Sandhills, wiregrass, scrub oaks, indigo snakes and diamondback rattlesnakes! It just doesn’t get any better than this.
During this past month, I have had the great pleasure of spending time in the field with a couple of highly respected herpetologists. Not only fun to be with but they are consummate naturalists with very strong conservation ethics. Being in the field with them provides wonderful experiences with creatures that most people have never heard of or with animals so uncommon or rare, that they are protected not only by Georgia law but some are recognized as Endangered Species with full protection as provided by the Endangered Species Act.
John Jensen is a biologist and herpetologist working in the non-game section of Georgia Department of Natural Resources. John is also one of the editors of the Amphibians and Reptiles of Georgia, published by the University of Georgia press, 2008. John also keeps the county species accounts records for all reptiles and amphibians that occur in Georgia. He is frequently in the field working with reptiles and amphibians, from minute amphibians to massive alligator snapping turtles.
Dirk Stevensonis a herpetologist working as the survey and monitoring specialist for the Orianne Society. The Orianne Society is: “dedicated to the conservation of rare and imperilled reptiles”. Please go to: www.projectorianne.org for information on this vitally important organization. Dirk has spent as much time in the field as anyone in Georgia and his field experience is truely remarkable. Dirk also provided a great number of images as well as authored many of the species accounts for the Amphibians & Reptiles of Georgia.
During the month of January, I spent two days in the field in South Georgia. One day with John and another day with John and Dirk. All I can say is……..oh how I love to be in the field with such knowledgeable professionals and we had a great time and observed some amazing creatures.
On a beautiful day in mid January, I accompanied John in searching for indigo snakes on a large tract of land that was a mosaic of high sand ridges interspaced with low isolated depressional wetlands that unfortunately were completed dry. I say unfortunately only because these depressional wetlands are vital to reproductive success of many amphibian species including highly threatened striped newts, flatwoods salamanders and gopher frogs just to name a few. With the wetlands being dry, these species either delay reproductive efforts or if the drought is too prolonged, they may entirely miss a year of breeding. However, our quest on this day, were indigo snakes, to see if there appeared to be a viable population at this tract. During the day we hiked along ridges and we found and observed a number of animals. Two, very large black fox squirrels. These squirrels are much larger than the gray squirrel that is common throughout Georgia and the black phase tends to be jet black with a white area around its nose and white ears. They are truly magnificent squirrels. We also saw a few white-tail deer and a few armadillos. Interestingly, one armadillo had much of its tail gone as well as both of its ears. John and I thought that it may be a result of frost bite as armadillos are not very tolerant of extreme cold and their range, although not native to Georgia, correlates to temperatures as well as soil types. In any event, the extreme cold that found its way well to the south, possibly could have reduced the numbers of armadillos which, scientifically would be a good thing and this particular individual may have survived but it cost him some tissue loss. Birds were very quiet on this particular day although we did observe a couple of flocks of turkey as well as ruby-crowned kinglets, palm warblers, chipping sparrows, yellow-bellied sapsucker and pileated woodpecker. John also flushed a covey of bobwhites. In regards to snakes, John found what may have been a track of an indigo snake and we each found an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. Both snakes were nice size adults and they are always a thrill to find. Due to my working with reptiles over a 40 year span and traveling the world observing and catching some incredible creatures, I am frequently asked about the world’s most dangerous or most impressive snakes. People are mystified when I say there is nothing on this planet that rivals finding a big Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake in the wild. To be walking through the palmettos and all of a sudden find yourself in close proximity of a fully warmed up Eastern Diamondback is an amazing thrill and I never ever tire of such good fortunes as finding one of these incredible snakes. Unfortunately, these snakes are imperiled today and if protection for the species is not provided, it may well mean that the Eastern Diamondback does not survive into the next century.
So, rather than get on my soapbox, I will just say that for John and I to both find diamondbacks was a real treat and for me, a nice start to 2011 as this was my first snake of the year.
On another day, in late January, John, Dirk and I went to an area that was one of Dirks study areas. I have kept journals since 1971 and I took great pleasure in writing in my journal following this day’s events. On this day, we once again were searching for indigo snakes and we were successful in our hunting and we each found an indigo snake. The indigo snake is documented as the largest species of snake found in North America with a record of 8.5 feet. The indigo is a gorgeous creature with a shiny black appearance and some have a little white or reddish color on the throat area. They are very powerful snakes and rely on their size to overpower their prey. They are not constrictors but have very strong jaw muscles and have a “bulldog” like grip when they bite. They feed heavily upon other snakes, including venomous species but they also consume other prey when available. Indigos are diurnal and have very acute vision, especially tuned into movement. They frequently crawl with their head elevated off of the ground to enable them to search for prey as well as perceive any threats from predators, including people. Thus, an indigo on the move, frequently detects a person before the snake is seen by the person giving the snake a good “headstart” in disappearing into thick brush or down a hole. Indigos have been protected for many years as their numbers have been greatly reduced due to collecting for the pet trade (pre 1970’s), habitat destruction and today, even in protected habitats, fire suppression may result in fewer indigo snakes. Fires are a major benefit to native flora and fauna in the Coastal Plain habitats and in some areas, fires are not part of the management plan and thus the plant understory grows profusely and this is not to the liking for many sandhill community residents, including indigo snakes.
