Sunday, April 29, 2012

Suzio Report, Off Plot Part 2

What ho, Herpers!                                                                                               04/27/12

Roughly a year ago, I sent out a report on a trip that John and Devon Slone and I made to some cerberus dens. In that report, I mentioned getting lost, and being rescued by a combination of a friendly guy on an ATV and the fortuitous arrival of a forest ranger with a cell phone.

These same cerberus dens are the ones that Melissa Amarello is studying for her masters degree on the social behaviors of Crotalus cerberus-- AKA Arizona Black Rattlesnakes. Now that I have driven myself there, I can still say with some degree of certainty that I still couldn't find the place on my best day. As one who prides himself on his sense of direction, I've got to say that there is something about this place that drives my inner compass haywire.

For this reason, I will dub her study site "Haywire Mountains" in this report. The Haywire Mountains are roughly 6,100' in elevation, and are mainly composed of heavily forested (and heavily de-forested) ponderosa pines. I call this forest the "Evellyn Woods."  Contained with the framework of these Evellyn Woods are miles of nothing but trees, pinecones and pine-needle mulch. But there are the occasional patches of boulders to be found amongst the forest floor. These boulders, as well as the forest floor, are a land of shadows and sun. In short, the perfect environment for a snake that is brown-to-black and yellow to dwell. And also, a place that makes photography extremely difficult.

And so, bap! On 21 April, at 1145, I meet Melissa at the designated spot. We pile our stuff into her truck, and drive a dizzying maze of gravel roads until we arrive at the parking spot. We get out, we hike ten minutes, and stand before a place called "Caprock." Here we see seven cerberus. To put that in perspective, in my favored cerberus spot, I once went for five years without seeing one. 10 minutes in, we've got seven. I immediately notice that the same female cerb encountered in April of last year was in the exact same sport this year. With her are two yearling cerbs, coiled in the exact same spot as the year before--about a meter to her left. It is no small wonder that Melissa is recognizing on sight who these snakes are, and what their relationships are to each other.

For the next two hours, it's cerb after cerb after cerb. With each one, Melissa knows them by name, and describes what they did the previous year. I would say that I don't how she does it--but I do know. She spends a lot of time with them. And she is armed with plant cameras strategically placed to photograph them at one minute intervals. I know that I'm looking at some of the most thoroughly-documented rattlesnake dens in the country, if not the world.

Just after the third image in this report is taken, we hear voices. It's Brendan O'Connor and Kenny Sharrocks.

These are two of the guys who came upon these dens with the first load of bricks. We compare notes, and eventually wind up back at the trucks to have lunch. Brendan mentions finding a Mountain Kingsnake at one of the dens. This had me all sorts of jacked up to go, and Melissa promised to take me if I was a good boy all day, and promised not to get lost again. Try as I might have to get lost, she was keeping an eye on me.

Brendan and Kenny eventually buzzed off to God knows where, and Melissa and I headed for more dens, and further adventures, as will be noted in the images.

That night, we headed for Melissa's luxurious guest house. She offered to make me a vegan supper, which I wasn't so sure about. But I took her up on that, and it was quite good--perhaps save for the chipolte hot-dogs. (I guess that I am not permitted to call them hot-dogs.

Melissa's brand do not consist of lips and a$$holes). Anyhow, may cloaca was still burning for three days after eating these. But now I'm going to live to be a hundred--such are the benefits of going vegan.

Along with the meal, we snagged a bottle of wine from Melissa's impressive stash. I'm glad that I had the chance to see said stash, for a few hours later Marty Feldner and John Slone showed up. By the time we crashed, there wasn't enough wine left to get a mouse drunk.

And then we were back into the fray the following morning. My companions wove a herpetological tapestry around the dens. In no time flat, we were all following the cerbs which seem to have chosen this day to egress from the dens. By 1400 that afternoon, I threw the wuss of the century, and went home. They went on to discover other great things.

It's long past time to go to the images:

Pic 1: Neonate cerb on the prowl. Note the GORGEOUS head pattern on this little lady! 

Pic 2: Typical adult female cerb
Pic 3: A pairing. I was actually about ten feet above this pair for this image. My little camera did better than usual with the telephoto lens.
Pic 4: "Buford," and adult male that was hanging out at the "ATR" den.
Pic 5: Adult male at a den I call "Charcoal Den," due to the fact that there has been a controlled burn in the area.

Pic 7: A pregnant female. Note the pretty rattles some of these snakes have! 8-)
Pics 8 and 9: An alligator lizard and a female cerb hanging out together. Another one for the commensal powerpoint for sure! Note the eye on the snake.

Pic 10: Because I was a good boy, and didn't get lost, Melissa took me to the mountain kingsnake spot. Sure enough, it was out foraging in the pine needles.
Pic 11: Roger loses all restraint, and snags it. It was promptly released after a few images.

That's all that's fit to spit. I look forward to getting back to the plot this weekend. At least I don't get lost there!

Best to all, roger

Suizo Report -- Off Plot Part 1

Howdy Herpers,                                   04/26/12

Every once in a while, I cut the herps on our beloved plot a break, and wander off elsewhere. As far as I can tell, they don't seem to miss me much.

 From 30 March through 1 April, Herrmann the German and I joined Dale DeNardo, Marty Feldner and John Slone. Our mission was to seek a special form of speckled rattlesnake, the "Dwarf Mitch," AKA the "White Mitch." We met out in a mountain range that carries a strange name. They are called the "Nunya Bizness Mountains," which are located somewhere north of the south pole. But it might be easier to get to them by traveling south from the north pole.

As this was a first time visit to the Nunya Biznesses for Dale, Herrmann the German, and me, we had the privilege of listening to tales from Sloner and Marty of the great abundance of our quarry in the days of yore. As near as I can figure out from their discussion, at one point it was possible to walk across their backs without ever having ones' feet touch the ground.

It's always cool to hear about the good old days from people who are over 20 years younger.
For their stories seemed indeed to be the good old days. For the time period we were out there, they were the crappy new days.

The bad news was that we only found one. The really bad news is that Dale DeNardo found it, and was insufferable in the modesty that followed this act.
(It's always better
to be lucky than good.)

But there us a silver lining in all this: we DID find one. And thanks to marvelous Marty, we also scored a patch-nosed snake. That was it for the Nunya Bizness portion of this trip. Five pairs of eyes grinding on hillsides so steep that if one stands up straight, one's nose is hitting the terrain. Two snakes to show for it.

There were other disappointments with this trip. I was told that there were elephant trees here. Heretofore, I had always thought that elephants entered this world by coming out of their mother's wombs. I had no idea they grew in trees. And any tree that would produce elephant fruits had to be really big. I even brought my chainsaw in hopes of doing some ivory collecting, not to mention a ladder to get me up into the canopy.

Sadly, the elephant trees weren't even in bloom, let alone carrying the fruit. We must have been there out of season.

But all jesting aside, it was a good trip, with good people. We saw over 30 desert iguanas. We ate well, drank better, and had lots of interesting and raucous discussions. I just wish I could remember them.

