Sunday, November 11, 2007

I don’t know about everyone else, but we’re still finding snakes. True, they’re all brown snakes (Storeria d. dekayi), but it’s still fun.

Then there are the redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus). We turned up around twenty last weekend (on the 4th of November), one of those in the Woodlands Cemetery.

That Woodlands salamander was a big deal for me. The salamanders of the genus Plethodon are often referred to as ‘woodland’ salamanders. They lay eggs on land and hatch out terrestrial babies, so they don’t need to breed in water. This fully terrestrial lifecycle enables them live deeper into the forest than most other salamanders, but they still need moist soil and leaf litter, so they stick to the woods.

I expect to find redbacks in woodlands or at the edge of woods; the Mount Moriah Cemetery, with forest on the slopes on the edges is a case in point. The same goes for the wooded ravines and slopes around the Belmont Plateau and Lemon Hill in Fairmont Park, not to mention the wooded valleys of the Wissahickon and Cobbs Creek.

The Woodlands Cemetery, by contrast with the above locales (and its own name), is more of a savannah. There are plenty of trees, but they’re well spaced out with grass in between. There is a little bit of woods along the edges, but only a few yards deep.

We found two of the brown snakes under that same board in the back of the Woodlands. I saw them when I was running Sunday morning (sunny but chilly, probably in the low 40s), and Jen and I came back and saw them again in the afternoon (low 50s and sunny). I was thinking I might take one home if we could find more than just those two, but the way they were sitting next to each other, I had the gut worry (entirely irrationally) that the one would miss the other, and I felt a little uneasy about taking two from a population that doesn’t seem very big to me.

After that, we drove over to our other favorite cemetery, Mt. Moriah, way on the other side of West Philly. I didn’t think we’d find much but redback salamanders, and for the first twenty minutes I was right. I’m pretty sure I know where most of the brown snakes spend the winter up there, but there’s no cover to look under. I think they’re back in between boulders that make up a stone retaining wall and deep in vines and vegetation in some plots above that wall. I made a comment to the effect of, “they’re back in there, but there’s nothing for us to look under.”

Jen, ever the more observant one, walked over to a tire at the base of the wall, picked it up, and said, “Here are two snakes.”

They were both young of the year (YOY), and they were so tiny they made me wonder if the YOY I found on October 17th was actually a year old. One was missing most of its tail, and I decided right there that we’d keep them for the winter. I declared that the one missing its tail would be known as “Stumpy,” and Jen then stated that of course the other one would be called “Ren.”

A lot of times we (or at least I) forget that hibernation is possible the most dangerous thing reptiles and amphibians do. There’s the risk of freezing to death, there’s the risk of dying of dehydration, there’s the risk that a mouse or shrew will dig them up, and they’ll be too groggy and slow to get away. I bet the one recovering from the recent loss of its tail wouldn’t make it, and the other one was right there, so we popped them in an empty water bottle.

After a little more looking, we came home to watch the Eagles get whupped by the Cowboys, and I set the two little guys up in a custom-made hibernaculum. One challenge of keeping such small snakes is finding small food, but this isn’t a problem if they’ll be hibernating. The other challenge is moisture: keeping them from drying out, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, getting some kind of fatal skin infection from excessive moisture. I set them up with damp vermiculite on one half of the box and relatively dry mulch on the other. I put in a glass coaster for something to hide under (placed right in the middle, with half on the moist side and half on the dry side) and a shallow water dish.

I don’t have high hopes for our being able to find them food in the spring, so we’ll probably release them once we’re past the last frost of the spring. They’ll spend the next few months in the draftiest spot I could find in Scott’s basement, and I figure they’ve got a pretty good chance of at least making it alive through the winter.