Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Side-Blotched Lizard & A Warming Climate

A side-blotched lizard, Pima Co., AZ, JCM
Side-blotched lizards of the genus Uta are perhaps the most abundant and most frequently seen lizards in western North American deserts. Males are usually larger than females and have brightly colored throats that are used to signal other lizards. They mature rapidly and reproduce at young age. Many fall prey to a variety of birds, mammals, and other reptile, thus in some populations few live longer than a year. Mature females regularly lay two clutches (and in some years possibly three), yearlings frequently lay only one clutch unless environmental conditions are especially favorable.

Clark & Zani (2012) used the side-blotched lizard to examine the impact of climate change, hypothsizing that temperate ectotherms, especially those at higher latitudes, would benefit from climate warming. Most previous studies on the effects of climate change use a model of uniform annual change, which assumes that temperature increases are symmetric on diurnal or seasonal time scales. In this study, Clark & Zani simulated observed trends in the asymmetric alteration of diurnal temperature range by increasing night-time temperatures experienced by female lizards during their ovarian cycle as well as by the resulting eggs during their incubation. They found that higher night-time temperatures during the ovarian cycle increased the probability of reproductive success and decreased the duration of the reproductive cycle, but did not affect embryo stage or size at oviposition, clutch size, egg mass or relative clutch mass. However, higher incubation temperatures increased hatchling size and decreased incubation period but had no effect on incubation success. Subsequent hatchlings were more likely to survive winter if they hatched earlier, but the sample size of hatchlings was relatively small. Their results suggest higher night-time temperatures affect the rates of processes and that certain aspects of life history are less directly temperature dependent. Thus climate warming is likely to increase the rate of development as well as advance reproductive phenology, and the authors predict that warmer nights during the breeding season will increase reproductive output as well as subsequent survival in many temperate ectotherms, both of which should have positive fitness effects.

Clarke DN, and Zani PA. 2012. Effects of night-time warming on temperate ectotherm reproduction: potential fitness benefits of climate change for side-blotched lizards, Journal of Experimental Biology 215:1117-1127. doi:10.1242/jeb065359

Crocodilian Bite Force

University of Florida Photo
In Greg Erickson's lab at Florida State University, crocodiles and alligators rule. Skeletal snouts and toothy grins adorn window ledges and tables -- all donated specimens that are scrutinized by researchers and students alike.

Lately, Erickson, a Florida State biology professor, and his colleagues have been pondering a particularly painful-sounding question: How hard do alligators and crocodiles bite?

The answer is a bite force value of 3,700 pounds for a 17-foot saltwater crocodile (as well as tooth pressures of 350,000 pounds per square inch). That's the highest bite force ever recorded -- beating a 2,980-pound value for a 13-foot wild American alligator Erickson's lab measured in 2005. They estimate that the largest extinct crocodilians, 35- to 40-foot animals, bit at forces as high as 23,100 pounds.

Erickson, along with several colleagues, including Florida State biology professors Scott Steppan and Brian Inouye, and graduate student Paul Gignac, reported their findings in the journal PLoS One.

Funded by the National Geographic Society and the FSU College of Arts and Sciences, their study looks at the bite force and tooth pressure of every single species of crocodilian. It took more than a decade to complete and required a wily team of croc handlers and statisticians, as well as an army of undergraduate and graduate students. Erickson describes crocodilian bite-force testing as being a bit like dragon slaying by committee.

"Our work required a team effort," he said.

As a result of the study, Erickson and his team have a new understanding on how these animals became so successful and a better understanding about the remarkable biology of living crocodiles and alligators. They've also developed new methods for testing bite forces.

The data contributes to analyzing performance in animals from the past and provides unprecedented insights on evolution and statistically informed models about other reptiles such as dinosaurs.

The study's findings are so unique that Erickson's team has been contacted by editors at the "Guinness Book of World Records" inquiring about the data.

Over the 11 years that his current study took place in both the United States and Australia, Erickson and his team roped 83 adult alligators and crocodiles, strapped them down, placed a bite-force device between their back teeth and recorded the bite force. An engineering calculation was then used to estimate the force generated simultaneously by the teeth nearest the front of the jaws. The team molded the teeth with dentist's dental putty, made casts and figured out the contact areas.

Talk about dangerous work.

As Erickson describes it: "I have to admit, the first time I placed our meter into the maw of an adult crocodile, I was nervous. It was all over in the blink of an eye. When it struck, it nearly wrested my grip from the handle. The noise of the jaws coming together was like a gunshot. The power of the animal was astounding, and the violence of the event frightening."

Overall, the researchers looked at crocodilians both mundane and exotic, from American alligators to 17-foot Australian saltwater crocodiles and the Indian gharial. Among the world's most successful predatory reptiles, these creatures have been "guardians of the water-land interface for over 85 million years," Erickson said.

But just how they were able to occupy and dominate ecological niches for so long is a mystery.

Erickson and his team knew that the reptiles evolved into different sizes, from 3-footers to 40-footers, and they showed concurrent major changes in their jaw shape and tooth form, while their body form remained largely unchanged.

"We set out to answer how this anatomical variance related to their ability to generate bite force and pressures for feeding in the different forms and thus how they have been so successful," Erickson said. "The bite force over the contact area is the pressure, which is more pertinent to feeding performance than bite force. Ultimately, it tells us just what they were doing with those prodigious bite forces."

And, he added, gators and crocs have comparable maximal bite-force capacity when measured pound for pound. They basically all have the same musculoskeletal design, just different snouts and teeth.

"It is analogous to putting different attachments on a weed eater -- grass cutter, brush cutter, tree trimmer, they all have the same type of engine," Erickson said. "There are bigger and smaller engines, with higher and lower horsepower, but they have the same attachments."

His research team is already using the study's data to explore bite-force and tooth-pressure performance in fossil forms. The team is building the world's most sophisticated models for extinct crocodiles and dinosaurs based on the findings, as well as continuing to study the significance of croc snout form.

As for modern-day crocs and gators, well, there's little doubt that they are truly the world's bone-crushing champions. Just remember that old Floridian maxim: Always maintain a healthy distance between yourself and the nearest gator.

"If you can bench-press a pickup truck, then you can escape a croc's jaws," Erickson warned. "It is a one-way street between the teeth and stomach of a large croc."

Gregory M. Erickson, Paul M. Gignac, Scott J. Steppan, A. Kristopher Lappin, Kent A. Vliet, John D. Brueggen, Brian D. Inouye, David Kledzik, Grahame J. W. Webb. Insights into the Ecology and Evolutionary Success of Crocodilians Revealed through Bite-Force and Tooth-Pressure Experimentation. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (3): e31781 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0031781

Friday, March 30, 2012

Where Common Snakes are Rare and Rare Snakes are Common - On the Abundance of Tropical Snakes

Above: the arboreal cat snake, Boiga jaspidea; below the cryptozoic Gongylosoma baliodeirus. Photographed in the Danum Valley, Sabah, Malaysia.

Hans Breuer's post on Herp Nation's web site, Herping in the Tropics - Ecstasy or Nightmare?, brought back memories from another lifetime. In 1989 I spent a couple of months collecting data and specimens in Sabah's Danum Valley, an area of more than 400 sq km of lowland and hill dipterocarp forest that ranges in elevation from 150 to 1093 m asl. It was one of four trips to the Danum Valley run by the Field Museum to investigate the community ecology of the herpetofauna in Southeast Asia. From those four trips we put together a field guide and key to the snakes of the area (Murphy et al. 1994).

The article contained a bar graph of the 36 species found in Danum over 166 days of field work and how many of each species were collected. The graph is shown below, the photo insert is the species found most often, Pseudorabdion collaris, a small fossorial snake encountered while turning cover or raking leaf litter. 