On 21 April, I joined Melissa Amarello for a look at the cerberus dens under watch. I will go into further depth on this trip with the next report. There is too much to share for one report from this fantastic area for one report. And the end of my lunch hour looms large.

We go to pictures for the rest of this report:

Image 1: Dale's White Mitch, a female. Posed image.
Image 2: Marty's patch-nosed snake, in situ
Image 3: From cerberus country, a den called "Caprock."
Image 4-6: This sequence shows the benefit of hands off observations. Melissa named this snake Roger. But I'll bet she tells all the guys that sort of thing. Anyway, Roger comes out of caprock, Roger settles in, Roger comes all the way out of Caprock. He is poised to watch the comings
and goings of all the females in the roost.

Image 7: Roger coming back out of Caprock the following morning.

Images 8 and 9: The short-horned lizards from this area are fantastic! These images are two views of the same animal.

Again, we'll go into more depth of the cerberus trip with the next report. For now, this here is Roger Repp, signing off from southern Arizona, where the turtles are strong, the snakes are handsome, and the lizards are all above average.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Bd Outbreak in Mountain Yellow-Legged Frogs

Appearance and behavior of mountain yellow-legged frogs (Rana muscosa) and during a
chytridiomycosis outbreak in Sixty Lakes Basin, Sierra Nevada Mountains, California. A)
 A frog showing clinical signs of severe chytridiomycosis including abnormal posture. B)
 Dead frogs following a chytridiomycosis outbreak in Milestone Basin. PLoS Figure.
SAN FRANCISCO, April 25, 2012 -- The fungal infection that has killed a record number of amphibians worldwide leads to deadly dehydration in frogs in the wild, according to a new study by University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco State University researchers.

High levels of an aquatic fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) disrupt fluid and electrolyte balance in wild frogs, the scientists say, severely depleting the frogs’ sodium and potassium levels and causing cardiac arrest and death.

Their findings confirm what researchers have seen in carefully controlled lab experiments with the fungus, but SF State biologist Vance Vredenburg said the data from wild frogs provide a much better idea of how the disease progresses.

"The mode of death discovered in the lab seems to be what’s actually happening in the field," he said, "and it's that understanding that is key to doing something about it in the future."

The study is published online by peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE and funded through the joint National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health program, Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases.

At the heart of the new study are blood samples drawn from mountain yellow-legged frogs by Vredenburg, who is an assistant professor of biology at SF State, and colleagues in 2004, as the chytrid epidemic swept through the basins of the Sierra Nevada range.

"It’s really rare to be able to study physiology in the wild like this, at the exact moment of a disease outbreak," said UC Berkeley ecologist Jamie Voyles, the lead author of the study.

Unfortunately, it is a study that can’t be duplicated, at least not in the Sierra Nevada. Frog populations there have been devastated by chytrid, declining by 95 percent after the fungus was first detected in 2004.

"It’s been really sad to walk around the basins and think, ‘Wow, they’re really all gone,’" Vredenburg said.

The chytrid fungus attacks an amphibian’s skin, causing it to become up to 40 times thicker in some instances. Since frogs depend on their skin to absorb water and essential electrolytes like sodium from their environment, Voyles and her colleagues knew that chytrid would disrupt fluid balance in the infected amphibians, but were surprised to find that electrolyte levels were much lower than anticipated for the Sierra Nevada sample.

"It’s clear that this fungus has a profound effect in the wild," Voyles said.

"Wildlife diseases can be just as devastating to our health and economy as agricultural and human diseases," says Sam Scheiner, NSF program officer for EEID. "Bd has been decimating frog and salamander species worldwide, which may fundamentally disrupt natural systems. This study is an important advance in our understanding of the disease, a first step in finding a way to reduce its effects."

Scientists want to learn as much as they can about how chytrid affects wild amphibians, with the hope that these findings will lead to better treatments for the infection.

For instance, Voyles said, the new study suggests that individual frogs being treated for the infection might benefit from having electrolyte supplementation in the advanced stages of the disease.

Researchers like Vredenburg already are experimenting with different ways of treating individual frogs, such as applying antifungal therapies or inoculating the frogs with "probiotic" bacteria that produce a compound that kills the fungus.

"The disease is not very hard to treat in the lab with antifungals. We know we can treat animals there," Vredenburg said. "But in nature, the disease is still a moving target."

It is still unclear exactly how chytrid spreads across a region, and which frogs might be susceptible to re-infection after treatment. Earlier this year, Vredenburg and colleagues published a paper showing that a common North American frog might be an important carrier of the infection.

Chytrid has killed off more than 200 amphibian species across the globe, but Voyles said the new studies offer "sort of a glimmer of hope that it might be possible to do something to mitigate the loss of frogs in the field."

Voyles J, Vredenburg VT, Tunstall TS, Parker JM, Briggs CJ, et al. (2012) Pathophysiology in Mountain Yellow-Legged Frogs (Rana muscosa) during a Chytridiomycosis Outbreak. PLoS ONE 7(4): e35374. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0035374

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Freeing loggerhead turtles comes at a price

When loggerhead turtles are accidentally captured by humans, a recovery process follows, the complexity of which varies according to the turtle's injuries. Spanish researchers have analysed the process of reintegrating these animals into the environment and they have discovered that there are changes in the behaviour of the turtles that have a complicated recovery process.

The study, which has been published in Aquatic Conservation-Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, involved placing satellite transmitters on the shell of 12 healthy, wild loggerhead turtles' (Caretta caretta), and on 6 more that had spent a few months in a rehabilitation centre in the Balearic Islands.

"The six animals from the centre were seriously affected when they were caught and they had a slow, complicated recovery process" Lluís Cardona, the main author of the study and researcher in the animal biology department in the University of Barcelona (UB) explained to SINC.

Upon being set free, three of the rehabilitated turtles showed changes in behaviour. "One died and the other two did not swim well and were very disorientated" Cardona, who compared their adaptation to the environment of these turtles with the twelve control ones, states.

"We received a signal each time they went up to breathe and from this we can tell what speed they swim at and the route they follow", the researcher comments. One of the most informative parameters regarding the animal's health is the time spent at the water's surface. "Turtles go up to breathe and thermoregulate. The time spent at the surface reflects their buoyancy control" the biologist highlights.

Although the number of animals included in this study is not very high and they need more studies, the results show that when the rehabilitation is complicated, there is a percentage of animals that do not readapt to freedom.

"The underlying question of this project is when it is worthwhile recuperating and treating a turtle" the UB expert asks. At a time of limited resources and for the good of the animal itself, "the scientists have to work with veterinarians in the rehabilitation centres to establish protocols to determine when a turtle should be treated and when not" Cardona says.

The six turtles in the study were rehabilitated in the Balearic Islands by the Aspro-Natura Foundation between 2004 and 2007. Of those, two had been hit by boats, two had throat and stomach injuries from fishing hooks, and the last two had injured their flippers in fishing nets.

"Most of these animals are caught accidentally by fishing hooks or trapped in trawler or trammel nets" the scientist explains. "A smaller percentage collides with boats or gets caught in abandoned nets or plastic".

However, the number of turtles caught by fishing hooks has reduced. "This decrease is due to the fact that fishermen fish at a deeper level at which there are fewer turtles, although they are still researching this final aspect" the biologist points out.

90% of turtles in the Balearic Islands' waters come from the USA. "In this country, the number of nesting females of this species has dropped" Cardona warns.

Casale, P., Broderick, A. C., Freggi, D., Mencacci, R., Fuller, W. J., Godley, B. J. and Luschi, P. (2012), Long-term residence of juvenile loggerhead turtles to foraging grounds: a potential conservation hotspot in the Mediterranean. Aquatic Conserv: Mar. Freshw. Ecosyst., 22: 144–154. doi: 10.1002/aqc.2222

Friday, April 20, 2012

Komodo Reefs & Sea Snake Habitat Damaged by Fish Collectors

BEFORE: A Pinnate batfish swimming among other fish in Tatawa Besar in the
waters of Komodo islands, Indonesia. AFTER: damaged coral reefs in the water
of Tatawa Besar, Komodo islands, Indonesia. Photo Credit: ROBERT DELFS
The following article by Jacob Herin is being carried by

KOMODO ISLAND, Indonesia — Coral gardens that were among Asia's most spectacular, teeming with colorful sea life just a few months ago, have been transformed into desolate gray moonscapes by illegal fishermen who use explosives or cyanide to kill or stun their prey. The site is among several to have been hit inside Komodo National Park, a 500,000-acre reserve in eastern Indonesia that spans several dusty, tan-colored volcanic islands. The area is most famous for its Komodo dragons — the world's largest lizards — and its remote and hard-to-reach waters also burst with staggering levels of diversity, from corals in fluorescent reds and yellows to octopuses with lime-green banded eyes to black-and-blue sea snakes.

Dive operators and conservationists say Indonesia's government is not doing enough to keep illegal fishermen out of the boundaries of the national park, a U.N. World Heritage site. They say enforcement declined greatly following the exit two years ago of a U.S.-based environmental group that helped fight destructive fishing practices.

Local officials disagree, pointing to dozens of arrests and several deadly gunbattles with suspects.

Michael Ishak, a scuba instructor and professional underwater photographer who has made hundreds of trips to the area, said he's seen more illegal fishermen than ever this year. The pictures, he said, speak for themselves.

When Ishak returned last month to one of his favorite spots, Tatawa Besar, known for its colorful clouds of damselfish, basslets and hawksbill sea turtles, he found that a 500-square-meter (600-square-yard) section of the reef had been obliterated.

Many smaller patches were destroyed elsewhere at the site.

"At first I thought, 'This can't be right. I must have jumped in the wrong place,'" he said, adding he swam back and forth to make sure he hadn't made a mistake. "But it was true. All the hard coral had just been blasted, ripped off, turned upside down. Some of it was still alive. I've never seen anything like it."

The national park's corals are supposed to be protected, but fishermen are drawn there by locally popular fish like fusiliers and high-value export species like groupers and snappers.

Fishermen can be seen in small wooden boats, some using traditional nets or lines. Others are blasting sites with "bombs" — fertilizer and kerosene mixed in beer bottles. Breathing through tubes connected to air compressors at the surface, young men plunge to theDive operators are increasingly seeing dead fish on the sea floor or floating on the surface.

"The biggest problem is that fishermen seem to be free to come into Komodo, completely ignoring the zoning and resource use regulations," said Jos Pet, a fisheries scientist who has worked with numerous marine conservation groups in the area in recent years.

He said they are "quite simply fishing empty this World Heritage Site."

Sustyo Iriyono, the head of the park, said problems are being exaggerated and denied claims of lax enforcement.

He said rangers have arrested more than 60 fishermen over the past two years, including a group of young men captured last month after they were seen bombing fish in waters in the western part of the park.

One of the suspects was shot and killed after the fishermen tried to escape by throwing fish bombs at the rangers, Iriyono said. Three others, including a 13-year-old, were slightly injured.

"You see?" said Iriyono. "No one can say I'm not acting firmly against those who are destroying the dive spots!"

He added that the park is one of the few places where fish bombing is monitored with any regularity in Indonesia, a Southeast Asian nation of more than 17,000 islands.

Divers, however, say enforcement has dropped dramatically since 2010, when the government reclaimed sole control of operations.

For two decades before that, The Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based nonprofit, had helped the government confront destructive fishing practices there. "No-take zones" were created, protecting spawning areas, and coastal areas also were put off limits.

Patrols using park rangers, navy personnel and local police were key to enforcement.

In 2005, the government gave a 30-year permit to Putri Naga Komodo, a nonprofit joint venture company partially funded by The Nature Conservancy and the World Bank to operate tourist facilities in hopes of eventually making the park financially self-sustaining.

Entrance and conservation fees — just a few dollars at the time — went up several tenfold for foreign tourists. With around 30,000 local and international visitors annually at the time, that would have given the park a budget of well over $1 million, but outraged government officials demanded that the funds go directly into the state budget. The deal collapsed in 2010, when Putri Naga Komodo's permit was yanked.

"They had no right to directly collect the entrance fees from the tourists," said Novianto Bambang, a Forestry Ministry official.

Dive operators and underwater photographers have asked The Nature Conservancy and similar organizations like WWF Indonesia, to return to Komodo and help with conservation efforts there.

Nature Conservancy representative Arwandridja Rukma did not address that possibility, saying even though it was heartwarming to see so much concern about this "national treasure," it only takes part in projects at the invitation of the government.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Suzio Report, April 2012

What ho, Herpers! 04/18/12

Things are finally starting to pick up out in paradise. The monsters are up and motoring about, as are the atrox and molossus. The only sluggos on our plot are the tiger rattlesnakes, which have been walled up and mostly invisible since December. But as one of the images below demonstrates, there may be light at the end of the tunnel for their lardasses.

I think we can just rock with pics from here on out.

Image 1; One of two of our new Gila Monsters following a rodent trail. This one is female HS 19, "Birgitta." She was found on 4 March by the U of A herp class. She has thus far had a favorable home range, hanging out close to where we normally park. She has been surface active with every visit we've made since her release.

Image 2; Our female blacktail, CM 10, "Susan."
This image was taken on 7 April, and it is the most of her that I've seen since she went into hibernation last fall. While the snake looks obvious in this image, it was one of the more difficult "where's Waldo" events this year. The Peach and I went round and round the massive prickly pear she was under. We thought she was underground, but could not find a single hole under that prickly pear. Had we found a hole, we probably would have done the write up and missed the visual.

While on the subject of "Susan," on 15 April, I tracked her to the point to where she was not visible, under a flat rock roughly 10mm thick by 200mm square. As there were labyrinths of tunnels all around this small, flat nothing piece of shale, I thought said nothing piece of shale was poised as a cover over a chamber beneath it. So, Mr. Wideawake here hooked his fingers under the shale, giving poor Susan a 3 stooges eye-poke in the process. Her snout had been right where I put my fingers when flipping the rock! How a one meter long snake could fit under such a tiny cover object is amazing. And why I didn't get hammered in the process is equally amazing. We both got a good scare out of it, she rattled, and so did I.

