Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Reptiles in the Panhandle?

Much of the tri-state region is known as “flyover country” to most Americans, more than 90 percent of whom hail from within 100-200 miles of the east and west coasts, the highly urbanized and suburbanized population centers of the nation.

Visitors to this region generally remark at how bare and stark the area seems, and often complain that there’s “nothing to do.” This is hardly surprising, for those who live along the coastlines live in a land of short horizons, buildings and forests, and constant swarms of activity.

There’s often a paradox involved when people talk about flyover country or look at the Great Plains as a sea of nothingness. For a great many of our urbanized and suburbanized coastal brethren are strongly drawn to the “green” movement, and fear that we humans tread far too heavily on nature. Yet they live in artificial enclaves where nature is largely represented by zoo exhibits.

But to see a breathtaking glimpse of nature’s intricate bounty, a visitor to our region need only drop his eyes from the magnificent horizon and look closely at the vista opening at his feet.

The native prairie ecosystem of our region is more equal in complexity to the most pristine rain forest. In fact, when you take seasonal changes into account, the prairie is often more complex and more varied. On a spring day, in the near distance from the tips of the toes to a mile, one can see scores of grass and forb species, wildflowers galore, hundreds of birds, and with careful observation, many species of mammal ranging in size from the tiny vole to the magnificent Bison. Insects of every shape, color and size clot every square meter of ground and buzz about the nearby air their thousands. Beneath the surface, plant and animal life is equally abundant and varied. But there’s one thing more. Reptiles and amphibians.
Josh Mead, UNL Herpetology Assistant, holds an adult male Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi) Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

A pair of UNL researchers visited a ranch in Kimball County Sunday and came away with a good deal of data on, and more than a few specimens of, the southwest Panhandle’s reptile population. Over the course of six hours, they covered more than three square miles and collected lizards, skinks and snakes, as well as data on sightings, weather conditions and environmental topography and condition.
Josh Mead, UNL Herpetology Assistant, and Dennis Ferraro, UNL Herpetologist, collect a specimen Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

Dennis Ferraro, an Extension Educator and University of Nebraska’s Herpetologist, who led the excursion, said, “My main goal in my career and in life is the conservation of amphibians, reptiles and turtles in North America.” Ferraro maintains the university's live animal lab of native Herpetofauna – that’s reptiles and amphibians – for research and educational purposes.
Dennis Ferraro, UNL Herpetologist, collects a skink Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

As UNL’s herpetologist, Ferraro sometimes gets unusual calls. “The State Patrol called me last year to the scene of a meth-lab they had busted back east. The criminals had hidden their stash of drugs in a fish aquarium and thrown a half-dozen rattlesnakes in the tank on top of the drugs. Of course they didn’t care for the snakes and they were half-dead from malnutrition, but I was able to collect them and the police got the drugs.
Josh Mead, UNL Herpetology Assistant, holds an adult skink Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

Accompanying Ferraro was senior Fish and Wildlife studies major and UNL herpetology assistant Josh Mead from Kearney, Neb. “I love this stuff,” he said, “absolutely love it.”
Dennis Ferraro, UNL Herpetologist, shows of an earless lizard Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

The main goal of the pair in Kimball County was to collect data on, and specimens of, male and female Short-horned Lizards (Phrynosoma hernandesi), commonly known as “horny toads” or “horned toads.” The Short-Horned lizard is a reptile, of course, and not a toad, which is an amphibian. The lizards are ubiquitous across our tri-state region, though not often seen due to their excellent camouflage.
A female Prairie Rattlesnake(Crotalus viridus), held safely and comfortably by snake tongs by a UNL herpetologist Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

The Short-horned Lizard  features a broad, flat body typically about 10 centimeters (cm) in length as adults. Newborns and young have the same body shape but are quite small, from 2 cm shortly after birth to nearly 4 cm at first hibernation. They have short, pointed spines at the back of the head, with spiny scales along the back and sides. They are quite colorful with patterns of black, brown, green, gray and white, but their coloration blends so well with their environment they are hard to see when they are still. Coloration and markings often vary considerably from location to location.
Josh Mead, UNL Herpetology Assistant, transcribes data while Dennis Ferraro, UNL Herpetologist, prepares to tag and a female Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridus) Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

They are viviparous, non-placentropic reptiles, which means that the female retains the eggs inside her body until fully developed, when they hatch and emerge as live young. Most reptiles lay eggs in nests. Viviparous reptiles, said Ferraro, are thought to have adapted the internal carriage of eggs due to sharp day-night temperature changes across the region. In our area, externally nested eggs might not survive. Though reptiles are exothermic, or cold-blooded, sun basking and normal activity make the inside of the lizard’s body a more consistent and reliable place for the eggs to develop.
Dennis Ferraro, UNL Herpetologist, inserts a tracking tag under the skin of a female Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridus) Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

In addition to collecting Short-horned Lizards, the pair of researchers also collected a number of skinks, an earless lizard, and several snakes.
Dennis Ferraro, UNL Herpetologist, uses a handheld reader to check the status of a newly inserted tracking tag in a female Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridus) Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

“We’ve had a female Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) in our collection,” said Ferraro, “since 2002. Unfortunately, she developed a tumor on her head and though we removed it, the carcinoma was malignant and is growing back, She’s still eating, but I’m afraid we’ll lose her soon, so we’d really like to find a replacement.”

Ferraro and Mead had collected a male Prairie Rattlesnake the night before near Benkelman, Neb. Ferraro said he travels about 50,000 miles each year, crisscrossing the state in search of data and specimens.

In the first location they chose to search for rattlesnakes, they found and adult Prairie Rattlesnake under the first piece of debris they turned over. Quickly securing the snake with snake tongs, the pair prepared to examine, tag, and measure the animal.

The operation is quite intricate, and begins by carefully placing the head and front half of the snake inside a narrow, clear plastic tube. In this fashion the snake is both protected and it’s dangerous head is contained.

With Mead’s assistance, Ferraro quickly examined the snake and determined that it was a female. The initial determination is made by counting the number of ventral scales between the vent, or cloaca, and the base of the rattle. Twenty-four or more indicate a male, 22 or less indicate a female. This snake had 23, so Ferraro carefully probed the cloaca and verified the snake was indeed female. “She’s probably gravid (pregnant), too,” he said with a big smile on his face.

Ferraro then inserted a tiny tracking chip just under the skin of the snake along its side. This chip can be read by a handheld device to verify the snake’s identity. In this case, the snakes new name is 985121012679829.

Prairie Rattlesnakes are viviparous as well, and with any luck, the UNL Herpetarium will soon be home to a growing population from Kimball County.

Josh Mead, UNL Herpetology Assistant, plays with a friendly bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer) Sunday during an expedition to western Nebraska.

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