Authored by Koby Schwarzkopf and Sara Diamond
Herpetology students from the University of Georgia taught by Dr. John Maerz recently took a two-day trip to the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve (OISP) to learn more about Coastal Plain amphibians and reptiles and The Orianne Society’s efforts to manage the threatened Eastern Indigo Snake. Over the course of the weekend, we got to see a wide variety of species of amphibians, including familiar species such as Marbled Salamanders and American Bullfrogs and many of the amazing species of Georgia’s Coastal Plain like North America’s smallest frog, the Little Grass Frogs, Many-Lined Salamanders, and the Lesser Siren. We also encountered two of the most charismatic reptiles of the region: the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake and the king himself, an Eastern Indigo Snake. Along the way, we also learned about the conservation and preservation of the Longleaf Pine habitat, the keystone role of the Gopher Tortoise, and the importance of using partnerships with private landowners to conserve native ecosystems and wildlife in working landscapes.
Our group departed Athens on Thursday afternoon and arrived early evening to the OISP. There, we met up with former UGA student and Orianne Assistant Conservation Scientist, Kevin Stohlgren, who took everyone to a wetland close by. Loud choruses of frogs of various species surrounded us. We had the opportunity to dip net for all different kinds of critters and learn more about the formation of wetland habitats and their crucial importance. The students immediately began to find many frogs and and Banded Watersnakes.
The next morning the group got an early start and headed out to meet with Reese and Frank Thompson, two local land owners whose families have been stewards of tree farms for generations. Reese told us how much this land meant to him and his family and how much it means to him to have students so interested in conservation visit. The forest where we were standing had been recently burned. Reese talked about the importance of fire to preserving Longleaf and the difficulty of restoring Wiregrass once a site has been destroyed.
We were joined that morning by a member of the Georgia Forestry Commission who helps land owners with burn and forest management plans. Reese told us that Wiregrass, which is a key plant in Longleaf ecosystems, cannot be naturally restored after land is disturbed. He described his plans for planting Wiregrass plugs in a section to restore a portion of his land and how expensive that effort is. Who knew that a tiny plug of Wiregrass could be so expensive? After our talk we made a brief stop at a stream to look for Spotted Turtles, and then we set lose in groups to hunt for Indigo Snakes and other animals. We managed to get numerous looks at Gopher Tortoises, but the snakes eluded us.
We were getting pretty hungry after looking for Indigo Snakes, and we were treated to a very generous and delicious homemade lunch courtesy of the Thompsons. With full bellies, it took everything we could muster not fall asleep on the comfy couches at the cabin; but we were enticed back into the field with the prospect of an Indigo Snake and the opportunity to use LED cameras to scope Gopher Tortoise burrows. Because Gopher Tortoise burrows are important habitats for many other taxa, they are considered a keystone species. We were excited about the chance to get a glimpse down burrows in the hopes of seeing other species… particularly Indigo Snakes.
When we arrived at our next site, we were given a crash course on the proper way to use a burrow camera, and we were successful in seeing several Gopher Tortoises. We also found a few fresh snake tracks, but still no snakes. We did manage to find a number of amphibians including Ocmulgee Slimy Salamanders. Slimy Salamanders are completely terrestrial salamanders that are lungless, and it was remarkable to find them in such arid, sandy soils. Feeling shut out by our efforts to find an Indigo, we were excited when we got a call that one of the volunteers had captured an Eastern Indigo Snake while conducting surveys for the state. Back at The Orianne Society’s preserve, we got a chance to hold the Indigo, and we helped measure and microchip the snake. That night we headed out for another night of searching for amphibians at wetlands before turning in, exhausted.
The next morning we ventured out to a forested blackwater stream to search for Siren and Amphuiuma. We managed to catch a Lesser Siren, a Many-Lined Salamander and several other species. We then headed out to another part for a last effort to find some snakes. We managed to find our first Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake just inside the entrance of a Gopher Tortoise burrow. We also found a number of small lizards including Eastern Fence Lizards, Green Anoles and Ground Skinks. Our instructor Adam Clause demonstrated the art of noosing lizards, much to the amusement of the class. We also had a chance to visit some wetlands where we saw a large number of Jello-like Spotted Salamander egg masses, and we found some beautiful Marbled Salamanders.
The field trip was a great chance for our class to get into the field to observe many of the animals we were studying in class and to have experiences that cannot be duplicated in the classroom. We had a chance to practice identifying animals in the field, using various trapping and searching techniques, and we learned a great deal about the habitats and natural history of species in this part of the state. And we made a personal connection with the importance of strong relationships between landowners and biologists for effective conservation.