All this inspired Hans-Werner to say "Dot vas very schtoopid, Roger!"

Image 3; This is the first in situ shot taken of our newest male blacktail, CM 12. He was captured on 25 March by Typing Boy here. His mass is 983 grams, his SVL is 1200mm.

In other words, he is over four feet long if we include the tail and rattle. This shot was taken at his capture spot, a day after his release. This is one DANDY of a snake!

Image 4, By Hans-Werner. Herrmann; Here is another shot that reveals the heft of CM #12. This lunker male has yet to get a name. We will either wait until he earns one, or a cash donor gives us enough to name him.
Image 5; This is female CA 133. This one also has yet to earn a name, but "Slone's Bitch" is the one we've been using lately. She hibernated at the top of the SW portion of the Suizo Range proper. It has been one hell of an effort to track her this winter. Thankfully, on 15 April, she was found all the way at the bottom of the hill. Slone's Bitch had six kids last year, and is the one that I showed courting with a male in my last report. One last tidbit. She was coiled in 100% sun when discovered. She warmed up 5 degrees C during the processing time alone!
Image 6; This is another unnamed female atrox, CA #87. She gave birth to 12 kids last year, and was being dogged by a large male since last October. Look at the heft on her! She could drop back-to-back years for us.

Image 7; Here we see CA #121, "Tracy." She overwintered in AD6--and did not move out until after 7 April this year. I feared her dead, and was glad to see her alive. She is a bit on the thin side. She has given birth for 2 consecutive years, and that can take its toll on a girl.

Image 8; Well, what do you know? A sign of life from a tiger rattlesnake! This is CT # 11, "Steven" If you look carefully at what little you can see, you might guess that he has fed. That is my guess as well. Steven is the first of 3 tigers to move from his hibernaculum.
Image 9 and 10: These are both HedgeHogs blooming. As you will note in image 9, these gorgeous little cacti are the only plant still throwing out a lot of color.
That's all that is fit to spit. Until next time, your remain you, and I'll remain roger

Egg laying - the downfall of the Dinosaurs?

Why there were no small dinosaurs: While mammals occupied the various ecological niches with different species (left), the egg-laying dinosaurs occupied the same niches with few large species – in their respective different growth stages (right). Consequently, there was no room in the niche for smaller and medium-sized species (far right). The absence of species in the smaller and medium size range proved disastrous for them during the mass extinction as it obliterated all the large species and there were not enough small species of dinosaur that could have reoccupied the vacant niches. (picture: Illustration: Universität Zürich; Jeanne Peter)

Their reproductive strategy spelled the beginning of the end: The fact that dinosaurs laid eggs put them at a considerable disadvantage compared to viviparous mammals. Together with colleagues from the Zoological Society of London, Daryl Codron and Marcus Clauss from the University of Zurich investigated and published why and how this ultimately led to the extinction of the dinosaurs in the journal Biology Letters.

The dinosaur's egg and the tiny dino baby

Weighing in at four tons, the mother animal was 2,500 times heavier than its newly hatched dinosaur baby. By way of comparison, a mother elephant, which is just as heavy, only weighs 22 times as much as its new-born calf. In other words, neonates are already big in large mammal species. The staggering difference in size between newly hatched dinosaurs and their parents was down to the fact that there are limits to the size eggs can become: After all, larger eggs require a thicker shell and as the embryo also needs to be supplied with oxygen through this shell, eventually neither the shell nor the egg can grow any more. Consequently, newly hatched dinosaur babies cannot be larger in the same way as in larger species of mammal.

Many species occupy one niche each; one species occupies many niches

In addition, new-born mammals occupy the same ecological niche as their parents: As they are fed with milk directly by the mother, they do not take any niche away from smaller species. With large dinosaurs, however, it was an entirely different story: They did not only occupy the adults' one niche during their lifetime, but also had many of their own to pass through – from niches for animals with a body size of a few kilos and those for ten, 100 and 1,000-kilo animals to those that were occupied by the fully grown forms of over 30,000 kilograms.

Daryl Codron explains what this means for biodiversity: "The consensus among researchers is that animals of particular body sizes occupy particular niches. In the case of the dinosaurs, this would mean that a single species occupied the majority of the ecological niches while mammals occupied these through numerous species of different sizes." Accordingly, the research results reveal that dinosaurs of a small and medium body size were represented with far fewer individual species than was the case in mammals – because their niches were occupied by the young of larger species. "An overview of the body sizes of all dinosaur species – including those of birds, which are also dinosaurs after all – reveals that few species existed with adults weighing between two and sixty kilograms," specifies Codron. And Marcus Clauss sums up the consequences of this demonstrated by the researchers using computer simulations: "Firstly, this absence of small and medium-sized species was due to the competition among the dinosaurs; in mammals, there was no such gap. Secondly, in the presence of large dinosaurs and the ubiquitous competition from their young, mammals did not develop large species themselves." The third insight that the computer simulation illustrates concerns small dinosaurs: They were in competition both among their own ranks and with small mammals. And this increased pressure brought the small dinosaurs either to the brink of extinction or forced them to conquer new niches. The latter enabled them to guarantee their survival up to the present day, as Codron concludes, since "back then, they had to take to the air as birds".

The catastrophe: The small dinosaurs take to the air and the large ones die out

The dinosaurs' supremacy as the largest land animals remained intact for 150 million years. The mass extinction at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, however, spelled trouble as the species gap in the medium size range turned out to be disastrous for them. According to the current level of knowledge, all the larger animals with a body weight from approximately ten to 25 kilos died out. Mammals had many species below this threshold, from which larger species were able to develop after the calamity and occupy the empty niches again. The dinosaurs, however, lacked the species that would have been able to reoccupy the vacant niches. That was their undoing.

Daryl Codron, Chris Carbone, Dennis W. H. Müller, and Marcus Clauss. Ontogenetic niche shifts in dinosaurs influenced size, diversity and extinction in terrestrial vertebrates. Biology Letters, April 18, 2012 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.0240

Temporary Fluctuations in Snake Populations?

Changing climates as well as weather changes may result in some snake populations increasing - at least for the short term. Articles like the one below are showing up in newspapers accross the USA.

NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Did you enjoy the mild winter? How about all of the rain North Texas received in the spring? Well, you’re not the only one — snakes did too!

The warm winter and damp spring means we can expect a bumper crop of snakes.

But experts say most snakebites in the Lone Star State aren’t lethal.

“People that are bitten by snakes throughout the world, not even to mention here where we don’t have some of the most venomous snakes, do not die,” explained Texas A&M University veterinarian Jill Healey. “And the ones that we have here are not as venomous as many other snakes found throughout the world.”

If you’re having visions of “Snakes on a Plane” or “Anaconda” you’re overreacting, but the boom in the snake population does mean you should be mindful when gardening, doing yard work and working in bushes or tall grass.

“The most important thing if a human is bitten by a snake is to seek help, but remain calm,” Healey said.

Texas is home to hundreds of snakes, most of them non-venomous. Some venomous snakes found in North Texas include: the Copperhead, Cottonmouth, Rattlesnake and Harlequin Coral Snake.