Snakes are not easy to find in the tropics. The 166 days of field work produced 161 specimens (0.969 snakes per day). This was accomplished with three to four people working in the field a minimum of 6 hours per day (so at least 18 hours of effort per day to produce just less than one snake per day).

This experience is not unusual. William Beebe (1946) published the results of 36 months of field work at Kartabo, Guyana in one square mile of lowland tropical forest. He collected 425 snakes representing 52 species over 1080 days, or 0.39 snakes per day.

Dunn (1949) described a collection of snakes made by H.C. Clark in Panama. Dunn described 10,690 snakes representing collected over 13 years (4745 days)at four locations (the number of species varied between 40 and 60). The result was 2.25 snakes per day but this was a commercial venture involving many people.

Duellman (1978) reported on 1440 days of field work at Santa Cecilia, Ecuador and four nearby localities. His data show 564 specimens of 51 species, or about 0.38 snakes per day.

Today, the best answer as to why tropical snakes are difficult to find and when you do find them, rarely do you find a single species to be particularly abundant, seems to be exactly what Breuer concluded, the vast number number of hiding places in the tropics combined with the cryptic nature of snakes makes common snakes rare and rare snakes common. It also suggests, the diversity of snakes has been greatly under estimated and much remains to be discovered.

Beebe, W. 1946. Field notes on the snakes of Katabo, British Guiana, and Caripito, Venezuela. Zoologica 31, 11-51.

Duellman, WE. 1978. The biology of an equatorial herpetofauna in Amazonian Ecuador. University of Kansas, Miscellaneous Publications (65), 1-352.

Dunn, ER. 1949. Relative abundance of some Panamanian snakes. Ecology 30, 39-57.

Murphy JC, Voris HK, Karns, DK. 1994, A field guide and key to the snakes of the Danum Valley, a Bornean  tropical forest ecosystem. Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society 29(7):133-151.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Rediscover of Cardioglossa cyaneospila

SAN FRANCISCO (March 27, 2012) – Herpetologists from the California Academy of Sciences and University of Texas at El Paso discovered a single specimen of the Bururi long-fingered frog (Cardioglossa cyaneospila) during a research expedition to Burundi in December 2011. The frog was last seen by scientists in 1949 and was feared to be extinct after decades of turmoil in the tiny East African nation.

For biologists studying the evolution and distribution of life in Africa, Burundi sits at an intriguing geographic crossroads since it borders the vast Congo River Basin, the Great Rift Valley, and the world’s second largest freshwater lake, Lake Tanganyika. Many of the species in its high-elevation forests may be closely related to plants and animals found in Cameroon’s mountains, suggesting that at some point in the past, a cooler climate may have allowed the forests to become contiguous.

Previous knowledge of Burundi’s wildlife came from scientific surveys conducted in the mid-20th century, when the nation was under Belgian administration. But its history since then has been one of political unrest, population growth, and habitat loss. Today, approximately 10 million people occupy an area the size of Massachusetts, giving Burundi one of the highest population densities in Africa.

Academy curator David Blackburn joined his colleague Eli Greenbaum, professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, on the 2011 expedition with the goal of finding Cardioglossa cyaneospila, as well as other amphibians and reptiles first described 60 years ago. To their pleasant surprise, the habitats of the Bururi Forest Reserve in the southwest part of the country were still relatively intact, with populations of rare forest birds and chimpanzees present.

With little knowledge to go on except a hunch that C. cyaneospila would make a call like its possible close relatives in Cameroon, Blackburn finally found a single specimen on his fifth night in the forest.

“I thought I heard the call and walked toward it, then waited,” said Blackburn. “In a tremendous stroke of luck, I casually moved aside some grass and the frog was just sitting there on a log. I heard multiple calls over the next few nights, indicating a healthy population of the species, but I was only able to find this one specimen.”

The Bururi long-fingered frog is about 1.5 inches long, with a black and bluish-gray coloration. The males are notable for one extra-long finger on each foot, analogous to the “ring finger” in humans, whose purpose is unknown. Its closest relatives live in the mountains of Cameroon, more than 1,400 miles away.

The lone specimen collected, which now resides in the Academy’s herpetology collection, can be used for DNA studies to determine how long the Cardioglossa species from Burundi and Cameroon have been genetically isolated from one another. The results will shed light on Africa’s historical climate conditions, a topic that has far-reaching implications for understanding the evolution of life in the continent that gave rise to our own species.

In addition to locating the Bururi long-fingered frog, Blackburn and Greenbaum also documented dozens of other amphibians in Burundi, many of which had never before been recorded in the country. The team also discovered some species that may be new to science.

“Eventually, we will use the data from our expedition to update the IUCN conservation assessment for amphibians of Burundi,” said Greenbaum. “Because Burundi is poorly explored, we’ve probably doubled the number of amphibian species known from the country. Once we demonstrate that Burundi contains rare and endemic species, we can work with the local community to make a strong case for preserving their remaining natural habitats.”

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Suzio Report March 18

Howdy Herpers, 
Sunday, March 18 brought upon us the weather conditions that are ideal for herping: 8 degrees C, rain and sleet, and howling winds. John Slone and Marty Feldner joined me for the arctic blast, and we had a blast in the process. There were others who were supposed to join us, but at the first sign of bad weather, they starting mewing like baby bunnies going down a Gila Monsters gullet. "We're AFRAID, Roger. We might get all wet. Meow........."  So, three manly men arrived in the teeth of a hail storm, and the first stop was a check on AD1. And from here, we can let the images tell the story. 

Image 1: The scene at the lower apron of AD1. Note how the globe mallow this snake is under is dripping  wet.

Pic 2: Mallow moved aside. Note the head on this adult male atrox. Rain harvesting posture. 
Pic 3: The first female atrox that I've seen at AD1 in over 3 years. VERY cool! She was likely drinking off the upper edge of the crevice. 

Pic 4: We find this atrox under the leaning boulder that we call "Kimmie Rock." This boulder is ~2m west of the almighty crevice of AD7. Hopeful that he might be stacked on a female, we hauled him out. 

No female, and apparently, too many years of chawing Skoal had done some damage to the lower left lip.
Pic 5: Closeup of lip, and good left eye.   

Pic 6: Closeup of right eye. I got the impression that this poor dude was blind in this eye. Any Vets care to venture an opinion? 

We also had a tortoise completely out, head nuzzled against the edge of a prickly pear. It is possible she was drinking drops off one of the pads. We drove through a sleet storm to another den in the Durham Mountains, where we found one atrox out cruising in the sleet!

That's all that's fit to spit. Until the next time, roger

Monday, March 26, 2012

Titanoboa Documentry Hype

The Smithsonian Channel will be showing a documentary on the fossil boid Titanoboa. The trailers and advanced promotional material can be found here.

“Titanoboa” – the name says it all: giant squeezing snake. In Greek mythology, “Titans” were primordial giant gods, and the word has come to mean any person or thing of enormous size, strength, power, influence. Like a 48-foot long boa constrictor weighing more than a ton, with a manhole-size diameter.

New York’s Grand Central Station hosted this beast -- in replica – for two days this week while it was in transit to Washington, DC. By the time you read this, the model of Titanoboa (“ty-tan-uh-BOH’-ah,” according to may be ensconced at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Yes, it was all a promotion – a darn big one – for a museum exhibit and a TV documentary.

However, this colossal reptile really did live on earth – 60 million years ago. It swam and slithered its 2,500 pound way around when the world’s first known rain forest emerged and dinosaurs no longer ruled, reports.

Discovered by scientists in an open-pit coal mine in Columbia in 2005, it was the largest snake ever discovered, as succinctly put it. The paleontologists who found it also named it, publishing their discovery in 2009.

People who saw the scientifically accurate model in New York dismissed their chances against such a snake, but they needn’t have worried. Humans to Titanoboa might equate with ants to humans: not even in the picture.

