wildlife and the massive development occurring in Central Florida. Heck -- all of Florida! Each time I go to that state, it has changed. Something has been built, moved, or filled in. Big dump trucks moving and hauling dirt are everywhere. Whooping cranes? No, more like `Building Cranes!' It won't stop. It seems as if everything is finally to be bulldozed out of existence."
  • Meanwhile a 10,000-acre marsh in Lisbon, Florida is slowly but surely becoming restored. Beginning in 1989, the St. John's River Water Management District has bought out local farmers to reduce the arrival of agricultural nutrients into Lake Griffin and other waterways. The cost of the Esmeralda Marsh is around $22.5 million and climbing. [Leesburg, Florida Daily Commercial, December 7, 2005 from Bill Burnett] The article did not say if the Florida Department of Transportation is planning to put an interchange right on top of the marsh to promote more development, or not.

Iguana be a research subject

Iguanas wired to brain-wave recorders may provide Indiana State University researchers clues into the evolution of sleep. Daily resting has long been known to occur in humans and other vertebrates but recent research into sleep shows that fruit flies and many other invertebrates sleep too. [Honolulu Star-Bulletin, November 8, 2005 from Ms. G.E. Chow]

How the environment fared - 2005

  • Cactus moths once saved the Australian prickly pear cactus. With usual logic, it was introduced around the world where whatever it did to protect the prickly pears in Australia not only didn't happen but it turns out the caterpillars eat cactus, and more cactus. At risk is the southwestern U.S. and Mexico because the moths have crossed the straits and arrived in Florida. [Miami Herald, September 6, 2005 from Alan Rigerman]
  • "About 200 loggerhead turtle hatchling born on Hutchinson Island... were unable to crawl through large deposits of sea grass washed ashore by the storm... two dozen hatchlings were spit back - worn out - onto [a different beach] by the waves kicked up by Hurricane Katrina. Most were released later after recuperating, but 10 will be kept for a while until they're in better shape. [Miami Herald, August 29, 2005 from Alan Rigerman]
  • An illegal Solomon Islands prehensile-tailed skink lizard was captured by an Hawaiian family who spotted the beast sunning on their garden wall. No one claimed it, of course because loose non-native animals are illegal in Hawaii and even some - like this skink - are illegal even in captivity. Officials pointed out there is a non-native amnesty program where owners turn in animals "no questions asked" and remain immune to prosecution. [Honolulu Advertiser, July 6, 2005 from Ms. G.E. Chow]
  • "Coquis have croakhold on Big Isle, Maui... It's unlikely the Big Island and Maui will ever be completely free of the annoying chirps of coqui frogs... they're reviled in Hawai'i for their loud shrieking." [Honolulu Advertiser, from Ms. G.E. Chow]
  • More hurricanes and tropical storms were named in 2005 than ever before; finally "Zeta" sprung up and dusted the Azores before spinning out. Katrina and Wilma entered the U.S. hurricane vocabulary.
  • Snails grazing have been found to be the real cause of the sudden growth of mudflats in the southeastern U.S. Periwinkles graze out grasses by slicing them; a symbiotic fungi then turns the rest of the grass to slime which is eagerly consumed by the gastropod. [Science Magazine, December 10, 2005; Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 16, 2005]

Herp People in the News

  • Former CHS President and all-around herp man, Ron Humbert passed away. Turtles in Chicago lost a powerful spokesperson and the CHS lost one of its greatest supporters.
  • Contributor Ray Boldt laments the loss of his darkroom when he moved in with family after having what he calmly describes as "a new heart valve and a pacemaker."
  • The ivory-billed woodpecker was seen alive in the wilds of Arkansas for the first time in forty years. [Science, April 28, 2005]
  • HerpDigest continues to another year. Editor Allen Salzberg announced right before the holidays that his appeals had worked their magic and this necessary news agency continues for yet another year.
  • "Arizona ranchers Matt and Anna Magoffin earned an unofficial nomination to the endangered species Hall of Fame by hauling a thousand gallons of water per week to a stock tank on their ranch for four years, all to save a frog on its last legs," the Chiricahua leopard frog. [Smithsonian, September 2005 from Alan Rigerman]
  • Contributors Paul Breese and Ms. G.E. Chow made each other's aquaintance through this column. She now sends him clippings from her local papers, while he finishes his book about the Honolulu Zoo at his home on the Big Island.
  • Alan Rigerman contributes regularly to his local papers (and this column) while keeping up his schedule with his personal animals and working as a substitute teacher. I bet the kids wish he could bring critters to school!
  • Unlike previous years, Bill Burnett's holiday card shows him with his extensive aquaria and turtle trough. His letter suggests that some of his friends are unaware of his double life. Usually he sends a photo of him and whatever. See, I've forgotten. But I have the last one he sent with turtles. And I'll keep this one too. We were such kids when all this started 20 years ago!

Snakes eat loose pets

  • "If our odds of getting bitten by a python truly are less than winning the lottery three weeks in a row, then perhaps the real venom of the situation is instilling unnecessary fear in the public." [Letter to the editor, Miami Herald, October 21, 2005 from Alan Rigerman]
  • "It doesn't even matter if it's against the law to release exotic wildlife into Florida's environment. It's also against the law to abandon dogs and cats... [these laws] haven't stopped anyone from dumping unwanted... animals... to fend for themselves or die." [Miami Herald, October 19, 2005 from Alan Rigerman]

Iguanas eat loose plants

"From Key Largo to Key West, iguanas now saunter across U.S. Highway 1, halting traffic; gobble up bright-colored shrubbery with never-ending appetites; spawn junior lizards like reptile assembly lines; and make dinosaur-like dashes upon raised legs when confronted by a human. One thing is clear: These reptiles ain't going nowhere... The [Florida] Key's nonnative reptile explosion is blamed on local pet stores and ex-lizard owners who abandon the animals after they swell from cute six-inchers to kind of scary six-footers. Unfortunately... just about all of South Florida is just perfect for iguana breeding and feeding," according to the Leesburg, Florida Daily Commercial. One local nursery owner said, "People are getting hurt. I think we should whack them and start eating them. We should be able to open up iguana sandwich stands." Even though incensed, local animal-rights activist and director of the Marathon Turtle Hospital admitted that iguanas may have been on Florida in the past. He said, "The Calusa Indians had some recipes for cooking them." [August 8, 2005 from Bill Burnett's mom Hilda in Florida]

Rough trade

"It is a pretty good sign that a boy caiman lizard is in love when he clamps his powerful jaws on the tail or hind leg of a girl caiman lizard, stubbornly dragging behind her as she swims back and forth underwater," reports the Chicago Tribune. And you can watch at Shedd Aquarium if you're there at the right time. For now, rejoice that they've hatched out three baby caiman lizards - the first known in captivity. Even the babies were so aggressive that keepers immediately put each in its own container. [November 3, 2005 from Ray Boldt]

Nonnative lizards targeted

European wall lizards, Podarcis muralis, have become established at several places in the Midwest in 1951. The official story is that a resident of Cincinnati brought some back from Italy and released them in the local rock bluffs. They can survive local winters, grow to eight inches and are being trapped out of Falls of the Ohio State Park because they have no known native predators. [South Bend Tribune, July 10, 2005 from Garrett Kazmierski] Sounds like they'd make great pets if the agency would consider selling them - or perhaps Italy wants them back? Meanwhile the State Division of Wildlife considers them "permanent residents." [] So what's up with the extermination?

First coqui in Hawaii before 1994

So many sources have been saying that coqui arrived in Hawaii in 1999, that one wonders where that came from. By 1999 coqui were already firmly established on at least two islands and were well known to readers of this column, at least. Here's a reprint from the March 1997 CHS Bulletin HerPetPourri: "Researchers in Hawaii report in an internet communication that they have a specimen of an exotic Eleutherodactylus captured and pickled from a site on the formerly coqui-free archipelago. In 1994, in the October Journal of the New England Herpetological Society, Bob Campbell reported a call record for Eleutherodactylus coqui, the Puerto Rican tree frog from the grounds of the Hyatt Regency Hotel on the island of Maui. He also reported that Cuban green anoles and house geckos were "conspicuous" on the property as well. If the coquis naturalize on Hawaii, they will be the first calling frog in the islands as the native poison arrow frog does not vocalize, according to the Journal. In September 1996 a second article reports that Bob found five "coqui" at the hotel in his second expedition which led him to suggest that a breeding population had become established on the grounds of the hotel. []

An interesting perceptive

"The entire anti-coqui agenda has been a carefully planned smear campaign. Fraudulent and exaggerated claims against the frogs have generated hate and intolerance to justify funding for a frog war... This is the mindset for a lynching, not for sound, unbiased, scientifically supported environmental policy... Federal funding earmarked for coqui control was withdrawn when the conflicts [of interest] and corruption became apparent... When `experts' claimed nothing would kill coquis except caffeine, they did not disclose that the University of Hawaii owns the patent on the caffeine gene, extracted from coffee. This patent was issued in 1999, the same year as the `frog crisis' began... Integrated Coffee Technologies, Inc., sole licensee for the use of the gene [is] run by an ex-dean from the university. After the EPA discovered this... they refused to renew the permit to test caffeine in Hawai'i. The coqui killers then rediscovered citric acid which had been used in the mid-1990s to kill frogs at the Honolulu Zoo... Coqui control now involves the experimental use of calcium hydroxide, commonly referred to as hydrated lime, which can cause irreversible eye damage and skin burns as well as death from inhalation... as well as citric acid, also will kill plants, beneficial insects, geckoes and other lizards, and will alter the pH of the soil and the microflora. It is ironic that frogs are dying worldwide because of pollution and development, while in Hawaii environmental extremists and exterminators are busy polluting and bulldozing the environment, trying to kill frogs. Really noxious pest, such as fire ants and stinging caterpillars (which coquis eat!) are spreading throughout the islands, while the public is distracted by this absurd, unwinnable frog war." [Sydney Ross Singer, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, June 7, 2005 from Ms. G.E. Chow] Even the brochures from the frog exterminators are scary. The one someone sent me suggests bulldozing native vegetation and replacing with bedded plants in sterile lava medium to facilitate spraying for frogs. Where will it end?

Probable cause

The next guy who gets busted for turtle collecting for food might consider getting a major publication in the defendant's dock with him. In my opinion, U.S. News and World Report should be ashamed of itself. In the August 15-22, 2005 Issue on page 39 they give several recipes for various turtle dishes from a 1796 recipe book. [from Alan Rigerman] Meanwhile all over Asia, turtles are on the losing end of the cooking hook as evidenced by the next story.

Batagur baska confiscated

A shipment of turtles intended for China's insatiable middle-class was intercepted in a raid on a Vietnamese trafficker's home. Of the thirty turtles recovered, one was a Batagur baska, a Cambodian turtle so rare that the when a few were rediscovered in Cambodia in 2001, they were electronically tagged and released under the personal protection of King Norodom Sihamoni. The turtle recovered in Vietnam was tagged; he was last seen in Cambodia two years ago and was promptly repatriated by Vietnamese and Cambodian wildlife officials. Turtle collecting has hit record numbers and the effects are showing. In one western Malay river where 690 Batagur baska were found in 1999, only 40 were found in 2004. [USA Today, CNN, July 19, 2005 from Bill Burnett]

Cane toads in U.S., too

Residents outside Orlando, Florida are on their own cane toad hunt. One man caught 32 Bufo marinus in just 20 minutes for the reporter who described him as "done, his back drenched in sweat, the bag damp with toad urine... the commercial market for bufo toads, including demand at scientific-research facilities and in western Europe as pets, presents a supplement for the [Herpetological Breeding Research center in Fort Pierce]'s production costs." As elsewhere, they were translocated from their ancestral home near the hot and steamy Amazon basin of South America. Cane toads were released in 1936 in Florida in Palm Beach County. The University of Florida's Agricultural Experiment Station program intended to eradicate or control sugar-cane beetles. But the toads didn't eat the beetles. The populations are biggest south of Brevard County, but they're on the move now, hitchhiking in gardening plants and recreational vehicles. They eat pet food left out as well as insects and small animals. Their toxin can be deadly to animals under 40 pounds. A Palm City, Florida vet said he saw one animal a week last year that had been bufotoxined and suggests pet owners wash the animal's mouth out well before taking it to the vet. [Orlando Sentinel, August 29, 2005 from Bill Burnett]

Thanks to everyone who contributed this month and to those who are about to send whole pages of newspapers and magazines folded a minimum of times and not stapled to me.

February 2006

Roll over and play dead?

If the legal fight to have the route of the A89 [motor-way] changed fails, the [Yellow-bellied] toad's usual tactic of rolling on to its back to show its poisonous belly is unlikely to stop the bulldozers. `[Bombina variegata]'s only defense is to play dead by lying on its back and showing its colored stomach, which contains irritant products,' said one French naturalist. `In the animal world, a yellow stomach is a sign which never lies: if you bite, you are going to get a nasty surprise. There might occasionally be one bite, but never two.'" At risk is a huge highway project being punched through one of the few remaining natural areas in Europe - and it's being questioned by the EU for more than its impact on toads, too. [HerpDigest, January 5, 2006 from Allen Salzberg

Nightmare in Interlachen

A woman walking to a friends house watched in amazement as a 13-foot-long, 130-pound albino Burmese python ate her friend's pet - a black cat. WTLV-TV (Jacksonville, Florida) asked: "So how did the snake get loose in the first place?" What they discovered was that the owner had fed the python two live rabbits. The first one was eaten, but the second one dug a hole under the wire fence surrounding the snake and escaped - followed by the snake which had been loose for two days when it was discovered in feline delictus. [January 6, 2005 from Wes von Papinešu]

An exception to every rule

Japanese zookeepers were astonished when a 2-year-old male four-foot rat snake, named "Aochan" refused to eat frozen mice, yet when presented with a live hamster nicknamed "Gohan" ("meal" in Japanese) decided to keep it for a pet. The two have lived together in a tank at the Tokyo Mutsugoru Okoku Zoo since October. The rat snake developed a taste for frozen rodents and shows no sign of eating his roomie. [Associated Press and numerous internet sources, January 19, 2006 from Kathy Bricker] One of the blogs that picked up this story ran the photo of Gohan and Aochan right next to each other in a cardboard hide-box. My favorite reader caption was: "Oooh, President Clinton, it's so exciting to be a White House intern!"

Biological imperative

"Hitchhikers are more commonly known to stand on the roadside, hoping for generous drivers to take them to their destination. So imagine the surprise of one holiday-maker who returned from The Gambia, only to find an African toad had hitched a lift in his suitcase. [When the man] got back to his home in Small Heath and was unpacking his bag ... the amphibian hopped out. He said: "I was chatting with my partner about how good the holiday had been when we looked down to see this toad emerge from the bag. 'We couldn't believe it - it was the same toad we'd seen on the hotel balcony the night before while we were playing cards.'" [ January 6, 2006 from Wes von Papinešu]

Canaries singing madly

Deformed amphibians aren't news any more, or are they? Several years of the 90s were spent in trying to find "the cause" of amphibian deformities. Many candidates were put forward from UV light, to nematodes, to pollution, to acid rain, to introduced fish, and so on. A recent paper done on the Atlantic island nation of Bermuda has found that higher percentages of cane toads (Bufo marinus) are deformed in public places such as golf courses rather than in backyard ponds. They also noted no Ribeiroia metacercariae nematodes or their cysts were found in 80 malformed metamorphs. In conclusion, they wrote: "These data suggested that many B. marinus breeding sites in Bermuda are potentially contaminated with developmental toxicants." [Applied Herpetology, Volume 3, Number 1, 2006, pp. 39-65 (27) via HerpDigest, January 10, 2006 from Jim Harding ]

A giant hop for frogkind

Two hundred adult Southern Corroboree Frogs were released in its former wild range. Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, January 11, 2006 reports: "Since 1997 the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Amphibian Research Centre in Melbourne have run a joint program in which about 4000 captive-reared tadpoles have been released into Kosciuzsko National Park in the hope that they would mature into breeding adults." Unfortunately most of those carefully reared offspring succumbed to chytrid fungus, so the agencies went the extra mile, raising up another crop all the way to adulthood in an effort to break the cycle of decline from hundreds of populations in Australia's highest swamps, to only 18 known localities, most with fewer than five adults. [from Wes von Papinešu]

Fabulous resource

The American Museum of Natural History has made all of its publications available and searchable online at including their Novitates, the Anthropological Papers, the Bulletin and Memoirs. Just type in something simple like frog or toad and see how well it works! [from Jim Harding, Joe Collins and everyone else with a research interest and email!]

Evolution filksongs

Visit and download the mp3! As contributor Jim Harding wrote, you've got to love those Sarcopterygian Devonian Blues! There's also some great stuff on My favorite refrain, "Yo momma was a lobe-finned fish." And, at least in my case, it's probably true.

A smoking hot gun?

J. Alan Pounds, resident researcher at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve and Tropical Science Center in Costa Rica co-authored an article in nature which "concluded that the fungal epidemic has been stoked primarily by global warming, a finding that may have broad implications for at-risk species around the world. `The basic message is that global warming is already causing species extinctions, and a lot of them,'" said Pounds who added that while "lethal disease may be the bullet, but climate change is "pulling the trigger." The exact mechanism is the focus of the article. The January 12, 2006 Newsday story continues: "Before the upward creep of global temperatures in the 1970s, Pounds said the amphibian fungus was held in check by normal fluctuations that made the daytime too hot or the nighttime too cold. But like the porridge in the tale of Goldilocks, many harlequin frog habitats - especially in the middle elevations where most extinctions have occurred - have been moderated by global warming - enough to create just the right temperature for lethal fungus." This story made global press including : New York Times, Newsday, Associated Press and many others, from Ms. G.E. Chow, Wes von Papinešu, Allan Salzberg, Jim Harding, Joseph Collins, Bill Burnett, Alan Rigerman and probably some in the mail yet.

Or an elephant in the dark?

