Happily Herping

This past Saturday – as many of you might know – was the Ontario BioBlitz weekend. For those of you that are unfamiliar with the event, the traditional BioBlitz or “blitz” is a 24-hour period in which both trained biologists and citizens scientists try to observe and record as many species as possible in a specific area. After the event these collected observations help to quantify the diversity and abundance of plant and animal species in the selected area to create more focused research and conservation efforts.

Still in its infancy, the blitz has already gained popularity worldwide. Appearing as far away as Australia, blitzes happen in many different countries. This year the flagship blitz for Ontario was held in the Don River Watershed in Toronto.  Since this was my first year volunteering, I decided to join the herp team as a naturalist to experience something new. For my blog this week, I thought all of you might like to hear some interested things about herps that I’ve learned recently.

Here’s a map of the sites that were surveyed during this year’s BioBlitz
Here’s a map of the sites that were surveyed during this year’s BioBlitz
One of the more common species of salamander found in Ontario, red-backs love laying under moist logs and rocks. Eastern Red-backed Salamander, Plethodon cinereus by Dave Huth. All rights reserved.
One of the more common species of salamander found in Ontario, red-backs love laying under moist logs and rocks. Eastern Red-backed Salamander, Plethodon cinereus by Dave Huth. All rights reserved.

Herpetology is a term derived from the Greek word ‘herpian’ which means ‘to creep’. Under the current definition of herpetology, a ‘herp’ or ‘herptile’ means a poilkilothermic tetrapod (not including any kind of fish). Although the etymology of the name doesn’t seem terribly related (can turtles actually creep?), herpetology is concerned with the study of amphibians and reptiles. In itself the class Amphibia is pretty fascinating being characterized by traits such as smooth, scaleless skin that’s permeable to both air and water (imagine being able to drink and breathe through your skin while walking outside in humid air?). Animals from the class Reptilia, on the other hand, are considered to be the world’s first truly terrestrial vertebrates (if that isn’t bragging rights, I don’t know what is).

Unfortunately, of the Ontario herps, 75% of the reptiles and 35% of the amphibians are listed as at risk on both the national and the provincial scale. With often complex reproductive cycles and absorbent skin, amphibians are known to be excellent ecological indicators. When something in the environment is awry, their populations are one of the first to be affected.

You have probably seen this guy hopping across your lawn in the evening. Because toads have thicker skin than their frog brethren, they aren’t as susceptible to desiccation (drying out). American Toad, Bufo americanus americanus, by Fyn Kynd All rights reserved.
You have probably seen this guy hopping across your lawn in the evening. Because toads have thicker skin than their frog brethren, they aren’t as susceptible to desiccation (drying out). American Toad, Bufo americanus americanus, by Fyn Kynd. All rights reserved.

Similarly, reptiles can also have extremely sensitive reproductive cycles. One example of a particularly sensitive reproductive cycle can be seen in turtles. As some turtles lay their eggs, the temperature of the egg’s environment determines the sex of their offspring. For example: if a turtle laid her eggs in soil that was too warm, then her hatchlings would develop into females.

These turtles are seen mostly in southern and central Ontario.  Having brightly coloured streaks on their bodies, you can easily see how they got their name. Eastern Painted Turtle, Chrysmys picta picta, by Greg Schechter, All rights reserved.
These turtles are seen mostly in southern and central Ontario. Having brightly coloured streaks on their bodies, you can easily see how they got their name. Eastern Painted Turtle, Chrysmys picta picta, by Greg Schechter. All rights reserved.

Situations like this are what make events like the BioBlitz so important. Combining citizen science with professional science is one way to help keep these animals from disappearing too quickly. So, in other words, next time you see a BioBlitz event in your area be sure to sign up (especially for the herp team)!

Stay scaly,

Shannon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *