Less living space for reptiles and amphibians
But common species still accounted for
It has been a generation since the last time reptiles and amphibians were fully documented on a statewide basis in Mar yland.
Now a new reptile and amphibian atlas has been completed after more than five years of work, and the good news is
that the vast majority of species last documented in 1973 are still living in Maryland.
The bad news? Valuable habitats for reptiles and amphibians have been lost to make way for new neighborhoods and shopping centers, and some species that used to be commonplace have become harder to find, county coordinators said in inter views.
But overall, “the project was a success. The state was really well covered,” said Heather Cunningham, assistant professor of biology at Chesapeake College and state coordinator of the updated Maryland Amphibian and Reptile Atlas. “We did very well. Only a few species were not documented. We did find everything else. To me that’s good news.”
Across the state, 34,900 reptile and amphibian sightings were submitted to county coordinators and 86 species were identified — 39 amphibian species and 47 reptile species.
“Common species still tend to be widely distributed,” Cunningham said.
There are still plenty of box turtles making their way through their little 1-acre home ranges in the state.
And Calvert County “is probably the copperhead capital of the state,” said Andy Brown, naturalist for the Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary and atlas coordinator for that county.
In Southern Maryland, “that is a diverse region of the state — lots of cool stuff,” Cunningham said.
More than 50 species were documented in each of the three counties in the region: 55 in Charles, 54 in St. Mary’s and 53 in Calvert, Cunningham said.
Reported by volunteers to county coordinators, St. Mary’s County collected 3,300 records, followed by 1,900 in Calvert and 1,500 in Charles.
The atlas effort is “mapping geographic occurrence, but not abundance,” said Kyle Rambo, natural resources manager for Patuxent River Naval Air Station, who coordinated the St. Mary’s County records.
The red corn snake, a secretive and non-venomous snake, and the colorful and endangered rainbow snake were both found in Charles County, which is likely the northern boundary for that snake, said George Jett, the Charles County coordinator for the atlas.
There were 10 records of rainbow snakes in 80 years in Maryland and this effort found seven new records, he said.
Rainbow snakes are fossorial, or burrowing snakes, and spend most of their lives underground, Jett said, making them hard to find in the first place.
In both Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, several loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles were documented.
Many were found dead on beaches, Rambo said — likely the victim of boat strikes, but it shows the prevalence of the turtles in area waters.
There are still Eastern narrow-mouthed toads confirmed in Southern Maryland, which are considered endangered in the state.
In fact, their range seems to have expanded in St. Mary’s County.
In the mid-1990s, the presence of that toad and its habitat delayed the reconstruction of Indian Bridge Road in St. Mary’s County.
There were several new locations with Eastern narrow-mouthed toads living in them in central St. Mary’s, Rambo said, including in stormwater management ponds.
It’s easier to hear an Eastern narrow-mouthed toad than it is to see one. They sound like a lamb in distress, Rambo said, as he imitated their call.
The toad is common in the Carolinas, but Southern Maryland is the northern fringe of their habitat. What happens to the toad on the outer edge is telling for the species, Rambo said.
“The critters living on the fringe of the range are probably more important than the ones in the heart of the range,” he said. “Those are the ones that are more adaptable to extremes in their environment. The ones that have pushed all the way into Maryland are probably the most cold tolerant. If something changes environmentally, it’s those ones that are going to be the future for that species. That fringe element could be the most important.”
Other species turned up in Southern Maryland that were not expected, Cunningham said.
A Russian tortoise and Oriental fire-bellied toads were both documented in St. Mary’s County. “It’s likely they were former pets,” Cunningham said.
The toads were found near a pet store in California, Rambo said.
In Calvert County, a northwestern salamander — native to the northwestern United States — was documented arriving in a live, wrapped Christmas tree.
The salamander made the cross-country trip but “subsequently died,” Brown said.
“These non-native species have a way of appearing in places,” Cunningham said.
Texas rat snakes were found in Maryland, along with yellow-bellied slider turtles.
A 4-foot alligator was found by a pond in Wicomico County on the Eastern Shore, she said. It goes to show that people need to become more educated before taking on a pet that can grow too large, she said.
There is a population of geckos living in downtown Leonardtown, Rambo said, that likely escaped from a pet store that used to be located on the corner. He has personally seen them on an ATM screen in town.
The potential for fungal and bacterial disease transmission between exotic pets and native species is the real concern, Rambo said.
But the work in the atlas showed some obvious declines for reptiles and amphibians.
“Many of the historical locations have long been destroyed,” Jett said, who is retired from the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The first known Eastern hog-nosed snake from Maryland was found June 3, 1878, in Laurel in Prince George’s County, but that site has become a housing development,” Jett said.
