The Anolis carolinensis Genome

Today was an important day for natural-, evolution-, and genetic-studies. The first full-scale genetic sequence of a non-avian reptile was published today in Nature. The lucky species to serve as the first reptile to be studied in this way? The Carolina green anole, Anolis carolinensis, of the southeastern United States (yup, the lizard featured on this post).

The article is cited “The genome of the green anole lizard and a comparative analysis with birds and mammals” (http://www.nature.com/doifinder/10.1038/nature10390). From amniotic egg development to convergent evolution in Anolis lizards (a genus with hundreds of independent species), the information, material, and understanding that arises from a study such as this are indeed vast and deep — and not just within the world of lizards. Whereas one might think of publishing an article as an ending, in the scientific community it is merely a new beginning or a next step. This study answers many questions, but it will also provide clear direction for new questions and new inquiry in the immediate years to come.

To read more about this project –or about anoles in general– I highly recommend The Anole Annals (http://anoleannals.wordpress.com), a blog entirely devoted to and focused on All-Things-Anolis. For me, it’s the nexus of Anolis on the web. An amazingly rich and fun resource.

So, congratulations to all those involved in this study, from researchers to writers, from lab-techs to editors.

You might think they’d be collectively sighing and taking a break, but I like to think the energy is fever-high right now and most of them are itching to move forward and to research deeper (not to mention continuing to spread the Gospel of the Anolis Genome right now). Also: teaching classes. And going to meetings.

Personal kudos to Dr. Jonathan Losos of Harvard University for taking the time to answer so many of my questions about anoles and for his obvious delight in his profession. The enthusiasm is contagious!

On my end, my enthusiasm for anoles continues to grow — partially because I’m so damn happy to be back in Anole Country and partially because of everything going on in Anolis studies right now. You can bet I’ll be paying close attention to the Carolina greens in south Georgia (who seem to be hanging out closer to the ground than I’d expect). I’ll also be heading down to Florida from time to time to check out the non-native species and to observe (photograph) their immediate impact/competition with the locals. In fact, I’m heading down to Miami/Coral Gables this weekend. [To those who don't like the snake photos, but don't mind the lizards: next week you should be much, much happier.]

Photographs taken 31 August 2011 at Grand Bay Wildlife Management Area; Lowndes county, Georgia.

~ janson

Videograph: Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia; 29 August 2011

Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge is on the southern end of Lanier county, not too far from our home in Valdosta. I briefly surveyed the area on the 29th and it looks very, very promising. A beautiful area I’m sure to explore much of in the coming years.

Here’s the first glimpse of Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge:

Pantherophis alleghaniensis (Yellow Rat Snake), 2007

When I was a kid we simply called the snake featured on this post a “Yellow rat snake.” It made sense, right? It was a snake, it ate rats (sometimes), and it was, you know, sort of yellow. If it had been a purple snake that ate kittens we would have likely called it the “Purple kitten snake.” Seriously.

So, “yellow rat snake” made sense, although some kids called it a “chicken snake.” I didn’t know many of these kids and I never personally saw one of these snakes eating a chicken. In my neighborhood, yellow was the buzz word, regardless of the fact that these snakes were often seen loitering about chicken coups in the south.

Still, some kids I knew weren’t too cool with just going by the common name (you know you who are, Billy). They want to break out their Audubon Field Guide and look up the taxonomic classifications. I was (and still am) one of those kids too, albeit one no longer obsessed with Audubon Field Guides – mainly because they never addressed subspecies classifications, damn it, and were always missing tons of species/subspecies)! Audubon Field Guides were like greatest hits collections, not full-on box set archives. And as a kid I wanted the techie details –minus the technical genetic science, I reckon in hindsight– and that meant I wanted scientific classifications, by god.

Anyhow, for awhile the taxonomic classification of my beloved yellow rat snake was Elaphe obsoleta quadrivittata, a subspecies kin to Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta, the black rat snake, found further to the north. Then, with emerging data and evolving arguments of this snake’s make and model (as well as its relatives the corn and fox snakes), it eventually became known as Elaphe alleghaniensis. This merged Florida’s yellow rat snake population with their Eastern rat snake brethren just to the north as one single species under the genus Elaphe.

Oh good. Glad we cleared that up. Now we can all move on and there can be peace unto science.

Ah, but wait — Yes, there was yet another change.

The Eastern rat snake (including the yellow variant found on the Floridian peninsula) became Pantherophis alleghaniensis. They (being Those Who Know This Stuff for Reals, Yo) split the New World Elaphes into Pantherophis, separating them from the Old World Elaphes because of differences between the two groups. Now not only was there a species play going on here, but also a genus play!  [It's important to iron these things out so that everybody can get on the same page, right? Hey, we're modernists and we demand reliable classifications!] So, at long last we finally had our Pantherophis alleghaniensis classification nailed down. For awhile at least,  I should clarify. It was good while it lasted.

Now the Eastern rat snake is argued to be Scotophis alleghaniensis. Another genus switcheroo. Why this time? Because… well, it’s complicated. It has to do with all the snakes that were included within this Pantherophis mega-genus — the rat snakes, the corn snakes, and the fox snakes. While the corn snakes are still under Pantherophis (lucky for them)fox snakes are now under Mintonius and the rat snakes are now under Scotophis. Three genuses dividing this one group.

At this point –because I am neither a geneticist nor one formally trained in the ways of the Jedi Herpetologist– I have to back up a few steps and admire the rubble of classification piled up at my feet like Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus. I have to just… go with one… And I do it in the name of Progress and of Sanity.

As the title of this post implies, I’m going with Scotophis alleghaniensis. I am going with Scotophis alleghaniensis for no reason other than this: I never thought a yellow rat snake ever looked or acted anything like a damn corn snake. Break ‘em up, I say. Also, I trust the people who actually do this research for a living. If it changes again, so be it. Nobody ever said this was an easy process, for the civilian tourist with a Nikon or for the scientist with mitochondrial DNA in her or his mind.

Regarding the snake in these photos, which I know a little more about than the details of mitochondrial DNA, this is a the “yellow” rat snake (now known as the Eastern rat snake) I found near Little Haw Creek in Volusia county, Florida on 04 January 2007.

I could overcomplicate this post by now describing how I found the snake, but at this point I’m still confused by the first segment of this writing. So I’ll leave it there and break out some techie-eco-tourist talk: this damn snake was fucking awesome!

And that’s something I can understand in its entirety.

UPDATE (September 2012): On Dust Tracks, the yellow rat snake is now listed as Pantherophis alleghaniensis and the gray rat snake is currently listed as Pantherophis spiloides. There is continuing debate about the taxonomic status of the New World rat snakes, including whether or not these are members of the same species, separate and distinct subspecies, or simply different species of the same genus. For the time being I’m listing these as separate species.

~ janson

Videograph: Nerodia clarkii compressicauda, 07 March 2008

Okay, here’s another videograph for today. I love this footage and couldn’t resist posting it now that it’s back online. This is a video of a group of mangrove salt marsh snakes (Nerodia clarkii compressicauda) getting into full-on mating mode. Indeed, baby-making was in the air. Some serious classic ballin’ action going down…

The video was recorded on 07 March 2008 at Matheson Hammock Park in Coral Gables / Miami, Florida. This is the same day I recorded the knight anole and brown basilisk footage. (The brown basilisk video is on my YouTube channel.)

Here ya go:

Videograph: Anolis equestris, 07 March 2008

This is the first in a new series of short videos I’ll be tinkering with and posting from time to time. They’re short (I call them videographs) and tightly focused on specific animals or locales. The new(ish) YouTube channel is located here: http://www.youtube.com/jansonjones.

Here’s the first video — featuring a magnificent knight anole (Anolis equestris)! Let’s hope it doesn’t get scrubbed for the soundtrack

Crocodylus actutus (American Crocodile), 12 May 2006

Here’s a slight shift of gears… These are American crocodiles, Crocodylus acutus, photographed 12 May 2006 at Flamingo, on the edge of Florida Bay in Everglades National Park. I’d wanted to see these amazing saltwater crocs for quite some time. Finally in 2006 I made it down to Flamingo, a strange cluster of buildings drenched in 1960s ethos, at the southern stretch of the Glades, right on Florida Bay. It’s one of the better easier spots to find Crocodylus acutus with a modicum of reliability (and, yes, ease).

