• Home
  • In the Field
  • Tony's Notebook


Giant Salamanders

Written by // Tony Categories // Tales from the Field

When we think of salamanders we think of small creatures that scurry away when we roll over rotten logs or other debris. Most people in the southeast don’t realize that we have two huge varieties of aquatic salamanders. Two species, the greater siren and the two-toed amphiuma may grow to massive sizes-the largest specimens reaching more than three feet in length. These amphibians spend most of their time hiding in weed-choked wetlands, slow-moving streams and Carolina bays, so they are rarely encountered. Sometimes sportsmen catch these large amphibians while fishing and assume that they are American eels (a species of fish). Two-toed Amphiumas or "Congo Eels" as they are often called, can be found in many of the wetland habitats in the lowcountry. These animals have miniscule front and back legs with two toes on each foot. These tiny limbs appear to be useless although they do move them while crawling forward with undulating movements of the body. Amphiumas feed on crayfish, aquatic invertebrates and other small animals that share their habitat. In extremely dry weather, when their habitat dries up, these salamanders can be found deep underground in wet mud remaining there until the wetland fills. Farmers occasionally unearth them during plowing activities in and around fields.

  Be sure to check out the video clip of a two-toed amphiuma from the Reptiles and Amphibians show.

Because they are similar in appearance and often occupy the same habitats, Greater sirens are sometimes mistaken for amphiumas. Two key differences are that sirens only have front legs and they also have featherly external gills. In general, sirens are a bit shorter than amphiumas with a stockier body. Greater sirens have the amazing ability to breathe underwater with gills as well as gulping air from the surface. These amphibians also feed on crayfish and other small animals. They have the ability to form a coccoon around their bodies to hold in moisture. This adaptation allows them to stay dormant in dry weather until the rains refill the wetlands.

Sirens and amphiumas belong to the extensive hidden biodiversity of the southeast. It is hard to believe that two such large animals are so infrequently seen. Although these two species are fairly common, very little is known about their natural history. More research is needed to determine what role they play in the ecosystem.


Smut the Dog on Vacation

Written by // Tony Categories // Tales from the Field

Soon after the word got out that we kept a pet iguana, a hognose snake and a snapping turtle inside our house we became known as "that" animal family. My brother and I were often asked to babysit cats, hamsters, fish and other pets while neighbors went on vacation. On one quite memorable occasion, Mike and I were hired to take care of a mongrel owned by the Johnston family. "Smut" was a classic mutt­. If you were to look up the word "dog" in the dictionary there might be a picture of him accompanying the text description. He was a large dog (60-70 lbs) with a brindled, shaggy coat and a generous snoot.

Smut spent his days attached to a chain, hooked to a small tree in his yard. At one point in his career, he had a sliding cable rig that allowed him to circumnavigate the yard more efficiently. Except for the chain, he had a pretty good setup, a nice dog house and plenty of shade. Smut was a known fixture of the neighborhood and most of the kids stopped to pet him as they passed by. When first approached he barked and looked pretty scary, but he was certainly an agreeable guy once you walked up to give him a pat on the head or flank. Compared to Beowulf, an aggressive Great Dane down the street, and a surly boxer named Kilroy, Smut was a solid citizen.

So how much trouble could it be to take Smut a bowl of food and fill his water tub once a day. At first, things went as expected; Smut was delighted to see me, fresh water and a delicious bowl of kibble. I felt kind of bad leaving him on the chain as I walked back to the house and went on about the day's activities. After I visited the next day and conducted his daily feeding and watering, I noticed that Smut had a really sad look on his face. Since I am a real sucker for sad dog faces, I felt a pang of guilt course through me. Smut followed me toward my house and was forced to stop abruptly as he reached the end of his tether. In a moment of weakness, I decided to let him off the chain for a quick romp around the yard. I would grant him a few minutes of fun and then reattach him to his chain. Smut was quite amenable to the idea and waited patiently as I unhooked the clasp on his collar. The very second I unfastened the hook, I heard a scrabble of paws, detected a blur of motion and the mutt blasted across the grass, leaped over the small hedge of Ligustrum and disappeared into the next yard. I had no idea that Smut was such an athlete as I had only seen him on the chain. I spent the next few minutes calling Smut's name over and over to no avail.

After telling my parents what had happened, a search party, made up of the entire family was assembled to find the ungrateful beast. After hours of searching nearby streets and interviewing neighbors, we gave up. We figured the novelty of racing around the neighborhood would likely wear off and Smut would return home soon.