  • Next the Associated Press reported: "Arizona researchers say that a fungal disease killing off frogs in the state probably isn't being triggered by global warming... Since 1998, researchers have known that the chytrid fungus is attacking Arizona frogs. They now say it has occurred in 12 Arizona frog species, according to a 2003 Arizona Game and Fish report. About half these species declined significantly because of the disease, while the disease is probably linked to declines in another one-fourth of the species... But warming is not a likely cause for it in Arizona because its climate is generally hotter than in Central and South America." [January 23, 2006 from J.N. Stuart]
  • University of California Berkeley scientists reported that "Frogs exposed to a mix of pesticides at extremely low concentrations like those widely found around farms suffer deadly infections, suggesting that the chemicals could be a major culprit in the global disappearance of amphibians," according to the January 25, 2006 Los Angeles Times, which continues, "The Berkeley scientists tested four herbicides, including atrazine and alachlor, three insecticides and two fungicides in combinations used on cornfields... [in] amounts commonly found in waters near farms but thousands of times lower than the doses in most pesticide experiments, [and] throughout their metamorphosis... [In this] study, even though all the animals harbored harmful bacteria, none developed deadly infections when exposed to just the individual pesticides. But those exposed to the mixture suffered a variety of symptoms, including an inability to hold its head up, meningitis, septicemia from a water-borne bacteria and smaller size. The scientists found thymus damage and four times more corticosterone in the blood of exposed frogs, both signs of immune suppression. Corticosterone also slows growth... Atrazine is found in groundwater, streams and ponds near farms. It is banned in Europe... In 2003, after reviewing the risks of atrazine, which has been in use for about 50 years, the Environmental Protection Agency decided not to ban it. Instead, the EPA took the unusual step of allowing its use while requiring Syngenta to monitor towns with contaminated drinking water. The agency concluded that there was `not sufficient evidence that atrazine consistently produces effects' in frogs.' In September, a U.S. District Court judge in San Francisco ruled that the EPA had violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to review the effects on the California red-legged frog when it approved pesticides." [from David Bradford]

Well-traveled toads

Chester Zoo in the U.K. recently bred Puerto Rican Crested Toads, which "occur only on the island of Puerto Rico... where they are now critically endangered in the wild... less than 250 wild crested toads left on the planet... Crested Toads bred at zoos in the United States have already been released into the wild in Puerto Rico in an effort to help sustain populations." [HerpDigest, January 16, 2006 from Allen Salzberg]

Still Scary after all these Years

  • "About 65 million years ago, when most of South Jersey was underwater and the rest was a fetid swamp, a crocodile died in present-day Gloucester County and sank to the bottom of the sea. Scientists from Drexel University and the New Jersey State Museum know this because they found what remains of the reptile lying submerged in the greenish, sandy clay known as marl. It is one of the most complete skeletons yet recovered of Thoracosaurus neocesariensis, a fish-eating crocodile whose remains usually consist of a stray tooth or two. The fossil, discovered in April, will be displayed in Drexel's Stratton Hall, starting Jan. 23, for about a year before heading to the state museum in Trenton. The 15-foot creature lived at the end of the Cretaceous period, just as the dinosaurs were about to become extinct. It was not especially large as crocodiles went. One larger species, which also lived in what is now New Jersey, grew to 45 feet and ate dinosaurs. Thoracosaurus, on the other hand, ate fish, its narrow snout handy for slashing quickly through the water to grab prey. Its curved, pointy teeth were designed not for chewing, but for carrying fish on land so they could be swallowed whole. [Philadelphia Inquirer, January 15, 2006 from Karen Furnweger]
  • Meanwhile a 75-million year old specimen of another species of crocodile was discovered, but not in the field - in the back room of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, lurking amidst 100,000 other odd bits. The curator found the pieces labeled "terror crocodile" and estimated at 30-feet-long in life. The creature was collected somewhere in New Mexico and is thus described as the "only one of its kind" in the state [Albuquerque, New Mexico Tribune, January 4, 2006 from Karen Furnweger who wrote "Wish I could have been one of these in a previous life."]

Pretty soon they'll be raisin' Hellbender!

"The state of New York listed the Eastern Hellbender as a species of Special Concern in 1983, but that designation did not give the species legal protection. Legislation passed in late 2005 by unanimous approval of the New York State Senate and Assembly and signed by the Governor went into affect on 2 January 2006 giving all Special Concern species protected status. This new bill also gave the Department of Environmental Conservation the authority to regulate the take of all native amphibians and reptiles in the state. As part of the supporting documentation submitted with the proposed bill was the Model State Herpetofauna Regulations developed by PARC. [The Center for North American Herpetology Lawrence, Kansas - News Release, January 19, 2006 from Joseph Collins]

Just in time to go extinct

Scientists discovered a new species of the genus Calotriton, in the Montseny Nature Reserve in Catalonia, Spain. The December Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society reports that mitochondrial DNA analyses show 1.5 million years of separation between the Montseny triton and its nearest relative the Pyrenean triton during the first Pleistocene glaciations 1.5 million years ago. "Despite their age, however, the first Montseny tritons were not observed until 1979, probably due to their scarcity, their discreet behavior, and the fact that they were only to be found ... in five [cold water] streams of the Montseny massif (between 600 and 1200 meters), and appears to prefer the beech forest (Fagus sylvatica). Preliminary studies indicate that it could be the amphibian with the smallest distribution area in Europe, and is one of the most endangered." [HerpDigest, January 21, 2006 from Allan Salzberg]

Salamander Man busted

"Dutch police have arrested a thief they dubbed the `salamander man' who talked his way into the homes of dozens of unsuspecting people by saying he was looking for his lost salamander, hamster or iguana... they had been hunting the 33-year-old homeless man for months and that he had admitted to about 60 thefts in towns across the country. Once inside a house, the man stole wallets and loose cash. Police arrested him... after a tip off and found nine empty wallets in his car, which had been stolen the day before. [Reuters, January 23, 2006]

What is it about guys named "Ken"?

The Birmingham, Alabama News reports: "Minutes after midnight Saturday, Ken Wills parked his sport-utility vehicle in a Homewood High School parking lot, pulled on a poncho, clicked on a flashlight and started down a dark stretch of South Lakeshore Drive looking for salamanders. He had gotten the call - the salamander call... Dozens of people, methodically alerted by the Friends of Shades Creek, ventured to South Lakeshore Drive to watch the first wave in the annual migration of the spotted salamander down Shades Mountain. The migration has absolutes: It will be wet, and it will be dark. [January 22, 2006 from Wes von Papinešu]

Virginia is for salamanders

The Virginia Daily Press reports: "Students at Cooper Elementary Magnet School in Hampton were so adamant that Virginia have a state amphibian, that their efforts to get one named has become one of the wackier House of Delegates bills introduced this session. The bill... would make the Shenandoah Mountain salamander the critter of choice" even though that salamander is not considered a particularly Virginia species, it has the scientific name Plethodon virginia, which is why the children chose it. [January 19, 2006 from Wes von Papinešu]

Cane Toads still hopping

  • Locals in Darwin, Australia are reacting (or over-reacting) to the arrival of the invasive cane toad (Bufo marinus) in their area. The New Zealand Herald (January 27, 2006) reports: Darwin is under siege, with locals setting traps, `toad-proofing' backyards and organizing night-time toad musters to capture and kill dozens of the amphibians by torchlight. The plan now is to turn the hundreds of thousands of dead toads into liquid fertilizer, or `toad juice'... The idea has come from a conservation group, FrogWatch, which has led the fight against the toxic invaders in the Northern Territory and has enough dead toads - 200 kilograms at last count - to start producing around 300 liters of fertilizer. [from Wes von Papinešu]
  • Here's an interesting tidbit from the Australian Museum website: "Cane Toads were introduced to Australia to eat French's Cane Beetle and the Greyback Cane Beetle. The 'whitegrub' larvae of these beetles eat the roots of sugar cane and kill or stunt the plants. The Australian Bureau of Sugar Experimental Stations imported about 100 toads from Hawaii to the Meringa Experimental Station near Cairns. The toads bred quickly and more than 3000 were released in the sugar cane plantations of north Queensland in July 1935. At that time, some naturalists and scientists warned of the dangers of liberating Cane Toads in Australia. The protesters included a former New South Wales Government Entomologist, W. W. Froggatt, and an Australian Museum Curator, Roy Kinghorn. Their protests resulted in a brief moratorium on the release of toads, but releases resumed in 1936."[Australian Museum Fact Sheet -]

March 2006

Slow and steady

The Chicago Turtle Club began in 1988 as a place for people primarily interested in Turtles and Tortoises to compare notes and spend time together with like-minded individuals. Founder Lisa Koester and the core group of devoted testudinophiles have met the last Sunday of every month ever since. Monthly meetings are held at North Park Village Nature Center, 5800 N. Pulaski. The Chicago Tribune featured the group, quoting Steve Spitzer's expertise on sexing turtles and a heads up about the group's upcoming May festival - including turtle races! I laugh because it was a turtle race that started my involvement in CHS oh, so many years ago. Thanks to Ray Boldt for the charming clipping - the photo alone is cute enough for local folks to look through their snake paper for the back issue [February 2, 2006, Section 2, page 2].

Snake survives cancer

"Jackie" the popular fox snake at Volo Bog State Natural Area "had three cancerous tumors removed in November, said Volo Bog naturalist Stacy Iwanicki. She [the snake] was sewn up with sutures," spent a few days recovering and went back to the visitor center, "slithering a little slower and showing slight signs of her sickness." Dr. Steve Barten, who performed the surgery said Jackie had a fair chance of reoccurrence as the type of cancer she had tends to reappear. [Chicago Tribune, February 19, 2006 from Ray Boldt]

Life imitates Life

The Lawrence Journal World, January 31, 2006 reports that Joseph Collins was contacted when a Kansas University resident hall student found a little green lizard basking on a windowsill in the dorm. The lizard turns out to be an Italian Wall Lizard and Collins knew the story of how they'd come to be released 24 miles away in Topeka, 40 years before. "The first Italian Wall lizards arrived in Kansas during the 1950s. Topeka pet store owner Charles Burt imported the lizards, along with a variety of other exotic animals, in a time before the government regulated such items. When Burt died in the 1960s, the lizards, either by neglect, escape or release, made their way out of the little shop to, of all places, a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. There they found a nice home in a big box air conditioner outside the restaurant and began breeding... The lizards, known in Italy for dwelling in urban environments, felt right at home in the city, living on insects and basking in the sun. Collins said the lizards' city dwelling allows for easy access to meals and hiding places. 'I always thought that they'd find their way out,' Collins said. 'Well, they have.'" Other folks questioned about the lizards weren't too concerned. Seems to remind me of other invasions, no one really cares until they're eating you out of house and home, keeping you awake all night, killing off valuable stock or native animals, or - perhaps most insidious of all - transmitting diseases. "Bill Stark, a biology professor at Fort Hays State University, found Italian Wall lizards on that campus two years ago. He's heard the reptiles have spread as far south as Wichita, and as far west as Garden City and Dodge City... The lizard is, for the most part, smaller than native lizards, making it unlikely to be a real competitor for food or space. No one has found any reason for serious worry yet. But it's still early, Stark warned. 'That's what everybody says at the start of every biological disaster,' he said." [HerpDigest, February 3, 2006, from Allen Salzberg]

Study first, kill second

The Charlotte Observer reports on a study which plans to insert radio transmitters into pythons so their habits in their new home, sweet home in Florida's Everglades can be determined. "Know thy enemy" has been great advice since prehistory. It is hoped this study will reveal some ecological weakness in the burgeoning python population. After the study, the snakes will be recaptured and euthanized to prevent any further increase in the population. [December 30, 2005 from Steve Barten]

No license required?

The Belfast Telegraph Home, [February 24, 2006] reported: "A consignment of live crocodiles and other reptiles has been intercepted in Northern Ireland in a major operation against the lucrative trade in exotic animals." Police [and USPCA officials] stopped a vehicle containing the animals which "was followed by a search in Omagh where further reptiles were removed from the home of a suspected dealer... the recovered animals... include eight crocodiles, along with snakes, lizards and poisonous toads... the crocodiles are relatively small in length but have the capacity to grow to around seven feet... Under a long-standing anomaly, [residents of Northern Ireland] have needed a license to keep a dog but not to have ownership of animals such as tigers, lions and gorillas." The USPCA's chief executive said, "We have shut down one of Northern Ireland's biggest exotic animal dealing operations," but he added he was disturbed because he, "had to leave an Egyptian cobra and two water moccasins behind in a house tonight after being told they were pets. They are lethal animals... We are now witnessing the diminishing demand for big cats being replaced by an alarming craze for dangerous reptiles." [HerpDigest, February 27, 2006 from Allen Salzberg]

G'day Baltimore

A new exhibit at the National Aquarium on Baltimore Harbor features more than 100 species native to Australia as well as Maryland's second highest waterfall, copies of Australian aboriginal wall paintings, free flying parrots and gallahs and a who's who of Australian reptiles. Their website is, for more information or just to drool on how beautiful and animal friendly modern zoo exhibits have become. [Little Rock, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 5, 2006 from Bill Burnett]

Turtlenapper caught

Well it wasn't a multi-million dollar kidnapping and heist, but British police caught the man responsible for tortoise-napping a Leopard Tortoise from the Paignton Zoo in south Devon. The tortoise was returned with only a slight case of the sniffles, according to the Orlando Florida, Sentinel, December 29, 2005 from Bill Burnett]

Venerable attraction?

Anybody remember Gatorama anymore? Described as a "venerable Florida roadside attraction," that began in 1957, it currently houses about 4,000 alligators and crocodiles. It was one of the state's original gator farms, converting easily to the Internet age, they now ship their trademark Gator meat anywhere overnight. Outdoors, signs warn visitors "No swimming or sunbathing. Violators may be eaten." [Miami Herald, August 14, 2005 from Alan W. Rigerman]

Greatest Fears

Thirty-eight percent of adults in the U.S. are terrified of snakes, 36 percent of heights, 28 percent of bugs and 26 percent of rats. [USA Today, January 12, 2006 from Bill Burnett]

Toxicity reports

  • "Lethal levels of copper in pond water appear to be killing some salamanders and wood frogs in Northeast Ohio, a 10-year study by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History has found. A decline in salamander and wood frog populations would have a huge impact on Ohio's wildlife because they are a key link in the animal food chain -- they are eaten by larger animals and they eat smaller critters," according to the Saturday, February 18, 2006, Cleveland Plain Dealer. [HerpDigest, February 20, 2006 from Allen Salzberg]
  • "Scientists at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory near Aiken, S.C., have found amphibians are exposed to contaminants through maternal transfer... [They] collected dozens of reproductively active female eastern narrow mouth toads located around a settling basin near an Aiken-area coal burning power plant. The burning of coal releases mercury, selenium and other harmful contaminants into the environment. The research team tested toads and their offspring for the presence of chemical contaminants, as well as examining the offspring for developmental abnormalities... Both adult females and their offspring from the settling basin were compared with toads from a contamination-free reference site." [HerpDigest, February 24, 2006 from Allen Salzberg]

20 new frogs, but no dinosaurs

Scientists announce the results of their first expedition to a remote area of Indonesia where they found 20 new species of frogs and animals believed to be extinct in the wild as well as new species of birds and rare mammals including echidnas. Local people never went into the remote interior area, described as a "Lost World," which apparently permitted many of the rarest species to survive. [Memphis, Tennessee Commercial Appeal, February 8, 2006 from Bill Burnett] One of my email correspondents sent the story with the note "Can McDonald's be far behind?" [Also received from Ray Boldt - Chicago Tribune, February 6, 2006, Alan Rigerman - Miami Herald, February 8, 2006 and one other person who remains nameless by request.]

Another new frog!

Researchers in southern Venezuela have found a collapsed gorge with an interior waterfall originally described in the press as "A cave so huge helicopters can fly into it... and land next to a towering waterfall." The area is on the most geologically ancient part of South America and is considered a hotspot of biological diversity as evidenced by the discovery of a new dendrobatid (poison frog) species Colostethus breweri, named for the frog's identifier, Charles Brewer. [Gorgeous photo and full story at] HerpDigest, February 24, 2006 notes, "This discovery, not widely reported, was detailed in the Jan. 17 issue of the journal Zootaxa." [from Allen Salzberg]

Old-fashioned science

A researcher on St. Thomas, Virgin Islands plans on doing the first systematic amphibian survey on those islands. Four species are believe to be natives and three including the Cane toad, Cuban treefrog and coqui have become established in recent history - most believed to have arrived by plant shipments. [St. Croix, Virgin Islands, Daily News, January 11, 2006 from Ms. G.E. Chow]

How fast do they hop?

"Cane toads in Australia have developed longer legs to enable them to invade more territory... introduced into Australia 70 years ago to control insect pests in sugar cane fields. They have since spread across one million square kilometers (390,000 square miles) in the north and east of the country and have become one of the continent 's worst environmental disasters," according to the February 20 Daily Times of Pakistan excerpting an article originally published in National Geographic, February 15, 2006 which adds, "When the toads were first introduced, they spread at a rate of about six miles (ten kilometers) per year. Today cane toads advance more than 31 miles (50 kilometers) annually. This faster pace is happening, at least in part, because toads at the forefront have about 10 percent longer legs than toads of earlier generations, said Richard Shine, an ecologist at the University of Sydney in Australia." Their actual rate of movement is equivalent to them covering the states of either Connecticut or Hawaii each and every year for the past 70 years with their total coverage now greater than the area of the state of Texas plus half of California. Previously the government had been using a totally incorrect figure. "The cane toad continues to expand its range southwards at about 1.3 kilometers (8/10s of a mile) a year, and is also spreading across the tropical north towards Western Australia. The toads can be accidentally transported to new locations, for example in pot plants or loads of timber." [Government of Australia fact sheet,]

Be glad toads don't fly

  • According to the Smithsonian Institution's BugInfo: "In 1957, twenty-six African queens, along with swarms of European worker bees, escaped from an experimental apiary about l00 miles south of Sao Paulo [Brazil, naturally hybridized]... with European Honey Bees... [they] spread northward through South America, Central America, and eastern Mexico, progressing some 100 to 200 miles per year," reaching Texas in 1990, Arizona in 1993 and California in 1995. []
  • The Orlando Sentinel (January 30, 2006) trumpets "Killer Bees Pose Threat... Africanized honeybees establish a Florida foothold - a danger to those who venture outdoors. No one knows how to stop them... If hurricanes, roaches, sea lice and insurance bills weren't bad enough, Floridians can add a new menace to their list of worries... after decades of hype... [killer bees] have established a foothold... in St. Lucie County... swarmed onto unlucky utility workers... turned up in ports throughout the state... suspected at... Busch Gardens and Downtown Disney." Residents are urged to be careful opening things like barbeques and to check their yards before mowing as the noise may raise clouds of bees. Africanized honey bees are already established in Texas and California having made the long march from Brazil to Mexico over the last 50 years. [from Bill Burnett]

Stories to be told together

  • After more than a decade of looking at other possible causes of coral "bleaching," a whitening caused by overgrazing by symbiontic algae, researchers have noticed a correlation between the amount of simple sugars being released onto or near the reef and bleaching. Curiously, no such correlation is found by increasing nitrogen. The symbionts apparently have a sweet tooth and so much human waste is sweet, that it may have been feeding the symbionts - thus bleaching the coral. [Science, February 24, 2006 from Eloise Beltz-Decker]
  • More fibropapilloma tumors are being detected on turtles on the human influenced side of the Puerto Rican island of Culebra than are being found on turtles on the other side of the island. Many more turtles are infected near the main island of Puerto Rico, but as the turtles swim back and forth between the islands, the possibility of disease transmission is heightened with every diseased turtle. [The Virgin Islands Daily News, November 2, 2005 from Ms. G.E. Chow]
  • Many more scientists are agreeing that climate change is happening than do not agree - some even directly tie the warming into increases in chytrid fungus. "Earth's average temperature rose roughly 1 degree in the 20th century and could rise 10 more degrees by 2100," said scientists reporting to the United Nations [reported by USA Today January 12, 2006 from my Ferndale neighbor Chrys Hamper and super-clipper Bill Burnett]

Things that go beep in the night

In a move we may see copied around the nation, Miami-Dade County in Florida is considering an ordinance which would require all pythons sold or traded to be microchipped (pit-tagged). Unfortunately, their first stab at a law was not specific and the state recommended against their trying to regulate "wildlife." As we all know, pythons are a huge problem in Florida - but laws have to be specific. If you discovered a wild python in your garage, the way they were writing the law you would have been responsible for pit-tagging it even though it had nothing to do with you! [by email from Alan Rigerman who notes that "at least for today the ordinance has been pulled!"]

We don't need no stinking gators!

Criminal charges were prepared against two men who dumped an alligator into a lake in Los Angeles, CA. The alligator has been nicknamed "Reggie" and has attracted a following of local people who watch him at 60-acre Lake Machado which has been ringed with orange fencing and guards at a cost of $155,000 so far. The men were charged with releasing the gator, possessing the gator, causing a public nuisance and possession of marijuana. [Orlando, Florida Sentinel, December 30, 2005 from Bill Burnett]

Good friends "Gopher-thur"

Minneola, Florida is trying to "make developers try harder to save threatened gopher tortoises from bulldozers... Since 1991 the state has issued so-called `take' permits for tens of thousands of tortoises that allowed developers to kill the creatures, which are considered a species of special concern. Permit fees brought in about $47 million, some of which was used to buy part of 22,000 acres of wildlife areas..." Even so 67,000 tortoises have been moved since 1989 according to wildlife officials. "About 74,000 tortoises were estimated to have been on properties... where take permits were issued, according to Fish and Wildlife officials... Tortoise populations have dropped up to 80 percent in the past century because of habitat loss, disease, hunting and predators... Minneola is paying about $76,000 to relocate about 50 tortoises from a 32-acre site targeted for the city's proposed wastewater-treatment plant," according to the Orlando, Florida Sentinel, December 28, 2005 from Bill Burnett]

Snakefood Quote

This year, both Groundhog Day and the State of the Union Address fall in the same week. As Air America Radio pointed out, "It is an ironic juxtaposition: One involves a meaningless ritual in which we look to a creature of little intelligence for prognostication, and the other involves a groundhog." [Associated Press, February 6, 2006, from Karen Furnweger]

The kids who started the trend

"I thought your society might be interested in knowing that 2006 is the 20th anniversary of the Ornate Box Turtle being the state reptile. You can access some interesting historic facts along with other information by following the different Ornate Box Turtle links from my main website: I have also set up a special guest book where people can share their box turtle stories... I encourage your members to consider adding their favorites. Best regards, Larry L. Miller - Northern Hills Junior High School, Topeka, Kansas"

Thanks to everyone who contributed this month! You can see your name both here and online forever by sending clippings from newspapers and magazines to me.