On this particular day, we had only just entered the property and we stopped at a location where Dirk had seen a big indigo in previous field surveys. As we walked over to the area, I spotted a beautiful big indigo, on the sunny side of a palmetto bush, in a basking coil. Needless to say, “What a start to the day!” I photographed the snake “in situ” and she allowed me to take a number of images prior to her getting a little nervous of my presence. After only a minute, she began tongue flicking quite rapidly which was an indication that she was getting nervous and was getting ready to bolt. And bolt is a good word describing an indigo in motion as they are extremely fast snakes…..as snakes go. Dirk caught the animal which proved to be a big female. Indigos are somewhat sexually dimorphic in two ways. Males attain a larger adult size than females and something new for me…..was to learn that adult male indigos support some keeled scales on their backs that are lacking on females. This I found of extreme interest as what is the purpose of the adaptation? Evidently, that is still one of the many mysteries of science. So, the female was measured, weighed and checked for a microchip as all indigo snakes captured by the Orianne Society researchers, are implanted with microchips…..just like the ones used for dogs and cats so that individual animals can be identified in the future. Thus, microchips are an extremely valuable tool in wildlife research in capture and recapture studies. We hunted through the morning and into the early afternoon. Dirk found a young male indigo which was up and crawling and this animal was processed and released. As with all forms of wildlife, it is extremely important that animals are released precisely where they were found. They have a home range and they know where their areas of refuge are as well as areas they need to patrol for food and at the appropriate times of year to find mates. Not much later after Dirk found the young male, John also found a male indigo. This indigo was quit thin and probably had a lean year prior to entering its winter dormancy. Hopefully the snake will have better year this year in finding food and replace some of its weight loss. The snake was processed and released and thus we had each found indigos….not that we field people are competitive………actually we are! So, it was nice that we each found indigos on this day.
A large female indigo basks in the sun. Amazingly, her body temperature was 2 degrees C warmer than the temperature at ground level where she lay. This was our first indigo of the day and my first Georgia indigo snake.
Dirk (left image) and John (right image) with male indigo snakes.
A wonderful start to the day……a big female indigo. I am posing with the snake at the exact location where she was found basking.
Dirk, on left is injecting this indigo snake with a micro chip while John restrains the snake. This snake was an opaque male, which means it will be shedding its skin within the next week or 10 days.
Dirk measuring the tail length of the big female indigo snake, the first snake of the day.
Left, the opaque eye of Dirks male indigo. Right, the gorgeous shine, big scales and slightly inflated neck of the big female indigo snake. Indigo snakes will inflate their neck and arch the anterior portion of the body as a scare tactic. Fortunately, these big snakes with very strong jaws are mainly all bluff. When bites occur, however, they are painful and result in quite a loss of blood from the bite victim.
Our last location for the day was new site that Dirk was aware of though a local contact. Thus, it was being searched for the first time by Dirk and the Orianne Society. We did not find any indigos but we did find evidence that at least two snakes resided in the area. We found two large shed skins. One of a big male, evident by the keeled scales on its back and one shed from a big female. So, the site would certainly be of interest in regards to the presence of indigos. Just as a note, Dirk has returned to the location and caught a large male indigo which is now micro chipped and is one more animal in the data base of the indigo research program.
Last tidbit in regards to this day, Dirk flipped a log in an isolated depressional wetland, which was bone dry and he found a small scorpion. I looked at it and it was a Centroides hentzi, which is a species found throughout Florida but only recorded in the extreme southern counties in Georgia. I collected the little scorpion as I needed one for my venomous species programs as well as to photograph the little creature. Since finding the scorpion, Dirk and I have decided to do some field work documenting this species and try to determine its range in Georgia. In doing a preliminary reference search, it appears that the only work on this species was done many years ago and the species is not “well documented” nor studied in Georgia.
Centruroides hentzi, a scorpion with a very limited range in Georgia. This is a small species, just over an inch in length. This macro photograph makes the scorpion appear to be a monster but this type of photograph allows for minute details to be seen. The three yellowish stripes down the back, the long slender tail and very slender pinchers are characteristic for this species.
So, a wonderful day in the field and my second snake for the year was an Eastern Indigo Snake. What a great way to start 2011.
Many thanks to John and Dirk for allowing me to acknowledge their work and more postings from trips into the field with them will follow in months to come.
Just a special little tidbit in regards to scorpions. For those persons living in the Piedmont of Georgia, including the Atlanta area, the small scorpion found in that region is known as the Devil Scorpion, Vaejovis carolinianus. The image below shows Georgia’s two native scorpions side by side for comparison.
Left, Centruroides hentzi, (striped scorpion) found in extreme southern Georgia. On right, is the devil scorpion, Vaejovis carolinianus found from Central Georgia throughout the entire Northern region of the state. Note differences in pincher size, thickness of the tail and the yellowish stripes on the back of the striped scorpion.