Eastern hog-nose snakes and corn snakes have seen declines in their numbers. “You just don’t see them anymore,” Rambo said.
The Northern chorus frog is no longer in Mar yland, nor is the Northern smooth earth snake, Jett said.
The populations of corn snakes and eastern king snakes are “in very bad shape in Calvert County,” Brown said. “It’s loss of habitat.”
Rambo also noticed some disturbing trends in the data collected in St. Mary’s County.
The eastern fence lizard “used to be a very common lizard,” he said. “You really have to go looking for them now. The abundance has fallen way off. And I have no idea why.”
Red-backed salamanders are the most common salamander in the eastern woodlands. “Every log you rolled had three to four under them. I can spend an hour or more, sometimes hours before I find one, if I find one,” Rambo said.
But there were also pleasant surprises found along the way.
Northern cricket frogs were found in ever y survey grid in Calvert County, Brown said and the green tree frog was found to be widely distributed there.
The coastal plain milk snake, resembling a coral snake with its red, black and white bands, are localized in southern St. Mary’s County — “probably our prettiest snake,” Rambo said — in areas of Ridge, St. Inigoes and St. Mary’s City. They are non-venomous.
In fact, the only venomous snake in Southern Maryland is the copperhead.
Calvert County’s geography makes it such an inviting place to live for copperheads, Brown said. “Calvert’s very unique in its topography in its wooded ravines with very steep creek bottoms and that’s why it’s very, very good habitat for copperheads,” he said.
There are no water moccasins in Maryland, though people think they see them a lot.
“We do not have water moccasins,” Rambo emphasized. They live in the southern United States and are barely in the southeast corner of Virginia.
The water snakes that people see in Southern Maryland are Northern water snakes, which are not venomous.
“Contrary to folk tales, there are no cottonmouth/water moccasin or rattlesnakes in this part of Maryland,” Jett agreed. “The cottonmouth is often confused with the Northern water snake. The Northern water snake, although non-venomous, is a mean animal and will give you nasty bites. Keep your distance,” he said.
Some people still by the old saying, only good snake dead snake.”
“It’s ridiculous and unfortunate that these myths keep persisting,” Cunningham said.
“Why are we so scared of something so small?” she said. “It doesn’t even have legs or claws.”
“It is illegal to kill any snake, regardless of the species in Maryland,” Jett said. “Please stay clear and do not kill these animals. They are beneficial to our fragile ecosystem.”
“Snakes are such live “the is a vital components to our ecosystem,” Cunningham said.
After tornadoes struck when she lived in Alabama, mice and rats would breed in rubble piles and the only animals that could navigate through the debris were snakes. Cats couldn’t go after the vermin in those piles. “A snake can get into areas to help prey on rodents and mice that can carry diseases,” she said.
Snakes “all have their place — even the venomous ones,” she said. “I have never been chased by a snake in my life.” Cunningham has been upon rattlesnake dens and “they didn’t do anything,” she said.
People tend to kill copperheads on sight, but they are better predators for mice than black snakes, Brown said.
Copperheads are pit vipers, which makes them “really good at hunting warm-blooded prey. They’re extremely good at rodent control,” he said.
Black rat snakes tend to eat more baby birds in nests than mice because they can climb well, whereas copperheads cannot. The black rat snakes “get the easy prey,” Brown said. “Copperheads tend to be better mousers.”
And when it comes with interactions with people, copperheads “are fairly easy-going snakes. Given their space, they won’t strike,” Brown said, and if they do, he’s not aware of any fatalities from a copperhead bite. rat
“We have much more patience with a mammal,” such as cats or dogs that bite, “but we don’t show the same kind of tolerance for a snake,” Cunningham said.
Driving back to his office at Pax River NAS, Rambo almost ran over a black rat snake on the side of the road. When he saw it, he turned the truck around, got out to cross the road, and pushed the snake off the road and into the grass even though the snake was reared back and threatening to bite.
In the sunlight that was peering out on the cool and cloudy day in early June, the road surface probably felt warm to the cold-blooded creature, Rambo said.
Davis maintains that she has never seen an issue so divisive as the WCD.
“I wouldn’t have been able to move here,” she said. “Kids won’t be able to move home.”
She says it isn’t over just yet, as there are citizens who want to move the issue to referendum.
Following the town hall, Hancock and several WCD supporters conversed outside. Despite their disagreements on the WCD, there was consensus on at least one thing: traffic is atrocious.
Rainbow snakes were found in Charles County, which is thought to be the northern fringe of their range. The elusive snake spends most of its life underground, making it difficult to document.