Published December 10, 2006
Hail to the 'herps'!
Jim Andrews' atlas tells everything about Vermont's amphibians and reptiles
It is now late fall. Soon, ski area owners hope, snow will settle across the state and stay for the rest of the season. But under the snow and ice, on the bottom of ponds and holes, salamanders, frogs and snakes rest and await spring warmth.
The state is not known for these amphibians and reptiles. It has far fewer than warmer tropical states like Florida. But that doesn't mean keeping track of what species live here is any easier. In fact it has taken years of work by Jim Andrews, a Middlebury College researcher, and his dozens of volunteer helpers to catalog what is here.
So long before snows of December, on a rainy morning last August, Andrews was trudging through a patch of forest in an empty corner of the Town of Washington, just southeast of Barre. The scent of wet leaves and loam and rotting wood drifted over a small pack of high school students who followed Andrews' lead as they turned over logs, rocks and brush and looked for toads, frogs and salamanders.
"Another Bufo," one student called out a small reward for following Andrews' edict to stay off the logging roads and to look in the thicket. What that student, and others, found was a common, American toad. Gardeners and hikers, assuming the ground is not frozen, might find or step over one of the brown and wart-covered creatures on any outing.
The toad was dutifully included as an entry in the "Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas."
This atlas, now a decade old, is an ambitious attempt by Andrews and helpers to log and track where all the species of snakes, frogs, salamanders and toads of Vermont live. So, although the workers on the atlas have found rare species last summer they discovered the state's only known population of Eastern racers, a large, black snake that lives in Southern Vermont the goal of the project is to keep tabs on the health and variety of reptile and amphibian species of all kinds. Even the common Bufo.
The search has covered each of the state's 251 cities, towns and gores and does so relying largely on non-paid helpers. So far about 3,000 volunteers have submitted about 70,000 bits of data on the roughly 40 species of amphibians and reptiles in Vermont.
Actually, calling the "Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas" an atlas is somewhat misleading.
This is no dusty tome that one might find in the library or on the shelf of some laboratory. This atlas is instead a collection of material kept online (http://community.middlebury.edu/~herpatlas), and is easy to reach. It is regularly updated.
One prominent section of the atlas is titled "unanswered questions." Andrews and his helpers pose those questions, then strive to answer them. And, of course, the atlas includes facts:
"The relocation of the Western Chorus Frog in Alburg in 1998 put the number of species at 40, but it may not be long before the first population of Marbled Salamanders or Blanding's Turtles is documented in this state," the atlas notes. "We are also watching the Box Turtle records; it may not be long before this species is changed from a hypothetical to a known breeding population."
However the real purpose of the atlas, Andrews said, is to connect Vermonters with their natural world and to keep up with environmental changes by following one of nature's least-noticed, but most-sensitive groups of creatures.
Andrews, who often wears a battered canvas hat on his summer field expeditions, grew up in Middlebury, and counts himself lucky to have found a place at a college in his hometown town. "I could practically throw a football to where I grew up from where I am sitting," he said. "I'm fortunate the college has sort of adopted me."
His interest in science and biology began thanks to family, including a mother who was fascinated by naturalist studies and an aunt who was a birdwatcher.
When he was growing up in Vermont in the 1950s and '60s, he loved to be in the woods and streams but not to catalog amphibians. "I kind of grew up in the tradition of hunting and fishing.
That came from my father," Andrews said.
Andrews' focus on "herps" shorthand for herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles is more recent. About two decades ago Andrews began focusing on the creatures largely because in Vermont they were not then the subject of broad research.
"I sort of slid into reptiles and amphibians as a specialty," he explained. In Vermont "there was so little known.
We didn't even have a good species list."
And so he began his documentation of Vermont's "herps."
The atlas is considered basic research; it tells scientists and others where the various species of frogs and salamanders are. And the work has broken new ground. An example: the discovery of the Eastern racer in Vermont.
Just as important, the atlas tells Vermonter much about the state of the state's environment. When it comes to environmental degradation, herps play the role of the canary in the coal mine.
Around the world scientists have voiced concern about a decline in the population of frogs, salamanders and other amphibians even in remote areas which appear to have relatively undisturbed habitats.
The die-offs are troubling in their own right as is any potential case of human-caused extinctions. But they are particularly worrisome because they might also signal a wide-ranging, less-obvious, environmental or climatic change that could affect humans as well.
The disappearances or die-offs have been noted across the United States from Acadia National Park in Maine, where tiny spring peepers seemed to have died, to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, where boreal toads have declined.
And internationally there have been massive die-offs in England, South Africa, South America and Canada.
The die-offs called "one of the most urgent and enigmatic worldwide environmental problems of the late 20th century" by the National Park Service, might be related to the spread of pollution, invasive species, ultra-violet light or global climate change. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey believe the decline of amphibians in certain regions of the world may be the result of viral or fungal sickness. It's also possible that a combination of factors is at work.
"The wide geographic distribution of these mortality events and the number of species involved may represent an entirely new phenomenon or may be partly the result of increased surveillance of amphibian populations," according to the Geological Survey. "Amphibian researchers and land managers worldwide, however, are concerned about the often severe and mostly unexplained declines of amphibian populations on many continents, including in remote and pristine areas."
Vermont seems to have avoided such unexplained declines in frogs and other amphibians, Andrews said, but that doesn't mean the frogs and snakes have a promising future here or that the state is not now undergoing environmental changes that someday will make it inhospitable to herps.
Any registered declines in the populations of amphibians and reptiles worry Andrews. One reason for a decline might be development of homes, farms and highways. For instance, as of the early 1990s the state was losing about 6,500 acres of undeveloped land a year to buildings and other projects, or roughly 10 square miles annually.