Well, he didn't come back that night or even the next day... maybe the dogcatcher got him. Our neighborhood was packed with dogs (many roaming free) and none of us had ever seen a dogcatcher, so this was unlikely. A couple of days later we even resorted to driving the streets looking for Smut's lifeless body on the side of the road or in a ditch in case a car had hit him. We did not have a telephone number to reach the Johnstons and they were not due back for a couple of weeks so there was little we could do but hope for the best. We continued to fill his food and water bowl and it was clear that somebody was making visits to the food bowl.

Our family had a ritual every weekend called "Saturday Morning Cleanup". This practice involved all family members cleaning up the house and yard for the following week. This mandatory ritual lasted through my entire childhood, even over college breaks and summers. For the record, my brother and I were not big fans of Saturday morning. We often joked that it would take a letter from the governor to excuse us from these chores. So, believe me the following Saturday (loose dog or not) the whole family was out doing yard work. As we dug holes and toted wheel barrows full of grass clippings and soil, Smut appeared. He paused briefly on the edge of the yard and then dashed across the lawn into the woods behind us. We dropped our garden tools and raced across yards and toward the park, but Smut was too quick. At one point he stopped fifty feet from us, adopted a downward facing dog posture, eyes glued on us and kind of a smile on his face. We formed a line and slowly crept up trying to corner him against a fence but at the last minute he zipped between us and disappeared down the street. I got the impression that Smut had enjoyed this game of chase far more than my parents did.

So at least we knew Smut was alive and well. Over the next several days we saw Smut a few times and heard reports of a brindled dog galloping through yards or standing in the street. I remember sitting in our den looking out over the patio and seeing Smut dash across the back yard; I think he was taunting us. It wasn't until the middle of the second week that we finally "collared" Smut. I don't remember how we actually captured the mongrel; heck, he might have just walked back into his own yard and asked to be reattached to the chain.

The Johnsons returned a day or two later to Smut sitting contently in the backyard attached to his chain. I vividly remember Mrs. Johnson exclaiming how healthy and lean Smut looked as she paid me twenty five dollars.


Newt Nature Note

Categories // Tales from the Field

Now Here's Something You Don't Hear Everyday!

If you spend a little time with a dipnet in any of our shallow freshwater ponds you will capture an assortment of aquatic insects and crayfish. If you are really persistent you might even catch a newt, an interesting salamander that has a lifecycle that is well-suited for the temporary wetlands of the lowcountry.

Most amphibians have a pretty straightforward life: egg → aquatic larvae → terrestrial adult.

Newt life is not quite so simple; they have four (instead of three) distinct stages: egg → aquatic larvae → terrestrial eft (juvenile) → adult.

This actually gets even more complicated because adult newts can be either aquatic or terrestrial.

Let me explain how this whole thing works. Red efts (the immature stage between larvae and adult) spend several years on land. After feeding on small insects and earthworms on the forest floor, they migrate back to the same wetland where they hatched and turn back into aquatic adult salamanders to breed. After mating the females lay eggs (on clumps of aquatic vegetation) that hatch into miniature larvae. These larvae increase in size until they change into efts and move on to land. After the breeding process, the original adults may spend the remainder of their lives in the water. However, if the wetland dries up, the adults will likely change back into terrestrial adults and live on land for a while. When this same pond refills, they can become aquatic again and breed again. Whew!

I had always read that newts were distasteful and even toxic to some animals. Many years ago I decided to put this theory to a test and lightly licked a newt. The reports were certainly correct; both the newt and I survived the ordeal but I lost all feeling in my tongue for a few minutes. I certainly learned why few animals are willing to eat one of these little salamanders.

P.S. Rest assured, no newts were harmed during the creation of this article.


Water Moccasin

Categories // Tales from the Field

It is hard to imagine a snake with a worse reputation than the water moccasin or “cottonmouth": Few serpents are more maligned and mistreated in the southeastern United States than this pit viper. Their negative reputation stretches across the country, well beyond their natural range. People tell erroneous stories of seeing “water moccasins” in Maine and even California.

Much of the ill-will toward cottonmouths probably stems from the fact that they do not usually crawl away when approached. When confronted, they will often stand their ground, vibrate their tails and pop their mouths open revealing a white interior. These behaviors are in stark contrast to many other species of snakes that will flee at the slightest provocation. Unfortunately, even the harmless water snakes that occupy the same habitat are often shot, chopped to pieces, or dispatched by other methods because they resemble water moccasins.