Venomous or not, all snakes can likely be found in certain areas.

“These guys like to be near creeks,” said Healey. “They need to stay hydrated and the way they do that is to stay near a water source.”

Healey also warns that dogs are likely targets of snakes. To keep your dog safe make sure your yard isn’t snake friendly by removing any piles of debris, not leaving food out and keeping your fence maintained.

More State Legislation to Control Exotic Animals - West Virginia

Group seeking exotic animal rules won't give up
By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Welcome to “Wild, Wonderful, West Virginia,” and that slogan remains applicable to exotic animals born outside the majestic mountains, since the Legislature failed to turn in legislation acceptable to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

One of his few vetoes this year was SB477, aimed at letting the Division of Natural Resources impose rules on keeping animals not native to West Virginia.

While the proposal triggered thoughts of giraffes, bull elephants and Bengal tigers roaming in one’s spacious backyard, it actually was intended to cover any animal not indigenous to these hills.

Actually, two bills were offered, and the final version merely would have turned regulations over to the DNR, with the right to destroy diseased animals and seek criminal penalties for violations of certain provisions.

Born Free USA promoted the legislation, offered by Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, and group isn’t letting defeat in this past session stop it from stepping to the plate a year from now, says program associate Tracy Coppola.

“West Virginia remains one of only eight states left lacking any restriction or oversight for the private possession of exotic animals,” Coppola said.

“We are hopeful that we can work out a bill that will be signed by the governor.”

Amy Shuler-Goodwin, communications director for the governor, said Tomblin found fault with SB477 because it was “overly broad.”

“It didn’t specifically define what is an exotic animal and what is not,” she said.

A second reason for the veto was that it diverted all enforcement to the DNR via the rule-making process, and Tomblin also was concerned about the lack of funding built into the bill, she said.

As for regulating exotic animals, however, Tomblin doesn’t oppose the idea of the state imposing some restrictions, she emphasized.

“What we always want to make sure of with any piece of legislation — it doesn’t just apply to this bill — is that all our I’s are dotted and all of our T’s are crossed,” she said.

“It’s necessary to make sure we know all of these things.”

As for intent, SB477 said the Legislature finds it necessary to protect West Virginians from the risks associated with non-native animals. The bill would have allowed for the destruction of any diseased animals and the “immediate confiscation” of all exotic animals kept in violation of the proposed law. Violators would have faced a fine of $200 to $2,000 as a misdemeanor crime.

Intentionally and knowingly allowing such animals to escape elevates the offense to a felony in SB477. And that would have led to a prison term of one to three years, or a maximum fine of $5,000, or both.

On its website, Born Free USA says its goal is to lower the suffering of captive animals introduced in America for profit or personal amusement and to raise public awareness of the “cruel and destructive exotic animal trade.”

Captive animals are swept up in a billion-dollar industry, since they are bred, sold and traded in huge numbers, the group says.

“But these animals — including, among other species, lions, tigers, cougars, wolves, bears, monkeys, alligators, and venomous snakes and other reptiles — pose grave dangers to human health and safety,” the organization states.

“By their very nature, exotic animals are unpredictable and are incapable of being domesticated or tamed.”

Coppola provided statistics showing 1,685 incidents that led to 75 human deaths across the nation, adding the figures are “truly just a fraction of what’s really out there,” since some occurrences go unreported or are dismissed as insignificant.

“We are frightened for the people of West Virginia, for all the exotic animals that continue to be so easily acquired, and for the communities exposed to such danger,” she said.

“Born Free USA, many members of the Legislature, and members of the public believe that, when it comes to West Virginia, we are truly in an emergency situation.”

Summer Wyatt, state director of the Humane Society of the United States, says her organization wasn’t a sponsor of the legislation, but did support it.

Her concern was over two bills that never reached the floor of either chamber for a vote — the creation of a spay-neuter fund, and regulation of commercial dog breeders.

“This is the fourth or fifth year for the ‘puppy mill’ bill,” Wyatt said. “We are going to keep pushing it.

The spay-neuter legislation began as one that would have imposed a higher fee on pet food but ultimately abandoned this idea in favor of an appropriation that some critics saw as inadequate to confront the problem of feral cats and stray dogs.

This one was sponsored by the Federation of Humane Organizations, but had the support also of Wyatt’s group.

“We don’t know what happened,” Wyatt said.

“By the end of session, so many people are trying to get many things done. There is so little time and so few committee hearings and so many bills. We don’t know exactly what happened. Everybody says something different. All I can tell you is we’ll have the same ‘puppy mill’ language next year and we’ll have an exotic animal bill of some type, whether it’s a ‘Born Free’ bill or our bill and see what we can to do not have it vetoed.”

Snakes in Advertising, circa 1949

From the Bingboing web site. This 1949 Winchester Batteries ad was posted to the Vintage Ads LiveJournal group by noluck_boston, depicting a mother-daughter pair whose wise choice of reliable Winchester Batteries have rescued them from the terrible fate of being bitten by a deadly snake in the dark. Now they can be bitten by it in the blinding light of their flashlight.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Frog Fitness & The Genome

Physically fit frogs have faster-changing genomes, says a new study of poison frogs from Central and South America. Stretches of DNA accumulate changes over time, but the rate at which those changes build up varies considerably between species, said author Juan C. Santos of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina.

Tree frogIn the past, biologists trying to explain why some species have faster-changing genomes than others have focused on features such as body size, generation time, fecundity and lifespan. According to one theory, first proposed in the 1990s, species with higher resting metabolic rates are likely to accumulate DNA changes at a faster rate, especially among cold-blooded animals such as frogs, snakes, lizards and fishes. But subsequent studies failed to find support for the idea.

The problem with previous tests is that they based their measurements of metabolism on animals at rest, rather than during normal physical activity, Santos said.

"Animals rarely just sit there," Santos said. "If you go to the wild, you'll see animals hunting, reproducing, and running to avoid being eaten. The energetic cost of these activities is far beyond the minimum amount of energy an animal needs to function."

To test the idea, Santos scoured forests in Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Panama in search of poison frogs, subjecting nearly 500 frogs -- representing more than 50 species -- to a frog fitness test.

He had the frogs run in a rotating plastic tube resembling a hamster wheel, and measured their oxygen uptake after four minutes of exercise.

The friskiest frogs had aerobic capacities that were five times higher than the most sluggish species, and were able to run longer before they got tired.

"Physically fit species are more efficient at extracting oxygen from each breath and delivering it to working muscles," Santos said.

To estimate the rate at which each species' genome changed over time, he also reconstructed the poison frog family tree, using DNA sequences from fifteen frog genes.

When he estimated the number of mutations, or changes in the DNA, for each species over time, a clear pattern emerged -- athletic frogs tended to have faster-changing genomes.

Santos tested for other factors as well, such as body and clutch sizes, but athletic prowess was the only factor that was consistently correlated with the pace of evolution.

Why fit frogs have faster-changing genomes remains a mystery. One possibility has to do with harmful molecules called free radicals, which increase in the body as a byproduct of exercise.

