Some actual good news about the flatwoods salamander

A long time ago, I used to study reticulated flatwoods salamanders (Ambystoma bishopi).

By “study,” I mean that for four years in a row, I searched for them.

Any time it rained between late November and January or so, I set and checked traps around ephemeral ponds. Then, once the ponds filled with water, I spent my days wading in them with a dip net. I caught plenty of other amphibians, including literally hundreds of closely related mole salamanders, but no flatwoods salamanders. The only ones I ever saw in person were on another site where I was helping out for the night. As far as I know, that’s the only site that still has a breeding population.

So, this? This is wonderful news.

San Antonio Zoo successfully breeds endangered salamander for first time

Jumping Spider

I came across this spider years ago, while looking for salamanders (which is how I found most of the animals shown on this blog). It was on the silt fence, and when I held the camera up close to it, the spider kept running toward it. Reminds me of the way my cat approaches strange dogs — fluffed up and growling, but too curious not to approach and sniff the dog.

The constant motion made it very hard to get a clear photo.  When I got around to uploading them from the camera, there were twenty very blurred pictures, and this one.

Six-Lined Racerunner

These pretty little lizards were the fastest-moving thing on the ground in the Florida sandhills. I saw them every day, but I never managed to get a photo of one in situ. I caught this one in a snake trap and snapped this shot just before letting it go. Look at those crazy long toes!

The six-lined racerunner is a type of whiptail lizard, the only one found in the east. There are more in the southwest. You might have heard of those; they’re known for a very interesting trait. Some populations of whiptail lizards are all female. They reproduce by parthenogenesis. No males required!

This is not the same thing as the asexual reproduction you see in plants, where a part of an organism is broken off and an entirely new one grows from it. That’s cloning, in which the offspring and the parent have the same set of chromosomes. In parthenogenesis, no new DNA is introduced, but the existing chromosomes still go through meiosis, so the offspring are not genetically identical to the parent. And, honestly, my several attempts at a paragraph explaining how that works only reminded me that it’s been a long time since I took a genetics class, so I’ll do us all a favor and just point you to Wikipedia’s entry on parthenogenesis.

We tend to think of only plants and some invertebrates as reproducing asexually, but it’s more common in vertebrates than you might have thought. Some of the other species it’s been documented in include hammerhead sharks, boa constrictorsKomodo dragons, and domestic turkeys. While looking for examples, I discovered that I’m already familiar with some local snakes capable of parthenogenesis: the cottonmouth and copperhead — a 2012 study found genetic evidence in both species! No matter how you feel about venomous snakes, that is pretty damned cool.

Eastern Coral Snake

Last week, I posted a scarlet snake and compared it to the similar-looking coral snake. Here’s what a real coral snake looks like. The most visible differences: the nose is black, and the red and yellow bands touch. People in parts of the US where this snake lives (and sometimes where it doesn’t!) grow up hearing this rhyme:

Red and yellow, kill a fellow.
Red and black, friend of Jack.

There are variations — a more sensical one ends “poison lack” — but the one above is the one I learned as a child in West Virginia, which is well outside of the coral snake’s range. Where my parents, who came from Pennsylvania, learned it is anyone’s guess.

The black head is less definitive — some kingsnakes have black heads. But the red and yellow bands still don’t touch.

Coral snakes are venomous, but they’re not closely related to the other venomous snakes in North America, the pit vipers (rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads). They have a different type of venom, and they don’t have the big front fangs the pit vipers do. And unlike pit vipers, coral snakes lay eggs.

Their venom is very toxic, but they’re not much of a threat to humans. Their small fangs are not very good for injecting venom, so they don’t just strike and let go like a rattlesnake. They hold on and chew, and the only time that’s likely to happen is if you pick them up. I don’t recommend picking them up. Or standing on them while wearing flip-flops. Otherwise, you can safely watch them from a few feet away.

This species lives in the southeast coastal plain, from eastern NC south to FL and then west around the Gulf of Mexico. Other species live further south, but they don’t have the same pattern. If you’re outside the US, don’t trust the “red and yellow” rule!

Eastern Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius)

So here’s a question for readers: If you live somewhere with venomous and non-venomous animals that look similar, what tricks do you use to quickly identify which are dangerous?

(Correction: I had stated that there was only one species of coral snake in the US. That’s wrong, there are others in the Southwest. This is just the only coral snake species in the Eastern United States.)

Scarlet Snake

This is a scarlet snake. It’s easily mistaken for either a scarlet kingsnake or a coral snake, but you can tell it’s neither by the fact that the bands of red and black are only on the snake’s back. The belly is white. Coral snakes and scarlet kingsnakes have bands that go all the way around the body.

Scarlet snakes live in the southeast and as far west as Oklahoma and Texas. They eat mostly small rodents and reptiles, and reptile eggs. A large adult might get up to two feet long.

That pointy head helps them burrow into sand. The head always starts with red at the nose, unlike coral snakes, which start with black. (The “red touch yellow, kill a fellow” rule is good only in the US. If you go to Central America, the coral snakes are a lot less standardized.)


Eastern Spadefoot

Here’s an eastern spadefoot, a medium-sized frog that is relatively common but rarely seen unless you happen to be trapping amphibians around an ephemeral pond. They’re burrowers, so they need loose, sandy soil that’s easy to dig into. They dig with their hind feet, backwards.

The adults are rarely seen in daylight. They usually only come out of their burrows at night to catch bugs, earthworms, and slugs. But you can sometimes find hundreds of tiny recently-metamorphosed spadefoots leaving a pond during the day.

The easiest way to tell them from true toads (the Bufo genus — around here that would be the Fowler’s toad and the American toad) is their eyes — their pupils are vertical instead of round. They also have two curved yellow streaks on their backs.

Also, they try to curl up into a ball when threatened. I’m not sure what threat would be deterred by this — definitely not a human — but it is adorable.