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Q&A with a Guam Brown Tree Snake Biologist

I admit it: most of my friends are cooler than me.

You may have heard last month about the U.S. government’s plan to drop acetaminophen-laced mice on the island of Guam to control its invasive population of brown tree snakes. Well, I was able to get the inside scoop on this odd-sounding idea, because a college friend of mine happens to be a brown tree snake biologist on Guam and is involved with this project. Meredith, who has her own blog that you should all try to convince her to start updating more often, agreed to tell you all a little more about her awesome job and what is going on with the Tylenol mice. This may be the first in a series of similar Q&A posts, but that depends on me being able to talk other people I know into doing this, so we’ll see.

Q: Who are you?

A: My name is Meredith Palmer and I graduated with a degree in Zoology back in 2011. I have recently been accepted back into school for my PhD and am very much looking forward to grappling with my own research again coming up this fall! I will be working on the behavioral ecology of lions and predator-prey interactions in the Serengeti. (Note from Rebecca: yes, she is going to study African megafauna for her PhD. Wow. Meredith, can I visit?) Over the past few years, I have been working field assistant jobs in Africa and the Caribbean.

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Look, a Lizard!

I was too busy with work over the weekend to get out in the woods here much, but I have a few photos left from Arizona for you. Lizard!

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Spotted this guy at the Desert Botanical Garden. (Yes, it is a male, judging by the hint of blue on his throat.) I’m pretty hopeless at lizard ID; even after consulting this great Lizards of Arizona site the best I’ve got is “maybe something in the genus Sceloporus?”, the problem being that he doesn’t look spiny enough to be a desert spiny lizard and most of the other likely suspects aren’t found in Maricopa County. Let me know in the comments if you can identify him. Regardless, I usually I can’t get close enough to lizards to get a decent photo, so he made me happy.

022 (1024x766)No lizards here in northern Wisconsin. And the snakes and turtles are asleep under the snow and ice.

UPDATE: Ah-ha! Neil of microecos provided the necessary clue to this lizard’s identity in the comments – what I had taken for just a shadow in the lizard’s “armpit” in the first photo is actually an important diagnostic marking. This guy is a Common Side-blotched Lizard, Una stansburiana.

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Lizards in Europe

Hello! Rebecca here. I’m backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains right now, but before I left I scheduled some awesome guest posts for you. The first one is from one of my best friends, Scarlett Rebman. When we were in eighth grade we wrote a bad fantasy novel together, and it boggles the mind a bit that we’re now both legit published writers.

I am not a biologist. Nor am I an environmental educator or much of a naturalist. I am a curious person who finds being in nature rewarding. Pausing for a few minutes to look at a banana slug in Oregon or pulling off the side of the road to rescue a turtle in Michigan are moments that give me perspective. All the stresses of living in a fast-paced, technology driven, globalized world melt away when I meet an amazing creature in nature.

For the 2011-2012 school year, my husband and I had the opportunity to live and teach English in Hungary. We traveled during every school holiday. I am a landmark and museum junkie, yet one of my favorite parts of traveling was taking nature hikes and seeing interesting animals. To my surprise, we had encounters with lizards in at least three countries: Hungary, neighboring Slovakia, and exotic Sicily (which, yes, belongs to Italy, but often seems like a different country altogether). Only a few agreed to pose for pictures.

I came across this little lizard in October 2011 at Devín Castle, a castle outside of Bratislava, Slovakia. Its ruins sits perched on a hill overlooking the Danube.

Aren’t you jealous that it gets to call the castle home?

We went hiking at the Reserva Naturale della Zingaro in Sicily in early April 2012. The Zingaro is a stunning nature reserve along the northern coast of the island. We were excited the first few times we caught a glimpse of a lizard. When we realized that they were sunning themselves on almost every rock, we kept snapping pictures anyways. I believe they are Sicilian wall lizards.