April 2006 - Amphibians All the Way Down

Beer for Toads

The Story from Australia's Northern Territory News (March 20, 2006) wherein a beer bounty for cane toads was offered prompted one of my marvelous super-contributors to muse of times past: "[The story] reminds me of spring of 1995, when I was serving as a peacekeeper in Croatia. My garrison was situated near a woods that was a home to Fire salamanders (Salamandra salamandra) most of whom had to trot (slowly) through our camp, spring and fall, on their way to-and-fro the breeding and hibernation sites. The locals had previously identified these salamanders to the multi-national peacekeepers as the equivalant of 'venomous vermin,' and my peers had been warned that the Fires were absolutely dangerous. By the time I got to the camp for my tour, soldiers wearing blue berets had been stamping caudates flat on the camps' roads for over three years. I immediately started an education campaign in the various messes (soldiers clubs) about the local herp wildlife, and emphasized that the omnipresent Fire Salamanders and some-times seen Glass Lizard were in fact harmless and both deserving of our protection. To emphasize the value of the migrating amphibians, I put up a bounty of a bottle of Heineken for each Fire Salamander turned into the Intelligence trailer. (My staff by this time were well used to my idiosyncrasies). Later, the bounty was offered on the honor-system, if you moved a Fire off of the road or out of the vehicle compound, the beer would appear. After two months, the Canadians and Czechs were moving the by-then-infrequently-seen Fire salamanders out of pits and trenches without benefit of beer! (The Argentineans were still having problems handling the sudden appearance of Glass Lizards from within the collapsed buildings on their side of the camp they were convinced that the critters were not only venomous, but had supplemental stings in their tail!) So, while the intentions of our (mine and Australia's) two beer-bounties are completely at odds, it does go to show that, at least with young male herpers, a proper education and modest incentive program can have significant effects. Cheers all, Wes von Papinešu." [To see the stunning scenery inhabited by these critters, visit, a trip through Croatia, now.]

Cane Toads nearing W.A.

The fourth known cane toad captured in Western Australia was captured aboard a fruit truck from Queensland in Kewdale, the same suburb where others we found last year. In a separate incident, another toad or toads was found in the suburb of Canning Vale. Both towns are slightly south and southwest of Perth. Cane toads are reportedly only 120 kilometers away from the Northern Territory, Western Australia border as well as in New South Wales and Queensland. Some practical comments from the Kimberley Toad Busters website: "Over an evening of Toad Busting (two runs down the highway south between the Victoria Road House and the Victoria River Road House) the results suggest that toads are making their way up to the Victoria Highway from the Victoria River via erosion areas. All these erosion areas lead to culvert systems put in place by Main Roads. Toad 'road kills ' on the highway recognized that the culverts play an important role in determining the movement of toads from the river to the road and other areas. The number of toads found in the CALM traps (a total of 52) indicate that these traps are gong to play an important role in keeping the cane toad front and the identified cane toad inclusions under control. Our objective is to prevent the toad front from moving and to also 'wipe' new generations of cane toads. The combinations of cane toad trapping and the toad busting efforts by Community will ensure that this program succeeds. Bi-catch is still an issue both the Kimberley Toad Busters and CALM still need to confront. (P) Toad splatters (not to be confused with 'Kills' endorse the need to put traps near road culverts. The toad 'splatters' represent those toads that did not manage to allude vehicle activity down the Victoria Highway and barely represent identifiable toad remains. A total of about 70 toad 'splatters' were identified and the concentration of these were always located near culverts. This tends to enforce the need to place traps near culverts along the highway. (P) Brumby Creek. Out Kimberley Toad Busting Team had been able to confirm that the Brumby Creek system, south of the Fitzroy Station turn-off, is probably the western most incursion of cane toads along the Victoria River Road . This hopefully confirms that our Kimberley Toad Busting group has a definite handle on where the cane toad front incursions will establish themselves for the 2006 dry season... Nobody is too young or too old in this fight to stop the cane toad from crossing into Western Australia . If you don 't have a vehicle we can always find a seat on the Triple J Toad Busting Bus. [From " A Heartfelt cry from the Kununurra Community," March 31, 2006] Kimberley is the little bump at the northern end of western Australia. The toads have hopped and hitched around since their introduction on te east coast in 1935.

Can't beat `em, breed `em

The red-eared turtle, Trachemys scripta elegans, is a threat to Florida's native turtles. Of greatest concern is its potential to interbreed with and genetically swamp our native subspecies, T. scripta scripta, the yellow-bellied turtle. The latter is native throughout northern Florida, where we have already observed the results of hybridization with introduced red-ears. Although the red-ear is becoming increasingly common in the Florida peninsula, its distribution in northern Florida (panhandle) is not yet widespread. Drs. Matt Aresco, Peter Meylan, and I therefore petitioned the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission last August to prohibit the sale, distribution, and release of red-ears in Florida. We have now learned that Commission staff has not appreciated the urgency of this issue and is planning to delay action so that no new rule, if enacted, would take effect before 2008. During this time, hundreds of thousands of red-ears could be sold in the state, with most survivors likely to be released eventually after their owners grow weary of them. Please consider writing to the Director of the Commission in support of immediate regulations to end the sale, distribution, and release of red-ears within a state where another subspecies is native... His letter was sent by Allen Salzberg, April 2, 2006.

Toadies go home!

Tanzanian Kihansi spray toads taken to the U.S. three years ago for breeding have produced over 200 offspring being prepared for repatriation. The Wildlife Conservation Society and other U.S. zoos may help the Tanzanians set up their own facility. The source, Jet Magazine of Africa [March 27, 2006] asked an interesting question: "The government initiated LKEM in 2002 with the financial assistance from the World Bank. On why the government has been spending huge sums of money on preserving the spray toads, while millions of people are suffering from poverty and hunger, Dr Sarunday defended the project saying the preservation of the ecosystems of rare species was necessary for future survival of fauna and flora. `While many species of flora and fauna may appear to have no consumptive value today for humanity, the same species may prove to be extremely useful in future with the growth of biotechnology, especially in the pharmaceutical industries,` he said." Note that very few people notice that "setting up a breeding facility" means "jobs" and "rare frogs" means "tourists" which means "more jobs." It's like all the people with cell phones who complain about the space program. There's no place to spend money in space, of course and frogs don't need it either - so anything spent on research only pays humans.

New Catalog Pages

The Center for North American Herpetology in Lawrence, Kansas ( announced on 27 March 2006 that "The Catalogue of American Amphibians and Reptiles, sponsored by the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, recently issued twenty new accounts for 2006, one of which pertains to North America (north of Mexico). It is: Plethodon angusticlavius Ozark Zigzag Salamander by Meshaka and Trauth CAAR 804. Copies can be ordered from the SSAR (check elsewhere on the CNAH web site under Herpetological Societies: National) at:"

A Paper to Upset the Amphibian Cart

Darryl Frost and many others have issued a paper [2006. The Amphibian Tree of Life. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 297: 1-370] in which major changes to taxonomy of North American amphibian species are recommended. The list is courtesy of The Center for North American Herpetology.
  1. (1) The Family Dicamptodontidae (Tihen, 1958) is synonymized with the Family Ambystomatidae (Gray, 1850).
  2. The genus Haideotriton Carr, 1939, is synonymized with the genus Eurycea Rafinesque, 1822, resulting in the new combination Eurycea wallacei (Carr, 1939).
  3. The Family Ascaphidae (_____, 1923) is synonymized with the Family Leiopelmatidae (Mivart, 1869).
  4. As part of the partitioning of the genus Eleutherodactylus, the genus Syrrhophus (Cope, 1878) is resurrected and, along with the genus Craugastor (Cope, 1862), is placed in the Family Brachycephalidae (Gunther, 1858), as follows:
    • Craugastor augusti (Duges, 1879)
    • Craugastor augusti cactorum (Taylor, 1938)
    • Craugastor augusti latrans (Cope, 1880)
    • Syrrhophus cystignathoides (Cope, 1877)
    • Syrrhophus cystignathoides campi (Stejneger, 1914)
    • Syrrhophus guttilatus (Cope, 1879)
    • Syrrhophus marnockii (Cope, 1878)
  5. Partitioning of the genus Bufo worldwide results in the recognition of three genera of these anurans in North America and Canada, as follows:
    • Anaxyrus Tschudi, 1845
    • Anaxyrus americanus (Holbrook, 1836)
    • Anaxyrus americanus americanus (Holbrook, 1836)
    • Anaxyrus americanus charlesmithi (Bragg, 1954 )
    • Anaxyrus baxteri (Porter, 1968)
    • Anaxyrus boreas (Baird and Girard, 1852)
    • Anaxyrus boreas boreas (Baird and Girard, 1852)
    • Anaxyrus boreas halophilus (Baird and Girard, 1853)
    • Anaxyrus californicus (Camp, 1915)
    • Anaxyrus canorus (Camp, 1916)
    • Anaxyrus cognatus (Say in James, 1823)
    • Anaxyrus debilis (Girard, 1854)
    • Anaxyrus debilis debilis (Girard, 1854)
    • Anaxyrus debilis insidior (Girard, 1854)
    • Anaxyrus exsul (Myers, 1942)
    • Anaxyrus fowleri (Hinckley, 1882)
    • Anaxyrus hemiophrys (Cope, 1886)
    • Anaxyrus houstonensis (Sanders, 1953)
    • Anaxyrus microscaphus (Cope, 1866)
    • Anaxyrus nelsoni (Stejneger, 1893)
    • Anaxyrus punctatus (Baird and Girard, 1852)
    • Anaxyrus quercicus (Holbrook, 1840)
    • Anaxyrus retiformis (Sanders and Smith, 1951)
    • Anaxyrus speciosus (Girard, 1854)
    • Anaxyrus terrestris (Bonnaterre, 1789)
    • Anaxyrus woodhousii (Girard, 1854)
    • Anaxyrus woodhousii australis (Shannon and Lowe, 1955)
    • Anaxyrus woodhousii velatus (Bragg and Sanders, 1951)
    • Anaxyrus woodhousii woodhousii (Girard, 1854)
    • Chaunus Wagler, 1828
    • Chaunus marinus (Linnaeus, 1758)
    • Cranopsis Cope, 1875
    • Cranopsis alvaria (Girard in Baird, 1849)
    • Cranopsis nebulifer (Girard, 1854)
  6. Partitioning of the genus Rana worldwide results in the recognition of two genera of these frogs in North America and Canada, as follows:
    • Lithobates Fitzinger, 1843
    • Lithobates areolatus (Baird and Girard, 1852)
    • Lithobates areolatus areolatus (Baird and Girard, 1852)
    • Lithobates areolatus circulosus (Rice and Davies, 1878)
    • Lithobates berlandieri (Baird, 1859)
    • Lithobates blairi (Mecham, Littlejohn, Oldham, Brown & Brown, 1973)
    • Lithobates capito (LeConte, 1855)
    • Lithobates catesbeianus (Shaw, 1802)
    • Lithobates chiricahuensis (Platz & Mecham, 1979)
    • Lithobates clamitans (Latreille, 1801)
    • Lithobates clamitans clamitans (Latreille, 1801)
    • Lithobates clamitans melanotus (Rafinesque, 1820)
    • Lithobates grylio (Stejneger, 1901)
    • Lithobates heckscheri (Wright, 1924)
    • Lithobates okaloosae (Moler, 1985)
    • Lithobates onca (Cope, 1875)
    • Lithobates palustris (LeConte, 1825)
    • Lithobates pipiens (Schreber, 1782)
    • Lithobates septentrionalis (Baird, 1854)
    • Lithobates sevosus (Goin & Netting, 1940)
    • Lithobates sphenocephalus (Cope, 1886)
    • Lithobates sphenocephalus sphenocephalus (Cope, 1886)
    • Lithobates sphenocephalus utricularius (Harlan, 1825)
    • Lithobates subaquavocalis (Platz, 1993)
    • Lithobates sylvaticus (LeConte, 1825)
    • Lithobates tarahumarae (Boulenger, 1917)
    • Lithobates virgatipes (Cope, 1891)
    • Lithobates yavapaiensis (Platz & Frost, 1984)
    • Rana Linnaeus, 1758
    • Rana aurora Baird & Girard, 1852
    • Rana boylii Baird, 1854
    • Rana cascadae Slater, 1939
    • Rana draytonii Baird & Girard, 1852
    • Rana luteiventris Thompson, 1913
    • Rana muscosa Camp, 1917
    • Rana pretiosa Baird & Girard, 1853
    [from Joseph Collins]

Online Resource and Opinion

"AmphibiaWeb announces state lists of amphibians for the United States. On the AmphibiaWeb home page ( click on "country search". Next click on North America, then on the United States, and you will see a clickable US map ( Click on any state for a state list. We solicit feedback on the state lists. Our lists are a work in progress and we ask for your help in making them accurate. If you have deletions or additions to the lists, please send them to the AmphibiaWeb manager... A reference documenting the change would be helpful. Taxonomy of amphibians is currently in a state of flux. We are using a traditional taxonomy. Major changes have been proposed by Frost et al. (2006, Bull. Amer. Mus. Nat. Hist.) and advocated by CNAH. We advise caution. Virtually all recommended changes are subjective and optional. Stable taxonomies are in everyone's interest. A reasonable compromise would be to treat proposed new names for Rana and Bufo as subgenera, pending further review. Such a move would be perfectly acceptable, even to those who wish for strict phylogenetic taxonomies. Furthermore, AmphibiaWeb continues to recognize Ascaphidae and Dicamptodontidae, because these have been separated from sister taxa Leiopelmatidae and Ambystomatidae for more than 100 million years and they are morphologically and biologically very different kinds of organisms. Watch for other reactions to the proposed name changes. -- David B. Wake, Department of Integrative Biology, and Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 3101 Valley Life Sciences Building, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-3160 [ - March 24, 2006]

Tadpoles rejoice!

Gotta love it! "Couscous, the dish of the Maghreb and of France's large immigrant population, has come in first for the first time in a poll of the nation's favourite dishes, beating roast chicken and 'le steak-frites'." Also in the top ten, pizza and paella with not a frogs-leg to be seen on the list. [The UK Guardian, April 2, 2006 from Wes von Papinešu]

Thanks to everyone who sent clippings this month! Please send more as there are not enough yet to make a whole column... and wait about 30 to 60 days to see your name ___________ here.

May 2006

A minute to learn

Even before my frog book came out, I got amazingly cute letters from people. This gentleman was one of the more memorable, sending photos of the Green Frogs in his garden and notes in a sprightly and visual writing style. His latest describes an amazing observation that someone, somewhere might like to study. It's a lot of brainpower for such a small skull. "I am not sure if you remember me, but I am the person who wrote you last year about the frogs in my water garden responding to my cue; tapping a stick on the patio stones, and having them hop out to get their daily ration of a worm. Just thought you might be interested in what happened today. We have had a stretch of warm weather here in New York, and the frogs began appearing about a week ago, after their long winter sleep. This afternoon I was working by the water garden, and suddenly saw this frog swim across the pond and hop out on a rock on the side of the pond, looking at me. I thought 'you don't suppose...,' so I went to the garden, dug a worm, found my stick, and went to the patio by the pond. I tapped a couple of times, and he came hopping out on to the patio, looking up at me expectantly. I put the worm down on the stones, and he gobbled it up, as if he had done this just yesterday. I was amazed - a whole winter spent at the bottom of the water garden, and yet he responded just as he had done all last year. Thought you would enjoy this..." (later, he replied to my note requesting quotation) "Yes, you can quote me. It gets even better - today I fed four frogs, and two of them really 'got into it' with each other, jostling each other in order to be first in line for their worm. It is as if winter never happened - they are lining up for their afternoon `treat' just like they did all last summer. Simple pleasures... Pete"

A life-time to master

Taxonomy, the relationship among living species as defined by Homo sapiens, has just burped out a massive change to the nomenclature of the amphibian species of the world. Darrell Frost of the American Museum of Natural History and colleagues have published a massive online paper which details all the changes which resulted from DNA studies and other information about 522 species of amphibians. Frost said, "The new amphibian tree of life shows that the taxonomy up to this point has been hopelessly flawed and provides us with a new taxonomy that offers the scientific community a new starting place from which to address questions about amphibian biodiversity." Several other people have said, "Wait and see if it stands up." But knowing Darrell and his careful work and life-long devotion to the Taxonomy of Amphibians - I rather suspect it will, meaning I'll have dozens of new names to translate and a book to rewrite! [LiveScience, April 19, 2006 from Wes von Papinešu]

All for us, less for you

"Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns announced that approximately 191,800 acres of wetlands were gained between 1998 and 2004, bringing the nation's total wetlands acreage to 107.7 million acres, or 5 percent of the land area of the lower 48 states. The net gain was achieved because increases in shallow-pond-type wetlands offset the continued, but smaller, losses in swamp and marshland type wetlands. This report shows a loss of 523,500 acres of swamp and marsh wetlands and a gain of 715,300 acres of shallow-water wetlands...," according to the April 20, 2006 Sacramento Bee which continued "[In California's Red-legged Frog critical habitat] ranchers and frogs can peacefully coexist, and [Fish and Wildlife] offered support for the ranching exemptions." Others criticized the proposal for reducing the amount of land for the frogs which were common in California until the gold rush began. Contributor Teri Radke wrote, "Maybe the frogs could get some of Emperor Norton's new `wetland acres.' [But] they might need to dodge a few golf balls and enjoy the fine bouquet of lawn chemicals."

Torquemada lives in Florida

(Do not blame me, this is a quote!) "Iguanas are not human. They do not deserve humane treatment," [Florida] resident Richard Zellner wrote [to his local newspaper]. "As far as I am concerned, they can be burned, shot and mutilated." (end quote) The reaction from the impacted Florida Humane Society has not yet been sent, although this one excited several people to send copies including MaryBeth Trilling, Wes von Papinešu, Ms. G.E. Chow and Bill Burnett who noted this is the "same attitude as `the only good alligator is a dead alligator,' i.e. typical snowbirds'."]