A Smithsonian video online pits the snake against a T-Rex, even thought the two “killer carnivores” actually lived in different times and on separate continents. (The winner wasn’t predicted, only the likely attack modes of each animal.)

The Titanoboa killed by constriction, then swallowed its prey whole. One estimate was that it squeezed with a crushing 400 pounds per square inch of pressure – equivalent to being crushed with the weight of three Eiffel Towers.

“Big” was the name of the game for many prehistoric animals, and the reasons that was so are interestingly spelled out in Predictably, Titanoboa wins in comparison to a modern snake, such as the world’s longest reticulate python -- little more than half the length of its ancient relative. Reputed to be the world’s heaviest snake, the green anaconda is only about a tenth of the Titanoboa’s weight.

The Smithsonian exhibition featuring the Titanoboa will run from March 30-January 6, 2013. Focusing on the giant reptile’s discovery and reconstruction processes, Smithsonian Channel premieres a documentary, “Titanoboa: Monster Snake,” on April 1. No foolin’.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Lithobates (Rana) yavapaiensis Gets Protected Land

Photo Credit: Dennis Caldwell.
Arizona Daily Star, March 21, 2012

10K acres set aside for threatened frog. Areas near Rosemont not included due to absence of breeding

By Tony Davis
The federal government will designate more than 10,000 acres in Arizona and New Mexico as prime habitat for the threatened Chiricahua leopard frog.

More than a dozen streams and many livestock watering tanks across Southern and Central Arizona were picked by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as critical habitat for the frog, a threatened species.

The Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, Florida Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains, Peña Blanca Lake near Nogales, Sycamore Canyon in the Atascosa Mountains and Ramsey and Brown canyons in the Huachuca Mountains are among the critical habitat sites.

But other areas near the proposed Rosemont Mine site in the Santa Ritas that have had leopard frogs were left out because the frogs aren't known to breed there now - largely because there's less water there than there was several decades ago.

The decision means one less legal issue for the mine, since lands designated critical habitat can't be destroyed or seriously modified by projects that need U.S. permits.

Last year, mine opponents with the Center for Biological Diversity and Pima County recommended six livestock watering tank sites on Forest Service and private land in the mine area as prime frog habitat. The Wildlife Service rejected them in its decision this week and chose six other tanks farther away, within two or three miles of the mine site. In recent years, such tanks have become key areas for the leopard frog.

Mary Richardson, a wildlife service supervisory biologist, said the agency determined the Rosemont sites didn't meet critical habitat criteria. First, there is no indication that frogs breed there. Leopard frogs can travel as far as five miles, spending time in one area and breeding in another.

Frog researchers Philip Rosen, of the University of Arizona, and Dennis Caldwell, a private researcher, said the Rosemont-area sites are worth protecting, and that breeding could be restored there. But they agreed that the areas don't meet the feds' critical-habitat standards without breeding populations.

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said that overall, the group is pleased by the habitat decision. But it was disappointed that the Rosemont-area tanks weren't picked.

Robinson said the mine could obliterate frogs on its land and could destroy their ability to survive nearby due to dust, toxic chemicals, blasting sounds and truck traffic.

Julia Fonseca, Pima County's environmental planning manager, wrote the Wildlife Service in 2011 that leopard frogs were reported as "abundant" in the Rosemont area in the 1970s by private biologists. While the surveyors didn't note whether they were Chiricahua or lowland leopard frogs, the Arizona Game and Fish Department concluded in the 1990s they were Chiricahua frogs.

Surveys by Rosemont Copper consulting firm Westland Resources found those frogs in the six Rosemont-area water tank sites in a 2008 survey, but they weren't breeding.

Still, the frogs' presence throughout the Santa Ritas suggests the area contains a regional group of connected populations whose habitat needs protection, said Fonseca and Robinson.

Rosemont Copper official Kathy Arnold said based on the company's surveys for frogs and other species, the Wildlife Service findings met Rosemont's expectations.

"Rosemont works with Arizona Game and Fish, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the University of Arizona and the U.S. Forest Service, as do other ranches and property owners in the area," Arnold, Rosemont's vice president for environmental and regulatory affairs, added in a written statement.

"Contributions besides the survey work include providing water to habitat during dry periods, assisting with stormwater controls to control sediments entering ponds, and managing and providing access to habitat," she said.

Suzio Report, Winter 2012

Howdy Herpers, 03/21/12
So, where's Waldo these days? He's wherever you folk find him. 

My new duties with the THS have me so buried that I can't play where's Waldo any more. Perhaps the day will come when I have too much time on my hands again. When that happens, we'll play some more Waldo games. 

It was another one of those inglorious winters this year weather-wise. We had April weather in January and February, and January weather in March thus far. The herps under watch don't know whether to defecate or go blind. The Gila Monsters got jacked up early and split, but not before we got to see lots of burrow action. The atrox have yet to bask enmasse anyplace I've been. Four is the most that I've seen out. And I have only encountered one snake on the road thus far--a DOR atrox

But the tortoises have been putting on quite a show for us. At one point, we had 8 visible on our little hill. This ties a record set back in 2001 of the most tortoises viewed before the first day of spring on that hill.
Without further adieu, we'll let the images tell the story.

Image 1: The Lazy M Gila Monster, Hill 97. This image was taken on 2 January. The dude cleared out in early February. I hope so see him again next November.
Image 2: A small female tortoise out basking on 11 February. Note the green lips, a sign of early feeding.  
Image 3: Pair of male atrox out basking on the shelf of the den we call AD Zero. This marginal image is the best I've taken of basking this spring. 11 February, 2012  
Image 4: A nearly impossible image to get, a pair of Gila Monsters in deep in our communal den. At one point, we had three monsters visible this spring. 4 February 2012 (Hans-Werner Herrmann).  
Images 5 - 7: A sequence of the tortoise we called "Slone's Tortoise." On 29 January, she is edging toward the apron of the burrow. On 29 January, she is out, but has not fed yet. On 18 February, she has obviously been browsing. 

Image 8: Female Gila Monster number 19, a new monster for our study. She was found out moving around on 4 March, but one of the students of Kevin Bonine's herp class. 
Image 9: The "Twin Saguaro" old male tortoise out browsing on 22 February. Sights like this are to die for!  
That's all that's fit to spit. I expect BIG things in the days ahead.

Yours, roger

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Antivenom Kits for Use by the Public

The following story appear in the Times of India today, let’s hope the reference to venom really refers to anti-venom.

PUNE: The Pimpri-based Haffkine Bio-pharmaceutical Ltd, a state government undertaking, has developed an easy-to-use venom kit for reducing deaths caused due to snake bites, especially in rural areas.

The kit is useful for treating bites of four most poisonous snakes - the common cobra, Russel's viper, Common Krait (Manyar) and saw scaled viper (Ghonas/Furse).

Prakash Sabde, managing director of Haffkine Bio-pharmaceutical Ltd, said, "It is difficult to get treatment for snakebite in villages. This kit is easy to use and can be administered by a nurse or an attendant at government rural hospitals. The venom kit gives sufficient time for the victim to be rushed to a bigger hospital for treatment, if necessary. This increases chances of a patient's survival."

Manager and public relations officer Navnath Garje said, "The kit contains vials of venom that need to be injected after the bite. It also includes posters and a booklet containing instructions on how to use the kit and treat the patient besides giving answers to most common misconceptions about snakebites and its cure. The venom in the kit has a shelf life of four and a half years."

Garje said the company will hold discussions with the Pune branch of the Indian Medical Association for approaching doctors and creating awareness about the kit. They would also set up stalls in Konkan where snakebite cases are high.

Garje said that people in villages either go to quacks or use crude methods for treatment which results in loss of valuable time and eventually death. "It is necessary they get proper treatment on time."