These crocs are a bit larger than the more-common freshwater American alligator, Alligator mississippiensis. American crocs can reach lengths upward to twenty feet, but they are usually a bit smaller. Still impressive, right?

As you can see below, they’re often a bit brighter in their body tone than their alligator relatives, almost looking like the Saturday-morning crocs of my childhood cartoon rotation:

The American crocodile’s range is quite expansive. You can find them in Florida Bay, much of the Caribbean, and all the way over toward Central and South America. In U.S. waters, their populations were decimated in years past, but because of successful conservation actions (damn government trying to help nature by taking away are gosh darn freedom; gimme a gun, goshdarnitalready!) their numbers are believed to have increased. They were removed from the endangered species list in the 1990s and are now classified merely as threatened. They’re still protected by law, so put that gun away, Todd Palin. (<– I admit he’s never shot a croc — to the best of my knowledge.)

The individual seen at the top and bottom of this post traced the edge of a concrete dock my friend and I were walking on. The croc was clearly watching us watching it. I have to admit, it was a bit creepy (though not nearly as creepy as the time a one-eyed American alligator traced me on a shoreline in the Glades, stalking me out of curiosity or confusion).

The American crocodile is a large, robust, and gorgeous animal, but not one I would want to tangle with in the water. Me thinks evolution did not prepare me for that particular celebrity death match. I’ll stick to photographing them from above the water. Or from across the water. From a distance, it’s more than just a lyric; it’s a way of life.

~ janson

Storeria (dekayi) victa (Florida Brown Snake), 13 November 2005

Now, here’s a cute one: a Florida brown snake, Storeria dekayi victa, photographed 13 November 2005 at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Gainesville, Florida (Alachua county). I should note that the snake’s more recent taxonomic classification appears to be Storeria victa. Regardless of its current classification, this is a tiny (under a foot in length) and non-venomous snake. Cute too!

I didn’t see too many of these itty bitty snakes in central Florida because I was usually too busy trolling the freshwater shore lines for watersnakes and cottonmouths or looking in the bushes for racers and rat snakes. Florida browns, along with their crowned and ringneck cousins, are mainly subterranean — they usually live in the soil, under forest debris, and the like. Sometimes, as was the case on this day, you’ll find them trekking about above ground during the earlier hours of the day (or after a nice, solid rain).

Definitely not a snake I was searching for on this day (that would be the illustrious caramello-phase Florida “banded” watersnake), but one I was pleased to come across with my snake-hiking partner, Erin. We also found a ringneck nearby on the same day. Indeed, it was a day of tiny snakes.

~ janson

Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis (Eastern garter snake), 17 July 2005

This is a fascinating individual. It’s an Eastern garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis, photographed on 17 July 2005. Driving with my old friend Cerny toward I-75 (on our way to Gainesville), we spotted this snake along the edge of State Road 40, just basking on the edge of disastrous traffic in the soft morning light. We pulled over and quickly dashed over to the snake.

Turns out we didn’t need to dash over.

The snake seemed entirely healthy, except for its eyes. It’s eyes –both of them– were completely blood-soaked and blocked. Blood had built up under the eye scales, completely obstructing the snake’s vision. The snake couldn’t see a thing. We studied the snake for a few moments then found an equally sunny stretch of grass a bit off the road, took him/her to it, and let the snake be.

I have no idea what caused this blood backup… There were no signs of physical trauma or damage. No head scales appeared damaged, including the eyes. All seemed well with this snake except for those bloody eyes. It was healthy, full, and strong. A bit hesitant and reserved because of its lack of vision, but otherwise just fine. I wonder if the bloody eyes (which were dry on the outside, by the way) were caused by some kind of infection? Or maybe mites? Just not sure.

Thinking back, I wonder if this all cleared up with the snake’s next shedding of its skin? The eyes are located under the ocular scales, just like the rest of the snake. So when it next shed, did this release the blood? Or did the new scales form over or around the blood and/or infection (or mites)? I have no idea.

One of the many little mysteries I’ve encountered in the Floridian bush and a gentle reminder that wild animals have to deal with all sorts of crazy medical shit too. Heh.

~ janson

Coluber constrictor priapus (Southern Black Racer), 2005

We’re midway through the second week of the Fall 2011 term at Valdosta State University. It’s great to be back on a campus with some heat and humidity. Students hustle and bustle in their sandals and shoes. Groups converge, laugh, and swap stories of The Night Before between classes. Meanwhile a light (and very much appreciated) breeze softly rustles the leaves and dangling Spanish moss. Above and from beyond everything the sun watches kindly and shines down, not just bathing us with heat and light, but also the radiance of strong UV.

Continue reading

Masticophis flagellum (Eastern Coachwhip), 12 July 2004

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Oklahoma (back when I had more hair on my head and less on my back), I got my ass handed to me by a Western coachwhip snake, Masticophis flagellum testaceous, at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in south/southwest Oklahoma. This would’ve been in the late 1990s or so, near the Lost Lake area.

At the time, my active engagement with reptiles was mostly diminished — I was far too busy doing creative writing, blathering on about postmodernism, socializing, and/or drinking (and drinking, and drinking, and drinking). I’d head out camping or hiking from time to time, but most of my time was spent living the fuzzy undergraduate dream of glitter n’ buzz. Still, from time to time we would all pull ourselves out of our respective bottles and venture into the outdoors, as was the case this one sunny day at the Wichitas. A group of us headed down, bobbed our heads and chirped at the prairie dogs, talked about the probability of success in “tipping bison,” and hiked through the narrow creek canyons, flirting with gravity and disaster. Toward the end of the hike I was suddenly face to face with a beautiful, darkish western coachwhip.

The coachwhip (darker than they usually are in Oklahoma) took to a low-but-broad tree in a hurry. I followed. For about twenty or thirty minutes this coachwhip played me for a fool. I kept climbing around the tree, trying to get to the snake, as my friends watched with continued impatience. I’d go one way, the coachwhip would go another. That tree tore me up, right and left, up and down. Blood on the arms, blood on the legs. Thank god I had hair back then. It was not graceful.

Finally, after getting jabbed and cut by this tree repeatedly, I somehow caught the snake during a moment of confusion, taking quite a number of bites in the process. I admired it for a few minutes then let it go. No camera, no photos. Just a few awkward moments with a snake who must’ve thought this day was beyond strange. You and me both, serpent. And so it goes.

That’s how I learned how kickass coachwhips can be. They’re extremely fast snakes with excellent visual acuity. They climb as easily as they run. They know where to go to get away from you. They know how to make life extremely difficult for a predator (regardless of whether the predator wants to eat the snake or simply hold it).

This vivid encounter burned through my memory when I finally spotted an Eastern coachwhip, Masticophis flagellum, on the edge of my Sorrento, Florida yard on 12 July 2004. This species had been at the top of my “holy grail” (must-find) snake list in the summer of 2004.

I’d seen one previously not too far away from our neighborhood, but that individual had easily left me in the dust. I think I heard it laughing at me as it disappeared into the scrub of Seminole State Forest. This day, however, I was a bit luckier.

I was walking to our mailbox in Sorrento –a tiny town just south of State Road 46 in Lake County, Florida– when I spotted a long, tan, braided tail disappearing under the blue fence separating our yard from our neighbor’s. I immediate thought, that’s a gosh darn coachwhip (to paraphrase). After grabbing my camera/tripod from inside, I walked the long way around to my neighbor’s door to ask permission to root around her yard. Folks in rural Florida don’t take kindly to uninvited trespassers and everybody’s itching to shoot their guns. After a long and silent WTF stare from my neighbor, she told me sure, yeah, you can, um, look for a snake in my yard. I might have giggled. My neighbor seemed both horrified and confused.

With my camera and tripod at the ready, I slowly walked back toward the fence line where the snake had disappeared from my yard earlier. There was a small tree, but other than that, not much but grass. Oh shit, another tree, I thought. Images of Oklahoma blood, sweat and tears popped up in my mind’s canvas. It’s probably already in the god damn tree... But then I saw the smooth curve of a snake’s torso. Trick was it wasn’t a coachwhip. It was a southern black racer, Coluber constrictor priapus.

I was confused for a moment. I thought for sure that tail had been lighter and braided, like a coachwhip’s…  The southern black racer periscoped and stared at me. I stared at it. Then my eyes shifted to the right. And there was another snake, the coachwhip I’d seen earlier, looking at me, then over at the racer, and then back at me. I looked back at the racer. The racer looked at the coachwhip. The coachwhip looked back at me.

