Authored by Houston Chandler
For Places You’ve Never Herped (PYNH) 10, Orianne Society members and staff ventured down to the Devil’s Garden region of southern Florida. This event provided an opportunity to inventory the herpetofauna of four state-owned properties with members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). These properties were previously poorly surveyed, and this event provided a unique opportunity to get a large group of people in the field searching for reptiles and amphibians. The Devil’s Garden region of southern Florida is very flat, with a landscape crisscrossed by canals and potmarked by wetlands of various shapes and sizes. However, during the beginning of 2017 much of Florida was experiencing a severe drought and many of the wetlands and canals were either dry or reduced to small puddles. Combine low water levels with unseasonably warm temperatures and we were likely in for a tough weekend, but our members and staff were certainly up for the challenge.
Saturday morning began like most events, with brief introductions and an orientation to the areas that we would be surveying. Dirk Stevenson introduced everyone to Kevin Enge, Paul Moler, and Peter Kleinhenz from Florida FWC. From there, we left to check aquatic traps that Kevin, Dirk, and a few others had set out the day before in the few remaining places with standing water. The first several traps were, surprisingly, mostly empty, except for a variety of non-native fish and a lone Southern Leopard Frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus). At the second trapping site (a rapidly drying cattle pond), we did catch an adult Florida Banded Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata pictiventris) and had another slip away into the vegetation filled water, our first snakes of the trip!
Our third stop produced the most exciting trap of the day. This large hoop-net had been set in a small canal that still had a decent amount of water. The trap bobbed up and down as Kevin Enge and I clambered down the steep canal bank and into the water, a sure sign that there was a fairly large animal inside. When we pulled the trap out of the water, it contained a large Florida Softshell Turtle (Apalone ferox) and a ca. 2.5’ American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). Both of these reptiles can produce a nasty bite so it was a bit tricky extracting them from the trap without the other clamping down on a finger. After a bit of maneuvering, we finally managed to get the alligator out of the trap and pass it off to members waiting on the edge of the canal. Alligators of this size are easy to hold by grasping them firmly by the neck and at the base of the tail. The softshell actually proved slightly more difficult to remove from the trap, but we eventually got it out and onto the canal bank. Contrary to the small alligator, large softshells are difficult to hold because they lack the easy hand holds that most turtles have and have an exceptionally long neck, making a misplaced hand a painful error. With some careful finger placement, it is possible to pick them up via the hind legs, the small gap behind the head, or the bottom of the shell. After everyone got a chance to examine these two great aquatic reptiles, we released them back into the canal.
The rest of the morning was spent checking the remaining traps scattered across the various properties. Highlights included a large Florida Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti) sitting beside a tiny pool in a rapidly drying canal and a tiny alligator caught in a dip net. We also found a small pool that was full of large gar and other various fish species. In fact, there were so many fish in such a small area that it was possible to catch them by hand or by simply dragging a dip net through the shallow water. While not our target taxa, it was still fun to catch large gar by hand, and this highlighted the severe drought that these areas were experiencing.
By early afternoon the sun was baking the landscape and the chances of finding additional species seemed slim. We decided to head back and wait for evening when the temperatures would be more favorable. After dinner, Paul Moler treated us to a fantastic look at the herpetofauna of Vietnam from his annual sampling trips to the country. From there, we split into small groups and went out to go road cruising around the various properties. The early evening and nighttime temperatures proved more favorable as several new species turned up on various roads, including an Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) and a few anerythristic Corn Snakes (Pantherophis guttatus). These fascinating Corn Snakes lack the characteristic red and orange pigments, making them more similar in appearance to ratsnakes than normal Corn Snakes. That same evening Orianne members Catherine Stevens, Hana Leonard, and Samuel Van Valkenburgh had the best sighting of the entire weekend, a Florida Panther! For me, the night ended with a massive Cane Toad (Rhinella marina) trying to get through the doors of the hotel.
On Sunday morning we all met to hear about the sights and sounds from the previous night. There was a brief photo session with a Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius barbouri) and a Florida Scarlet Snake (Cemophora coccinea coccinea) that were caught the night before. From there, everyone again split into various groups to either hike or road cruise. Dirk Stevenson took some members for a walk through a hardwood hammock, which are habitats found at slightly higher elevations than the surrounding pastures. Sunday turned out to be a fairly slow day, with the exception of a couple Two-toed Amphiumas (Amphiuma means) that were found buried in the muck in a rapidly drying wetland.
By the end of the weekend, we had documented a total of 32 species (not including the invasive species observed in towns) and had significantly added to the species lists for the four state-owned properties. This included a county record Oak Toad (Anaxyrus quercicus). Kevin Enge also documented a new record for an invasive curly tailed lizard in town one evening. The full species list is below along with some photos from the event. We had a great time and are already looking forward to the next event!
Total Species List
American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)
Florida Softshell Turtle (Apalone ferox)
Striped Mud Turtle (Kinosternon baurii)
Florida Redbelly Turtle (Pseudemys nelsoni)
Florida Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina bauri)
Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis)
Brown Anole (Anolis sagrei)
Tropical House Gecko (Hemidactylus mabouia)
Southeastern Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon inexpectatus)
Florida Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti)
Florida Scarlet Snake (Cemophora coccinea coccinea)
Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus)
Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamenteus)
Southern Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus punctatus)
Black Swamp Snake (Liodytes pygaea pygaea)
Florida Banded Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata pictiventris)
Corn Snake (Pantherophis guttatus)
Yellow Rat Snake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis quadrivittata)
Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius barbouri)
Peninsula Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus sackenii)
Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis)
Southern Cricket Frog (Acris gryllus)
Oak Toad (Anaxyrus quercicus)
Southern Toad (Anaxyrus terrestris)
Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea)
Squirrel Treefrog (Hyla squirella)
Bull Frog (Lithobates catesbeianus)
Pig Frog (Lithobates grylio)
Southern Leopard Frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus)
Cuban Treefrog (Osteopilus septentrionalis)
Two-toed Amphiuma (Amphiuma means)
Peninsula Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens piaropicola)