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Student Project on Lake Erie Water Snakes

Lake Erie Water Snakes, Nerodia sipiedon insularum
University of Cincinnati' s Lauren Flick, a 19-year-old, triple-major senior, will present findings at an upcoming regional conference on the first-ever use of a surgically implanted device to record the habits of snakes in their natural environment. This particular study holds promise in “keeping score” as Ohio’s Lake Erie water snake defends its native habitat against an invasive fish species.

Thanks to research by a University of Cincinnati undergraduate student and two team members, there’s a new tool that’s now been tested and found to work in continuously recording the habits of snakes.

This small-scale study is the first-ever use of Lotek Archival Tags (LATs) on snakes, since the LAT devices were originally developed for use in avian and fish species due to LATs’ ability to measure temperature and pressure – measuring pressure translates into altitude and depth.

UC’s Lauren Flick, a triple-major pursuing simultaneous undergraduate degrees in biology, psychology and criminal justice, will present the findings of the snapshot study, “Comparing the Effectiveness of Lotek Archival Tags (LATs) in a Behavioral Study of the Lake Erie Water Snake,” at the March 23-25 Midwest Ecology and Evolution Conference, a conference specifically for undergraduate and graduate student research that will draw representatives from regional schools.

Participating in the study with Flick were lead researcher Kristen Stanford, a doctoral student at Northern Illinois University and recovery plan coordinator for the Lake Erie water snake, and Lindsey Korfel, a student at Wittenberg University. Their research study was conducted during summer 2011 at Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory located on Lake Erie.

The traditional manner for tracking snakes’ movements is primarily with a radio transmitter. In other words, a researcher would attach a location transmitter to a ground snake and then hope he or she could then stay or get within range over a period of time to visually determine its habits

What Flick, Stanford and Korfel did was to catch two female Lake Erie water snakes (LEWS) and arrange for the implantation of LATs. Importantly, the LATs record and store data on the snakes over time, such that it’s not necessary for a researcher to be within visual range of the snake. In fact, a researcher could leave the snake undisturbed in its natural habits and environment for days, even weeks, at a time when using a LAT. (During this study, the snakes were not harmed, and the LATs were removed at the end of the study.)

“This was proof of concept that use of LATs in reptiles is a viable research method,” said Flick, a resident of Cincinnati’s Green Hills community. “For a study like ours, it’s harder and less effective to rely solely on using the traditional radio transmitter on a water snake moving in the depths of the Great Lakes. And even when using the average transmitter with a ground snake, you have to stay within about 50 meters for the tracking technology to work. That kind of close tracking could also serve to disturb the very habits a researcher is hoping to observe.”

The Lake Erie Water Snake (LEWS), found only in the western Lake Erie waters of Ohio and Canada and only recently removed from the list of federally endangered and threatened species, is estimated to number more than 8,000 adults. Its population size had fallen to about 1,500 adults in the mid-1990s – very low because they were often killed by humans and because of loss or degradation of habitat on the shoreline or on the Lake Erie islands where they are native.

Explained Flick, “Basically, the islands and shorelines are an important part of the snakes’ habitat. They live on land and only forage in the water. Humans on the Lake Erie islands didn’t, for a long time, see value in having snakes around, even though we now know that these nonpoisonous snakes were and are a valuable part of the ecosystem.”

And while those numbers have recovered sufficiently to remove the species from the endangered status, it’s important to understand how the species is faring in terms of foraging, maintaining body temperature and finding appropriate mating, resting and hibernating environments because the LEWS are a major player in combating the invasive round gobi fish.

The round gobies, a bottom-dwelling species, are considered very harmful because they are voracious nest predators of many of Lake Erie’s native game fish and bottom-dwelling fish, and there are now estimated to be billions of the round gobies in Lake Erie. However, as it turns out, the native Lake Erie water snakes will eat round gobies.

And even though the student research was a snapshot involving just a pair of snakes, they found some intriguing results recorded by the LAT devices.

Said Flick, “Previous studies have estimated that the LEWS spend only 7 percent of the time foraging for food. The snakes that we studied actually spent 20-25 percent of the time foraging. One of the snakes even went out foraging at about midnight, which is unusual because the LEWS are not normally nocturnal.”

And since it’s estimated that 90 percent of the LEWS’ diet consists of round gobi fish, more time eating by the LEWS should translate into fewer round gobies.

The story is reprinted from an original story written by M. B. Reily and materials provided by University of Cincinnati.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Natrix natrix cypriaca, Court Ruling

A Cyprus Mail story By Poly Pantelides reports that the European Court of Justice yesterday said Cyprus broke EU law by failing to protect Paralimni lake and the endangered native grass snake.

“We hope (the ruling) will lead to swift action to properly protect the highly threatened Paralimni Lake, home to this unique snake and also a key site for birds,” said BirdLife Cyprus’ executive director, Dr Clairie Papazoglou. “We also hope it will lead to the authorities taking their obligations to implement EU nature directives far more seriously,” Papazoglou added.

However, Hans-Jorg Wiedl the reptile expert who rediscovered the grass snake after it was thought to be extinct for 40 years and who has been lobbying authorities for years, thinks “it’s too late”.

“It will take a miracle to save the snakes,” said, Wiedl better known as Snake George. “It breaks my heart,” he said almost in tears.

The endangered nonvenomous grass snake, Natrix natrix cypriaca, sometimes called the water snake can be found in Paralimni Lake and the Xyliatos Dam.

However Cyprus had not originally included the lake in its list of sites of community importance (SCIs) as part of the Habitats Directive.

The island’s federation of environmental and ecological organisations complained to the European Commission in May 2006, and in March 2007 the Commission launched an infringement procedure against Cyprus, asking the government in a letter of formal notice to include the lake in the CSIs list.

Cyprus said it would do this before the end of 2007 but eventually claimed the Commission did not follow proper procedure, so in June 2008 the Commission issued a reasoned opinion asking Cyprus to comply with the Habitats Directive.

Although the Republic responded with a list of measures it was taking to protect the grass snake and Paralimni Lake, the Commission received complaints on property development of the northern part of the lake.

By 2009, Cyprus included Paralimni Lake in the CSIs, except for the northern part of the site.

The Commission argued that the lake was essential to the survival of the grass snake but failing to include parts of it could not ensure the snake’s protection and conservation.

Cyprus said the snake was only found in the southern and eastern parts of the lake.

Because development in the area took place after the Commission launched the infringement procedure, the Commission’s arguments on the effect development could have on the snakes could not be admitted, the court said.

The court, however, said that excavation works in the northern part of the lake did disturb the snake and Cyprus “did not put in a system of strict protection in place”.

Cyprus broke EU law by not including the entire Paralimni Lake in the CSIs, “tolerating activities which seriously compromise the ecological characteristics” of the lake, “by not having taken the protective measures necessary to maintain the population” of the grass snake, and “by failing to take measures “to establish and apply a system of strict protection for that species,” the court said.

If Cyprus fails to act, the Commission may give it one final written warning before sending the case back to court, imposing potentially hefty financial penalties including a daily penalty payment for each day until the infringement ends.

Adaptation to TTX by Snakes

A new study by University of Notre Dame biologist Michael Pfrender and a team of researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno; Utah State University; and the University of Virginia suggests that snakes from different regions of the world have evolved a similar, remarkable resistance to a deadly neurotoxin.

The finding, which appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, greatly increases scientists’ understanding of the genetic basis of adaptation and is a model for understanding the limits to adaptation and the degree to which evolutionary responses are predictable.

Pfrender and colleagues found species of snakes in North, Central and South Americas and Asia that are able to feed on amphibians that secrete a deadly neurotoxic poison, tetrodotoxin or TTX. These snakes have similar mutations in a key sodium-channel gene that makes them highly resistant to TTX. These mutations prevent TTX from blocking the sodium channels in muscle, which would otherwise immobilize the snakes by paralyzing nervous and muscle tissue.

