2017 Review: A year of Amphibian and Reptile Conservation


tiger salamanders ben.jpg

As 2017 comes to an end, it’s time to take a look back at the research, monitoring, and outreach accomplishments made by the Longleaf Savannas Initiative (LSI) over the past 12 months.  It has been a year full of hard work, hot days, incredible observations, and fascinating reptiles and amphibians.  We traveled all over southern Georgia, ventured west into Arkansas for the annual Southeastern Partners for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation meeting, and made the long drive to south Florida to host Places You’ve Never Herped 10.  We worked closely with partners from state and federal agencies, other nonprofits, private landowners, and a slew of volunteers to achieve our conservation and management goals.  For me, 2017 was also a year of firsts and change as I became the director of the LSI after longtime LSI director, Dirk Stevenson, retired from the Orianne Society.  While sometimes daunting, this created an incredible opportunity to oversee one of the premier conservation programs for reptiles and amphibians in the United States.

Participating in the Claxton Wildlife and Rattlesnake Festival gives us the opportunity to introduce people to native snake species.

The year began like most years for the Orianne Society — finishing surveys for Eastern Indigo Snakes (Drymarchon couperi) that began in November of 2016.  These surveys took us to sites scattered across three watersheds in southern Georgia and are part of the state’s monitoring program for this threatened species.  From January to early March, we observed over 30 Indigo Snakes, including several individuals that had been captured in previous years.  During this same time, we also participated in several outreach events and the previously mentioned SE PARC meeting.  We traveled to Charleston, South Carolina for the annual Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, attended the Claxton Wildlife and Rattlesnake Festival (the most snake-friendly and positive edition of this event to date), and hosted Orianne Society members on the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve for Indigo Days.  All before the 3rd week in March!

Early March saw us transition from Indigo Snake surveys to Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) research.  In Georgia, Spotted Turtles are primarily active for a short time in the spring when mating aggregations form and female turtles identify sites for nesting.  2017 marked the 4th consecutive year of population monitoring at one of our long-term monitoring sites and the 3rd consecutive year at the other site.  Barely six weeks of trapping was a relative lull in our Spotted Turtle work compared to the work done in 2016 and work that will be done in 2018 (more on that in a minute).  Even with this relatively short trapping window, we captured more turtles than in previous years, including pulling a single trap containing 11 Spotted Turtles!

Gorgeous Mud Snake (Farancia abacura) caught in a small stream during an SFD survey.

While all this work was going on, we were also in the midst of sampling snakes for Snake Fungal Disease (SFD).  This 2-year project is designed to identify the prevalence of SFD in Georgia’s snake fauna.  To accomplish this, we collected swab samples from all encountered snakes to test for the presence of Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, the causative agent of SFD.  Multiple lethal SFD cases have been identified in Georgia, but it remains unclear how common this infection is, whether it affects all species equally, and if it causes problems at the population level.  Over the past 12 months, we collected samples from over 450 individual snakes of 31 species.  Samples were collected from a wide geographic area in southern Georgia (32 counties).  Results from this project are an important first step to identifying the severity of this threat to native snake populations.

Presenting research at the annual Society for Freshwater Science meeting.

In August, we started sampling the Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) population on the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve (OISP).  These surveys were a 5-year follow up from initial surveys completed from 2011–2012.  Sampling tortoise populations using line transect distance sampling involved a lot of walking in the late summer heat.  On most days we worked until lunch and then took a long break until the weather was more favorable in late afternoon.  We used a burrow camera to scope all the burrows that we encountered (well over 600) and were usually covered in sweat and sand by the end of a day.  Periodic monitoring is important to document changes in population sizes over time.

During late summer and fall, we also attended more events and meetings.  I went to the annual Turtle Survival Alliance meeting in Charleston, South Carolina and the Society for Freshwater Science meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina.  We hosted Places You’ve Never Herped 11, partnering with the Tennessee River Gorge Trust and hosted a second Indigo Days event.  These were some of our most successful citizen science events to date.  We attended Georgia DNR’s Coastfest event, giving us a chance to share our conservation mission with hundreds of attendees.  Field trips from Georgia Southern University’s Herpetology Class and Grandview Preparatory School’s Evolution and Field Biology Class joined us on the OISP to survey for Indigo Snakes at the beginning of the 2017–2018 Indigo Snake survey season.

Grandview Preparatory School students participating in an Indigo Snake survey.

These early season Indigo Snake surveys meant that the year was drawing to a close, and we would be ending the year the same way that it began.  The first two months of the Indigo Snake survey season have been very successful.  We have already observed over 25 individuals, including a couple of old favorites: ‘Coluber’ and ‘Ice’.  Coluber measures almost 7’ and weighs over 7.5 pounds ⸻ an impressive snake but still nowhere near the maximum for an Indigo Snake.  We wrapped up our fieldwork for the year with an exciting discovery.  On a warm, rainy December night, we were exploring wetlands on the OISP in hopes of finding some winter breeding amphibians.  To our surprise we stumbled across six Tiger Salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum)!  This was a property and county record and is an amazing animal to find in a wetland that is protected from development and disturbance.

All things considered, 2017 was a successful year for our research and monitoring program.  We accomplished our goals and more.  Furthermore, 2018 is shaping up to be another great year.  We will finish the SFD monitoring project and be better informed to make conservation decisions about this potentially devastating disease.  We are also poised to begin several large Spotted Turtle research projects that will see us radio tracking female turtles to measure fecundity in southern populations and surveying conservation lands to identify more populations.  Member events will return, with PYNH traveling to Vermont as part of the Great Northern Forests Initiative before returning to the southeast later in the year.  We are excited to begin the new year and continue working to conserve imperiled reptile and amphibian populations in the Longleaf Pine ecosystem.

Cover photo: Tiger Salamanders, taken by Ben Stegenga.