In June 2012, my ninth grade students and I were rewarded for climbing a steep hill in northern Hungary by encountering this lizard with a stunning blue face:

He is (I think) a male European Green Lizard (Lacerta viridis). He was more impressive than the pile of rubble at the top of the hill. What used to be a bustling castle had been destroyed by man, reclaimed by nature, and now the greatest attraction is the wildlife.

When most people think of Europe, they picture the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or the Coliseum. I am thrilled that I got to see all of those places, but my lizard encounters will stand out just as much in my travel memories.

Back in the States after her school year in Hungary, Scarlett Rebman is currently a canvasser for an environmental nonprofit organization. When she isn’t trying to save the world from the evils of hydrofracking, she is usually hanging out with her husband, playing with her cat, reading, cooking, or taking a walk. People tell her she thinks too much. You can read more about her year in Europe at Hungary for Adventure, or for current posts, visit her new blog at Scribbling Scarlett.

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More Snakes

As promised, here are the two snakes I found on Friday. First, as I was loading my car in the afternoon, I noticed a robin in the yard acting strangely – pecking at something and then fluttering back. After a moment I realized it was attacking a small snake, so I went running over. Yes, I suppose I was interfering in a perfectly natural predator/prey interaction, but there are plenty of exotic invasive earthworms around for the robins to eat, they hardly need to be going after baby garter snakes.

You’d think it would be grateful that I saved its life, but no, it coiled up and tried to strike at me. Well, fine, be that way. Garter snakes have nasty dispositions, even though they’re small.

Then in the evening, I took a walk in the woods. I’ve been saying ever since I moved here how much I’d like to find a Redbelly Snake, Storeria occipitomaculata, and yesterday I finally got lucky! I almost stepped on it before I saw it, stretched out in the trail looking almost like a twig. Unlike garter snakes, these guys are very docile and easy to handle, so I couldn’t resist picking it up.

Look how little and cute! Look at those gorgeous crimson belly scales! These snakes live on the forest floor and eat slugs and earthworms. With their tiny mouths, I don’t think you’d feel it even if you did somehow manage to provoke one into biting you. (And I don’t think you could – other than being a little wriggly, this one was completely okay with being picked up, handled, and photographed. What a dear.)

So, there you have it – Rebecca’s further adventures with snakes!

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This Is One Foxy Snake

(Yes, a post that’s about neither insects nor plants! It’s a miracle!)

Yesterday afternoon I was in the office when, through the window, I heard someone exclaiming over a snake. Naturally I dropped what I was doing and ran outside. I was expecting to see a garter snake – for a reptile lover like me even a common garter snake is worth walking outside to see! However, I was in for a treat, because there in the landscaping was a totally new reptile species for me, a Western Fox Snake, Pantherophis vulpina. At the time I didn’t have my camera with me, and by the time I’d run and gotten it the snake had, of course, vanished.

The day wasn’t over, though. After I got off work in the afternoon, I spotted an undergraduate walking across the parking lot carrying the fox snake. He’d wisely decided to relocate it away from the buildings and cars into the woods, and this time I was able to snap a quick photo. I was very impressed with his snake-catching skills – it’s one thing I’m absolutely awful at.

Is that not a handsome animal? I mean, wow! Fox snakes, like many harmless nonvenomous snakes, will do rattlesnake impressions to try and scare off predators – this one was energetically vibrating the tip of its tail. Unfortunately, this probably leads to a lot of humans killing fox snakes as a result of mistaken identity.

I love snakes. Please don’t kill snakes. Even rattlesnakes.

UPDATE: Clearly I should have waited to publish this post until this evening, because since I put this up I have photographed not one but TWO MORE species of snake! Guess you’ll have to stay tuned and find out what they were on Monday!

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It’s Turtle Time!

In much of the country, as I’m sure many of you know, this is the time of year when mother turtles are on the move looking for nesting sites. This often involves crossing roads, so keep an eye out and if you see a turtle in the road, please stop and move it aside, if it’s safe for you to do so. Nothing makes me sadder than a dead smashed turtle.