“The key finding is that adaptive evolution is constrained by the functional properties of the genes involved in these evolutionary responses,” Pfrender said. “While there are many possible mutations that can improve fitness, in this case resistance to the neurotoxin TTX, many of these mutations have a cost because they change the normal function of the genes. So, when we look at multiple species that have independently adapted to TTX, we see a very similar, and limited, set of mutations involved. The story is one of repeated evolutionary change that occurs through a limited set of changes at the molecular level.”

The study stems from Pfrender’s interest in understanding how organisms deal with environmental change through adaptive evolution.

“We would like to know what the underlying genetic mechanisms are, and what the limits are to these adaptive responses,” he said. “Ultimately, we would like to develop a predictive framework to gauge when natural populations will be able to evolve rapidly enough to persist in a changing environment and when the environmental change is too fast or too strong, leading to local extinction.”

An understanding of how organisms deal with environmental change is relevant to the major themes of Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative and to the Eck Institute for Global Health, which examines disease resistance coupled with human health.

“Many organisms are exposed to toxic chemicals in their environment, and this system is a model for understanding how they cope with this challenge through evolutionary change,” Pfrender said. “A good example of the application of this knowledge is when we are trying to understand how parasites acquire drug resistance. How do they do it and what are the limits to this response? Can we create more effective drug strategies that capitalize on these functional constraints, making it more difficult for parasites to evolve resistance?”

Pfrender and the Utah State researchers plan to study more snake species and to expand their research to a number of other species, including insects that prey on the toxic eggs of salamanders. They also are examining other genes closely related to the sodium channel genes that are the focus of the PNAS study to expand their understanding of how adaptation occurs.

Chris R. Feldman, Edmund D. Brodie, Jr, Edmund D. Brodie III, and Michael E. Pfrender. 2012. Constraint shapes convergence in tetrodotoxin-resistant sodium channels of snakes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published online before print March 5, 2012, doi:10.1073/pnas.1113468109

The Aesculapian Snake In Central London

The following story was adopted from the West End Extra by Josh Loeb. The Aesculapian snake, Zamenis longissimus, is widely distributed in Europe, but rarely considered abundant and also appears to be declining in numbers. Several isolated populations occur around the edges of the range and are thought to be remnants of a wider distribution. Apart from its ecological role, it also has symbolic and cultural interest in Europe, and it is the snake depicted on the international medical symbol. A recent article in The London Naturalist describes an established a breeding colony on the fringes of Regent’s Park. Over time many have apparently been found in the capital, most of them thought to be unwanted pets released by their owners, but few if any have managed to survive for long periods in the cool and unfamiliar ­climate of central London, let alone breed. It is for this reason that Westminster’s colony of aesculapian snakes, which experts say thrive on the banks of the Regent’s Canal, is considered significant, although mystery surrounds how the creatures, native to the Balkans established a population in London. One theory is that snakes kept at a now defunct Inner London Education Authority facility for scientific experiments were released “on the quiet” in the 1980s. According to the paper, the feral population was first described in 1998 by a head keeper of reptiles in London Zoo. The article also states, “Several newly born snakes were found in the basement of a building around 30 metres from the embankment in 2010, and breeding in that year was also shown in 2011 with a young 2010 cohort snake being located. To this date this is the only example of a non-native snake species breeding successfully and forming populations in the wild in London and the UK as a whole.” Fragments of juvenile aesculapian snakes have also apparently been found in bird aviaries close to the canal. The snakes are believed to survive by feeding on rodents and possibly small birds.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Undescribed Lithobates from New York & New Jersey

Hiding in Plain Sight: Rutgers Scientist Discovers New Frog Species in New York and New Jersey

In New York City – in the midst of some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers – and within view of the Statue of Liberty, scientists have found a new frog species.

While discovering new species in remote rainforests is common, finding this one in the ponds and marshes of Staten Island, mainland New York, and New Jersey was a big surprise to the scientists from Rutgers University, UCLA, UC Davis, and the University of Alabama who worked together to make the discovery .

The yet unnamed frog – which biologists historically mistook for a more widespread variety of the leopard frog -- may even extend into parts of Connecticut and extreme northeastern Pennsylvania. Researchers believe that these are likely the same leopard frogs that completely disappeared from Long Island and other parts of the area over the last few decades.

“It is very surprising for a new species like this to have been unrecognized in this area until now,” said Rutgers doctoral candidate and guest researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratory Jeremy Feinberg, who made the initial discovery. “Their naturally limited range coupled with recent unexplained disapperances from places like Long Island underscores the importance of this discovery and the value that conservation efforts might have in the long-term survival of this urban species."

In newly released research, available online in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, scientists used mitochondrial and nuclear DNA data to compare the new frog to all other leopard frog species in the region and determined that it is an entirely new species, soon to be named by the researchers. The wetland species likely once lived on Manhattan, and though it’s now only known to live in a few nearby locations, Yankee Stadium would probably be the bull’s-eye of a target drawn around its current image.

Feinberg, co-author of the study, is working on his doctoral thesis in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. He was doing research on the alarming decline of leopard frogs in the wetlands of New York and New Jersey when he noticed that the regional leopard frogs displayed unusual behaviors and peculiar croaks. Instead of the "long snore" or "rapid chuckle" he heard from other leopard frogs, this frog had a short, repetitive croak.

“When I first heard these frogs calling, it was so different, I knew something was very off,” Feinberg said. “It’s what we call a cryptic species: one species hidden within another because we can’t tell them apart by looking. But thanks to molecular genetics, people are really picking out species more and more that would otherwise be ignored.”

To find out if his hunch was right, Feinberg developed a partnership with Cathy Newman, a geneticist who was completing a master’s degree in genetics at the University of Alabama.

The two decided to team up on the project after Newman, who was working on an unrelated study of leopard frogs, asked Feinberg, an ecologist and regional amphibian and reptile expert, for assistance with her research. In this heavily urbanized area Newman expected the frogs to be either of two previously known species, or perhaps a hybrid of both at best. What she found turned out to be a totally new species.

“I was very confident that the genetic results were going to support the idea that this was a new species” Feinberg said. “As far back as the late 1800s scientists have speculated about the odd frogs but until the advent of molecular genetics, it was difficult to prove anything.”

Although the frogs were discovered in the New York, New Jersey metropolitan area, the bulk of the genetics research took place at UC Davis. The results of those “unusual frogs” whose weird sounding calls were different from leopard frogs were clear-cut: the DNA was distinct, no matter how much the frogs looked alike.

What this discovery proves, said Joanna Burger, professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience in the School of Arts and Sciences, and Feinberg’s advisor on the project, is that even in densely-populated urban areas new species can be found. Because of the extensive extinctions over the last few decades from habitat destruction, disease, invasive species, pesticides and parasites, it is even more imperative that conservation concerns be addressed, Burger said.

“It is amazing to discover a new frog in Rutgers backyard and the metropolitan area of New York and New Jersey that was among us for a century without being recognized,” Burger said. “We need to do all we can to make sure that we protect it.” 

Catherine E. Newman, Jeremy A. Feinberg, Leslie J. Rissler Joanna Burger, & H. Bradley Shaffer. 2012. A new species of leopard frog (Anura: Ranidae) from the urban northeastern US. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 63, 445–455.

Venom Cartels

The Pioneer, New Dehli is carrying to following story.

Recovery of 500 ml cobra venom, estimated at Rs 2 crore, and two highly poisonous snakes from the national Capital hints at the ever-rising demand for drug pushers in the national Capital Region.

This is the fourth seizure of snake poison since November 2011 from Delhi. The latest recovery was made from a UP Roadways bus which was heading towards Meerut on Tuesday night.

Police have recovered two live snakes, a python’s child and a sand boa, along with a soft drink bottle containing 500 ml venom on Tuesday night. Police have also arrested two persons suspected to be carrying these to Meerut in Uttar Pradesh. The seizure came after an NGO tipped off Delhi Police, according to police.