Green Wasabi (for foregoing remark)

Some beautiful writing from Ron McAdow, a Daily News Correspondent for MetroWest [May 2, 2006] "As a child, I associated toads with fireflies and the happiness of warm summer twilights. That 's because, during the perfect time when lightning bugs twinkle in the deepening dusk, a silent, clod-shaped creature hopped into view on sun-warmed concrete and brought himself to my attention. Few wild vertebrates give kids a close-up look at themselves, but toads will. Survival-wise, they can afford to, because they exude a toxic slime that makes them bad eating. If you don 't put them into your mouth or rub their juices into your eyes, toads are harmless. But silent they are not... In the spring, American toads move to ponds where male toad-choirs fill the air with a sweet high-pitched trilling, a cheery sound that does not correspond with their drab appearance. Seated in water up to their shoulders, the musicians inflate the skin beneath their chins to the size of a decent bubble-gum bubble and emit a pleasant warble that draws other toads of both sexes... [and a little while later] The eggs, laid in shallow water in gelatinous strands, hatch in a week, more or less, depending on conditions. Toad tadpoles eat algae and grow for a month or two before lungs take over from gills and the toadlets move to dry land. These miniature toads disperse to forests and fields, catching and swallowing as many little bugs and worms as they can. The luckiest, fittest individuals grow to the fist-sized hoptoads we see on summer evenings. Gardeners love toads. To encourage toads to keep night-watch on their plants, some gardeners provide shady daytime retreats. Suppliers of horticultural accessories offer ceramic toad houses featuring gnomes or other whimsical motifs. In comparison to their jazzier-looking relative the frog, toads are homely. In color and texture toads resemble dirt. Their bellies are round and their propulsion feeble; they lack the spring-loaded leaping gear that gives frogs such sudden mobility. Yet toads don 't seem self-conscious about their appearance or dissatisfied with their abilities. Maybe amphibian pride in their springtime chorus enables toads to hold their heads high the rest of the year. On warm spring days, listen for their music from a shallow pond near you." Thanks Ron for such a lovely toad story!

Exotics naturalized

Bill Burnett sent an original copy of the article from the Orlando Sentinel, March 13, 2006. The story, titled "It's a Jungle Out There: Exotic species make themselves at home in Central Florida" provides a what's what of species which have naturalized in the Seminole State including the Monk Parakeet, Bullseye Snakehead fish, feral pigs, Cuban Tree Frog, Nutria, Armadillo, Coyote, Variable Platyfish, Walking Catfish, Giant Toad, Common Carp, and Rhesus Monkeys. To which should of course be added: Humans, rats, mice, roaches, goats, chickens, domestic turkey, domestic dogs, and so-called domestic felines, Cuban anoles, and the omnipresent European rock dove, occasionally called the "pigeon." The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission plans an amnesty day for people to turn in unwanted pets. This is hoped to reduce the number of exotics released into the wild where they eat what they should not and compete with native animals for limited and dwindling habitat. Meanwhile a slightly more hysterical article about giant pythons in Florida gives a long list of how pythons can inappropriately affect the environment and quotes a biologist with Florida Everglades National Park. "Last year, we caught 95 pythons," he said, not counting the one that exploded after trying to eat an alligator, or the two which got loose. One ate a pet cat, the other a turkey! A case of the non-native eating only non-native food items and therefore not competing with any large native predators. Closer to homes in suburbia and almost urbia, Miami-Dade's snake team catches around 20 pythons a year. The most interesting was a 15-footer which stopped traffic; rather like a scaly log-fall across the road. One state representative wants to add pythons to the Florida list of regulated reptiles. So while the pythons eat and breed out in the steamy swamps, the legislators sit in air-conditioned comfort and bat the bill around in committee. It could become law this year; or then perhaps it might not. Stay tuned. [Associated Press, April 12, 2006 from Ray Novotny]

Iguana eat you out of house and home

Just a few days later, many newspapers used the Associated Press story titled "Iguanas overrun island on Florida's Gulf Coast." In just 30 years, the resort town of Boca Grande has become infested with black spiny-tailed iguanas, yet none of the locals has so far started a business of capturing them and selling them in Asia as a cure-all or the next hot pet in Europe. Oh, sorry. That wasn't in the story. Let me pick it back up. "Lee County commissioners agreed to create a special tax for Boca Grande to cover costs of studying the infestation on the barrier island of Gasparilla, where scientists estimate there are up to 12,000 iguanas on the loose, more than 10 for every year-round resident." That's right, folks. Protein on the loose and all the government can think of is taxes. The local hardware store owner is more in touch. He said, "For some people, they've really taken over, climbing into attics, into vents and even into their toilets." He sells lots of traps. The government has had this item on its agenda before. In 1988, a mere 18 years ago, people suggested rounding up the lizards, but many people thought they were "kind of cute," according to a County Commissioner who added, "They're no longer cute little guys. They're very pesky. They eat turtle and bird eggs and burrow into sand dunes. We could lose a lot of sand in a storm." The article added that, "The iguana was introduced to Boca Grande in the 1970s by a boat captain who brought a few from Mexico for his kids but released them when they grew too large. Their population exploded because each female iguana can lay up to 75 eggs a year. The reptiles are found in a few other places in Florida, but nowhere in the numbers seen on Gasparilla Island, home to television renovator Bob Vila and a vacation spot for the Bush clan." [Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 16, 2006 from Bill Burnett and Lansing State Journal, April 15, 2006 from Jim Harding] Contributor Jim Harding writes: I always like to ask a `what if' question in these circumstances. Like what if the iguanas had gotten there [by themselves]... rafting or something? Would they still be so undesirable? Are humans completely separate from nature or a `natural' method of dispersal? Always or never? These questions always illicit great discussions in my herp class! Cheers. Jim"

My two cents

I've always wondered why we try to eradicate vertebrate species that successfully translocate and take into captivity species declining in their native habitat when neither action seems particularly to "help or hurt" the great scheme of Nature. When viewed from a geological time scale, the glaciers ebb and flow, the bands of habitat suitable for species moves constantly up and down a temperature gradient like a vertebrate Gallileo's thermometer. Our houses and roads are just getting in their way. If Caribbean lizards are moving to Florida it may be because they know sea-level is rising and they're the first to move on from the sinking islands of Atlantis.

Small lizard, big range extension

Although they were native to the Caribbean, during the 1940s, 20 pairs of northern curly-tailed lizards were released on Florida's Palm Beach island. They reached the mainland in 1968; by 2002 their range stretched nearly 60 miles through dense human habitat. Seems the little guys like concrete and houses for living spaces and they eat just about anything that fits in their mouths, including other lizards. [Chicago Tribune, May 1, 2006 online] One can only hope they eat their way through the Cuban anoles before becoming food for some other introduced beast.

Even worse in slo' mo'

The widely circulated gross out film titled "Snake Regurgitates Hippo" is a real film, but the prey item is a capybara. Hippopotomi have four toes; capybara have three. Count them for yourself. Google the title and it will come right up! [Thanks to Wes von Papinešu and Matt NoLastName for the movie and the i.d.]

Far too many crocodiles

A man was caught in South Africa with 1,067 baby crocodiles in his car. That's either really small babies, really tightly packed, or a really big car. The visual image rather boggles the imagination. The police said, "The man faced charges of possession and transport of the crocodiles without the necessary permits," and that there was no information about where the babies had come from. HerpDigest [March 17, 2006) continues, "Recent figures from the international police agency, Interpol, showed that trade in flora and fauna was now the second largest illegal trade in the world, after narcotics. Recent estimates for the illegal flora and fauna trade put the figure at $US20 billion ($27.25 billion) a year." [from Allen Salzberg]

The best-laid plans

According to officials at the San Diego Zoo, seven mountain yellow-legged frogs, collected in the San Bernardino Mountains in an effort to save the species have died from a bacterium related to tuberculosis. The corpses of the female and six males will be studied to determine the actual cause of the deaths which took place over several days. [Associated Press, April 26, 2006, from The Center for North American Herpetology]

The tip of the iceberg

One time I asked my correspondent Chuck Bogert how it felt to have a creature as delightful as the Guatemalan Beaded Lizard (Heloderma horridum charlesbogerti - found in 1984) named for him in 1988. You could almost hear his growl when his letter arrived. "Primitive lizards for primitive people," he wrote and pointed out they had become extinct anyway. And just a few years later, despondent over failing health, he took his own life. Ten years afterwards, in 2002, a few individuals were found in small desert patches in the Motagua Valley in Guatemala surrounded by rain-forested valleys and cloud-forested mountains. People, of course, live here, farming corn, tobacco and melons in the well-drained formerly desert soil. Due to myths most beaded lizards were killed on sight by local people until they found out they could make more money selling them to international animal dealers. Scientists speculate that habitat loss and removal for trade have pushed the species to the edge; about 200 are believed to exist in the wild. Lately education and conservation people have worked with locals to stop the wanton killing of this unique creature. The usually quite significant proceeds from this year's National Reptile Breeder's Expo will go to "Project Heloderma." If you'd like to send auction items, please address: Wayne Hill, 621 Avenue M, SW - Winter Haven, FL 33880 Attn: Project Heloderma. Cash donations to "Project Heloderma" c/o Brad Lock, Zoo Atlanta, 800 Cherokee Avenue, SE, Atlanta GA 30315 "". [Press Release, May 2, 2006]

The bottom of the iceberg

The Associated Press reported on May 2, 2006 that "Polar bears and hippos are among more than 16,000 species of animals and plants threatened with global extinction, [said] the World Conservation Union... According to the Swiss-based conservation group, known by its acronym IUCN, the number of species classified as being in serious danger of extinction rose from about 15,500 in its previous `Red List' report, published in 2004. The list includes one in three amphibians, a quarter of the world's mammals and coniferous trees, and one in eight birds" and the rate at which it is happening is "increasing, not slowing down,'' said ... the conservation group's director general." The full report is available on the net at "" [From Jim Harding]

Take my skin, please!

A new book is out on how to tell which snake has left its skin behind. Sound silly? It's not. There's sound science behind it. "The ability to make such identifications may greatly increase the number of vouchered records of snakes throughout the eastern United States and adjacent Canada, and may provide a source for additional tissue samples for molecular research on these reptiles, all without the necessity of removing a serpent from its natural environment... With the publication of this title, The Center for North American Herpetology is pleased to initiate its monograph series, produced and published in cooperation with Eric Thiss of Serpent's Tale & Zoo Book Sales. The CNAH monographs are designed to make available herpetological work about North America and adjoining countries in order to better serve the academic community... CNAH is a non-profit 501c3 foundation devoted to promoting the preservation and conservation of North American amphibians, turtles, reptiles, and crocodiles through education and information. For more information about CNAH, visit our web site at "http://www.cnah./org." To see the book, or order it, contact Serpents Tale 507-467-8733 or "" [April 26, 2006, The Center for North American Herpetology from Joe Collins]

Sounds like a B-movie plot, crocs in a canal

A Thai crocodile farm in Thailand scared its neighbors half to death while the other half caught 12 escaped crocodiles which slipped out of the farm despite local people's calls for stricter regulations on the enterprise. A 24-year-old fisherman was bitten by one of the crocs, another dozen remain to be captured. Officials said they had to catch them now, while the water level is low, for they could go anywhere once the rains start again. [Associated Press, April 20, 2006 from Ms. G.E. Chow]

Ancient walking snake

Following the widely announced "Jurassic Mammal," now comes "A Cretaceous terrestrial snake with robust hind-limbs and a sacrum," according to Nature [440, 1037-1040 April 20, 2006 from Mike Dloogatch) which continues: "It has commonly been thought that snakes underwent progressive loss of their limbs by gradual diminution of their use. However, recent developmental and paleontological discoveries suggest a more complex scenario of limb reduction, still poorly documented in the fossil record. Here we report a fossil snake with a sacrum supporting a pelvic girdle and robust, functional legs outside the ribcage. The new fossil, from the Upper Cretaceous period of Patagonia, fills an important gap in the evolutionary progression towards limblessness because other known fossil snakes with developed hindlimbs, the marine Haasiophis, Pachyrhachis and Eupodophis, lack a sacral region. Phylogenetic analysis shows that the new fossil is the most primitive (basal) snake known and that all other limbed fossil snakes are closer to the more advanced macrostomatan snakes, a group including boas, pythons and colubroids. The new fossil retains several features associated with a subterranean or surface dwelling life that are also present in primitive extant snake lineages, supporting the hypothesis of a terrestrial rather than marine origin of snakes."

From the Sports Section

Apparently a team with attendant sports writers was going from someplace to somewhere and the writer starts writing what he saw. "So the plane... is sitting on the ground in Orlando when suddenly someone mentions that there's a frog on board. Seems a young man had brought a rather large frog on the plane in a cup with no lid, and said frog was a major concern. Flight attendants told family members the frog had to go, and they refused. So the pilot called the Orlando police in. That's right, the police. For a frog. The police officer went to the back of the plane where the offensive frog had taken residence and informed the family either the frog had to go, or it had to get off. Me, I like frogs and all, but given the way airlines treat customers these days and given the cost of flying six folks from Orlando to Cleveland, I'd sacrifice the frog. Perhaps send it to a better place or something. Well, this family got up and left the plane - all six of them! All the while, they murmured how unfair it was that this frog could not fly to Cleveland. So in a day and age when airlines will not hold a connection if your flight is 10 minutes late, this major airline that flies direct between Orlando and Cleveland held a flight for 20 minutes to rid it of an offensive frog. With six folks having to find a new way to get to Cleveland, I figure that was at least a $1,000 frog." [Akron Beacon, April 6, 2006 from Ray Novotny]

Snakes in Movies

From the Chicago Tribune's spirited writer Monty Phan comes this partial Filmography of Snakes:
  • 'Snake People' (1971) - Voodoo island death cult transforms native babes into zombies, who are then taught by a snake dancer to kill and devour police who try to bust up the ritual.
  • 'SSSSSSS' (1973) - College lab assistant falls for his mad-scientist boss' daughter - even as dad plots to turn the unlucky lad into a king cobra with his extra-special serum.
  • 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (1981) - In which Indy, facing a pit of asps, reveals one of his few fears, uttering: 'Snakes. Why'd it have to be snakes?'
  • 'Cobra' (1986) - OK, this only sounds like a snake flick. If only. Instead, we get Sylvester Stallone playing police Lt. Marion 'Cobra' Cobretti in a film that bore the tagline, 'If crime is the disease, Cobra's the cure.'
  • 'From Dusk Till Dawn' (1996) - Salma Hayek dancing onstage in a bikini. Not sexy enough? How about also wrapping her in a giant snake?
  • 'Anaconda' (1997) - Great title, forgettable thriller - with a cast including Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson, who likely would be happy to put it far behind them (neither was in 2004's pointless sequel).
  • 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' (2002) - Harry, who speaks the language of snakes, battles a giant basilisk in the film's climax.
  • 'Kill Bill: Vol. 2' (2004) - Bud (Michael Madsen) is done in not by the Black Mamba (Uma Thurman) but by a black mamba.
  • And coming soon to your multiplex, 'Snakes on a Plane" (2006, August) The star, "Samuel L. Jackson... plays an FBI agent escorting a federal witness from Hawaii to Los Angeles when an assassin lets loose the serpents. `It's just one of those popcorn kind of moments, where you know you're going to a movie, you don't have to think about what's happening,' Jackson told NPR recently. `You know what's going to happen. There are going to be snakes loose on this plane. Some people are going to be bitten. There are going to be some victims.'" Meanwhile it's a blog-lander's delight. And meanwhile we can roll around what is sure to be the buzz-phrase of the movie on par with the specific odor of napalm at dawn, "Get these (expletive deleted) snakes off the (expletive deleted) plane." [Chicago Tribune, April 13, 2006]
  • Just once, I'd like to see a "Gentle Ben" starring Annie Anaconda, or a "Lassie" starring Pythagoras the Python. How about "Life with Massasauga," or for collectors "A Boelenger's Python Named 'Desire'"?

Thanks to everyone who contributed this month and to: Ms. G.E. Chow, Bill Burnett, Raymond Novotny, Ray Boldt, Wes von Papinešu, Lori King, Charlie Painter, Gabe Sereno and others whose letters and clippings await June! You can contribute, too. Send articles by mail to me and then wait 30 to 60 days to see "Your Name Here." And a great big thanks to you, too!

June, 2006

Cheaper than mice

Implicated in the spread of chytrid fungus worldwide, African clawed frogs - Xenopus laevis, are in the news for another reason. "According to research by investigators at the University of Edinburgh. Analysis of the amphibians have revealed that the distinctive species, which has become popular in recent years as a domestic pet, existenceshares with humans the same genetic mechanism that enables embryonic stem cells to divide without limit. Researchers found that the embryonic stem cell research allows the extracted cells to become any of the 200 cell types in the body. Until now, stem cells have been obtained from mice, primates and humans, but never from amphibians. However, the African clawed frog is easier to study than mice and humans." [All Headline News, London, England, May 15, 2006 from Wes von Papinešu]

Are they speciating, or have we learned to look?

The former Bronx Zoo, the New York-based World Conservation Society, discovered eight new species of frogs in the past two years in Laos. Keep your eyes out for pictures of these; a couple are really unusual. [Yahoo News May 2, 2006 from Carl Harlow and Ms. G.E. Chow]

Ready, set, breed!

  • Sometimes one needs to believe everything one reads. Several articles lately have pointed to the arrival of Bahamian Northern Curlytailed Lizards in Fort Lauderdale, Florida as the "next wave of invaders." The hype approaches Spielbergian proportions with biologists calling them "the T. rex of little ground creatures." Their first arrival was in Palm Beach when a man let 40 of them loose to eat bugs in his sugar cane fields. By 1968, the lizards had crossed to the mainland and have spread outward ever since. One researcher says that where they are found, no other lizards are found, another called them "ferocious little carnivores," and added, "They do well around humans." [Lansing State Journal, May 7, 2006 from Jim Harding]
  • Brown anoles have arrived in Hawaii. "They're ugly; they look like little dinosaurs," said an Hawaii Kai resident. "I take my dogs out for a walks in the afternoon and they're just all over the sidewalks." A representative of the Department of Agriculture said the first reports of brown anoles date back to the 1990s. Since then other lizards have disappeared across Oahu, parts of Kauai and Maui. Geckos and smaller green anoles are on the menu. [KHON Honolulu, Hawaii, May 2, 2006] Contributor Ms. G.E. Chow wrote, "They're not that bad... They'll eat out of your hand if you give them the chance."
  • A 17-inch albino corn snake was found and captured by a new resident of Hawaii who used to live in the Midwest and was confident enough to catch it alive. At first he thought the brightly colored animal was a rubber snake someone had tossed on his patio, but as he got closer, he noticed activity. It was turned in immediately to the Department of Agriculture. Ownership of snakes is strictly prohibited in Hawaii. [Honolulu Star-Bulletin, March 11, 2006 from Ms. G.E. Chow]
  • "Invasive species should be high on the list, [of things searched for and found at Hawaiian airports], not an afterthought. It's not a priority until we have frogs chirping in the neighborhoods, and then we dump all sorts of money on it." Jeff Mikulina, Sierra Club Hawai'i Chapter. [Honolulu Weekly, April 12-18, 2006 from Ms. G.E. Chow]

The month of the Crocodile Story

  • "A woman found a small [fresh-water] crocodile in her backyard swimming pool in Sydney... just weeks after a saltwater crocodile was found in a nearby pond. The freshwater species, which can grow up to 10 feet in length, is not found in the wild anywhere near Sydney." [Honolulu Star-Bulletin, March 19, 2006 from Ms. G.E. Chow]
  • One of the tropical storms to hit Australia this year caused a tree to fall against an enclosure housing a 14 1/2-foot crocodile. When a worker came to remove it, the chain-saw noise apparently upset the animal which "jumped out of the water and sped along the tree about 18, 20 feet and actually grabbed the chain-saw out of his hands," according to an eyewitness. The worker was unhurt, but the saw, after being chewed on for 90 minutes, is finished. Associated Press calmly concluded "Saltwater crocodiles have been known to attack small power boats, apparently because they do not like the noise of outboard motors." [Sun-Sentinel, April 30, 2006 from Alan W. Rigerman]
  • Another tropical storm over-washed the Northern Territory town of Katherine and left crocodiles floating in all sorts of inconvenient places. A teenage boy who took shelter in a tree was attacked by, and then left alone, by a crocodile. Parks and Wildlife sent an experienced Crocodile Hunter into the area to shoot the more dangerous animals. [Honolulu Advertiser, April 16, 2006 from Ms. G.E. Chow]
  • "Hunters capture a nine-and-a-half foot alligator they they believe killed a Florida woman... Authorities believe they have found and killed the alligator responsible for the death of a 28-year-old aspiring model this week after hunters found two human arms in the animal's stomach. The male alligator was 9 feet, 6 inches long, Florida Fish and Wildlife officials said... [she was] the 18th person killed by alligators in Florida since 1948." [Yahoo News, May 13, 2006 from MaryBeth Trilling] Right after that, I heard there were two more people killed by alligators, but I'm waiting for the clippings which will eventually fill in al the details.

