Friday, March 11, 2011

Hypothermia and herping don't usually come to mind together, but I've been freezing my butt off this winter in pursuit of critters, and I suppose spring is no reason to stop.

Imagine the release scene at the end of a documentary where a wounded wild animal has been rehabilitated - maybe a puma that has been hit by a car has finally had its casts and silly neck-cone taken off. It is caged at the edge of a field, desperate to get on the other side of the bars. Suddenly the park ranger yanks up the gate and the cat flies out of the cage, thrilled and probably not quite believing it is actually free. That's how Mid-Atlantic herpers feel right about now. A few weeks ago it was cold and snowy (but we KNEW, any day now it could break...) and then the temperatures got up above freezing and it started to rain.

I actually missed the first couple rains. Scott and I did drive around the Coastal Plain for one night waiting for a storm that only hit when we were on our way back home at midnight and I was passed out in the passenger seat. He scored the next week with an Ambystoma trifecta (opacum - marbled, maculatum - spotted, and tigrinum - tiger), but with another storm bearing down on us last week, we made sure our night was clear and headed for the PA countryside.

Another herper I knew sent us the details for an amphibian crossing guard volunteer opportunity, so we signed up to walk around with a clip board in the frigid rain (temps dropped from 38 to 35 while we were out) counting salamanders as we helped them across the road.

The smaller the herp, the harder it is to pick up off wet tar-mac. Four toed salamanders (Hemidactylium scutatum) seemed to wriggle between the pebbles set in the asphalt. I start with their best side - their enamel white bellies speckled like a mini dalmatian.

On top they're a basic-looking salamander, though in daylight they do take on a nice metallic sheen that doesn't show up here. We saw two of them, though one could question how many we passed without even seeing them. After they mate, the females lay eggs next to the water under moss, and then sit with them until they hatch and the larvae drop into the water.

We saw a few spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) sitting on the road. I couldn't move my fingers very quickly to grab them, but then with temps in the mid-30s, these guys weren't moving very quickly either and were very easy to pick up.

Spotted salamanders were a lot easier to see. We saved eight on the way to the crossing guard meet-up point (and saw four or five that hadn't made it across), and once there got our total up to about 60, dominated by females (about three fifths - previous nights were dominated by males, who generally get to the pools first, not unlike male humans who arrive at the bar and start drinking before the women).

Look how fat she is - the big girl is schlepping around a hundred or so eggs and probably can't wait to get them all out.

Here is a male - note how much thinner he is.

Males arrive with a swollen vent and ready to drop their load of spermataphores (little packets of sperm that the females then pick up with their own vents, fertilizing their eggs internally before they lay them) leaving Scott and me to infer the amphibian equivalent of (well, think about it).

The ponds and marshes around the roads we patrolled will now be full of jelly-like globs of salamander eggs, and these adults might already have started the trip back home - maybe just a few dozen meters, but up to 800 meters in some cases, quite a hike for an eight-inch salamanders.

It's hard to say when exactly we lost feeling in our extremities, but by the end of the night our hands were moving in slow motion and our facial muscles froze up too. Thus it is conceivable that below you see me with some kind of pained rictus, but I'm pretty sure I was just gleefully happy with the first proper herping night of the season.

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