BK Singh, Additional Deputy Commissioner of Police, (North-east), said, “At GT Road near Jhilmil Metro Station, the police stopped a bus (UP 42A T0673) and recovered a travel bag in the bus. It carried a box made of thermocol inside which two live snakes, a sandboa and a python’s child were found.

A soft drink bottle containing 500 ml cobra venom was also found inside the bag. We have arrested two persons, Moin and Mehboob, who were found carrying the bag.

A case under the relevant sections of Wildlife Protection Act has been registered against them in GTB Enclave Police Station, he said.

It is believed that the venom and snakes were brought to Delhi by a flight. The seized travel bag has a Go-Indigo airline’s tag attached to it. Besides on the thermocol box, a strip reading “X-ray and physically checked” was stuck. Addl DCP Singh said that they are probing to find out the exact details about the seized consignment.

Sourav Gupta, a senior employee of NGO People For Animals, said, “According to our information, the snakes and venom were being taken to Meerut and Nepal. It is possible that the venom was brought to Delhi in larger quantities and only 500 ml was being sent outside the capital.”

Police believe that well-organised cartels dealing in poison are operating in Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) with the increase in the demand of snake poison by drug addicts. The highly addictive nature of the snake venom makes it a much sought-after article by the drug addicts. The snake venom, mostly extracted from Cobra and Krait, is sold as an esoteric narcotic that fetches hefty sums to smugglers.

This is the fourth recovery since November. Earlier, two back-to-back seizures of snake poison were made in November and December last year by the city police followed by third seizure a day before Valentine Day. Wildlife sources pointed out that around 100 snakes would have to be killed to extract 500 ml of venom.

According to animal welfare activists, the cobra venom is dried and processed to convert into powder.

“The cobra venom is first dried and then grinded into powder. It is highly addictive in nature. It is consumed after dissolving it in liquor. About 10 grams of powdered cobra venom is dissolved in 100 litres of alcohol. However, there are also instances of ‘higher-level’ addicts using venom in raw form,” Gupta said.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Tiger Rattlesnake Venom, Lethal and Neurotoxic, Yet Simple

Crotalus tigris. JCM
Tiger rattlesnakes, Crotalus tigris, are relatively small (< 90cm), and geographically restricted to south-central Arizona (USA), northwestern Sonora (Mexico), and Isla Tiburón in the Gulf of California (Mexico). However they have been considered to produce the most lethal venom of any snake in the western hemisphere. Toxicological and immunology assays done in the early 1990’s suggested a neurotoxic component was present in its venom, and Mojave toxin was suspected to be the neurotoxic molecule present. Now, Calvette et al. (2012) have characterized Crotalus tigris venom and found tiger rattlesnakes to have the highest lethality for mice among rattlesnakes but the simplest toxin proteome reported to date; describing the venom proteome as “minimalist.” The venom proteins of C. tigris comprises 7–8 gene products from 6 toxin families, including the presynaptic β-neurotoxic heterodimeric PLA2, Mojave toxin, and two serine proteinases comprise, respectively, 66 and 27% of the C. tigris toxin arsenal. Other molecules included a VEGF-like protein, a CRISP molecule, a medium-sized disintegrin, and 1–2 PIII-SVMPs and each represented 0.1–5% of the total venom proteome. The authors suggest that the toxin profile explains the systemic neurotoxic and myotoxic effects observed in envenomated animals exceptionally well. They also found venom lethality of C. tigris and other North American rattlesnake type II venoms correlates with the concentration of Mojave toxin A-subunit, supporting the view that the neurotoxic venom phenotype of crotalid type II venoms may be described as a single-allele adaptation. They also suggest that the trend toward neurotoxicity, also reported for the South American rattlesnakes, may have evolved by pedomorphism, and that the development of a pan-American antivenom for all rattlesnakes may be possible.

Calvete, JJ, Perez, A., Lomontes, B., Sanchez, E., and Sanz, L. 2012. Snake Venomics of Crotalus tigris: The Minimalist Toxin Arsenal of the Deadliest Neartic Rattlesnake Venom. Evolutionary Clues for Generating a Pan-Specific Antivenom against Crotalid Type II Venoms. Journal of Proteome Research 11, 1382-1390

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A West Texas Perspective on Rattlesnake RoundUps

Here is a West Texas writer's retrospective on the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Round-up,the  largest rattlesnake slaughter. Who would like to do the math on how many rodents 300,000 pounds of rattlesnakes could consume, and how many predators and scavengers could have been fed on that amount of biomass? Rattlesnakes may taste more like catfish - but they certainly don't convert food into body mass like catfish. The following story by Brittany Molinar is from

SWEETWATER, Texas -- Thousands of people were in Sweetwater over the weekend enjoying the 54th Annual World's Largest Rattlesnake Roundup.

The Rattlesnake Roundup originally started back in 1959 by the Sweetwater Jaycees.

"Everything we do is for this community and we put it back into the community youth to buy scholarships for college and that's what it's all about taking care of our community and making it a better place," said Jaycee Chairman Chris Soles.

Since the beginning the Jaycees have collected more than 300,000 pounds of Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes.

This year, you might have noticed fewer snakes. The club said it's because of the chilly, rainy temperatures along with wildfires.

With the ones they were able to catch the Jaycees made sure to milk every snake for their venom used for anti venom and sold to pharmaceutical companies.

On average the roundup retrieves about 1,500ml of venom.

For all those snake enthusiasts who like to take it a step further and eat the venomous reptiles that many people fear, fried rattlesnake was on the menu.

First time rattlesnake eater Mario Alvarez said rattlesnake is something he would definitely eat again.

"It's good, it does taste a little bit like chicken, but I think it taste more like catfish," said Alvarez.

The roundup wrapped up Sunday evening, buyers went out and bought up the remaining rattlesnakes.

The longest rattler caught this year was a whopping 73 and a half inches long.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Hot Springs Refugia for Thermophis

The  hot spring snake, Thermophis baileyi, is endemic to the Tibetan Plateau and restricted to a few high altitudes locations, above 3500 m. The species has been recovered as the only Eastern Hemisphere member of the otherwise Western Hemisphere Dipsadiade. In a forthcoming article, Sylva Hoffman of the Institute of Clinical Molecular Biology, Christian-Albrechts-University, in Kiel, Germany suggests that Thermophis' preference for habitats with hot springs might be adaptation to the cooling climate during the uplift of the Tibetan plateau. She proposes that some of the thermal sites may have been free of ice during the last glacial maximum and acted  as refuges for the snake. To test this, microsatellites and mitochondrial DNA were obtained from 153 individuals at 12 sites across the plateau. The results suggest that T. baileyi has at least two genetically diverse clades in Tibet, which developed during the Pleistocene and expanded after the last glacial maximum. Thus, the existence of separate glacial refuges on the central plateau can be assumed. Analyses of the genetic variation indicated a high level of geographic differentiation and population structure on a regional as well as on a rangewide scale. The study shows that, apart from the phylogeographic signatures, the diversification of current Thermophis populations is caused by a limited dispersal due to mountain ranges, a strong preference for hot springs and the insular distribution of suitable habitats on the plateau.

Sylvia Hoffman. 2012. Population genetic structure and geographic differentiation in the hot spring snake Thermophis baileyi (Serpentes, Colubridae): Indications for glacial refuges in southern-central Tibet. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Evidence For Co-evolution of Primates and Snakes in Humans?

The folllowing is from the EMax Health web site:
Premenstrual Women Seek Snakes
By Timothy Boyer

Numerous studies have demonstrated that the hormonal influences of the premenstrual phase of a woman’s cycle leads to a wide range of cognitive, mood and behavioral changes. Of the three, cognition is the least-studied research area. However, recent research involving images of snakes has revealed that the luteal phase of a woman’s menstrual cycle enhances cognition when it comes to evoking evolutionary imprinted fear known as “fear modules.”

