Monday, September 28, 2015

in cop

Female garter with two courting males. Photo Matt Burne
Out on a short walk this afternoon, I stopped just short of stepping on a small garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) basking in the middle of the trail. My colleague, who is interested in getting over a fear of snakes, asked if this would be good one to handle, so after a short chase, I caught it and handed it over. That went swimmingly, and even when it bit her hand and drew a little blood, it was agreed that "that wasn't too bad!"

The male is quite a bit smaller than the female in this pair.
Shortly after returning to my desk, she came in and said there was a big one near the front of the building, and did I want to see? What a treat! That big one was wrapped up with another, much smaller one. I've never seen snakes copulate before, and today, thanks to my colleague who apparently has pretty good eyes for snakes, I got to witness a couple of male garters courting a female, and one of the males in copulation with the female.

The heavily damaged tail on the female is an interesting feature, and one that will allow us to keep tabs on her going forward. We've been seeing a large garter around the office for some months, and now have a pretty good characteristic to look for which will help us determine if it is she all the time, or a collection of large garters in the area. The vent is just below this damaged area, which leads me to wonder if she experiences any difficulty in reproduction, but I expect that will remain a mystery.

Begs the question, though: how do those males know she's ready, and where she is?! My snap answer, of course, is "Pheromones!" But it turns out that's something I need to look up.

Based on the observation of four snakes within a half-hour's time, it looks like the local garter snake population has come to mating time. Not really sure where they hibernate, but I wouldn't be surprised to discover a hibernaculum in the field stone walls of the office basement.

What a nice treat for an early fall afternoon! Get out there and see what you see this fall!

~ M.R. Burne

This female's tail is heavily damaged.

Monday, June 16, 2014

mind = blown

I confirmed something interesting today. Hyla versicolor, the gray treefrog, is not our only versi-colorful frog, as I think I've always sort of assumed.

I came across this (very large) female toad sitting on a stump in the woods. She is fairly colorful for an American toad. In two days, I'll be doing an "indoor field trip" for fourth and fifth graders, so she went for a ride with me to be a part of the fun.

She was placed in a terrarium with dark mud, some leaves, etc. Within an hour, and much to my surprise, she was a very different-looking toad. The field color had turned dark, chocolate-brown, spots containing the warts were still nearly black, and the only white left on her was the belly.

This doesn't come as a complete surprise. Amphibians are quite variable in their coloration and I've always sort of assumed there was variability at the individual level among different species. However, it's the first time I've seen an American toad make this rapid and drastic a change.

Now I wonder about those yellow green frogs...
~ MR Burne

Monday, March 31, 2014

Big(ish) Night

Salamanders and frogs are starting to move about in the Boston area, and are bringing out lots of people. Last night (Sunday, 3/30/14), conditions were fair to middling for amphibians - it wasn't raining very hard, if at all, there was a bit of a breeze, and temperatures had dropped below the magic 42 deg - but we had plans, so out we went.

I had the pleasure of the company of Mrs. Waldrip's 8th grade science class from Malden's Ferryway School, along with a whole cadre of parents, in addition to a good number of other folks out for the night. All told, we had about 40 people in attendance. I think that outnumbered the salamanders we saw, but sometimes, that's ok. The big win is for a bunch of city kids to go out, close to home, and see the annual spring amphibian migration.

Thanks go to the DCR for arranging a Ranger to be there, and to the Friends of the Fells. ~ MR Burne

Sunday, March 30, 2014


The spots on a spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) are much like our fingerprints - each animal has a unique number and pattern, and it's highly variable. Though rare, or at least uncommon, occasionally spotted salamanders are found that have almost no spots.

It turns out that in one population in eastern Massachusetts, there is a good number of spottless salamanders (would that be A. nonmaculaum?). Every year I turn up at least one at this particular site. This fellow had four very small spots, one of which is visible mid-way down the tail. The others happen to be on the side facing away from the camera.

Hmm. I find at least one at this pool every year. Salamanders live 10 or 12 years in the wild. Hmm... Wonder if I have any pictures of him from last year...

MR Burne

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Under Way 2014

spotted salamander
Spring has sprung! A damp, warm night brought out the first salamanders in the Boston area over night. Pools are still at least partially iced in (and water levels are quite low), but a few intrepid males came out over night to get an early jump on breeding.

Reports of spotted salamanders, blue-spotted salamanders, redbacks, wood frogs, and spring peepers are starting to trickle in from observers around Massachusetts, and the weekend's weather promises to get spring going in a big way.

So we seem to be under way with the great spring amphibian migrations. Get out and enjoy!

MR Burne

Friday, November 29, 2013

Gone a-hunting

Given that it’s hunting season (are you and your dog wearing orange out in the woods?), this seems an appropriate topic to ruminate upon. A video was posted to youtube recently which documents a salamander collecting trip on state property. I was disturbed by the video, but not for the same reason as some other folks I know.

For better or worse, there are no prohibitions on collecting (read: hunting) a wide variety of native wildlife in Massachusetts; this includes most of our amphibians and reptiles, with the exception of the state-listed Endangered, Threatened, and Special Concern species. There are also some species, such as the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), that are on a “watch list” and can’t be possessed without a special permit from the state (listed here). There’s an open season on everything else. There's not even a bag limit - you can possess as many as you can catch - on snappers, Green frogs and Bullfrogs.
So what’s disturbing about the video this kid shot in the Blue Hills? If you watch the technique, logs and stones are flipped, cast aside, and left to roll away. Imagine a giant that comes into your village, curious about humans. It tears the roof off of your house, picks you up to poke and prod, then decides to put you back on the ground and move on. You look up and shout, “Hey, jerk! put my roof back!” but to no avail. You’re left out in the driveway with compromised shelter.

Collecting has its place in growing up and in exciting kids to become scientists. State land is “our nature,” to paraphrase one major landowning state agency, and people will collect wildlife from state lands. If they’re collecting according to the Bay State’s hunting and fishing laws, then I say have at it. But for crying out loud, put the roof back on the house. It’s the ethical way to pillage. ~ MR Burne

Monday, September 16, 2013

'Tis the Season...

…for metamorphs!

Fall is when a lot of the amphibians that hatched earlier in the year complete the aquatic phase of their life cycle and make the move to dry land. Metamorphosis is quite a feat, and can be a treacherous time.
Metamorphosing amphibians are found around the saturated edges of their natal pools throughout late summer and into fall, hiding among wet leaves and under cover objects, as they complete their change into terrestrial animals.

Spotted salamander metamorph. Photo by Burne
This is a Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) that is in the process of completing its metamorphosis. It was found at a vernal pool in Medford, MA this past weekend, and is about 1.5 inches long. Just behind the jaw and in front of the fore-limb is a dark stub, the remnants of the big bushy gills that are so distinctive in pond-breeding salamander larvae. The tail looks short and dark; it is in transition from the larval, flattened, swimming tail, to the rounded adult character.

Finding wee metamorphs is neat, but it’s somewhat dangerous (for them, at least). It’s very easy to step on these delicate little guys and you’d never even know it. Keep an eye out for little wood frogs bounding recklessly around the forest floor, and gently turn logs or leaves at the wet edges of a pool in which you’ve seen eggs or heard a wood frog chorus. Chances are, you’ll get a sweet little reward this time of year. Just don't forget to replace cover objects you turn - remember it's someone's house!