Authored by Kiley Briggs
Two of my largest life goals from an early point were to own a home on a property with Mink Frogs (Lithobates septentrionalis) and to have a conservation job in the field of herpetology. Last March I closed on a house in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and, though I have yet to find a Mink Frog on my property, I can hear them chorusing from my front step, which is good enough. More importantly, while I’ve had plenty of seasonal conservation jobs since college, I just joined The Orianne Society in the new role of Turtle Conservation Coordinator. In that role, I will be developing our Great Northern Forests Initiative with a strong focus on Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) population assessment and conservation. This is literally my dream job, and closing on my house the same day I interviewed for the job definitely gave me one of those “meant to be” feelings. In an effort to introduce myself to the Orianne community, I’d like to briefly tell you how I got here.
Like many children in rural Vermont, I grew up catching snakes and frogs in my backyard. I was five when I remember seeing my first snake; the neighbor kids had found a large Common Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis) and were bashing the poor thing to death with sticks. Not understanding why my neighbors found the snake so threatening, I went back to the scene of the crime later to get a closer look. To both my horror and awe, wriggling out of the dead snake were several neonates. My attempts to save them were unsuccessful, owing either to their premature births or my lack of husbandry expertise at the time, but from that point on I started looking for snakes on purpose and moving them as far from my neighbor’s house as possible. Unlike most other kids in the neighborhood, I never stopped looking for frogs and snakes when I got older.
Early on in those frog-catching pursuits, something really odd happened that changed my view of nature forever. In the mid to late 1990s there was a pulse of Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens) malformations in the Northeast that got the attention of pretty much everyone in my hometown. Missing limbs, extra limbs, undeveloped eyes, you name it, Northern Leopard Frogs had it. In some areas, nearly 90% of Northern Leopard Frogs were metamorphosing with some sort of disfiguration. Fishing the banks of Otter Creek with my pappy, I vividly remember running through the ferns chasing after what seemed like thousands of three-legged frogs, all corkscrewing through the air with every jump. While my pappy shook his head in disbelief at what we were seeing I wondered what caused the malformities and, with that question, began my pursuit of knowledge, discovery, and conservation.
Not counting a few part-time and seasonal research gigs, my first real dive into wildlife research was right out of college working as a technician collecting population data on Mudpuppies (Necturus maculosus) in the Lamoille River in Vermont. Remarkably, two consecutive seasons of setting and checking traps on river ice under a hydro-electric dam in the dead of winter in pursuit of an elusive animal that was easiest to catch in sub-zero temperatures didn’t deter me from fieldwork. During that time, I became aware of The Orianne Society, an organization whose mission to conserve critical ecosystems for imperiled reptiles and amphibians, closely matched my own interests.
After the final season of Mudpuppy work I began a sort of back-and-forth lifestyle working on Orianne’s Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi) and Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) research in Georgia during winters and a new Orianne project tracking Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) in Vermont during the summers. The work was incredibly rewarding, but moving every six months wasn’t the life for me, so I decided to further my education in hopes to land a conservation job a bit higher up on the ladder than another technician gig. After spending a few years studying the impacts of invasive grasses on Texas Tortoises (Gopherus berlandieri) and defending my Master’s thesis at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, I was ready to settle down in Vermont.
My time in Georgia and deep South Texas exposed me to species and ecosystems I had no previous familiarity with and, while I greatly valued my time in both places, there’s truly no place like home. I consider myself very fortunate to now be leading and developing a program in my home state with one of my favorite species. Wood Turtles are one of the most beautiful, charismatic, and imperiled turtles in the country and the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont is my favorite place in the world (even the air in gas station parking lots smells nice here!). I cannot express enough how greatly I’m looking forward to making a positive influence on those turtles and this landscape as this project moves forward.
To learn more about the work Kiley will be involved in, head on over to The Great Northern Forests Initiative.