It is a well-established fact that an inherent fear of snakes is present in both man and non-human primates. Numerous studies involving anxiety responses to images of snakes in both adults and children have shown that an intrinsic fear of snakes has roots that go beyond and are independent of learned behavior and personal experience.

Studies using laboratory primates that have never seen a snake show that captive-borne primates can display typical snake-induced primate behaviors such as cries of alarm , anxiety, distress and other behaviors typically seen in wild monkeys from snake-infested environments.

Some scientists propose that the innate fear of snakes has evolutionary origins where early mammals evolved fear modules—a complex of mental, neural and behavioral systems that assist mammals in defending themselves against threats such as snakes.

The fear modules are believed to have developed when the earliest mammals co-existed with reptilian species that posed a constant threat to the mammals’ daily survival. Because snakes are descended from earlier reptiles it is likely that snakes represent a prototypical stimulus for activating the fear module behavior in modern primates both human and non-human.

While mechanistically identifying behavior directly to a hypothesized fear module presents some practical barriers toward research, behaviors attributed to hormonal influences are a simpler matter. One of the most studied behaviors related to hormones are those associated with premenstrual syndrome, and more recently, peri-menopausal rage.

In a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers from Japan wanted to establish a new technique for investigating mood and behavior changes linked to the menstrual cycle, but that was not focused on the typical PMS relationship between hormones and mood. Rather, they decided to test how hormones may affect fear modules by testing the response of women during various phases of their menstrual cycles on detecting hidden Images of snakes.

In the study, 60 healthy women of child-bearing age were repeatedly shown images of flowers alone and images of flowers containing a hidden snake throughout the phases of their menstrual cycle. The participants were measured as to how quickly they spotted the snake hidden in the flowers.

The results of the study showed that the fastest women were those who were in the ovulatory luteal phase of their menstrual cycle. The luteal phase follows immediately after the release of an egg from an ovary, preparing the egg for fertilization by a sperm.

The authors of the study believe that their results strengthens the hypothesis that mankind possesses a “fear reflex” in the form of the fear modules believed to have developed during our evolution from early primate species. The benefit of such a fear reflex would be to increase the likelihood of survival and the ability to pass on genes to progeny. Women, it would then seem, in the past and in some regions today could benefit from this type of hormone-influenced behavior by identifying and avoiding dangerous snakes.

"It could contribute to women's ability to increase their vigilance towards biologically relevant threatening stimuli around themselves during this period of possible pregnancy," the study says.

The authors of the study further state that, “…this is the first demonstration of the existence of within-individual variation of the activity of the fear module in women, as a predictable change in cognitive strength that appears likely to be due to the hormonal changes that occur in the menstrual cycle, particularly due to increased progesterone and estradiol levels.”

Whether or not there is a true fear module evolutionarily hard-wired into our brains, the hypothesis that it does exist and that hormones may have played an additive protective role is fascinating to say the least. Women and snakes have played a biblical role in theology and the arts, and wouldn’t it be something if this were an example of evolution having an influence on theology as well.


N. Masataka and M. Shibasaki. 2012.    “Premenstrual enhancement of snake detection in visual search in healthy women” Scientific Reports Volume: 2, Article number: 307;

Arne Öhman and Susan Mineka. "The Malicious Serpent: Snakes as a Prototypical Stimulus for an Evolved Module of Fear”

Friday, March 9, 2012

Georgia Festival Ends Cruel 'Rattlesnake Roundups,' Switches to Wildlife Celebration

ATLANTA— This weekend the Evans County Wildlife Club hosts the first-ever Claxton Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival, where snakes will be celebrated instead of collected and killed. The Center for Biological Diversity, Coastal Plains Institute, One More Generation and Protect All Living Species have worked for years to end rattlesnake roundups and are applauding Claxton’s decision to switch to a wildlife festival.

“We’re so happy to see the rattlesnake roundup in Claxton replaced by a humane event that celebrates these great native animals and recognizes the importance of saving them,” said Collette Adkins Giese, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity who works to protect rare and vanishing reptiles and amphibians. “We hope that wildlife enthusiasts across Georgia go to the festival to show support for this change.”

The Claxton rattlesnake festival — in its 45th year — is dropping “roundup” from its name, as the event no longer includes the hunting, buying and selling of wild rattlers. Now known as the Claxton Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival, the event will feature displays of the imperiled eastern diamondback rattlesnake and other native wildlife. Educational programs, entertainment and a variety of other activities will also be offered. Thousands of people are expected to attend the event this weekend.

“The wildlife festival is going to be a lot of fun, and we’re doing a presentation to other kids about how to save wildlife,” said Olivia (9) and Carter (10) Ries, student founders of One More Generation. “We went to the event last year and it was sad to see the snakes and know that they’d be killed. Now everyone can come to the festival and enjoy seeing the snakes without worrying about them.”

The festival transformation has met with high praise from environmental groups, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, biologists and others. With the end of the Claxton roundup, only one in Georgia remains, which is held annually in Whigham. The Center for Biological Diversity, Coastal Plains Institute, One More Generation and Protect All Living Species have repeatedly contacted the organizers of the Whigham roundup to encourage them to switch to a wildlife festival; the public can do the same by signing this petition.

“We congratulate the sponsors of the Claxton event for recognizing that all wildlife has a valuable place in nature,” said Dr. Bruce Means, director of the Coastal Plains Institute and an expert on the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. “The rattlesnake roundup in Whigham needs to follow suit — it needs to recognize that massacres of endangered animals are just wrong, and clearly the wrong message to send about our relationship to the natural world.”

Rattlesnake roundups are depleting populations of eastern diamondback rattlesnakes: Analysis of data from four roundups in the southeastern United States shows a steady decline in the weights of prizewinning eastern diamondbacks and the number collected. This once-common species is being pushed toward extinction not only by hunting pressure but also by habitat loss and road mortality. In August, the Center and allies filed a petition to protect the snake under the Endangered Species Act.

“Georgia is blessed with a rich natural heritage of animals and plants. All of these species — even the rattlesnakes — should be allowed to exist,” said Bill Matturro of Protect All Living Species. “Rattlesnakes serve an important role in the food chain by controlling rodent populations and should be respected.”

Suzio Report 3/09/12

Howdy Herpers, 03/09/12
We'll get the bummer news out of the way first, and hopefully, follow up with the fun stuff soon.
It appears that our lone Mojave Rattlesnake met Mr. Badger out in paradise.
Pic 1: Male Crotalus scutulatus #1, "Blake the Snake" in situ on 28 September 2011. This was the best image that I was able to get of him during the 8 months that he was under watch.

Pic 2: On 11 November, Blake the Snake moved into his hibernaculum. The hole just to the right of the flag was the K-rat hole that he utilized.
Pic 3: On 20 February, John Slone and I tracked him, and found the evidence that Blake the Snake had been attacked. The hole is distinctly badger shaped. The dirt pile in front of the hole was undisturbed by us for this shot, but there doesn't seem to much in the way of tracks to verify "badger" for sure. Does anybody else think anything other than badger? We got the impression our snake was still alive at this point.
Pic 4: The smoking gun. On 3 March, I noted that the hole had been enlarged slightly. Whatever was digging moved to the left a bit, and scored. The transmitter was buried about 1 inch under the loose soil. Note that there is a bite mark on the "L" of the serial number on the transmitter. Can you imagine digging face first into the maw of a scut lair? That's a scary way to make a living!
Pic 5: "And you flowers bloom like madness in the spring............."

Best to all, roger

Reptiles May Have Evolved Feathers For Sexual Selection

A team of American and Chinese researchers has revealed the detailed feather pattern and color of Microraptor, a pigeon-sized, four-winged dinosaur that lived about 120 million years ago. A new specimen shows the dinosaur had a glossy iridescent sheen and that its tail was narrow and adorned with a pair of streamer feathers, suggesting the importance of display in the early evolution of feathers, as presented in the March 9 edition of the journal Science.

The research was conducted by scientists at the Beijing Museum of Natural History, Peking University, The University of Texas at Austin, the University of Akron, and the American Museum of Natural History.

By comparing the patterns of pigment-containing organelles from a Microraptor fossil with those in modern birds, the scientists determined the dinosaur's plumage was iridescent with a glossy sheen like the feathers of a crow. The new fossil is the earliest record of iridescent color in feathers.

A new reconstruction of the dinosaur will help scientists approach the controversy of how dinosaurs began the transition to flight.

Since it was discovered as the first four-winged dinosaur in 2003, Microraptor has been at the center of questions about the evolution of feathers and flight. A number of scientists have proposed aerodynamic functions for various feathery features such as its tail, forewing shape and hind limbs, going so far as to place Microraptor models in wind tunnels and launch them from catapults. Once thought to be a broad, teardrop-shaped surface or with a shape more like that of a paper airplane meant to help generate lift, Microraptor's tail fan is actually much narrower with two elongate feathers off of its tip. The researchers believe the tail feathering may have been ornamental and probably evolved for courtship and other social interactions and not as an adaptation for flight.

"Most aspects of early dinosaur feathering continue to be interpreted as fundamentally aerodynamic, optimized for some aspect of aerial locomotion," said Julia Clarke, one of the paper's co-authors and an associate professor of paleontology at The University of Texas at Austin's Jackson School of Geosciences. "Some of these structures were clearly ancestral characteristics that arose for other functions and stuck around, while others may be linked to display behaviors or signaling of mate quality. Feather features were surely shaped by early locomotor styles. But, as any birder will tell you, feather colors and shapes may also be tied with complex behavioral repertoires and, if anything, may be costly in terms of aerodynamics."

"Modern birds use their feathers for many different things, ranging from flight to thermoregulation to mate-attracting displays," said Matt Shawkey, a co-author and associate professor of biology at the University of Akron. "Iridescence is widespread in modern birds and is frequently used in displays. Our evidence that Microraptor was largely iridescent thus suggests that feathers were important for display even relatively early in their evolution."

The scientists deduced Microraptor was iridescent when Shawkey discovered that in the most common iridescent feathers, arrays of pigment-bearing organelles called melanosomes were uniquely narrow.

Information on feather color of a variety of dinosaurs has recently come to light, since the first color map of an extinct dinosaur showed black and white spangles, red coloration and gray body color in a species called Anchiornis in 2010. Based on the new data from Microraptor and these other finds, a complex color repertoire that includes iridescence is probably ancestral to a group of dinosaurs called Paraves that originated at least 140 million years ago and includes dinosaurs such as Velociraptor as well as Archaeopteryx, Anchiornis and living birds.

"This study gives us an unprecedented glimpse at what this animal looked like when it was alive," said Mark Norell, co-author and chair of the American Museum of Natural History's Division of Paleontology. Clarke, Norell and the AMNH team, also including Mick Ellison and Rui Pei, worked closely re-analyzing the bony anatomy and digital overlays of the feathering in the new specimen and eight previously described Microraptor specimens to come up with their new view of the animal.

The researchers studied feathering, melanosome shape and density from a Microraptor fossil working closely with collaborators Quanguo Li, Ke-Qin Gao and Meng Qingjin at the Beijing Museum of Natural History. The samples and preservation of melanosomes were assessed by Jakob Vinther and compared with a database of melanosomes from a variety of modern birds assembled by Shawkey and Liliana D'Alba at the University of Akron.

The feather color displayed by many modern birds is produced partially by arrays of melanosomes, about a hundred of which can fit across a human hair. Generally found in a round or cigar-like shape, a melanosome's structure is constant for a given color. After a breakthrough by Vinther in 2009, paleontologists have started analyzing the shape of melanosomes in well-preserved fossilized feather imprints. By comparing these patterns with those in living birds, scientists can infer the color of dinosaurs that lived many millions of years ago. Iridescence arises when the narrow melanosomes are organized in stacked layers.

Quanguo Li, Ke-Qin Gao, Qingjin Meng, Julia A. Clarke, Matthew D. Shawkey, Liliana D’Alba, Rui Pei, Mick Ellison, Mark A. Norell, Jakob Vinther. 2010. Reconstruction of Microraptor and the Evolution of Iridescent Plumage. Science, 335, 6073: 1215-1219.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Rattlesnake Round-ups & Drought

Crotalus atrox, JCM
The following is being carried by

ABILENE, Texas - For Dennis Cumbie, there's little doubt that drought conditions have affected all creatures great, small and, most important for the Jaycee's yearly Rattlesnake Roundup, snaky.

"Anytime you have a drought as severe as what we've had, it's going to affect any and all wildlife," Cumbie said.

Generally, less water means a lack of brush coverage the snakes and their prey both like. And the creatures that snakes like to eat tend to disperse in harsh conditions, searching for water.

It all adds up to wandering, hungry snakes.

"Last year when I went out looking for snakes, there were quite a number (that were) emaciated, or skinny," noted Tony Baez, reptile supervisor at the Abilene Zoo.

But experts said it's often difficult to know how much the population might have decreased because of the drought, pointing more toward likely behavior changes among the reptiles than speculations about a census. The roundup, held in Sweetwater, Texas, runs from March 8 to 12.

"We think it will deter some of the snake population," Cumbie said of the parched conditions. "But our numbers have kind of decreased as far as what we've had coming into the roundup. We don't think that's because of the number of snakes out there, though, we think that just means people haven't been hunting as much."

Chairman of the venom-milking pen at the event, Cumbie said snake hunting comes and goes as a fad. In the past some hunting clubs were particularly sizable, but many have dwindled either because of old age or a lack of interest.

"I guess people are just busy, that's one part of it," he said.

Last year's 1,500 to 1,600 pounds of snakes was "kind of low," Cumbie said. Most come from about a 100-mile radius.

Cumbie, who said he has been hunting snakes since 1977, said judging from what he and others have seen in 50 years or so of roundups, the Jaycees' yearly extravaganza isn't going to damage the area snake population, no matter what the drought has done.

"This country's so rough, there's no way you'd ever hunt them all out," another reason judging area populations is difficult, he said.

The area has been in a drought since December 2010, said National Weather Service Meteorologist Nick Reimer.

"Back in October most of West Texas was in an exceptional drought," though the area has improved "greatly" with some rainfall since, he said.

But with record high temperatures last year, Reimer expected at least an "indirect" affect on snakes.

The zoo's Baez said that he was almost certain the drought had affected area snakes in a variety of ways, though mostly in terms of behavior.

A dry year can mean snakes won't grow as much, Baez said, and therefore not shed as much. Snakes under drought conditions also may not have as many offspring as in wetter years.

But it's somewhat hard to starve a snake, Baez said.

Considered "ambush predators," they can live weeks, even months, on little sustenance. Snakes will wander away from familiar areas to find food and water if conditions become prohibitive.

And that can mean coming into greater proximity with people.

"If an animal is starving, even if it's a secretive one, because it's trying to survive it's more likely to be in proximity to a person," Baez said.

Nolan County Extension Agent Zachary Wilcox said he doubted one would see "much of a decrease in numbers" of snakes because of recent dry conditions, though he said he wouldn't be surprised if there hadn't been some decline based on his own experience with rattlesnake run-ins.

"I can tell you in late summer or fall, I'll normally kill six or eight or 10 of them just out and about on dirt roads or wherever," he said. "And I can tell you I haven't seen as many of them."

(Brian Bethel is a reporter for The Abilene Reporter-News in Texas.)