The mole salamander (Ambystoma talpoideum) is not a glamorous-looking creature. It’s small, unassuming, and slippery. It lives in burrows and in small isolated ponds in the woods. It’s mostly dark brown or black, often mottled with a gray or blue lichen-like pattern. It has a broad, flattened head. It looks a little like some artists’ reconstructions of Tiktaalik, and it’s easy to picture it living back when animals were first starting to crawl onto land.
Many southerners will recognize the green anole, aka Carolina anole, aka American chameleon. The scientific name is Anolis carolinensis.
Though sold in pet shops as “chameleons” because of their color-changing ability, they’re not the same as the true chameleons of Africa and Asia.
Green anoles are small, slender lizards that live mostly in trees, but can also be found clinging to window and porch screens. Usually bright green, they can change their color to brown or tan. They have a pink throat fan, or dewlap, which they expand to communicate with other anoles. They are territorial, so what they’re communicating is probably “MY tree! Go away!”
(Arachnophobia: fear of spiders and scorpions. Hemophobia: fear of blood. Ophidiophobia: fear of snakes.)
In any job dealing with wildlife in the field, you’re eventually going to have to deal with things many people find frightening, disgusting, or just plain creepy. I have caught and been bitten by snakes, walked through countless spiderwebs, and waded around in ponds with a thick layer of scum on the surface.
One of my projects in the summer was to trap, measure, mark, and release snakes. To that end, my co-workers and I set up giant X-shaped silt fence arrangements with a trap in the center and buckets as pitfall traps at each end. The buckets were covered with little plywood tables to provide shade. One day I lifted up one of the plywood tops and found this:
That is a pigmy rattlesnake in the bucket. Next to it is a very large wolf spider. On the underside of the plywood is a black widow spider and the dried-out corpse of a scorpion. An arachnophobe’s nightmare.
The gopher tortoise is large, as North American land turtles go, but it does not stand out.
It’s slow-moving, grayish-tan, close to the ground, and when not moving it resembles a smooth, dome-shaped rock. On top of that, it spends a good part of its time underground. The tortoise is most visible when actively digging, as a fountain of sand flies up behind its claws.
The burrow is easier to find than the tortoise itself. The burrow of a mature tortoise can be spotted from a long distance in the hot, sunny, sandy habitat it prefers. A tortoise burrow is a crescent-shaped hole in the ground, with a wide mound of sand called an apron in front. These burrows go all the way down to the water table, so they stay relatively cool and moist in summer, and relatively warm in winter. This makes them an ideal refuge for many other species, and the tortoise doesn’t seem to mind sharing. Over 350 species have been found in gopher tortoise burrows 1. Personally, I have seen frogs, snakes, mice, beetles, and once a skunk.