Awesome.

After a few seconds of everybody looking at everybody, the racer effectively dropped off my radar. I was totally focused on the coachwhip. But how was I going to catch the damn thing? Both the fence and the tree were only three or four feet from the coachwhip. If it made it to either, I likely wouldn’t catch the snake. Maybe if it gets to the tree, but man… Odds are slim. Like racers, coachwhips are extremely fast and agile climbers.

Then I had an idea. I unhooked my camera from the tripod –slowly– and then tossed it through the air, up and over the coachwhip. It landed on the ground between the coachwhip and the fence. Both snakes immediately took off, the racer toward the street, the coachwhip toward the tree. I was banking on this trajectory and had immediately started bolting toward the tree. Just as the coachwhip was hitting the bark, I caught up and managed to grab the snake.

This is one of my prouder snake moments in Florida. And also one of the more ridiculous. You ever caught a snake with a tripod (in a manner of speaking)?

The coachwhip ended up being a total champ for me. Extremely cooperative and not too defensive. I spent about fifteen minutes in my yard photographing it, admiring it, feeling those smooth, tan scales braid and thread around my arm. It was much lighter than most of the Florida coachwhips, sort of the inverse of the individual I’d seen all those years before in Oklahoma. Such a long, slender, and elegant snake, the coachwhip. And those eyes? My god those are the eyes of an alert animal. Such an intense gaze, such piercing eyes. There was a moment when I seriously considered keeping the snake… But this is not an animal to be caged up. The coachwhip needed space. It needed the ground beneath its scales so it could sojourn through the brush of central Florida.

A great snake, a great day. Definitely more graceful than the one back in Oklahoma…

~ janson

Thamnophis sauritus sackenii (Peninsula Ribbon Snake), 2004

Uh oh, it’s looking like thar be snakes ahead!

Yeah, I’m in a snake mood right now. Looking at and assessing Dust Tracks yesterday, I (again) realized just how much I haven’t gotten back to on this most recent incarnation of “the blog,” so I thought I’d burn through a few posts this week and mostly aim them at representing species I haven’t yet covered on Dust Tracks. For those who don’t dig much on the snakes, well… I’ll see you next week! Because this week? It’s snake time, baby!

So where to begin? Let’s kick off with this modest little Peninsula ribbon snake, Thamnophis sauritus sackenii, photographed on 22 April 2004 at Tremble Park in Orange county, Florida (just over the Lake county border, very close to Mt. Dora).

Peninsula ribbons are fairly common, small, non-venomous snakes found throughout most of the Floridian peninsula. Averaging somewhere around two feet in length as adults, many people confuse or think of them as small garter snakes. Well, they’re not too far off. Ribbon snakes and garter snakes are members of the same genus (Thamnophis), but they are quite distinct and separate species (the garter snakes are species sirtalis, not sauritus).

Ribbon snakes occupy a wide range of habitats, but I most often see them near bodies of water on the peninsula (though, to be honest, it’s pretty hard to be very far from a body of water on the peninsula). In my experience, they like to hide among shrubs and small bushes with easy access near the water. Easy to hide, easy to pop out and snag a passerby insect, I suppose.

This little ribbon snake was hanging out on the elevated boardwalk at Tremble Park, soaking up the afternoon warmth in a swath of shade. As I approached (crawling and shooting as I moved forward), the ribbon snake “periscoped,” lifting its head up to survey the surrounding environment and the encroaching potential-threat. Fortunately for me the ribbon snake never really figured out that the lumbering mammal drawing ever-so-closer might actually be a threat… It was an easy catch, especially given that all the snake had to do was roll over and slip through one of the wide cracks between the boardwalk’s planks to easily and ably escape. Despite my best efforts, I am still unable to slip through small crevices like a squid or The Blob.

I’ve had many solid encounters with the peninsula ribbons throughout the years. I’m surprised I haven’t posted about them before now on the new blog. They tend to be cute, mild-mannered snakes. They’re never really a target or an objective on any of my hikes, but they are always a pleasant surprise. A treat, a bonus. How can they not be? They’re a-dor-able!