During exercise, the circulatory system provides blood and oxygen to the tissues that are needed most -- the muscles -- at the expense of less active tissues, Santos explained.

When physical activity has stopped, the rush of blood and oxygen when circulation is restored to those tissues produces a burst of free radicals that can cause wear and tear on DNA, eventually causing genetic changes that -- if they affect the DNA of cells that make eggs or sperm -- can be passed to future generations.

Before you ditch your exercise routine, Santos offers some words of caution. The results don't debunk the benefits of regular physical exercise, which is known to reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

"What applies to cold-blooded animals such as poison frogs doesn't necessarily apply to warm-blooded animals such as humans," Santos said.

Santos JC.2012. Fast Molecular Evolution Associated with High Active Metabolic Rates in Poison Frogs. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 2012; DOI: 10.1093/molbev/mss069

Oldest Reptile Embryo

Dating back 280 million years or so, the oldest known fossil reptile embryos have been unearthed in Uruguay and Brazil. They belong to the ancient aquatic reptiles, mesosaurs. The study of these exceptionally well-preserved fossils suggests that mesosaurs were either viviparous(1) (pushing back this mode of reproduction by 60 million years) or that they laid eggs in advanced stages of development. These finds, published in the journal Historical Biology, were revealed by an international team including Michel Laurin, CNRS senior researcher at the Centre de Recherche sur la Paléobiodiversité et les Paléoenvironnements (CNRS/Museum national d'histoire naturelle/UPMC).

Although the oldest known adult amniote(2) fossils date back some 315 million years, very few collections of fossil eggs and embryos are available to paleontologists. The discovery by an international team including Michel Laurin, from the Centre de Recherche sur la Paléobiodiversité et les Paléoenvironnements (CNRS/Museum national d'histoire naturelle/UPMC), of fossilized embryos of mesosaurs, ancient aquatic reptiles that lived ca. 280 million years ago, sheds light on these animals' reproductive mechanism.

In Brazil, the team uncovered a fossil specimen in gestation, which revealed that mesosaur embryos were retained in the uterus during most of their development. These reptiles, therefore, were probably viviparous. 

Mesosaur embryo and adult, placed together for this reconstruction, and a composite photograph showing the size of the embryo in relation to that of the adult.
In addition, the same researchers unearthed 26 adult mesosaur specimens in Uruguay, all of which were associated with embryos or very young individuals, dating from the same period as the Brazilian fossil. Although these more or less disarticulated specimens are difficult to interpret, most of them are probably embryos in the uterus, thus backing up the hypothesis that mesosaurs were viviparous. The largest of these fossils may be young animals that were looked after by at least one of the parents, pointing to the existence of parental care. However, one isolated mesosaur egg (see photograph below) was also found at the Uruguayan site. This find casts doubt on the hypothesis of viviparity (which, in theory, excludes the laying of eggs). It suggests that the Uruguay mesosaurs laid eggs at an advanced stage of development, which then hatched shortly afterwards (several minutes to days later).

This research therefore reveals the oldest known fossil amniote embryos from the Paleozoic (543 to 250 million years BP) and the first examples of embryo retention (and perhaps viviparity), pushing back this reproductive mechanism by some 60 million years. But do the reproductive characteristics of mesosaurs highlighted in this study reflect their aquatic way of life (since viviparity is frequent in aquatic reptiles), or was it rather a fairly widespread condition among early reptiles?

Piñeiro G, Ferigolo J, Meneghel M, Laurin M . 2012. The oldest known amniotic embryos suggest viviparity in mesosaurs. Historical Biology, 2012: 1

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Need to Conserve Turtles

JCM Natural History Photography
The 327 species of turtles that remain on earth are heavily exploited for food (above are some Malaysian snail eating turtles being cooked in central Thailand) as well as having their numbers reduced due to environmental degradation.  The following story is from the Wall Street Journal


The Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo and other city zoos, committed this week to launch an effort to revive turtle and tortoise species on the verge of extinction—some with global populations in the single digits.

The vision is for freshwater turtles and tortoises bred in New York to repopulate habitats across the world. It harks back to the society's first notable victory, when it shipped 15 American bison from New York to Oklahoma to reside in the Great Plains more than a century ago.

Now, the New York-based society—a network of 4,000 zookeepers, scientists, field conservationists and veterinarians in 65 countries—is preparing to mobilize all of its branches for the turtle effort.

"We're in a position to do something about this because of the expertise across the organization," said Dr. Elizabeth Bennett, the society's vice president for species conservation. "And the fact that we've got these zoos in New York where we can do this breeding."

The Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs several city zoos, is working to breed freshwater turtles and tortoises in New York in the hopes of repopulating global habitats. The McCord's Box Turtle, held by a zookeeper at the Bronx Zoo, is native to China.

Much remains to be decided, but one likely candidate is the Roti Island Snake-Necked Turtle, a freshwater species with a long neck that it wraps around its body for protection. The Bronx Zoo has three of the Frisbee-sized creatures, which are found almost exclusively on a small Indonesian island. Fewer than 100 are left in the wild, scientists said, as hunting for the pet trade and conversion of its native marshlands into rice fields has decimated the species.

The Bronx Zoo is looking to obtain more to build up a population with enough genetic diversity for safe breeding. Once in New York, the turtles would be raised and bred in temperature-controlled tanks that simulate their humid native climates.

Don Boyer, the society's curator of herpetology, said it is too early to say just how many young turtles the zoos will have to produce. "This is a big job," he said.

The organization is committed to saving about half of the world's 25 most threatened turtle species but is still deciding which it is best equipped to aggressively breed in the coming years. Early estimates put the cost at about $200,000 per species.

It is also unclear when those species will be brought to the society's New York facilities—the Bronx Zoo, the New York Aquarium, the Central Park Zoo, the Prospect Park Zoo and the Queens Zoo.

For now, the Wildlife Conservation Society is breeding four endangered turtle species—the Burmese Star Tortoise, Burmese Roofed Turtle, Southern River Terrapin and Central American River Turtle species—in the Asian and Central American countries where they are native. It soon plans to begin acquiring rare turtles from other zoos in order to bolster its collection of 400 turtles from 59 species.

The effort will take years. And experts say they are running out of time.

Having thrived since the early days of the dinosaurs, turtles are now facing an unprecedented crisis that has gone largely unnoticed by the general public, conservationists say. Most of the threatened species have been reduced to fewer than 1,000.

"You can't be in our profession, you can't have our knowledge and expertise and not do something," said Jim Breheny, director of the Bronx Zoo. "We're ethically obligated to do something."

Some species may be impossible to save. The Abingdon Island Tortoise, once found on the Galápagos Islands, has one survivor, a male named Lonesome George. The Red River Giant Softshell Turtle, native to China and Vietnam, is down to four.

While much turtle habitat is still intact, the animals have been hunted to the brink across the world. For the last two decades or so, turtles have been plucked by the ton out of the rivers, swamps, forests and fields of Southeast Asia, where most turtle species live.

