Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Herpin' The Upper Midwest, Day 2: The Prairie

Continuing with my series of posts regarding Dave's visit in May, it's time to tell you all about the second trip we embarked upon.

The Prairie

The prairies of the upper Midwest are near and dear to my heart.  I spent a fair amount of time in this type of habitat during graduate school and I remember my time with fondness.  Thus, no herping trip to our area would be complete without checking out the praries.  A group of students taking a herpetology course with a colleague of mine at a nearby university also joined us on this trip.  The more eyes the better, for catching critters....

Our first encounter was a rare species in our neck of the woods, but one that is relatively common at this site: the Racer (Coluber constrictor).

The distribution of this species is broad, ranging from the midwest to the eastern U.S.  Across this geographic area, Coluber constrictor is divided into sub-species that are delineated by location.  For example, back in NC we frequently dealt with the Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus), which appears much different than the critter in the upper Midwest (see pics in this post).  Here we get the Eastern Yellow-Bellied Racer (Coluber constrictor flaviventris).

The common name (yellow-bellied) is apt.....

This is a quick-moving, sleek snake that is always a treat to find (and even more fun to try and catch!).

Although they don't get as large, overall, as the Black Racer, these Yellow-Bellied Racers can still get to a respectable size.....
Another species that we hoped to encounter was the Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata).  This incredibly rare species is hard to come by.  Collectors decimated their populations in this region during the 70s, 80s and early 90s....which is an absolute shame.  I've made this comment before in other posts, but it staggers me that someone would take a critter like this from the wild (where it rightfully belongs, not only for its own well-being but also so that it is available for others to appreciate) and hide it away in a glass terrarium.

Unfortunately, a combination of collecting, habitat loss and incredibly slow development and low reproductive output have put this species behind the 8-ball.

As such, I didn't know if we'd see one.

At first we saw only the evidence that box turtles were moving about, including some "divets" or "forms" dug into the soil by box turtles attempting to escape the heat, or hunker down for the night.

However, not far from the "forms".....success!!  A nice adult female resting among the Prickly Pear Cactus.

We were also fortunate enough to encounter some of the local box turtle stewards for this site, who were collecting box turtle eggs for a long-term head-starting program.  The goal of this program is to find the nests of wild box turtles....bring their eggs into captivity and incubate them.  This eliminates the potential for mortality due to mesocarnivores, such as Raccoons, Skunks and Oppossums which find turtle eggs to be quite a delicacy.  Once the turtles hatch, they are released on-site at the locaion where their nest was first encountered.

So, we were fortunate enough to get a glimpse of some recently excavated turtle eggs!

The warm-blooded critters were giving us a show as well.  We happened across this young White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) fawn.  The group was within a few meters before noticing it.  Even in this short grass, the tactic of freezing in place is very effective to avoid detection from we visually-oriented primates.

Sometimes they refuse to actually give in and make a break for it........
Photo by D. M.

Prairie plants are another a great reason to get out in May and do some hiking.  Many of my favorite late spring species were in bloom, such as the Spiderwort (Tradescantia sp.).

We also checked out a nearby rock formation for one of my favorite herp species in this region....the Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi). 

While poking around, Dave managed to scare up a nesting pair of birds (his cat-like reflexes saved him from a scalping)....

Unfortunately, of the Bullsnakes, all we saw was this cast-off skin....

But, Bullsnakes and Racers are not the only snakes present on-site!  We came across this busy little gal as we walked over the sandy terrain: an Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platyrhinos).  She was carefully excavating a burrow to deposit her eggs.

We disturbed her, which wasn't very nice, I suppose...but she forgave us and held still for a photo.

And also allowed us to palp her a bit, to determine if she had deposited her eggs already.  Based on her lack of plumpness and the folds of skin along her sides, I guessed she had.
Photo by D. M.

It's easy to see why they are called Hognose snakes, after you take a close look at them.  That upturned nose (or rostral) scale is unique to this genus in the Midwest.  They use that nose to aid in burrowing through sand or loam.  They are very interesting snakes (both behaviorally and morphologically), which I might get a chance to tell you about in the future, should I see any more......

After our successfull day at the first site, we decided to head out to a second site with a specific goal: to find a very rare species in our neck of the woods.

The landscape and sky combined in a very picturesque fashion, as we made are way to this particular location.

After roughly 30 minutes of searching, we came across the critter we were looking for: the Lined Snake (Tropidoclonion lineatus).  It's a rather small, somewhat drab and non-descript snake, to be honest.  It superficially appears somewhat like a gartersnake.  However, lined snakes are more gray with cream-colored stripes, whereas gartersnakes are black with yellow stripes.

Lined snakes also have markings on each belly scale, that appear similar to two half-circles side-by-side.  Gartersnakes belly scales are mostly without patterns.....

All-in-all it's a very poorly-understood snake.  Small, non-descript, and fossorial (or living below ground most of it's life), it is rarely in the limelight and, thus, rarely attracts the attention of graduate students looking to complete master's theses and doctoral dissertations!

Thus ended our second of three trips during Dave's visit.  Much like the Bog, our trip to the prairie was also a success!

One more trip to share with you all, and it's a doozy!


  1. Some nice finds. I was not familiar at all with the lined snake. If they are usually fossorial where did you find it? Under a flipable or was it out and about?

  2. Hey JK....

    Yeah, they are never just out and about, so it takes alot of bending over to find these guys under objects!

    Because we like to be careful about maintaining that microhabitat under the object as much as possible, we try and do this carefully and replace it exactly as we found it. We also stopped quickly after finding two individuals, so as not to needlessly disturb alot of microhabitats.

    I've seen some folks get pretty careless with turning objects like this, which is annoying (particularly since it's often so-called "herp folks" that are responsible for the carelessness).

  3. I think you should come to NY and do a herp workshop weekend for us! I'll be honest, I'm not much into reptiles...for no particular reason, amphibs are cool though! But hey I wasn't a fish head either....and look at me now...I can learn to love them?

    1. Would be fun to do a NY herp workshop. You all have alot of similar species to us, I think.

      Snakes have been my favorite (or tied for my favorite) critter since childhood. Just have to get over your fear....which is often times a learned behavior from parents or other adults that freak out about snakes in front of their kids.

      It just takes some actual real interaction with snakes....and after a bit of that, I bet you'd come around.

      My dad was very afraid of snakes, when I was a kid, but he never once let on....and look at me now!

      Fish are cool as hell! I'm envious of the time you are getting to spend learning about fish biology. I've done some work on African cichlids with a friend of mine. Got out of the fish research due to circumstance (I moved to NC and didn't have any lab space for tanks, etc. there). But I'd love to get back into doing some fish stuff alittle bit.

  4. Incredible finds. That nesting-hognose is spectacular, I would love to come across that. Do you know if the box turtle head-starting program is being undertaken together with measures to protect the adults?


    1. Dave...

      You come up here and we'll do our best to show you a good herping time!

      This head starting program is actually in it's 12th and final year. It probably should continue, but funding the way it is.....who knows.

      They've instituted some pretty strong protection for the adults. They are legally protected in the state...and unlike in some states....protected species are really protected (for now, anyways). The property owners also have a strict no collecting policy and a no going of the trail policy. Furthermore, the local box turtle stewarts watch the site like bulldogs, which is great.

  5. The hognose and lined snake are great. Sounds like we gotta get you out to the west coast to see some garter snakes though. Black and yellow and no patterns on their bellies? Not here! :)

    1. RT, I'd love to come out there and see those western herps with you all! I have absolutely no experience with them and they are so different than what's in the midwest and east! The rattlesnakes alone make my mouth water!

      You all have those beautifuly bluish gartersnakes, don't you? I can't recall the common name....California garters?

  6. Looks like some great herpin!