Even though many people will tell you how dangerous cottonmouths are, we have found that these snakes will only bite for protection and food acquisition. Many years ago, I worked on a study with Dr. Whit Gibbons at Savannah River Ecology Lab to test just how these snakes behave when encountered in the field. The test involved a series of procedures including stepping near a cottonmouth, stepping lightly on the same snake’s back (wearing snake boots), and finally picking up the snake with a mechanical hand. The findings surprised all of us. The snakes almost never bit when stepped on and only bit about a third of the time when grasped by the fake hand. The bite from any of our native pit vipers can be very serious, requiring immediate medical attention, so don’t try this at home. Smile

Although legitimate bites do happen, the majority of the venomous snakebites result from someone trying to catch or kill a snake.

Cottonmouths are extremely common in the lowcountry. They seem to be less common in the larger ponds and reservoirs, preferring bays, slow-moving streams and swampy areas. These snakes are highly variable in coloration, but are usually plain brown or olive with darker blotches or bands. Cottonmouths average about three feet long and are very stout-bodied. They can be distinguished from harmless water snakes by head shape (cottonmouths having a much larger wedge-shaped head) and elliptical-shaped (cat-like) pupil in the eye. Now, I know what you are thinking-who is going to get that close? It can be difficult to differentiate venomous snakes from non-venomous snakes, so if you are not absolutely certain that it is a harmless species, observe the animal from a distance and leave it alone.

Cottonmouths feed on a variety of animals including frogs, snakes, fish, and even small mammals and birds, using potent venom to kill their prey. They are sometimes seen feeding on dead animals as well. Cottonmouths give birth to 4 to 12 boldly-patterned young in the late summer. Neonates (babies) are born with an almost fluorescent, yellow-tipped tail that they wiggle enticingly to attract frogs and other small animals. This brightly colored appendage is a lure of sorts to attract prey.

Although cottonmouths aren’t destined to win any popularity contests, they serve an important role in our local wetland ecosystems. They prey on many wetland animals and also provide food for alligators, birds, and other predators.


Chickens, Chores and Rat Snakes

Written by // Tony Categories // Tales from the Field

What could be taking Marshall so long, I thought? It had been a good twenty minutes since I had sent my son to gather eggs from the chicken house. As Ben (my younger son) and I set out across the yard to see what the holdup was, we noticed Marshall come out of the coop wrestling a very large snake. Now I realize some parents might have needed therapy after such a traumatic event, but I was positively thrilled.

ratsnake1My boys and I had removed many non-venomous snakes from the chicken pen together and spent hours capturing snakes in the field, but this was Marshall's first solo capture. He knew the rat snake he extracted from the shed was a non venomous species but he also knew it was capable of biting pretty hard. I don't want to get all sentimental or anything, but it looked as though my baby was really growing up. Marshall's snake had the telltale signs of ingested chicken eggs running the length of its swollen body. As Marshall struggled with his catch, we watched in fascination as the large snake regurgitated chicken eggs one-by-one on to the ground in front of us. Some of the eggs were intact and others broken and runny. I guess some people might have been repulsed at the scene but to us this was quality father son bonding.

The rat snake is one of the biggest snakes in Southeast with some individuals exceeding seven feet in length. Although they reach impressive sizes, these snakes pose no serious threat to people. They vary in color and pattern throughout their range. Adults may be dark grey or black with only traces of a lighter pattern (inland) or yellowish and heavily striped (like we have on the coast).

Rat snakes are powerful constrictors, suffocating rats, birds, squirrels, and even young rabbits and swallowing them whole. They are also particularly fond of bird eggs. Since they are adept climbers they often venture up the sides of barns and houses and into the tree canopy. Rat snakes are at home in wetlands and can be occasionally be seen swimming on ponds, rivers and even in the salt marsh.

Baby rat snakes are about 10 inches long and boldly patterned at hatching, but they lose those markings over the next several years as they mature. Individuals have been known to live more than 25 years in captivity. Although they are large, look a bit foreboding and steal an occasional egg from the Mills chicken coop, rat snakes are important members of the ecosystem. They help control populations of mice, rats, and squirrels and on a slow summer day in the country, what could be better than watching a rat snake throw up chicken eggs on the front lawn

[12 3  >>