Reptiles have been around a lot longer than many vertebrates, and I study them partly because I want them to remain extant long enough for my great-great-grandkids to have a chance to see how cool these critters are. I’d be fibbing if I said reptiles were what perked my interest in wildlife as a kid – that was insects – but I can remember being enamored by reptiles at a young age. I fell in love with the Ornate Box Turtles at my grandparents’ farm in eastern Kansas, even while competing with them for ripe wild strawberries. A cousin and I had a propensity for chasing after Five-lined Skinks and various snakes at every opportunity. As I matured I recognized that I didn’t have to handle every reptile I encountered, and realized they are probably better off that way; now I just try to photograph each one I see! And yes, I want future generations of humans to have that same chance to appreciate the real thing someday, not relegated to enjoy reptiles only by flipping through photos of extinct species on the internet.
Why are reptiles at risk, you might ask? I’ll not delve into an exhaustive list here, but to name several of the usual suspects…
1) Habitat loss and fragmentation: In the Great Plains, for example, agriculture, energy extraction, and urban/suburban development have and continue to reduce available native habitats. This isn’t just an issue for reptiles, but can be particularly negative for species that can’t just fly (as a bird can) or easily run across miles of cultivated fields (as deer do) to get to the next habitat patch.
2) Climate change: There is irrefutable evidence that the earth is warming. So… how will ectotherms (animals that rely on the temperature of their surrounding environment to maintain normal functions) such as reptiles adapt in a rapidly-warming environment given their normal habitats are often fragmented or gone completely (see #1 above)? Many suspect some species will have potential to expand geographic ranges, given unrestricted habitat.
3) Disease: We understand very little about ‘normal’ diseases in native, wild reptiles. What we do know is that pathogens can wreak havoc on wildlife under certain conditions. There are many examples of what can happen when a foreign pathogen is introduced to native populations. Think smallpox and humans, Yersinia pestis and humans and prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets, Chronic Wasting Disease in ungulates, and possibly Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis fungus in many amphibian populations worldwide. While I’m not explicitly investigating disease in my work, I have become hyper-aware of how pathogens (including those we don’t know about) can spread like wildfire through wildlife under the right conditions. In other words: Only YOU can prevent fire! This paranoia is one that should be contracted by all ‘citizen’ herpetologists. Aside from causing unnecessary stress to reptiles, disease is the number one reason I have moved to photography to document reptiles for much of my research – and also why I require my field crews to disinfect our gear that comes into contact with those species we DO capture. You can never be too paranoid… and just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you!
You should now have a basic idea of the why behind my research, so now for the what: There are currently no large-scale, standardized survey methods for monitoring trends in reptile populations. How can we conserve taxa for which we have no idea of their population status? To give a few examples, horned lizard populations are thought to have been on the decline for many decades now, but we largely only have anecdotal evidence for this. Bull Snakes generally appear to do fine in many non-native habitats. Many ranchers I’ve spoken with have noticed that they haven’t seen as many rattlesnakes in the past decade – especially the past 3–5 years, and that is a species they tend to pay attention to! Is there rattlesnake decline, and does it correspond with the drought that has plagued much of the southern Great Plains? Without a standardized monitoring scheme in place everything is speculation!
To answer these kinds of questions we* are developing and testing a standardized method using visual encounter surveys, with both citizen scientists and professionals serving as observers. This will enable us to shed light on how changes in habitat and climate may be impacting reptile species. It’s not likely to be all doom-and-gloom! Some species may be better off with warmer temperatures. However, if we don’t at least attempt to monitor population trends for these species, we may not be able to react quickly enough if a species begins to disappear. This research is intended to provide the necessary missing link to enables natural resource agencies to conserve reptiles for future generations to appreciate (and of course to continue filling their important roles in our native ecosystems).
*Project collaborators include: Dr. Cameron Aldridge (CSU NREL / Ecosystem Science and Sustainability / USGS), Dr. Larissa Bailey (CSU Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology), Dr. Dan Manier (USGS), Dr. Bob Reed (USGS), Tina Jackson (Colorado Parks & Wildlife), Dr. Andrew Glusenkamp (Texas Parks & Wildlife), with input from the Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC), and many others representing state and federal wildlife agencies.
If you are interested in volunteering as an observer for this project, please contact me at: email@example.com with the Subject line “Volunteer”. We are looking for volunteer observers for the 2014 field season in the short and mixed-grass regions of Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and possibly Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana. Volunteers must provide their own transportation, digital camera, and GPS (or phone with GPS app).
Danny is a Ph.D. student at CSU’s Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, advised by Dr. Cameron Aldridge and Dr. Larissa Bailey. He is one of only a few relatively ‘old’ students in the program, having worked as a biologist for 9 years with state and federal agencies between degrees. In his spare time he dreams about riding his bicycle as much as he used to, and processes photos for his photography website.