Would you like frogs with that?

Associated Press reports: "A woman eating a salad at a Burger King restaurant in the Netherlands found a live frog in her salad, the company confirmed... [the woman] said she found the amphibian while halfway through her meal at the Burger King restaurant at The Hague's central train station. 'I stood up and screamed the place upside-down,' she told [Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad]... the company had given its excuses and is trying to figure out how the frog got into the salad." [June 3, 2006 from Ms. G.E. Chow]

Early Muppet Trivia

Adam Finley wrote: Many years ago I was watching a special on Jim Henson that showed a lot of the work he had done before The Muppet Show came along and gave him that final push into the mainstream he was already essential a part of anyway. Besides his work on shows like Sesame Street, Sam and Friends, and The Muppet Show, Henson's puppets also appeared in several commercials, including... Wilkins Coffee. I believe there were several of these commercials made, all of which ended with one puppet being shot with a cannon for refusing to try Wilkins Coffee. [Kermit is the narrator in the clip posted on the website.] I guess the point was that if you didn't at least try it, a small amphibian would shoot you in the face with heavy artillery. [June 1, 2006, a disappointing film clip is posted at]

Plane Snake (nov. sp.)

Well no sooner does Hollywood come up with the much anticipated summer blockbuster "Snakes on a Plane," than a real, live snake gives the idea a twirl. The snake slithered on board a Piper Cherokee while it was on the ground in Charleston, West Virginia and emerged from the instrument panel at about three thousand feet above southern Ohio. The pilot grabbed the snake with one hand, while flying the plane with the other, then radioed down for fast landing clearance - which he received - made a smooth landing, posed for pictures and let the snake go. Let's hope the Hollywood story is as kind to the creatures but I have my doubts. [Yahoo News, June 2, 2006 from Ms. G.E. Chow]

Frogs on the Plane

"In a race to save amphibians threatened by an encroaching, lethal fungus, two conservationists from Atlanta recently [legally] packed their carry-ons with frogs rescued from a Central American rain forest, squeezing some 150 to a suitcase, and requested permission from airlines to travel with them in the cabin of the plane... " They didn't do any studies, instead over-collecting individuals and bringing them to the U.S. for breeding purposes. "Not all experts, it should be noted, are fans of what has come to be called the rapid response protocol... Still, in an apparent validation of their tactics... [the lead scientist] said the chytrid fungus had recently been found in El Valle, as predicted, and he estimated 90 percent of the frogs there would be gone within 90 days. 'You won't hear scientists say this too often,' [he] said. 'But I wish we were wrong.'" [New York Times June 6, 2006]

Turtles move, man gets life

A New Yorker who kept more than 1,000 turtles in his 3,500 square foot loft, hosting school tours and newspaper reporters for years, has decided the turtles are going to a turtle preserve across the Hudson in New Jersey. "What will change? Aside from having a lot of space back, [he] will have another $5,000 a month to his name - that's how much it takes to feed and care for those critters. [Honolulu Advertiser, April 20, 2006 from Ms. G.E. Chow]

How to not get bitten

"Last year, about 250 bites -- from all kinds of snakes as well as poisonous insects and other pests -- were reported to the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Venom Response Unit. Of those, 92 were from poisonous snakes and needed antivenin treatment. The unit has the only bank of its kind of exotic antivenin in the nation. The facility stocks 43 types of antivenin, four for native species and the rest for exotic snakes, mostly kept by zoos, handlers and private collectors. The typical snakebite victim is a 'male between 17 and 27,' the Massachusetts Medical Society wrote in 2002. 'Ninety-eight percent of bites are on extremities, most often the hands or arms, and result from deliberate attempts to handle, harm or kill the snake.' Experts offer simple advice: If you see a snake, don't touch it. 'If we could keep the 14- to 45-year-old "boys" from picking up snakes, we could drastically reduce snakebites,' said Lt. Charles Seifert of the Miami-Dade Anti Venom Bank." [Sun-Sentinel, June 5, 2006 from Bill Burnett]

More animals out of place

  • Many restaurants in the Beijing area are noticing a downward trend in eating wild-caught food and so have begun letting tanks full of snakes, guinea pigs and other small animals loose in the fields outside of town. "Large numbers of snakes were freed in May, including many poisonous species...Villagers in Dazhuangke Village of Yanqing County told the Beijing Daily that at the end of May more than ten individuals drove to the village with 3 big bags of snakes. With the bags unpacked more than 200 snakes were freed, villagers said. The estimated 200 snakes then dispersed into the nearby fields and orchards leaving the villagers in fear of attack, and unable to bring in the harvest... Freeing captive animals is a Chinese tradition several thousand years old. Chinese people, especially Buddhists, think that through good deeds such as freeing captive creatures, they will benefit in the afterlife. In recent years, the action of freeing animals at random, regardless of the result, has been criticized by some Buddhists and environmental protection experts." [Interfax-China, June 2, 2006]
  • The second-largest Nile Monitor caught in Cape Coral, Florida since trapping began in 2001 measured a whopping 6 foot 2 inches of pure mean. The biggest one ever caught there was 6 foot 3 inches. [News-Press, June 2, 2006 from Wes von Papinešu]
  • "European wall lizards - descendants of a few creatures imported from overseas in 1951 by a vacationing Hyde Park boy." Now grown, he describes the why and the how of introducing European wall lizards to the Cincinnati area. The Ohio Enquirer [May 21, 2006] reports, "He caught the lizards at Lake Garda in northern Italy. He brought some back to his father's house in Switzerland, where he was staying for part of the summer... he decided to bring some back to Cincinnati, where he lived with his mother... 'I put about 8 or 10 of them in a sock and put it in my pocket before I got on the plane,'" the now much older man said. His brother even tried to move a few to Maryland, but they didn't establish. A second translocation of a few individuals from El Vedra introduced a blue-bellied form which interbred with the Lake Garda stock producing the current "Cincinnati Wall Lizard" which is migrating - of course - having reached northern Kentucky. No native lizards are apparently displaced by the Europeans.

Indian Cane Turtle renamed

A Madras Snake Park press release picked up by New Delhi News, June 5, 2006 reports: "India's first woman herpetologist, J. Vijaya, has finally got her due. Nearly two decades after she was found dead, at the age of 28, her name has been formally given to the cane turtle that she spent so much of her time studying... herpetologists analyzed the DNA... re-named the turtle Vijayachelys silvatica in her honor. It is a monotypic genus, which means that there is no other turtle like it to share the name of Vijayachelys. Young Viji came to Madras Snake Park as a volunteer in late 1978 and after graduation started working full-time here. Romulus Whitaker, her boss at the Madras Snake Park, put her onto freshwater turtles and later when Edward Moll, Chairman of the World Conservation Union's Freshwater Chelonian Specialist Group needed an assistant for a nationwide survey of turtles Whitaker recommended Viji, who was just 22, for the job, says the magazine. The survey got underway in August-September 1981 and Viji travelled up to West Bengal (the major consumer of freshwater turtles in the country) to meet up her team members. They began their work from the meat markets; here thousands of Indian soft-shell turtles and narrow-headed soft-shell turtles came for sale during the winter months. The price of turtle meat plummeted from Rs. 18 to Rs. 5 per kilogram during these months; 'It was cheaper than beef,' Viji noted. What Viji was doing wasn't easy. The areas she visited for her work were the 'wild west' of India and the black-and-white pictures she took of the gory sea turtle slaughter on Digha beach in West Bengal and in the meat markets of Calcutta, shook the public when India Today magazine ran them in the early 1980s. According to the magazine, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took action and overnight sea turtle exploitation was cut to a trickle... She was finally able to find a cane turtle in July 1982 and that shot her into the international limelight. In December 1982, one of the female cane turtles Viji brought back laid a clutch of two eggs. She also discovered that this species wasn't a vegetarian as earlier thought and from knowing virtually nothing about it, Viji made a quantum leap in documenting what this turtle was about, says the magazine. Completely at home in the forest, Viji is remembered as an excellent field biologist whose best traits were her perseverance and her ability to observe. In 1984 she was invited to do her Masters from the Eastern Illinois University and in 1987 returned to India to do field studies. She was found dead in the forest she loved."


A record number of seventy-six Kemp's ridley nests have been found at the Padre Island National Seashore this year, up from 51 in 2005 and the greatest number since they began nesting after massive efforts to head start and restore the species. When the first Kemp's ridleys were released off Padre Island, no one knew if they would come back and since it takes about 15 years for turtles to mature to egg-laying age, it was many years before the first turtle came home to roost. Volunteers patrol miles and miles of beaches, but often visitors are the first to see a nest because the turtles lay fast and get out. [Texas Gulf Caller-Times, June 3, 2006 from Wes von Papinešu]

Thanks to everyone who contributed this month, especially Bill Burnett, Ms. G.E. Chow, Wes von Papinešu, Alan Rigerman, MaryBeth Trilling and the wonders of Internet news services. After all these years of saying, print only, I encourage new contributors particularly to send the text of stories in the body of an email (please not the link alone!) to my email address. Print articles, those with great photos, great postcards, interesting pictures, personal notes, and other fascinating things may be sent to me.

A special thanks in advance to the Pacific Northwest Herpetological Society and long-term contributor Marty Marcus for inviting me to speak at their June 2006 meeting in Washington State. Finally, after all these years, I'll get to meet someone who's been contributing to this column for over a decade!

July, 2006

A Moment of Silence, Please

One of the oldest beings on earth, an 176-year-old tortoise reported to have been owned by Charles Darwin, passed away at Steve and Terri Irwin's Australia Zoo north of Brisbane. It's not the oldest tortoise ever known. That one died in 1965 at the age of 188. [CNN, June 24, 2006 from Ms. G.E. Chow and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 26, 2006 from Bill Burnett]

Happy Birth Day to You!

Three tiny Egyptian tortoises, Testudo kleinmanni, hatched at England's Chester Zoo. Where they used to live freely in the wild is the "Mediterranean coastal deserts of Egypt, Eastern Libya and Israel's western Negev." When fully grown, the critically endangered tortoises will only be from three to five inches total shell length. [USA Today, May 24, 2006 from Bill Burnett]

I've had days like that

A pair of tortoises kept in captivity together for 55 years in England outlived their original owners and are now housed with a second family. One warm day, they put them outside as always, turned their back for a minute (turtle owners start snickering now) and the lady tortoise of the pair sauntered off and has been missing ever since. The gent is reportedly frantic, crawling the walls of their joint enclosure and trying to escape himself. The owners speculated she might have wanted a little privacy after 55 years, and expressed concern that they find her before harvesting machinery cuts loose in local fields. [England's Daily Mail, June 6, 2006 from Bill Burnett's mom "Hilda"]

The Wild, Wild South

  • Public outcry over Florida regulatory policies which result in massive fees to the agency while living tortoises are buried by bulldozers has resulted in "moves to conserve the species... gaining support, even among developers," according to the Orlando Sentinel, May 22, 2006 [from Bill Burnett] The account continues, "Since 1992, the state's wildlife agency has allowed housing construction and other projects to entomb nearly 80,000 tunnel-dwelling tortoises rather than deal with the extra time and cost of moving them to a conservation tract." The payoff for the state was about $40 million and nearly 10,000 acres set aside as part of deals with developers. In a complete and utter further lack of any sort of logic, the bureaucratic rules also prevent folks living in prime tortoise habitat from keeping any - including a single one of the 80,000 buried alive - as pets. The article concludes ominously, "Fish and Wildlife Conservation authorities know that some developers will never agree to any tortoise rules. From time to time, the agency discovers bulldozed tracts and tortoises killed without a permit."
  • Meanwhile, heavy hurricane years have devastated the tiny patch of sand permitted to remain between the ever rising surf line and millions of dollars of prime beachfront real estate. In the old days, communities just called in the dredgers and pumped sand off the ocean floor up into darling little designer dunes, low enough to see over from those expensive picture windows and ready to wash out on the next tide. Nowadays they have to file incidental take permits for sea turtles because dredging methods suck up shrimp, crabs and the turtles which feed on them. Across the dredge zone this year, the take number has been filled and local communities will have to wait until October to resume dredging. This has locals in a panic as the next hurricane season is due to start any minute and many towns including parts of South Padre Island, Texas are awaiting their protective dunes. At no time in the article, did anyone on any side of the debate, advance the simple concept of attaching TEDs to dredge pipes just as they were attached to shrimp nets to divert large fish and turtles. [Leesburg, Florida Daily Commercial, June 26, 2006 from Bill Burnett's Mom (welcome back!)]

It's official

Coqui is one of the new words selected by Merriam-Webster for inclusion in this year's list of new words. The dictionary refers to coqui frogs as "small chiefly nocturnal arboreal frog (Eleutherodactylus coqui) native to Puerto Rico that has a high-pitched call and has been introduced into Hawaii and southern Florida." Herpetologists might point out that they introduced themselves into Hawaii, half a world away from where they belong in Puerto Rico. None-the-less it was fun to see a herpetological word amidst the rest which include "manga," "soul patches," and "polyamory." At least I knew what they were, even if my spell-checker didn't!

Let's hope it's enough, and on time

The North India News Service reports on the massive change in attitude towards amphibians - which column readers here have watched unfold before their very eyes over the past 20 years. "In view of the ban imposed by the Union government on catching, killing and export of frogs the chief wildlife warden, Goa has solicited the cooperation of the people in the effort to protect and conserve them. Frogs are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Catching, killing and selling frogs or serving frog meat in eating places contravenes the provisions of the act and attracts stringent punishment. Mythologically, frogs are believed to be the incarnation of the Goddess Laxmi and are said to bring prosperity and herald the rains. Frogs mainly feed on insects and due to this feeding habits factors responsible for various diseases like malaria, filaria and encephalitis are brought under control. Frogs also control vectors of various other human and animal diseases. The consumption of frogs over a period of time could trigger paralytic strokes, cancers, kidney failures and other deformities. Monsoons are the mating, breeding, multiplying and feeding season for many species of frogs, and it is during this time they become victim of their greatest predator-man. Indiscriminate killing of frogs has been the cause of a drastic decline in their population. It is to be kept in mind that killing of frogs is an ecological crime against the food chain, affecting the ecological balance of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems." [June 14, 2006 from Ms. G.E. Chow]

Karma is a Female Alligator

Under a headline "Jackass of the Week," the South Florida City Link, May 10, 2006 reports, "It's bad enough... [I'll call him JOTW, instead of naming names] has paved over half the Florida alligators' habitat, but now, he has to go jumping on their backs as well. Last week as real estate tycoon JOTW drove a group of fellow millionaires around his private nature preserve... he spied a 7-foot alligator. Unlike most of us who would give such an animal a wide respectful berth, JOTW proceeded to wrestle the creature, as he had promised his guests he would if they encountered one. `It's part of my Florida cracker culture,' JOTW ... explained, adding that he often does this sort of thing." The newspaper claims some contradictory personal experience with this culture and adds that this time, tough-guy JOTW was injured. He was dragged into the water, rolled around, had his hand chomped, "before some of the other cash-chuckers... managed to separate the two... [JOTW] was taken to the hospital. We hate to kick JOTW while he's down; we hear he throws the greatest Christmas party in all South Florida. But then again, we also hear he eats live frogs. All things considered, we hope the incident of the Painful Pinky teaches JOTW to let sleeping gators lie. To do otherwise is to invite jackassery." [A less editorialized version of the same story was printed in the Orlando Sentinel, May 4, 2006. Both clippings from Alan Rigerman, the second also from Bill Burnett]

Typical bureaucrat, sorry, bureau-dog

"Python Pete," the beagle trained to sniff out giant snakes in the Everglades has apparently decided on retirement at age 18 months. His handler reports that all of his latest drag and sniffs have been to big piles of brush, not the snakes he was so expensively trained to find. [Miami NewTimes, May 4 to 10, 2006 from Alan Rigerman]

Academia to the rescue?

Biologists have radio tagged, released and re-caught wild Florida pythons in an effort to understand how the giant reptiles use their adopted space. Figuring it takes a python to find a python, researchers tagged four snakes and studied them for three months of free-range slithering. Dubbed "Judas snakes," the pythons led researchers to more snakes which were rounded up and removed from the Everglades. Realizing that catching snakes already released is a Quixotic pursuit, Florida legislators are urging a $100 per year big snake license in the hopes of cutting down on impulse purchases which later result in releases. Another agency is working on amnesty days where folks can turn in giant snakes instead of letting them go. The numbers of snakes seen and captured tell the story. Until 2000, there were only about a dozen reports of snakes in the Everglades. By 2005, the number known to be there was 236, with 94 counted in 2005 itself! The sudden escalation in numbers, the finding of juvenile snakes and other factors have led scientists to suggest the animals are breeding in the wild. Breeders and dealers acknowledge they've been behind the loop, still selling animals without really educating people about how big they get - and how fast they get that big. [Miami Herald, March 30, 2006 from Alan Rigerman]

To eat - or be eaten!

The Everglades Reporter, published by the Friends of the Everglades, Spring 2006 issue features a story by Ray "Skip" Snow and Lori Oberhofer, the two most likely to be on the front lines, with or without Pete the Pyth-non-sniffer, in the great python wars of the 21st Century. They point out the diet list includes, "raccoon, rabbit, muskrat, squirrel, opossum, cotton rat, black rat, cat (kitten), house wren, pied-billed grebe, white ibis and limpkin," while "sources of mortality include motor vehicles, mowing equipment, fire and alligators." They found hatchlings in both 2004 and 2005, although hatchlings may have been present before that and were unfound.

At last, a fitting adversary

"Until now, man's relentless development of Florida has been our ultimate weapon - we've been killing off docile gators, the furry black bears, the sleek Florida panther and harmless gopher tortoises in alarming numbers. The pythons, however, aren't likely to be such meek victims." Ramsey Campbell, Orlando Sentinel Columnist, June 12, 2006

Not herps, but

  • A millipede unseen by scientific humans in 80 years was rediscovered by two millipede hunters in central California. The reaction of science was predictable. A bunch were collected, positively identified, preserved (i.e. "killed") and a few others were sent for similar behavior to another institution. [Orlando Sentinel, June 8, 2006 from Alan Rigerman] Let's hope for a different outcome when someone finally catches an ivory-billed woodpecker!
  • Manatees, those giant floating mammals considered a "poster species" for the environment, have been down-listed from endangered to threatened on Florida's state list of non-human species in peril. Their federal status has not, as yet changed, although some report it may shift downward as well. Even mainstream media report the down-grading is a result of a "campaign [by various growth interests] against a growing array of restrictions intended to protect the lumbering sea cows." The vote to down-list was 7-0. [Miami Herald, June 8, 2006 from Alan Rigerman]

Alligators, the good, the bad and the ugly

  • Three women lost their lives to alligators in Florida in one week this year. First, "a 28-year-old South Florida woman was attacked and killed by an alligator near a canal," according to the Orlando Sentinel [May 15, 2006 from Bill Burnett] which continues, "friends pried the body of a [23-year-old] Tennessee woman from the jaws of an alligator in... Ocala National Forest... attacked Sunday afternoon while snorkeling." Three days later, "in Pinellas County, the dismembered body of a woman [later identified as a homeless 43-year-old] was found about three days after she died." Additional details were provided in a multitude of papers as all of Florida experienced alligator panic. The gators responsible, and several others, were rounded up, killed and autopsied to prove their complicity.
  • Prior to these three deaths, there had been only 17 human fatalities due to alligators and 351 recorded attacks on people in the past 58 years. [Leesburg, Florida Daily Commercial, May 15, 2006 from Bill Burnett]
  • "More than half the 351 documented attacks between 1948 and summer 2004 have occurred since 1993. During this same time, there have been only two attacks in Louisiana, the only state with as many gators as we have. So as you can see, this is a people problem," wrote Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas. [May 16, 2006, from Alan Rigerman]
  • In 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available, 15,485 serious alligator complaints were filed and 7,300 alligators were killed. While the alligator population is stable at one million, humans continue to move into prime alligator habitat and do things that make themselves or their pets look like food. Spring brings gators out of winter torpor - hungry, and people don't accomodate the two or three weeks of extra caution required. [Orlando Sentinel, May 15, 2006 from Bill Burnett]
  • The state announced that plans had already been in the works to reduce the number of gators statewide by lengthening the hunt season from six to 11 weeks. [Daily Commercial, May 16, 2006 from Bill Burnett]
  • A seven-foot alligator chomped down on a diver's air tank while he was retrieving golf balls in an aptly named "water hazard" on a Florida golf course. He was rescued by a local resident who tried to get the gator off the diver's air tank with his knife and was bitten for his trouble. He was treated and released. The gator was killed and may be turned into a golf bag. [South Florida CityLink, May 3, 2006 from Alan Rigerman]
  • "Trappers contracted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will attempt to find and remove [nuisance alligators]. The definition of a nuisance alligator is broad, [a biologist]... said. `In general, if ... [a member of the public] feel[s] it is a threat and it is behind their house, we will come get it.'" [Miami Herald, May 17, 2006 from Alan Rigerman]
  • Veteran alligator trapper Todd Hardwick took a 9-foot 4-inch gator out of a canal in Northwest Dade county after residents saw it resting its chin on the canal bank. Hardwick said it was unusual to get such a large one east of I-95 and said the 500-pound creature put up quite a fight. He also trapped an 400-pounder a few days before. Because it's so big and had nothing on its record, it will be relocated rather than killed. [Miami Herald, May 18 and May 21, 2006 from Alan Rigerman]
  • A man snorkeling alone was attacked and required 33 stitches on his head after being bitten from behind by a three to four foot long alligator in a park visited by 500 to 600 people a day. A drought is pushing alligators into more permanent waters from now dried-up temporary waters. [Orlando Sentinel, June 9, 2006] The gator was captured a few days laterr [same paper, June 12, 2006 both from Bill Burnett]
  • "Experts say it's more likely you will be struck by lightning than attacked by an alligator... there's no reason to panic, but there are also some common-sense steps to take to avoid a potential nightmare..." (1) Don't go near the water at night. (2) Don't take gator-morsel "Fido," "Buster" or "Barky" near the water at dusk or at night. (3) Don't let your puppies or small children romp in shallow water with or without an "alligator warning sign" anywhere in the state of Florida. (4) Do not swim or snorkel alone with or without a warning sign. (5) Don't dangle body parts above the water in such a way to look like gator chow. (6) If watched by a gator when barbequing, don't eat the feast outdoors. (7) When walking along sidewalks or paths next to canals, watch out for large, log-shaped objects. There aren't that many big trees left in the South - anything big is more likely to be a gator. (8) Don't indulge your curiosity. Get out and away rather than jump in and experience nature for yourself. [Miami Herald, May 16, 2006 from Alan Rigerman]

Thanks to everyone who contributed this month! Stay tuned to August, 2006 for the story of my trip to the Pacific NorthWest Herpetological Society, as guests of long term contributors Marty Marcus and Ann Waldo. Consider contributing the next reptile or amphibian story you see in print, or online. Send print articles with date/publication slug and your name to me.

August, 2006

Thanks to Marty Marcus!

Long time readers of this column will recognize the name of Marty Marcus, Reptile Educator Extraordinare, retired schoolteacher, cornerstone of the Pacific Northwest Herpetological Society, the Key Library, the local YMCA camp and many other great causes. And in all that, he still finds time to clip stories and send them to me. Marty gets another kudos. He actually talked me out from behind the Redwoods long enough to give two talks up in Washington State. "Along the way" we visited friends in Port Townsend, which is like visiting Milwaukee by the way when you're in Chicago, but heck when you're that close, why worry? It would have been a much less worry-free trip if my doctor hadn't found a skin cancer in my knee the week before we left. He actually took it out and left ten stitches behind the day before we left. Needless to say, Ken did all the driving. I don't even remember the first two days except that traveling with ten stitches in a knee is not something I recommend. Thank heavens Marty and his 40-year-companion Ann Waldo have a house that's mostly on one level, although the 20 feet elevation change to the parking nearly did me in the first couple of times! Thankfully, too Marty could just turn his hearing aide off and not hear me griping "Ouch, Ouch, Ouch," with every step! I think I gave a good talk to the Library but I was bored with my own PowerPoint presentation by then, so I spent the next two days revamping it and adding in new material from my book "Frogs: Inside their Remarkable World." Then it was time for the PNWHS meeting near Sea-Tac Airport. The room was a hive of activity! Adoptions, food, books, teeshirts and live animals everywhere. It was one of the more interesting herpetological society meetings I've ever been too and I didn't expect much attention when I started talking, but all the hubbub stopped and I got some of the most interesting questions I've ever received after a talk too. So many, many thanks to the PNWHS, the Key Library and most especially to Marty Marcus and Ann Waldo for putting up with perforated and healing me and silent and book-addicted Ken for a whole week! We drove home the long way, through a string of sleepy fishing villages, through clear cuts that look like they were designed to create landslides and forest fires, not preserve habitat or leave anything for our kids. Finally, over one more range of hills, and there were our Redwoods! "Moss up," I cried as we donned our fleece jackets (in June). It had been 103 in Eugene in the morning. Now it was 55 in Ferndale at 8 p.m. We knew we were home.

Too many herpetological stories!

After several hours of opening mail and comparing what was mailed in to the electronic gatherings of 12-year contributor Wes von Papinešu, I found that even my skillful network of collectors lets many interesting stories slip through their fingers, while they catch several others. This rest of the August column and September the backbone of the material is from Wes; if someone else found the story, too - I'll put their name at the end of the paragraph.

Quote of the Season

"[Alligators] are not easy to kill. Their hide is thick and their brains are small, and if you miss the target, you'll have succeeded in ticking off one of the Earth's most efficient predators. That won't stop a few people from trying. It will be a miracle if we get through the next few weeks without some half-wit shooting himself, his truck or his drinking buddy instead of the alligator at which he's aiming... Hand-fed gators lose all fear, and will in the absence of table scraps eagerly go after a pet poodle or even a child. Anybody caught feeding an alligator should be bound with duct tape and hauled off in the back of a pickup truck." Carl Hiaasen, in the May 24, 2006 Miami Herald, also from Alan Rigerman

Weeki Wachee Screechee "Catchee Takee!"

A nine-foot alligator joined the famous Weeki Wachee Springs Mermaids. "With the mermaids understandably keen to keep the 'live' in 'mermaid,' ... [the] intruder was quickly dispatched before a cheering crowd Saturday morning," reported The St. Petersburg Times, May 28, 2006

The Hissing of Summer Lawns

Rattlesnakes are just about everywhere in California - unfortunately or fortunately - the area right around where we live in Ferndale is too cold for them! But this year sightings are up all over the Golden State after a long, wet winter and an overheating summer. [The Orange County Register, June 16, 2006]

How he got to 9-feet

A Florida Highway Patrol Officer witnessed a nine-foot alligator stand up out of the roadside grass, look both ways, wait for a break in traffic and then cross a turnpike exit ramp. Perhaps that's how it got to nine feet! [Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, May 24, 2006 - also from Bill Burnett's mom "Hilda"]

Killer Wildlife

  • The Chicago Tribune lorded it over Florida residents in a pointed essay called "Life without predators." They pointed out that its really hard to be killed by large wildlife in Illinois, adding "The only wild animal known to have attacked people lately is a female deer at Southern Illinois University that apparently was defending her fawn. But reptiles are a negligible problem. You could find a few water moccasins and copperheads in southern Illinois, but you'd have to look hard. Rattlesnakes have no more than token representation. Venomous lizards? Only in zoos. Truth is, our winters are even tougher on cold-blooded species than on warm-blooded ones. So any Floridians who have grown leery of the local fauna and are considering alternatives should take two things into consideration when it comes to Illinois. First, there will be no alligators lurking outside your door. And second, even if there were, you can be confident that most of the year, the weather will keep you inside." [June 4, 2006 - also from Ray Boldt]
  • The rash of recent snake bites and alligator killings prompted the Gainesville Sun to total up "the United States' annual average of animal-related fatalities per year during the 1990s."

"the United States' annual average of animal-related fatalities per year during the 1990s."
Average fatalities per yearAnimal
0.3 Alligators
0.4 Sharks
15 Snakes
18 Dogs
130 Deer (vehicular collisions)
Sources: International Shark Attack File; U.S. Department of Transportation; Journal: Pediatrics; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gator Top Ten

The July 5, 2006 Beaumont Journal of Beaumont, Texas reports on Florida data which shows the most common ways to encounter an in-your-face encounter with a live alligator:
  1. Attempting to capture/pick up alligator
  2. Swimming
  3. Fishing
  4. Retrieving golf balls
  5. Wading/walking in water
  6. Snorkeling
  7. Pulling weeds/working along water's edge
  8. Standing/sitting by water's edge
  9. Working on/falling out of boat
  10. Skiing/canoing

Wildlife Killer

Recently researchers discovered that American bullfrogs, Rana catesbeiana, carry the chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, without dying. Other scientists took the long view and looked at museum specimens. They found that while the earliest known specimen bearing chytrid is from South Africa in 1938, the first North American occurrence was in 1961 in the St. Lawrence Valley of Quebec in green frogs, Rana clamitans. The New York Times reports, "A 2004 paper in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases proposing that the fungus originated in Africa, where the earliest case (1938) was documented; a likely vector was [Clawed frogs] Xenopus laevis... shipped worldwide from Africa by the thousands, starting in the 1930's, for use in pregnancy tests (the frogs ovulate when injected with the urine of pregnant women). [July 4, 2006] The BBC reported: "Scientists writing in the journal Biology Letters say they found non-native North American bullfrogs carry the chytrid fungus and might act as a vector. Those bullfrogs -- some reaching 8 inches in length and 1 pound in weight -- have been introduced into many nations to be farmed for frog legs, kept as pets or for other reasons. The nations involved are numerous, and include Brazil, Uruguay, France, Italy, Canada and the United Kingdom." [New York Post Chronicle, May 24, 2006]

Adding an adder

But do not disturb if you find one, asks the U.K.'s national reptile charity as they ask the British public for information on the Island Kingdom's only venomous snake. The Highland News, of Inverness, U.K. reports, "The adder - nathair in Gaelic - is a shy and secretive species, susceptible to disturbance and changes to its local habitat. In many areas where it previously occurred it is now less common, and in some areas it is at risk of extinction... Love them or loathe them, the adder has earned a place in culture and folklore, but its poor public image means many have little sympathy for adder conservation." Everyone can view the results at thereby adding an adder to their electronic life list. [May 11, 2006]

Subtracting an anaconda

A 1.2 meter anaconda, native to South America was captured in an English shopping center by their security forces. It had escaped from a local wildlife hospital near the giant mall. [Johannesburg, South Africa, The Independent, May 17, 2006]

Geology forces salamander

Scientists studying Hynobiid salamanders have found that as their lineage is traced back, the effects of geology can be seen in their genes. "What was once a single family in far northern China later became isolated and ultimately different species as deserts and mountain ranges were formed. The family of salamanders was split up as the vast Indian subcontinent was thrust up against Asia, raising the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, creating the great Gobi Desert, and triggering earthquake zones that churned up mountain ranges in the South China-Burma region. That process, geologist know, continues today, and even Mount Everest continues to grow by inches a year. Over countless generations, the scientists say, the salamanders evolved to fit their altered landscapes, yielding the 46 distinct Asian species that are alive today -- all with four toes on each foot instead of the five that the world's other salamanders possess." [San Francisco Chronicle, May 19, 2006 - also from Ken Mierzwa]

Range extensions

  • "Immigrant terrapins have been devastating the duckling population in Bramall Park (U.K.) to the distress of local dog walkers. The carnivorous creatures are not native... but have somehow managed to set up home... They are not indigenous and they kill the natural wildlife... A council spokesman said, "Thankfully, the terrapins are unable to breed in this country as they require a constant temperature of 25 degrees for the eggs to develop." Traps are being purchased and they will be given to appropriate homes as captured. [Stockport Express (U.K.) May 24, 2006]
  • Hikers in Hong Kong, China were warned after a 4.5 meter Burmese python attacked and killed a pet husky dog in a popular park. The 22 kilogram dog was taken while it was off its lead. The Taipei Times, July 10, 2006 notes, "Burmese pythons are just one of the species of snake which live in the wilds in Hong Kong countryside which -- contrary to most people's opinion of Hong Kong being a high-rise, densely-populated city -- covers three-quarters of the total area of the territory."

Were they going to Graceland?

Three alligators have been found this year in Tennessee's McKellar Lake this year. They don't usually show up this far north, but officials suggest perhaps a string of milder winters is permitting the animals to move northward. McKellar Lake is a slackwater offshoot of the Mississippi River which the animals are known to have ranged historically as far north as St. Louis before being extirpated by early white settlers and the little Ice Age of the middle 1800s. It's still illegal to hunt gators in Tennessee. Memphis, Tennessee Commercial Appeal (from Bill Burnett's old hometown) May 6, 2006

St. Patrick is rolling

The Gorey Echo of Ireland reported on May 18, 2006: "Pandemonium broke out... when a local woman was greeted by the sight of an uninvited visitor on the stairs in her home. The three-foot-long [North American] king snake, a type of constrictor, was coiled around the banisters as it surveyed its new surroundings in the house at Clonattin, Gorey. The shocked woman immediately called the local gardai... [who] rushed to the scene. On the way, they contacted the local SPCA who put them in touch with... a local expert on snakes... There had been serious fears that they were dealing with a dangerous poisonous snake, particularly as the woman involved is a florist who imports flowers for a living. She had received a delivery of flowers the day before and there was a worry that her visitor could have hitched a lift into the country with them." The snake expert who fished the kingsnake out from under the bed said, "She did the right thing though. When in doubt, you don't ask any questions, you just ring the authorities." Meanwhile the garda were giving interviews having never had to deal with a snake in 23 years on the force. The Dublin SPCA said that the issue will become more common; they're getting 20 calls a year about loose snakes.

Froggy Courting

  • In a glorious nested headline, the St. Petersburg Times wrote "Froggy Is A Courtin' - Didn't You Hear? It's Frog And Toad Mating Season. Size Doesn't Matter To Females; They Care About The Boom Of The Groom." A fifty year resident said he'd never heard so many frogs and toads, joking with his friends that it was "like a plague, the plague of the frogs." For those who can't stand the noise, a local water garden owner suggests, "Deal with it," while a wildlife biologist said, "Don't move to a wetland. Close the windows. Wear earplugs." [June 5, 2006]
  • After three years of drought, Indian villagers decided to organize some frog-marriages, in hopes of bringing on the monsoon. Crop failure causes villagers to move to the towns and switch from farming to other professions. From April until June, most of the subcontinent suffers searing heat, as much as 40 degrees Celsius, relieved by the monsoon. "The residents of Sonbhadra villages, like other tribal villages in Uttar Pradesh, have long believed that marriage of frogs pleases the Rain Gods, and brings rain and good crops. People cheered, blew conches and sang songs, as the priest solemnized the marriage to the chanting of religious hymns by putting streaks of vermilion on the female toad's head. The married toads, picked up from different ponds, were released into water after the ceremony," reported Ani of New Delhi, June 25, 2006.

Clueless role models plead guilty

"A couple who pleaded guilty to stealing three geckos from Christchurch's Orana Wildlife Park say they just wanted a pet for their child - and now they are facing a jail sentence," according to Auckland, New Zealand's One News. The 21-year-old father and 30-year-old mother "were charged with two counts of theft and one of possessing absolutely protected wildlife after the geckos went missing early last month. The pair stole the Geckos over two consecutive days by putting them in Stirton's handbag, going back the second time because they wanted them to mate. Police recovered the Geckos two days later after initially fearing they had been stolen for overseas sale on the black market." The father said they were unaware that the species was protected and that "we're surprised that it's such a big issue." [May 3, 2006]
With thanks to everyone who contributed to this month's column particularly those cited above and to all my super contributors: Wes von Papinešu, Bill Burnett's Aunt Peggy (via his mom, Hilda), Bill Burnett, Ms. G.E. Chow, Steve Christy, Marybeth Trilling, The New Zealand Herp Society, Ann Roberts, Alan Rigerman, Ken Mierzwa and maybe you, too. Send clippings to me.

September, 2006

Too many herpetological stories!

After several hours of opening mail and comparing what was mailed to me with the electronic gatherings of 12-year contributor Wes von Papinešu, I found that even my skillful network of collectors misses interesting stories. This is the second column in a row where the backbone of the material is from Wes; if someone else found the story, too - I'll put their name at the end of the paragraph. Next month, back to those letters, clippings and wonderful post cards sent in by you and all my other super contributors!

Amphibians in a lot of trouble worldwide

"The World Conservation Union released its 2006 Red List of 16,119 species of vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, and fungi that are threatened with extinction. A third of frog, toad, and salamander species are threatened. In a study this year published in the journal Nature, researchers concluded that global warming has dramatically accelerated the spread of diseases among frogs, especially in the tropics. It is believed that two-thirds of the 110 species of harlequin frogs in the American tropics have died out in the last two decades." [Boston Globe, May 6, 2006]

Was she glad - or sad?

The lady tortoise who wandered off on her partner of 55 years in England has been found after 12 days away. She'd managed to get a mile away before being found by a dog in a back yard of a farm in Devon. The lady who owned the farm called the tortoise owners right away because she'd seen the news stories of the lady tortoise's walkabout. [The Sun (London, U.K.) June 16, 2006 - also from Bill Burnett's Aunt Peggy]

Iguana give them a medal

"Firefighters went back into a burning house from which a mother and her three young children had just escaped to save the lives of the family's three pet iguanas. The family watched as the firemen emerged from the blaze in Bloxwich clutching the reptiles which they had plucked from their glass cases in the lounge," according to the April 18, 2006 Birmingham Mail. The smallest one came out tank and all. It was later determined an electrical fault in a clothes dryer started the fire.

Keen-eyed Customs Agents

A man bound for Singapore "was detained at the Chennai airport. The passenger was moving about suspiciously and on interrogation, it was found that he was trying to smuggle out Chennai star tortoises." He was arrested by Indian Customs. [News Today (Chennai, India) May 7, 2006] One day later, alert Indian Customs agents in Madras "seized 197 endangered star tortoises headed for Thailand, to be sold as pets or as a rare delicacy... on a tip, as [an Indian citizen] was about to depart for Bangkok. They examined his bags and found 197 endangered star tortoises neatly packed in his luggage... adult tortoises would bring about $4,000 on the black market," reported the India Gazette, May 8, 2006.