Most of the turtles I’ve been seeing (and rescuing) here have been Painted Turtles, but this evening I found a Common Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina, digging a nest at the edge of the driveway. I was on the phone with a friend (hi Michelle!), and I ended up with my phone in one hand and my camera in the other, trying to get a good photo without disturbing the turtle too much.

Not the best spot for a nest, perhaps. However, if I’m very lucky, maybe I’ll get to see some baby snappers eventually!

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Baby Turtle! Squee!

We had a group of middle and high school students on site today (I taught a lesson on identifying trees with dichotomous keys), and one of the kids found this little treasure.

This is a western painted turtle, Chrysemys picta bellii. (Other subspecies don’t have that gorgeous red and black pattern on the plastron, the lower shell.) It probably recently emerged from a nest laid in late summer or early fall last year; this far north, hatchlings overwinter in the nest and emerge in early spring.

After I took its portrait I released it on a wooded bank near the pond. I wish it well.

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Long-Nosed Leopard Lizard

One of the interesting creatures we saw at Arches National Park was this large lizard, who crawled out from under a rock as we passed, apparently wanting to enjoy the morning sun.

It’s a long-nosed leopard lizard (try saying that five times fast), or Gambelia wislizenii. While we watched, it repeatedly crawled back under its rock only to reemerge a moment later, apparently unable to decide whether we were really a threat. When we finally continued along the trail, we were surprised to immediately find two more!

Apparently the red markings along the sides of these first two mean that they are gravid females. These diurnal lizards eat other, smaller lizards as well as insects and small rodents. Though there’s nothing in the photo to give a sense of scale, the ones we saw were easily a foot long.

Above, a male (no red bars) basks on a rock. These guys have a close cousin, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, that is a federally endangered species.

More to come…

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A Terrifying Infestation of… Garter Snakes?

This article caught my eye in the morning paper today: it describes a young couple who discovered a horrible infestation in their new house in rural Idaho. They describe it as being like living in a horror movie… the man was worried his pregnant wife would miscarry from the stress… now that they’ve left they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

What was their house infested with? Garter snakes. Small, nonvenomous garter snakes. Garter snakes = horror movie? Really? Even the term “infestation” seems like a bit of a stretch, since the article only describes one incident where they actually found a snake inside the house (the wife found it in the laundry room, and naturally she panicked, screamed, and jumped onto a counter to escape it). Apparently they were mostly in the crawl spaces in the walls, and in the yard.

I mean, I can understand not wanting to live in a house infested with snakes. Really, I can, especially since the article mentioned that their well water smelled like garter snake musk (ew – although the more I think about it, the less sense that makes; snake musk somehow permeated the groundwater???). But if you really, truly think about it, which would you rather have in your house, garter snakes or mice? Which one carries hantavirus, nibbles on the food in your cupboards, and shreds the clothes in the back of your closet for nest material? Not the snakes.

I don’t know. Some people.

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Gecko!

A pair of Mediterranean House Geckos (Hemidactylus turcicus) has taken up residence on my parents’ back patio here in southern Arizona, coming out at night to climb the walls in search of insects.

Between the poor lighting and the fact that the little buggers scurry quickly away when you get too close, this is the best photo I was able to get, but they’re cute little things. Geckos have a lot of interesting characteristics that make them stand out from other lizards. The specialized toe pads that let them walk up walls and even across ceilings (even glass ones!) with ease are hypothesized to rely on the Van der Waals force, which is just crazy. Some (including this species) produce little chirping noises, something most lizards are unable to do.

Even though these aren’t native to North America, I’ve never heard of them becoming invasive and causing any significant problems for native lizards – as their name suggests, I think they tend to stick close to buildings. Like the Peach-faced Lovebirds, another non-native species found in my parents’ neighborhood, I like them too much to really wish them ill.