That may partially explain the presumed disappearance of at least one type of amphibian in the state so far the Western Chorus Frog.
The brown frog, with dark streaks and dapples around its eyes, was common in Grand Isle and Franklin Counties in the Lake Champlain basin as recently as the 1970s. In the 1980s the frog became harder to find, and although a pair of males was rediscovered in 1998 and again in 1999, its appearance in Vermont has not been recorded since.
"It appears to have totally disappeared from Vermont," Andrews said. "That is our one total disappearance."
The population of chorus frogs has also declined in Eastern Canada, and researchers there believe that the draining and re-working of farmland has changed topography and eliminated the temporary pools where they breed, Andrews said. That may also be a contributing factor in Vermont where abandoned farmland is becoming home not to chorus frogs but to wood frogs.
Indeed it would be hard to imagine a species more at risk than one which breeds in transient pools, which can be easily filled in. "(But) that's not to say there isn't something else going on with these guys," Andrews said. "I suspect, personally, it is a combination of things."
Amphibians, of course, can suffer from various things from roads that cut them off from their breeding areas to pesticides. And that adds to the mystery.
A similar question surrounds the appearance several years ago of malformed frogs in Vermont and a few other spots around the country. In the mid 1990s scientists started reporting in the Midwest that they were finding frogs with too many, or too few, legs and eyes. Reports of the same problems cropped up in Vermont.
"Sure enough, there were lots of frogs missing legs or eyes
in some cases they had several legs where they should have had one," said Mark Ferguson, a zoologist with the Non-game and Natural Heritage Program of the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"A lot of research went into trying to figure out what caused that; there was no clear-cut answer," he said.
The state's Department of Environmental Conservation did much of the work trying to determine what caused the deformities. Pesticides or other contaminants in the water, ultraviolet radiation and some unknown parasite are among the suspects.
Andrews "herp" research has resulted in a few surprises.
On a day in September 2003 for example, he and several high school students were in the Connecticut River Valley, in Windham County, searching for critters in an abandoned Vermont Agency of Transportation site.
There, the students found, in dense brush, a black, shimmering Eastern racer several feet long.
"There were whistles going off all over the place," Andrews remembered.
He and other researchers, knowing that state highway workers were about to begin work on the off-highway site, wanted to learn why the reptiles, rare in Vermont, were in that particular location. (Andrews has not disclosed the whereabouts of the spot because of concern that it might be disturbed).
So, they decided to radio-track one of the snakes. A veterinarian was found to help the researchers as they made a small cut in the anesthetized snake's neck and slipped in a tiny transmitter. (Finding the neck was either hard or easy depending on whether one considers a snake to be all neck or lacking a neck.)
What the researchers eventually discovered was that the snake they were tracking and the half dozen or so others, constituting the only population known in Vermont, use the site for summer hunting. The snakes, which can grow to six feet long, are not poisonous unlike the timber rattlesnakes, which live in southwestern sections of Vermont. But they may look slightly threatening as they slither about hunting small creatures like mice and other rodents.
"These big snakes have to move around; they cover territory," Andrews said, explaining that the snake's summer home in Vermont is at the northern tip of the snake's normal habitat. It is not unusual, he said, for the eastern racer snakes to travel three miles or more in a day or two.
Andrews is working with the state to find ways for the work to be completed at the highway site without harming the snakes' chances of continued survival in Vermont.
The special effort was possible because of Andrews' knack for fostering relationships with workers and officials of the Agency of Transportation, said Chris Slesar, environmental specialist with AOT. "He has educated a lot of us on how much we impact the herps on the roads, especially in the springtime," he said. About 50 employees of the agency, for example, have gone through animal-awareness training programs, Slesar said, adding that AOT has worked to establish travel corridors for various snake species during road and other construction projects.
"We have been working as collaboration, it's pretty cool," Slesar said.
And, of course, all such efforts are outlined in Andrews' atlas.
Andrews welcomes all kinds of dedicated volunteers in his project, yet one group of volunteers stands out.
Each year he leads a group of high school students from Vermont and other states in a summer program called "Take Part," which consists largely of documenting sightings of reptiles and amphibians in previously overlooked parts of the state.
"They have got sharp minds.
They get interested in something, and they can learn a lot on their own," Andrews said of the students. "Their knowledge and interest are very impressive."
The atlas also has managed to capture the imagination of adults. One such person is Vince Franke, a freelance videographer, editor and producer, who has been following the development of the atlas for several years and hopes to produce a documentary that "would be a great tool for education." He envisions it being shown on public television and in the schools.
Ferguson, the fish and wildlife zoologist, said the atlas and Andrews' work have two important functions.
"Hopefully they will give us some indication of (reptile and amphibian) population trends over time," he said. That will in turn allow scientists to make judgments about environmental and climatic changes.
He said the atlas also encourages people to open their eyes to the world of nature a key to habitat protection.
For his part, Andrews hopes to continue expanding his atlas with new discoveries.
One creature he will be looking for, he said, is the marbled salamander.
The stocky salamander dark with white or silver bands is likely to be found in Vermont because the species exists in nearby states. "It is just a matter of time before someone finds marbled salamanders in this state," Andrews said.
Andrews said he hopes he can create enough enthusiasm that Vermonters may actually go out and look for it, appreciate it and then encourage steps to protect it.
And, yes, it would help if anyone who spotted the salamander would snap a photo of it and write a description for the next edition of the "Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas."
Louis Porter is a reporter at the Vermont Press Bureau, the Statehouse bureau of the Times Argus and Rutland Herald.