Plain speaking from a Wildlife Program

"What is small, green and cute, but makes a terrible pet? The answer: a turtle. That's right. Not only is it illegal to own a turtle in Tennessee, but also by nature, they are very unhappy creatures when kept in an aquarium. 'Turtles live their whole lives in a 2-mile- square habitat range," explained... [a] staff member of the Wilderness Station at Barfield Crescent Park. 'They live anywhere from 50 to 80 years, and if you take them out of their home, they spend the rest of their lives trying to get back home.'" [Murfreesboro, Tennessee Daily News Journal, May 9, 2006]

An expensive obsession

What is it with the fascination of reptiles. Even after Victoria State, Australia, had a non-native reptile amnesty in 2004, they're still finding illegal animals. Most recently taken was a two meter boa constrictor and a one meter corn snake. The owner faces up to $110,000 (Australian) in fines and up to five years in jail. [(Melbourn, Australia) Herald Sun, May 6, 2006 - also from Raymond Hoser, the Australian Snake-Buster]

Toads in Motion

  • An extremely large cane toad, Bufo marinus, was captured in the Northern Territory. Measuring nearly 17 centimeters long (6.6 inches) and weighing 564 grams (about a pound and a quarter), the monster will not be killed but kept as a warty mascot for NT FrogWatch, an organization which captures and kills toads. [, May 21, 2006]
  • The front-line of the cane toad invasion is now about 100 kilometers (61 miles) from Western Australia. The Stop the Toad Foundation is leading "toad-busting" runs to stop the invaders; half of their catch is female. They find that most of the toads hop along existing roads rather than crossing virgin bush. [, July 2, 2006]

Take two tetrapods and call me in the morning!

"The [Japanese] city of Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, began removing [240 four-ton] concrete breakwater tetrapods... so sea turtles will be able to come ashore to lay their eggs... A 50-km stretch of the Pacific shore, including part of Toyohashi, is a vital breeding ground for endangered loggerhead turtles. However, many turtles have been frustrated by the tetrapods and return to the sea before laying their eggs during the egg-laying season from May to August. It is the first removal of a breakwater for ecosystem conservation, an official at the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry said," according to the May 30, 2006 Japan Times of Tokyo.

Giant turtles make giant nests

"A six-foot, nearly 1,000-pound leatherback sea turtle built a nest just north of the Marriott Oceanfront Resort here on Sunday. Only six leatherback nests have been recorded on South Carolina beaches in the last 10 years, according to the state Department of Natural Resources... The turtle's 77-inch-wide tracks led up the beach and into a midlevel dune, where it dug a nest sometime before dawn Sunday... [The co-chairman of the Sea Turtle Protection Program said] 'The area where it nested looked like a small bulldozer went through'... Leatherbacks build six to nine nests per season. They lay about 80 fertilized eggs the size of billiard balls. There are also 30 "spacer" eggs in each nest, which will not hatch and are in place to provide cushion for the fertilized eggs." wrote the Orangeburg, S.C. Times and Democrat on May 10, 2006.

More Successes for Madras Croc Bank

The unusual Indian soft-shelled turtle, Chitra indica is facing immense poaching pressures as even its lower shell can be used in food. Harry Andrews, director of the Madras Crocodile Bank, said "Poachers mostly from the [Indian states of] Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal smuggle it abroad via Bangladesh." He added that for the first time, "The Madras Crocodile Bank (MCB) and the Kukrail Endangered Breeding Centre (KEBC) in Uttar Pradesh have planned the program for breeding this species, found rarely along river Chambal in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh," according to the Chennai, India Hindu, June 25, 2006. The New Kerala (India) reported that the Croc Bank is really on a roll with its turtle breeding programs; they've also successfully released 400 hatchlings of Kachuga kachuga in their native habitat and 250 hatchlings of Kachuga dongoka are being head-started. [June 23, 2006]

Raid nets a dozen

Agents from the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency served a warrant at a rural home, finding ten rattle snakes, a cobra and an alligator as well as 25 or so non-venomous and not illegal animals. The owner of the home had none of the required permits for keeping the animals. [WKRN (Nashville, Tennessee) July 11, 2006]

Range extensions

  • Rumors abounded the aesculapian rat snake had slipped out of Colwyn Bay Mountain Zoo, and was breeding in the wild. Unique footage will be shown on BBC1 Wales' Iolo's Safari tonight, proving the tales are true. Latin name, Elaphe longissima, its predecessors arrived during the mid 1960s, when the founder of the Welsh Mountain Zoo, Robert Jackson, imported reptiles from Italy. [Conway, U.K. Daily Post, May 17, 2006] Aesculapian snakes have naturalized around the zoo following the escape of a pregnant female 40 years ago. The zoo realized they were breeding in the 1970s and assumed they were dependent on the zoo's buildings for warmth as well as feeding on mice and rats. "There is no evidence to suggest they are harmful at all to the environment in the area," said one researcher. [BBC News (London, U.K.) June 23, 2006]
  • The Tokyo, Japan Mainichi Daily News reported that "A dangerous alligator snapping turtle was found on a sidewalk [in Tokyo] at around 7:05 a.m... Police officers rushed to the scene and managed to capture the turtle. Local police said the turtle is an alligator snapping turtle, which can become aggressive when threatened. They suspect it had been kept as a pet and are looking for its owner. Alligator snapping turtles originate in southeast America. They are omnivorous and have sharp teeth, which can cause serious injury. Permission from prefectural governors is needed to keep them in Japan." [June 24, 2006]

Alligators Caiman soon bayou!

  • A five-foot long, six year old American alligator was discovered in Pottsdown, Pennsylvania, at five in the morning by a man delivering newspapers. The gator hissed and lunged. Later it was arrested by the local police and booked with a photo as "Al E. Gator" before being transferred to a wildlife center in Wilkes-Barre. The rehabilitator speculates the animal was an underfed pet as it was far too skinny for its size and age. [The Mercury (Pottstown, Pennsylvania), June 23, 2006]
  • Meanwhile, a three-foot-long alligator was seized from a Maine home and the owners cited for illegal possession without a permit. The alligator was purchased in Rhode Island for $100. [WLBZ (Bangor, Maine) May 9, 2006]
  • Colorado Springs police found a 3-foot-long caiman guarding an indoor marijuana garden, planted around the 300-gallon stock tank in which it lived. Earlier this year, an 11-foot red tailed boa was confiscated from a methamphetamine lab in Denver and a 7-foot python in Colorado Springs. Both animals were put down due to overexposure to illegal drugs. Curiously, in Colorado Springs, the caiman was legal; the marijuana - of course - was not. [(Colorado Springs, Colorado) The Gazette, July 7, 2006]

Once revered, now feared

The Times of India [New Delhi - June 23, 2006] reported "With the onset of rains, snakes crawl out of their holes and slither to the surface in search of, dry ground. And, they're ending up in the oddest places, [in] shoes, kitchens, under beds and of course the storerooms... 'Help there are snakes in the washing machine.' This is just one of the distress calls made to a snake helpline in the city, as locals run helter-skelter trying to cope with the reptile menace." The snake catcher reported that "A resident of Post and Telegraph Colony near Vanivihar nearly fainted when he found five cobras in his washing machine." His helpline "has relocated over 3,000 snakes, including cobras, vipers, kraits, ratsnakes, watersnakes and wolfsnakes, over the past three years."

Anything for a headline?

Aging Australian pop diva "Dannii Minogue was left desperately gasping for breath after being strangled by a python... in the video for her latest single [which she had] wanted to make her most sensual promo to date and thought that having a python wrapped seductively around her would send pulses racing... [She described being unable to get the crew's attention] 'I started gesticulating wildly to the director to let him know I was in trouble, but he thought I was just moving around more passionately.' Luckily, the unusual white python released his grip." [All Headline News (West Palm Beach, Florida) June 26, 2006]

Not just urban legends

  • A group of bandits in Calcutta have borrowed a method from banditos in southern Florida, they dangle a snake at their victim and demand cash. But perhaps smarter than the lads in Florida, first they as for a few pennies as a protection subscription. As soon as the people get out their wallet or purse, out comes the snake and the demand goes up to 100 Rupees! To put it in perspective, that's about $2.15 U.S. Even so, the police are alert and claim several such gangs are loose in the city. [The Telegraph (Calcutta, India) July 7, 2006]
  • Ever hear "It's hot enough to make a gator pant?" If so, it's been proven, "gasping gator signals that it's hot," according to the Charleston, S.C. Post and Courier. A spokesman for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources Alligator Project said, "Once their body temperature gets high, they'll open their mouths like that and exhale the excess heat in their body," and added "It's very common, especially this time of year when water and air temperatures are real high." [July 3, 2006]

Another snake tragedy

It's only life on the food chain until snakes bite humans. Agni Systems published in Dhaka, Bangladesh reports that "a woman and her son were killed in snakebite at Kamaria village." The woman was 40, her son was 17. Both died on their way to the hospital. It's been a difficult week in the district; four people died and six were bitten but did not die. [July 4, 2006]

Zap - Newt-tralized!

Builders of cell phone towers beware! There is finally a species more powerful than you. It's the great crested newt and a population of a fifty foot phone tower in England have run afoul of the tiny amphibian. Strict conservation rules now kick into effect, more licenses and more fees for a tower they thought they had made in the shade. [Horley Observer (U.K.) June 7, 2006]

Concentration, concentration...

Researchers "at the Brazilian Federal University of Sao Carlos, in Sao Paulo state, showed that a protein found in the venom of the Brazilian snake Urutus can help heal and regenerate injured tissue, such as the damaged tissue found in heart attack victims." At low concentration, the compound can help in the formation of new blood vessels, but higher doses reverse the effect - inhibiting new blood vessels. The former will be helpful for stroke, the latter for cancer research. This group is focusing on regeneration possibilities. [People's Daily (Beijing, China) June 21, 2006 - from Ms. G.E. Chow]

Polymerase fang reaction

Researchers are working on genetically engineering antivenin. "As reported in the latest issue of the prestigious medical journal, Public Library of Science: Medicine, researchers at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine have made an important breakthrough in using DNA sequencing rather than actual snake venom as the means to generate antivenin... [which] is conventionally manufactured by immunizing large animals with small quantities of venom and then extracting the antibodies produced in the blood. This new research has demonstrated however that it is possible to generate an antibody response by using synthetic DNA which closely resembles the most toxic and therefore the most important parts of actual venom." They are working with carpet vipers first before extending the technique to other species. [News Medical (Australia) June 27, 2006]

Modern day Python and Pythia

Ghana Web reports an incredible story from their hinterlands. "A python revered as a god in the Sapeliga community near Bawku... swallowed a 55-year-old fetish priestess assigned to be its mouthpiece. While looking for the priestess who had been missing for three days, the inhabitants decided to slash the python into two, only to find her badly decomposed body. An assemblywoman, and a retired journalist of the Ghana News Agency... confirmed the incident and added that she had made several pleas to the community that it was dangerous to keep the python but they did not heed to her advice till this incident. The deceased has since been buried." [(Accra) July 1, 2006]

What's killing turtles?

DNA residues on the inside of empty turtle egg shells may help researchers figure out just what species of animals are eating Diamondback terrapin eggs. Although according to the June 9, 2006 Atlantic City Press (New Jersey) the greatest killer of terrapins is automobiles and continued: "Last year, researchers installed a mile of silt fencing on Stone Harbor Boulevard in Middle Township to prevent turtles from crossing the road. The experiment worked... cutting down turtle road kills on that stretch from 41 in 2004 to six in 2005. Tweaking the experiment this year to include a more durable fence, researchers reported no fatalities..." Elsewhere more than 400 turtles were squished by passing cars.

Toad Tales

  • Male Wyoming toads, Bufo baxteri, were heard calling in the wild during a recent search. The species was found in the seventies, believed extinct in the 1980s, refound in 1987 at one location, taken into captive breeding, released by the thousands in the wild and hopefully saved for future generations. Hearing males call in the wild means some of the babies raised have matured, or else there are still native adult frogs that have never been in captivity. [Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Colorado) July 10, 2006]
  • This year has been good for Western Toads, Bufo boreas, in Northern Nevada. Two wet winters and a heavy July rain resulted in toads "everywhere." One resident said, "There were hundreds of them hopping around in the grass. They were out in the street. My kids must have had 20 of them in each hand." Just more proof that amphibians are explosive breeders; many years of few toads can be followed by a year of thousands. [Associated Press, July 26, 2006]

With thanks to everyone who contributed to this month's column particularly those cited above and to all my super contributors: Wes von Papinešu, Bill Burnett's Aunt Peggy (via his mom, Hilda), Bill Burnett, Ms. G.E. Chow, Steve Christy, Marybeth Trilling, The New Zealand Herp Society, Ann Roberts, Alan Rigerman, Ken Mierzwa and maybe you, too. Send clippings to me.

November, 2006

A long-term follow-up report

In 1985 researchers counted only 702 Kemp's ridley sea turtle nests along Mexican beaches, down from a high of tens of thousands in the early 1950s. It seemed highly unlikely that the species could recover from such a hit; but conservation organizations including HEART and others took root. They stopped the slaughter in the water of adult turtles, reduced the number of humans and other predators poaching eggs, collected eggs, raised and head-started turtles both in Mexico and in the United States. Hatchlings were released by the bucketful; head-starters got rides on boats out to the open ocean. Local people have been involved every inch of the way. Ecotourism and foundation dollars have created economies around the turtles that did not exist 20 years ago. And the results are now in. Last summer, 2006, was a bumper year for Kemp's ridley turtles, they had 11,600 nests compared with 2005 nest totals of 10,099. The seafood industry continues to lobby the U.S. government heavily to support turtle programs and have pressured Congress several times to restore funding for turtles. After a long fight, in 1987 the U.S. required its own shrimpers use turtle excluder devices [TEDs] and in 1989 passed a law requiring imported shrimp to have been fished with a TED in place. Researchers hope the support continues now that the turtle numbers are beginning to climb. [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, July 9, 2006 from Bill Burnett]

A fan letter!

Hi Ellen, Love your section of the Bulletin and I just finished reading it from the September issue and I had to look up info on the priestess getting eaten. Turns out one of the sources for the story and the mayor of the town are denying the story... Don't know how much you hear it but thanks for your section of fun in the monthly issues. Jason Hood
Dear Jason: I hear it as much as you read it. Every note that's just about the column gets quoted. Ellin

Only the good die young

A 37-year-old graduate student at the University of Central Florida unfortunately died during a 'hand capture' of a sea turtle - a maneuver he'd performed dozens of times flawlessly. He died doing what he loved best and the turtle community is in shock that one of its brightest and most avid members has been lost at such a young age. He had planned to move to Hawai'i upon receiving his doctorate and continue working with turtles in the Pacific. Peter P.C.H. Pritchard and others have founded a sea turtle fund in honor of Boyd Lyon; [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, August 12, 13, 14 and 15, 2006 from Bill Burnett]

"Who's the nuisance, gators or us?"

  • Nuisance gator trapper Todd Hardwick said, "Alligator common sense is lacking in Florida. You're surrounded by more than a million gators here. Behave properly and you'll be fine." He also pointed out that most nuisance gators are killed and that complaints are on the rise largely because of increases in the human population, not any change in the ferocity of alligators or the return of their numbers to pre-World War II levels. There were no recorded human fatalities to alligators prior to 1948. [Orlando Florida Sun-Sentinel, August 14, 2006 from Bill Burnett] *bullet* Meanwhile, the State of Florida destroys about 7,000 nuisance gators a year. [Chicago Sun-Times, August 16, 2006 from Mary Beth Trilling]
  • Putting this into perspective are some statistics from the Centers for Disease Control in Washington. From 1979 through 1996, 304 people in the U.S. died from dog bites. Most were children. Each year, 4.7 million people in the U.S. are bitten; one in six, approximately 800,000 people, require medical treatment. But as far as newspapers, t.v. and radio are concerned, there's a plague of deadly gators out there.
  • Gators doing the gator thing and people doing the people thing continue to collide in Florida. There are estimated to be 1.5 million gators and 18 million people in the state, all of which is below the sea level projections for 2078. The statistics from 1971 to August 8 tell a story, which when graphed reveals no clear image of any trend increasing, except human fatalities from 2001 to 2006. I omitted data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for years when there were no fatalities and calculated an interesting set of numbers. Until 2005, your chances of surviving an alligator attack were greater than than of dying in it by three to one or better. Unfortunately 2006 reversed that trend; three out of four people in major attacks were killed. That's why the authorities continue to caution people to be very careful around these ancient and primitive reptiles.
Table of Alligator Fatalities / Attacks for Selected Years
Year DeathsMajor AttacksPercent Fatal
1973 13 33%
1977 1138%
1978 16 17%
1984 15 20%
1985 14 25%
1987 14 25%
1988 16 17%
1993 28 25%
1997 13 33%
2001 31127%
2003 19 11%
2004 29 22%
2005 16 17%
2006 34 75%
2006 data until August 8
Source: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
  • "Florida wildlife officials are considering removing alligators from a list of protected imperiled species and letting homeowners deal with nuisance gators themselves... The changes would downgrade gators from a species of special concern to a game animal within five years and then remove them altogether from the state's list of imperiled animals... Biologists believe there is now about one alligator for every nine humans living in Florida. [The] state alligator coordinator... [said] the potential changes have nothing to do with the three fatal alligator attacks that occurred in one month earlier this year. [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, November 1, 2006 from Ms. G.E. Chow and Mr. Bill Burnett]
  • If indeed humans had managed to extirpate alligators as so very nearly happened in the middle of the twentieth century, we would have never have learned: "... that alligators have a ferocious immune system that can take down a vast range of viruses, bacteria and other infectious microbes, including HIV, the virus that causes AIDS... Despite their stout resistance to what nature dishes out, alligators have turned out to be vulnerable to man-made chemicals... [including] pesticides, fertilizers and other pollutants, making them a useful early-warning system of possible hazards to people." Researchers plan to sequence the gator genome to see if any of these traits pop out. [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, August 14 2006 from Bill Burnett]

SSSSSnakes on a Plane

  • The reptile wrangler for "Snakes on a Plane" discovered that "not all the hot snake action took place in the movie. On-set romances ignited and [he]... went home with 50 more snakes than be brought to [the film site]." He said, "Snakes fell in love and babies were born. It was '9 1/2 Weeks' without legs." [USA Today, August 21, 2006 from Bill Burnett]
  • Titles that didn't make it: "A Clear and Serpent Danger," "Throw Mamba from the Plane," "Hiss, Hiss, Fang, Fang," "Cobra Cabana," "Snake Shore Drive," "Diamondbacks are Forever," "Viperactive," and, of course, "Unsnakeable." [Redeye, August 18, 2006 from Bill Burnett]
  • Sometimes I wish I could run pictures! This is one of those times. A veterinarian is pointing at a series of overlapping x-rays tacked up on a light box which show the insides of a python which ate its electric blanket, cord and all. The 12-foot Burmese was saved by surgery which extracted the blanket which "must have gotten tangled up in the snake's rabbit dinner," according to its owner. Fortunately, the snake unplugged the blanket while swallowing it. [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, July 20, 2006 from Bill Burnett]

Science isn't opinion, bias or cant

"William Alsup, a judge on the U.S. District Court for Northern California, ruled that [Julie] MacDonald [deputy assistant secretary of the interior for fish and wildlife and parks since 2004] had arbitrarily instructed Fish and Wildlife scientists to downgrade [the endangered Santa Barbara and Sonoma salamanders by ruling they were no longer distinct populations entitled to protection] even though an agency scientist concluded that genetics state otherwise." The judge wrote in the decision that the secretary has a right to "re-assess the evidence," but that there must be "a discernible rationale" for said reassessment. Meanwhile "Hundreds of pages of records, obtained by environmental groups through the Freedom of Information Act, chronicle the long-running battle between MacDonald and Fish and Wildlife Service employees over decisions whether to safeguard plants and animals from oil and gas drilling, power lines, and real estate development, spiced by her mocking comments on their work and their frequently expressed resentment... The documents show that MacDonald has repeatedly refused to go along with staff reports concluding that species such as the white-tailed prairie dog and the Gunnison sage grouse are at risk of extinction... To view the evidence and view results from the FWS scientist survey, visit," according to the Washington Post, October 30 via HerpDigest, November 1, 2006 from Allen Salzberg.

