Less liv­ing space for rep­tiles and am­phib­ians

But com­mon species still ac­counted for

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By JASON BAB­COCK jbab­cock@somd­news.com

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.

PHOTO BY GE­ORGE JETT

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.

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