Many are bagged and shipped off to feed a growing demand in China, where they are boiled in soups or ground into jelly believed to have medicinal qualities. Thought to be good luck, they are also sold as pets to a new Chinese middle class.

In 2000, 25 tons of turtles per week were being shipped from Sumatra to China, according to Dr. Bennett. By 2003, that dropped to seven tons since the island was running out of turtles. China began importing them from as far away as Brazil.

Leaders of the effort see reasons for hope, saying turtles are uniquely well-suited for a mass breeding program. Many turtles live even longer than humans—some have been known to live 160 years—and breed throughout their lives. Compared with other endangered species, like tigers or elephants, they are small and easy to care for.

"I really think that in a relatively short period of time—five to 10 years—we can really be in a much better place with turtles than we are now," Mr. Breheny said. "And the flip side is if we don't start doing something now, we're going to lose some of these. If we don't act now, it's over."

Monday, April 9, 2012

Suzio Report, March Madness 2012

What ho, Herpers!
Well, March Madness came and went in a very subtle fashion this year.

The very cold night temps, combined with a couple warm ups at times that I couldn't make it out, sort of caused egress to be a whimpering, sporadic affair. But I did get some stuff worth sharing. I thought I'd just stick to pairings with this report.

Pic 01: From "Roger's Den," I place I first found back in 1998. I thought the den had died out, but was pleased to see this pairing on 24 March.

Pic 02 and 03: A female and male atrox from our den AD1. At the time these images were taken, the pair was roughly 3 meters apart. But by the end of the day (25 March 2012), the pair had gathered together under a thick clump of bursage. The male was chin rubbing on the females' flank. It was an impossible photo to take without disturbing the pair, so I stored that one in my memory. 

Pic 04: Our most happening den on the plot this year was AD7. There were as many as six atrox visible in the crevice here this winter. On this day, we found an unknown female out. She tried to spook and go back in, but look who is blocking her! There were actually three females in this crevice, not to mention a plug of males jammed in this tight upper crevice. 
Pic 05: Last year in April, a group of us found this den (AD8) active--5 males and a female. On 6 April, I saw only this pair. 
Pic 06: The female under the rock in this image is CA87--an animal under watch for seven years now. The male is likely one that has dogged her since last October. He followed her into AD7 last fall, and is still with her on this day. I sometimes feel sorry for our girls--this is one big, bad, strong male. He will be hard for her to dodge. 

Pic 07 and 08: A vigorous courtship event between female CA133 and an unknown male. 

She fled from him three times, but each time he caught her. He was swirling all around her, but she would not yield. Like the girl in image 06, CA133 has been dogged by this male since 25 March. He was still bothering her the day after this image was taken. 

There's much more to report. In good time, it will be reported.
Best to all, roger

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Florida Pythons Confirmed Consuming Limpkin Eggs

Two Limpkin (Aramus guarauna)
crushed but intact eggs (top; EVER
44949) recovered from a Burmese
Python digestive tract and compared
 to a reference Limpkin specimen
(below; USNM 25786) for size and
color patterns. The arrow shows
fragments of eggshells from the
python sample placed on the
 museum specimen for color
comparison. Photograph by Don
Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution.
Smithsonian scientists and their colleagues have uncovered a new threat posed by invasive Burmese pythons in Florida and the Everglades: The snakes are not only eating the area’s birds, but also the birds’ eggs straight from the nest. The results of this research add a new challenge to the area’s already heavily taxed native wildlife. The team’s findings are published in the online journal Reptiles & Amphibians: Conservation and Natural History.

Burmese pythons, native to southern Asia, have taken up a comfortable residence in the state of Florida, especially in the Everglades. In addition to out-competing native wildlife for resources and habitat, the pythons are eating the native wildlife. Burmese pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) were first recorded in the Everglades in 1979—thought to be escaped or discarded pets. Their numbers have since grown, with an estimated breeding population in Florida in the tens of thousands.

In an ongoing study to better understand the impact of this snake in the Everglades, scientists from the Smithsonian Institution, the National Park Service and others have been examining the contents of the digestive tracts of pythons in the area. They have shown that Burmese pythons consume at least 25 different species of birds in the Everglades, but until now no records documented this species eating bird eggs.

“This finding is significant because it suggests that the Burmese python is not simply a sit-and-wait predator, but rather is opportunistic enough to find the nests of birds,” said Carla Dove, ornithologist at the Smithsonian’s Feather Identification Lab in the National Museum of Natural History and lead author of the study. “Although the sample size is small, these findings suggest that the snakes have the potential to negatively affect the breeding success of native birds.”

Scientists collected a 14-pound male python that was 8 1/2 feet long near a property with free-ranging guineafowl. The snake regurgitated 10 whole guineafowl eggs soon after it was captured. The team discovered the remains of two bird eggs in another python collected for the study―a 30-pound female more than 10 feet long. Scientists used DNA tests on the membrane of the crushed eggs and comparisons of the shell fragments with egg specimens in the Smithsonian’s collection to determine what the female snake had eaten. Their research revealed the species to be the limpkin (Aramus guarauna), a large wading bird found in marshes and listed as a “species of special concern” by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

There are several species of snake known to eat bird eggs. Those species are equipped with pointed or blade-like extensions on the vertebrae in their esophagus that punctures the eggshell, making it easy for the snake to crush the egg and digest its contents. Burmese pythons do not have these adaptations. However, the pythons studied were so large in relation to the eggs they ingested that the scientists believe these specialized vertebrae may not have been needed.

“Our observations confirm that invasive Burmese pythons consume not only adult birds but also eggs, revealing a previously unrecognized risk from this introduced predator to nesting birds,” said Dove. “How frequently they are predating on bird eggs is hard to know.”

In an earlier stage of the study, the scientists collected more than 300 Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park and found that birds, from the 5-inch-long house wren to the 4-foot-long great blue heron, accounted for 25 percent of the python’s diet in the Everglades.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Rattlelsnake-Squirrel Interactions

From the University of California at Davis.

Robot squirrels from the University of California, Davis, are going into rattlesnake country near San Jose, continuing a research project on the interaction between squirrels and rattlesnakes.

In the lab, robot squirrels have shown how squirrels signal to snakes with heat and tail flagging. Through field experiments, researchers from San Diego State University and UC Davis aim to learn more about rattlesnake behavior.

It's not the only use of robots to study animal behavior at UC Davis. Terry Ord, a former postdoctoral researcher now at Harvard University, used robot lizards to study display behavior by anole lizards in the jungles of Puerto Rico. Gail Patricelli, professor of evolution and ecology, has used a camera-equipped robot sage grouse hen to study the mating behavior of these prairie birds.

The collaboration is giving biologists new tools for their work -- and also helping engineers design new and better machines.

The research on the long struggle between California ground squirrels and their main predator, rattlesnakes, began at UC Davis under the leadership of psychology professor Donald Owings, an expert on animal behavior, who died in 2011.

Sanjay Joshi, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UC Davis, built the original "robosquirrels" for Owings, and is now working with Rulon Clark, assistant professor of biology at San Diego State University and an expert on snake behavior.