Herps have lost a voice

By now, everyone on earth knows that Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, died during a swim - stung by a stingray barb through the heart which caused his death when he tried to pull it out backwards. Now comes a report that even the turtle named after him is in trouble, the potential victim of yet another dam project. Elseya irwini - Irwin's turtle, lives exactly where the government of Queensland, Australia would like to build the Urannah dam. HerpDigest reports: "The Burdekin Basin draft water resource plan, which addresses environmental implications of the proposed Urannah dam, states: 'Elseya irwini is known to occur in this reach. This species is of high conservation significance and is restricted to the Broken-Bowen River system and the lower Burdekin River.' The first person to catch the irwini was Steve Irwin's father, Bob, on a fishing line during a family camping trip in 1990. The family were confused by the creature as nobody had seen it before. They suspected it might be new species." Meanwhile, "Irwin's voice will be used in a Hollywood film due for release in December. Before his death, Irwin voiced the role of a cartoon character, an elephant seal, which will appear in the film Happy Feet, which also stars Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and Elijah Wood," concludes HerpDigest [October 10, 2006 from Allen Salzberg]

Boldly looked where no one had gone before

Rory Callinan wrote one of the most interesting, well-written pieces to pass my desk in ages for Time Magazine, November 13, 2006: "It was just after midnight when frog researcher Steve Richards heard a strange melodious whistle amid the patter of rain in the Papua New Guinea cloud forest. The sound swept away the Australian zoologist's exhaustion as he struggled through the thorny vines and stinging nettles covering the remote mountain slope in the Southern Highlands. 'When I heard this, I knew it was going to be fantastic,' he says. Switching on his tape recorder and headlamp, he moved carefully toward the sound, trying not to blunder into one of the limestone sinkholes that dot the area. After an hour's searching, Richards and his companion, a local hunter, found the source: a 'warty brown blob' squatting on moss in a patch of nettles. When he reached over and gently took hold of the blob, it twisted viciously in a very unfroglike manner and bit him on the hand. 'I was shocked,' he says. 'Frogs don't normally bite you. There's only one other frog in P.N.G. that does that.' The animal's bite, coupled with its unique cry and strange appearance, told Richards he had snared a place in the zoological textbooks with the discovery of a new species. It was an exhilarating moment for the 44-year-old‚ but such discoveries aren't new to him. In 15 years of scouring P.N.G., Richards, who's attached to the South Australian Museum, believes he has discovered almost 100 new frogs. Of these, he has managed to 'describe,' or scientifically classify and name, 30; he still has about 70 whose features must be studied carefully before they can be classified as a new species. 'We are really only scratching the surface,' he says. 'Every time anybody goes searching in P.N.G. anywhere, they find new things.' Richards estimates that 350 species of frog have been identified on the island of New Guinea, but predicts the number will eventually pass 600. With frog populations worldwide under threat from habitat destruction, fungus infections and introduced predators, Richards, whose research is funded by Conservation International, believes recording the amphibians is of vital importance. 'New Guinea, outside of the Amazon and some areas of central Africa, has the largest areas of rain-forest left,' he says. 'Nobody is working there, and what's there is so spectacular.' Late last year Richards was a member of a scientific expedition to the neighboring Indonesian province of West Papua that found dozens of new animal and insect species in the remote Foja Mountains. As for the warty blob he discovered in the Southern Highlands, he has yet to finish the classification process. But it's likely to have a name associated with its snappy temperament. 'I like a frog with attitude,' he says." [from Wes von Papinešu and Humboldt Medical Group's waiting room]

Hiss heart was in the right place

A man bitten in Sydney Australia recovered after an amazing experience. According to their Daily Telegraph, this is what happened: "'Just give me a smoke and a beer and I'll be right!' They could have been Bruce Campton's last words after he was bitten five times by a death adder - the world's ninth-deadliest snake. At Wiseman's Ferry on the Hawkesbury River a month ago, Mr Campton, 50, saw a feral cat swiping at what he thought was a blue-tongued lizard. 'I like blue-tongues, they're harmless, so I bent down to get it away from the cat and it bit me,' he said. 'I didn't realize it was a snake, I just thought it was a cheeky bugger lizard. 'I brought my other hand around to grab it closer to the head and it bit me again and it wouldn't let go so I walked back to the caravan and ripped it off and shoved it in the beer box. 'That's when my brother-in-law said, 'That doesn't look like a lizard. It's got no legs.' A man staying nearby looked at the 'lizard' in the box and shouted: 'It's a bloody death adder!' Mr Campton shrugged off the concern, asking for a smoke and a beer. 'I didn't think death adders were found this far south,' he said. Seconds later his legs began to tingle and he felt 'funny'. 'I fell backwards off my chair and I couldn't move. I started freaking and then I guess I passed out,' he said. 'I was going in and out of consciousness. I remember thinking 'this is it' and I told (brother-in-law) Colin to tell the family I loved them and tell my boys I wasn't in any pain.' Mr Campton, from Vineyard in northwest Sydney, was returning from the shops when he came across the snake in a dip in the path. 'I was only trying to help it. If I knew it was a snake of course I wouldn't have touched it. I grew up around animals and I know to respect them,' he said. The residents of the caravan park called an ambulance and then the Careflight rescue helicopter, which saved Mr Campton's life. Doctors injected him with a record five types of anti-venom. He spent five days in intensive care in Westmead Hospital regaining feeling and movement in his hands and limbs. 'I realize how lucky I was to survive. It's surprising how hard you can fight when you don't want to die,' he said. 'I want to thank the Careflight doctors and the staff in the Westmead Hospital ICU for saving my life, and my family for being there and talking me through even when I couldn't open my eyes.' With so much anti-venom in his veins, Mr Campton's doctor warned him not to go near any more reptiles. 'I can't have any more vaccine for 10 years,' he said. 'It's based on horse-blood you know. I reckon I could pick the Melbourne Cup [horse race] winner this year.'" [from Wes von Papinešu]

Thanks to everyone who has and continues to contribute to this column and thanks to everyone for understanding its occasional hiatus. Please keep those cards, envelopes, giant envelopes and small boxes coming - my post mistress is endlessly amused by the profusion of reptile-decorated objects that continue to arrive in my mailbox. She even said one time, "I thought you were all about frogs," as she handed me my Daytona Reptile Expo Guide. Send your contributions to me!

December 2006

December 2006 Her Pet Pourri by Ellin Beltz

The opossum that ate my column and other tales from the Wild, Wild West

Regular readers remember that we moved from the Chicago area in June of 2001 to far northwestern California the land of the redwoods six hours north of San Francisco (if you can do it at all in winter) and only a couple of hours south of Grant's Pass and Gold Beach, Oregon. It's three to five hours to Interstate 5, depending on if it's raining, fogging, snowing or briefly sunny. The scenery is gorgeous, from coastal bays full of every kind of raptor through the Coast Ranges and into the narrow northern end of the Central Valley.

As the sun angle drops towards the southern horizon, the first ridge of the Wildcat Hills about a quarter mile south seem to grow taller. As midwinter approaches, the shadow of the 600 to 800 foot tall range slices closer and closer to our yard, never quite reaching us, but leaving a few houses in complete shadow from November to February.

The Wildcats the hills are named for are very real. My husband did not believe me that there was an extremely large yellow cat outside by the garbage can, or that whatever was leaving the giant cat tracks in the sand-pile was far too large to be a house-cat. He stopped doubting when he saw the real-live bobcat by the back fence. We haven't seen the real big guys yet, although mountain lions have been taken out of people's back yards within a dozen miles of here and their home ranges are much, much larger than that.

Then Ken saw a bear in the town's public park on the northern edge of the Wildcats, near where the Ensatinas live and just up the street from the ditch full of yellow-legged frogs. Dawn and dusk, rose-eating, vegetable mangling, overpopulated black-tailed deer are so ubiquitous that I saw one bounding down the double yellow line in the middle of Main Street the other day. Fortunately, and unlike last year, the deer did not leap through a store window!

As the days get shorter, it's easier to see the Black-crowned Night Herons flying overhead at dusk. These strange birds sleep all day looking for all the world like stuffed seagulls roosting together in one lonely tree. As soon as it begins to get dark, they all take off and feed all night, returning to the tree in dawn to remain immobile until the next sunset. One of the local waiters teases tourists; he tells them, "They're just statues."

Herpetologically, we have garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) in our front yard and under the porch, a Western fence lizard (Sceloperus occidentalis) under the hedge, a newt in the greenhouse and a baby newt in the back yard (both Taricha granulosa), numerous California Slender Salamanders (Batrachoseps attenuatus) under boards and debris (yes, snake boards in my own back yard heaven!). Several times, I've heard a single Northern Red-legged Frog (Rana aurora) just outside our kitchen windows. They're not endangered like their southerly cousins, but it sure is a thrill to hear them snore quietly "Raaa-naaaaa." You can see why the Romans named the edible frog "Rana esculenta" after hearing their western cousins advertise for mates.

Rare and unusual Tailed frogs (Ascaphus truei) occur in fast-flowing headwaters streams all along the Coast Ranges from the wilds to the south up through Oregon. A biologist from a local timber company brought an amplexing pair to a conference last winter at Humboldt State University. The male's "tail" was engaged in the female and they kicked around some in their little container. I imagined they wished they were away in their fast flowing stream, ready to stick a single plump egg to a rock with tailed frog glue. Their tadpoles stick down to the rocks and feast on diatoms until transforming to mom and pop tailed frogs a year later. That's the unique, specialized frog that everyone would love to see, although most people are unwilling to do the long, cold hike.

Then there's the frogs that everyone sees and takes quite for granted. Pacific Treefrogs (Pseudacris regilla) are everywhere; their "ribbet-ribbet" cry tuning up now as the annual rains begin dropping buckets of moisture on the barely moist sand and clay soils, ground fine by the inexorable northward trend of the triple junction at the top of the San Andreas Fault.

Besides the pair of treefrogs which have staked out their territory under the hot tub lid, one particularly brave little regilla decided to live under the message slate on the porch. One day, one of the garden club ladies came by and nearly had a heart attack when he put his head up and issued a lusty "ribbet!" at the exact moment she thought she'd rung our completely out of service doorbell.

Treefrogs have popped out at me from the most unlikely places including under the garbage can lid. One stuck himself to my glasses and then realized that's not a window and hopped off. Some young ones have trouble with colors. I have a fabulous series of treefrog pictures: a bright neon green frog sitting in a pale pink rose; a bright emerald green frog sitting in a white pvc drainpipe; a bright emerald green frog sitting on a red brick, and so on. I wonder how they see their world; or perhaps more important from the frogs' perspective how their predators do!

The bats and the bees

Every Halloween or thereabouts, we had a bat or two loose in the house. We assumed they were coming from an upstairs closet quickly nicknamed "The Bat Cave" and made a point of keeping the door to the cave firmly shut. Unfortunately for scientists who collect no data and misuse their resulting assumptions, the occasional bat was not coming from the bat cave; rather a giant colony of bats was roosting in the main house attic! The guano pile had to be removed twice before we figured out they were doing the limbo up a metal flashing to the redwood ridge-beam and fanning out from there.

So we waited for a dark and slightly stormy night in the late fall of 2005 when all the young were fully grown and flighted. Tired of plastic sheets across the attic floor and the weekly guano brigade, we bought a big can of that super yellow foamy stuff that expands and hardens with botryoidal blobs pendulous from unknown cracks. At 1800, we began our attack after hearing the bats limbo down and out the flashing. Ken filled the whole line along the ridge poles from the outer point to the inner point, hoping to flush any remaining bats down and out the flashing. But there were none, they'd all gone outside to feed. We were slowing down to do a good job when a few drops of rain warned us they might return at any moment; and they did, diving in the hole in the flashing and pausing for a moment at the bottom of the flashing. "Barbarians," squeaked the bats as they found the upper part of the flashing completely blocked and the foam slowly oozing down towards their only entry.

After much squeaking and quarrelling most of them left, but one determined bat scratched and squeaked all night and kept one tiny cavity open. You can hear them in the flashing in the daytime, just a few bats squeaking and sniping with each other. As the flashing only leads outward, we're hoping the guano rolls away there certainly is none in the attic and as long as it stays that way, my bat "problem" is solved.

One day in late July a swarm of bees attached itself to the side of our roof and found some tiny entrance into the walls. They started flying out all the heating vents, out the pocket doors, out of the bathroom cupboards! Even though they were docile and easy to net and toss outside, it was just too much. As bees flew around my head, emerging from the pocket doors at about one per second, I grabbed the yellow pages and started dialing for help. After a couple of dozen calls to various bemused local people, two beekeepers consented to come down the next day and catch the swarm. Well they should have come the day of the arrival for as soon as the swarm saw the guys getting into their white suits and net headdresses, every single bee took off almost in unison, waved "arrivaderci suckers" in bee language and vanished off to the north.    I don't know how the bees still on the first floor knew the swarm left, but they instantly lost all sense of purpose. Disappointed and abandoned by their queen they just curled up and died. Ten gallons of bees joined forty five gallons of bat guano on the compost pile.

Slugs and snails and spider web tales

We're all aware that reptiles and amphibians are being translocated worldwide. However, plants have been being moved around far longer and they carry animal hitchhikers. The plants can become nuisances, although native California quail find the brambles of the introduced Himalayan blackberry (thank you Luther Burbank) a great place to hide from Asiatic pet cats and other small mammals.

Other well-meaning but short-sighted individuals deliberately or accidentally introduced various invertebrates including night crawler worms, Escargot snails and what my yard man calls "Catholic Slugs" as the orange frilled nightmares moved outwards concentrically from some plantings at the Assumption Church.

When we arrived the yard was overrun in spiders, slugs and snails and the local pundits said, "You'll never get rid of them all without poison." I don't do poison, so I hoped that the reports of garter snakes under the sidewalk were true and that if I made some snake habitat, they'd move in eventually. Better than that, we discovered that one whole side of the front yard is imbricated river stones, garter snake paradise along with the hollows under the 1903 city sidewalks and water junction box. We added a snake-a-torium; an rounded garbage can lid which adds a lot of heat below it on sunny days and is frequented by long, plump pregnant garter snakes all summer long. We've heard that adult garter snakes feast on pocket gopher babies; what the juveniles ate was unknown.

As the garter snakes multiplied, the slugs slowly disappeared, but the snails multiplied and took the slugs' place in essence there were the same number of gastropods as before but they were all Escargot!

In 2005, I used to go out and hand collect a five gallon bucket of slimy snails from under the top rail of the picket fence. In 2006, I couldn't find enough snails to fill the bucket. What happened? As far as I can tell, the local opossums learned to eat Escargot. Problem solved. Now it's hard to find a snail or a slug in the yard.

Ferndale is the world-capital of persistent and persnickety spiders, they'll pitch a web across anything literally overnight. You could hear tiny spider laughs when I got out the hose to clean the outside of the house. But they're not laughing now. We bought a power washer and the war began. Now they run for the roof, it's the only place they're safe. We have days here that spiders would ban if spiders ran the world. I've gotten spiders out of drawers, closets, under floors, in cabinets, in the garage, under flower pots, in my car, behind the rearview mirror and stuck to the roof racks of the jeep. The attic (what wasn't covered in bat-shit) was decorated with pendulous web-blankets of a century of spider-work. Several dozen shop-vacs of spider webs and centrifuged spider parts, meals and egg sacs were added to the compost heap. Not all were dead, for the compost was quickly covered in webs.

But spiders do learn. They've learned to stay outside the house and in deep, dark corners where they can't be rousted out by a vacuum or power-washer. And I've learned to walk through the garden with one hand in front of my face after one too many encounters with eye-level spider silk.

I'm glad that frogs eat spiders. I've watched Pacific Treefrogs chow down on spiders that had made themselves fat and happy behind objects stuck to the walls. I wouldn't be surprised if the frogs did in the spiders' larders, too as the prey items are always also missing when the frogs take over a spider's lair.

Just to even it up, I've even seen a very large spider eat a very small newly metamorphosed froglet. There was no way to stop it, nor any way to stop the lightning-fast strike of the striped garter snake as it snatched a frog that jumped instead of froze as I walked through the yard.

Domestic non-bliss and the titular opossum

The food chain continues upwards; the ever present feral and loose house cats take small birds, garter snakes and the occasional frog for sport. Perhaps it is good that the cats are out, it keeps the little creatures wary and moving fast.

So, our house is a very, very, very fine house, with two cats in the yard, a frog under the entry-slate, two more in the hot tub, a few million spiders hiding and the usual complement of North American small mammals.

Our first small mammal was the house mouse. After being assured by our real-estate salesperson that "There are no mice in Ferndale," we replaced several yards of insulation, electric wire, tapped aluminum foil into forgotten holes in the kitchen and the garage and still the little beasts found ways inside. But these are not Chicago street-wise mice, with tiny Mohawks, pierced tongues and colors. These are generation 1,350 happy California mice, descendants of happy mice from Hawai'i, the Azores and San Francisco. We didn't even have to use the mousetraps we bought. Eventually, the plugged holes and glue boards sent the message and convinced them to go live somewhere else.

The next small mammal wasn't so small, was a lot scarier and is the reason this column isn't clippings this month. Last week, before my husband came home from a business trip, there was a strange and wierd sound coming from the tiny cupboard under the front stairs. There was a gnashing, then a rolling as if a stone was being pushed across the floor, then a crunching and then more gnashing, more rolling, more crunching.

Believe you me, home alone is not the time to open the door to the tiny cupboard under the stairs. I've seen one too many movies which starts or ends right there and I just wasn't going there. So I did what any red-blooded, risk-taking American herpetologist would have done. I stopped opening envelopes and reading clippings and went to bed, pulled the covers over my head and pretended not to hear the noise until I went to sleep. In the morning, it was all quiet. So I opened the cabinet door. Quick as a flash, an opossum which had been sitting there vanished down a rather large hole next to a heating duct!

The floor was littered with Escargot snails, which explained the gnashing and rolling and crunching. I found out it is possible for a full-grown human to fit in the cabinet under the stairs, just barely and don't move your head, or else. I patched the floor around the heating duct, put my screwgun away and patted myself on the back for a job well done and started in on some computer work, read the clippings and ran out of steam for that day and went to bed.

About two a.m., I heard the most god-awful noise coming from the kitchen. So I crept downstairs in the dark, missing the creaky stairs and flipped on every light at the same time only to find an opossum sitting in the middle of my kitchen floor. I was really, really annoyed by this for some reason and screamed "AAARGH" at the 'possum which launched itself up and over and "died" right on the spot.

Remember, please it was two a.m. and I'm alone. My husband is the small mammal expert I do frogs. So confronted with this undead beast, this zombie 'possum, I decided to do the 1950s housewife thing and so I picked it up with the barbeque tongs, carried it to the front door, opened the front door and flung it outwards, hoping it woke up before it hit the ground.

It hasn't been back. It is probably telling it's grandpossums about the alien from outer space that appeared from nowhere, shined a powerful light in its face and then did horrible things to its body. When it awoke, says grandpa 'possum, it was alone, dazed and stuck in a bush in the yard a long way from the house!

Regardless of bruised 'possum ego, confusion or inconvenience, the large pile of snail shells and possum shit under the stairs meant my next two days were spent finding each and every 'possum sized crack in an antique house. The front hall cabinet is still scattered around three rooms. We have to replace a large chunk of floor to keep Grandpa and the next three generations of Escargot eaters out of the house. I guess unexpected excitement is just one of the joys of old-house ownership!

Next month, I promise, it'll be back to that fright-scattered pile of clippings now gathered up, tapped into a pile and awaiting their extra 15 minutes. For now, let me thank Mary Beth Trilling, William Burnett, Raymond Novotny, Ms. G.E. Chow, Wes von Papineau, Peggy Perrazo, Eloise Mason, and the complete host of other folks who have contributed herpetologically related articles to this column since its inception in 1986. You can contribute too. Send newspaper and magazine clippings by mail to me. And don't forget to check out my website. I've recently updated the Herpetological Names Explained, my CHS and Vivarium column pages, and my local geology fieldtrips. Visit one of these days and drop me a note to say "Hi!" The link is on the bottom of every page.
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