The research then and now centers on two squirrel behaviors in reaction to rattlesnakes: a tail flagging movement and the warming of the tail. Owings, with Professor Richard Coss and colleagues, observed that when adult squirrels detect a snake, they approach it head-first in an elongated posture, making flagging movements with their tails. Owings and Coss noticed that when confronting a rattlesnake, the squirrels also heated their tails.

Because rattlesnakes can "see" in the infrared, the researchers thought the squirrels might be sending a signal to the snakes. But, with live squirrels, there is no way to separate tail flagging from tail heating.

Enter the robots. Joshi's engineering lab built a squirrel with a heatable tail and a tail flagging mechanism, each controlled separately.

Using the robosquirrel, Aaron Rundus, then a graduate student in Owings' lab and now an assistant professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, showed that the snakes responded to the heat signal from the squirrel.

"It was the first example of infrared communication in the animal world," Joshi said. That work was published in 2008: an article published in IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine in December, 2011, summarized much of the work to date.

Fieldwork is more challenging, he said. Ryan Johnson-Masters, a graduate student in Joshi's lab and now at the Sandia National Laboratory in Livermore, built a new robot with smaller and more robust controls that was easier to transport into the field.

The field season is fairly short, a few weeks in late spring and early summer when squirrel pups are born and rattlesnakes come hunting for them.

Then you need to find rattlesnakes in rough country.

"It's definitely an adventure," Joshi said.

Clark began collaborating with Owings and Joshi in 2007. Together, they wrote a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation to take the robosquirrel into the field. The grant was funded with $390,000 in 2010.

Once the researchers have located a foraging snake, they put down some track, set up the robosquirrel and a video camera to record the scene and retreat behind a blind. The snakes seem to accept the robosquirrel as real, Clark said. One of their videos shows a snake biting the robot's head.

Snakes will rarely strike at a flagging adult squirrel -- and if they do they almost always miss, Clark said.

"Squirrels have a remarkable ability to move out of the way of an oncoming snake strike," he said. Even adult squirrels that do not seem to be aware of a snake will often successfully dodge a strike.

Squirrel pups are much more vulnerable. They have less resistance to snake venom and seem more reckless in their behavior. They show the same displaying behavior as adults, but will get closer to snakes -- sometimes with fatal results.

Although not much is known about the mental abilities of rattlesnakes -- they are not ideal lab animals, after all -- they do behave in the field as if they are making complicated assessments about foraging behavior, Clark said. For example, they react differently to adult squirrels versus pups.

Why do squirrels approach the snakes at all? Clark says that they may be trying to assess the nature of the threat. Sometimes snakes will leave the area after encounters with squirrels.

Before joining the campus in 2001, Joshi worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on robots for space exploration. At UC Davis, Joshi began working with psychology professors including Owings and Jeffrey Schank. With Schank, he built robots that emulated the behavior of young rat pups -- revealing new insights into both rat behavior and robot design.

"The reason I'm so excited is that with robots we can really change how animal behavior studies are done," Joshi said.

More on Roads as Barriers to Wildlife

Psammodromus algirus a forest species that does not appear to cross roads. 
Photo Credit: Mario M.
Roads, railways, fences and other linear structures may act as barriers to dispersal of a variety of species. The long term effects may be to interrupted gene flow between populations, but the impact of linear structures may differ for species. In a recent study Telleria et al (2011) examined the effect of a 25 year old motorway on the distribution of several forest species in a fragmented landscape in northern Spain. The patches of forest in the study area are becoming scarcer and increasingly fragmented to the west. The highway runs perpendicular to the westernmost tips of the fragmented area, isolating forest patches from eastern habitat patches. These eastern habitat patches are better connected to large forests located further east in the ‘Sierra de la Demanda’ mountain range, and might act as source habitats. When the motorway was constructed populations of forest vertebrates were expanding westwards from these mountains as a consequence of human abandonment of the low productivity highlands. A barrier effect might therefore have caused asymmetric population dynamics on either side of the motorway, obstructing the recovery of local extinctions in western forest patches by individuals moving from mountain forests. The researchers aim was to look for evidence of a barrier effect . They found clear evidence of a barrier effects on the distribution of the forest lizard Psammodromus algirus.The roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) was also unequally distributed on both sides of the motorway, but this may also be due, at least in part, to fragmentation. The eyed lizard (Timon lepidus),a species that can move through open fields, showed no evidence of barrier effects. The distribution of two small birds (Erithacus rubecula and Phylloscopus bonelli) was unaffected by the road. Their results demonstrate roads may severely restrict the distribution of species which can withstand high levels of forest fragmentation but have limited dispersal ability.

Tellería JL., Díaz JA, Pérez–Tris J, De Juana E, De la Hera I, Iraeta P, Salvador A, Santos T. 2011. Barrier effects on vertebrate distribution caused by a motorway crossing through fragmented forest landscape Animal Biodiversity and Conservation 34: 331-340.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Training Dogs to Find Florida Pythons

Time is carrying the following story.

“Sit. Speak. Good boy. Now go find a snake that can swallow a 76-pound deer.”

Trainers at Auburn University in Alabama have put Labradors on the scent of Burmese pythons—those Asian snakes that are running amok in the Florida Everglades. In recent years, the Sunshine State has tried to curb the population’s numbers, but pythons are “notoriously hard to find and very secretive,” as one biology professor puts it. That’s where EcoDogs could come in.

Todd Steury, a conservation professor who co-founded the EcoDog program, describes an EcoDog as “a bomb-detection dog that’s trained to find something other than bombs.” This might be scat (read: animal poop full of biological information), destructive fungi or, as of 2010, snakes big enough that they attempt to eat alligators whole. “Pythons don’t belong in South Florida,” Steury says. “And they eat everything. I literally do mean everything. The only inhabitant of Everglades National Park they haven’t found inside a python is a Florida panther.” That may be hyperbole, but the snakes have been linked to declines in native-fauna sightings.

The inevitable question is, of course, are the dogs in danger of being eaten by these voracious creatures? Steury says the trainers take extra steps to minimize that concern and notes that a python big enough to attempt such a meal is rare indeed, despite stories of 16-footers that become ingrained in our pop-culture memories.

The dogs are bred at Auburn University and maintained by the veterinarian school, where they are all given basic obedience and detection training. Before being put on python patrol, a dog is first introduced to the scent, captured by rubbing coffee filters on the snakes. The dogs are taught to associate tracking that scent with a toy, their reward, before finally being trained to “fringe.” When fringing, a technique also used with delicate newborn fawns, the dogs follow a smell toward its source but stop before they get to the source itself.

Without dogs, seekers are left to “put together these teams of humans who stand elbow-to-elbow and move through the environment, kicking up grass and hoping to find pythons,” Steury says. “The thing is, these snakes are so good at hiding, you could be standing on top of one and not even know it. So that’s where these dogs are really useful.” The EcoDogs’ inaugural trip to Florida took place over six months during 2010 and 2011. Whether there will be a second still depends on financing and Florida officials deciding how they want to tackle their python problem.

Meanwhile, let us all bow before the incredible feat of nature that is the canine nose. Venerable sniffer, we salute you.