Next up? One of my “holy grail” snakes — an agile, fast and clever snake I’d wanted to catch for years and years. I’d searched high and low for one… In July of 2004 I finally managed to find, catch, and photograph one — in my own freakin’ neighborhood. Rah!

~ janson

The Green Anole is The Hero, The Sweet Tea is The Salvation

Another green anole post? Hells to the YES, play-uh. Undeniably and without pause I answer: YES. Live it, love it, embrace it, and make sweet, sweet love to it. Why? Because Carolina green anoles rock. They absolutely, positively rock. And they roll too.

I have to admit, the bold little Carolina greens (Anolis carolinensis) I’ve been seeing these past few weeks have been at the top of the Awesome-Things-That-Make-Me-Smile-Since-Moving-Back-To-The-South list. And that’s a pretty big list.

A few other things that have been making me smile since moving back to the south: Spanish moss, gas station fried chicken cooked to perfection, students who know Pink Floyd, FM Radio that plays rock and roll, a sunburn on my naked, bald head, and the goddamn beauty of ordering fantastic sweet tea from a restaurant. In these parts, everybody knows what grits are and nobody complains about the cold in August. Heh.

The adult Carolina green photographed here was a loner (really, a hero) tucked up on a bush at Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge just a few miles from our home. The little lizard was just doing its thing, watching the world spin round. The “wetland” was rather dry, but not too dry for life. The area was teeming with bugs and critters, cold- and warm-blooded alike. One of many, many, many lovely little nooks in southcentral Georgia I’ll be exploring in great depth these next few months, as Autumn rolls in and we “brace” for the coming “winter”…

(Mental Note To Self: Try not to be a total ass when “winter” rolls around and the locals in Valdosta complain about the “bitter cold” when the temperature drops into the mid-40s…)

Anyhow, I’m in an ecstatic state of mind these past few weeks. Sure, I pulled my back a few days ago (god knows how) and the pain has been rather BLEH… But man, I’ve got lizards, sweet tea, and a sunburned scalp. Life is good, baby!

I continue to be awed by my new town and the good fortune I have to have made it back to the region.

Carolina green anoles: I salute you! You keep on keepin’ on and don’t let nobody tell you Freedom Rock isn’t an awesome compilation. ‘Cause it is.

~ janson, who wishes to remind you that Space Disc is totally cancelled.

Langdale Park in Valdosta, Georgia

Fall 2011 is upon us. The semester has begun!

This semester I’m only teaching one composition class, the second FYC course in the VSU/GA track. It’s essentially the equivalent to Persuasive Writing in other state university systems. The first class was yesterday, Tuesday the 16th. Indeed, we have now officially begun the semester.

I must admit, it feels terribly strange to have one and only one class this semester. I’m only working part-time this semester/year. For the past ten years I’ve worked pretty relentlessly with full course loads. A few semesters I overloaded significantly. Sure, I’ve had a few course releases here and there, but those were essentially so that I could do other projects for my department, like directing the Digital Composition Studio at the University of Alaska Anchorage for two years. I did have one light semester teaching when Kid A was born, –say thank ya, Family Medical Leave Act– but I can’t really say that was an easy semester either. Heh. Not much sleep that semester.

This semester’s single, solitary course is actually my 100th course taught as an instructor of record since Fall of 2001, when I began teaching as a graduate student. That’s 100 courses in 10 years at the college or university level. And that doesn’t include non-English courses I taught in Florida or courses where I was mentoring graduate students. 100 courses in ten years. Hard to believe. (And yeah, that’s ten years of telling students it’s usually not cool to start a new sentence with “And” — like I do all the time on this here blog… RAH!)

So now that we’re settling down and the mad rush of course planning has wrapped up, things are slowing down significantly in The Life. I’m going to have much more time this year to focus on other interests, stuff that’s been brewing in my mind — namely photography and creative/memoir/nature writing. Other things I adore but simply haven’t had the time to really explore deeply this past decade. I’ll definitely have time to work on these formerly-dream projects this upcoming year. Explore new styles of writing, try to develop a personal photo- and nature-essay rhythm and voice — a bit more formal than what I usually bash out on the blogosphere. I also plan to do quite a bit of studying. I’ve been itching to dig into some scientific literature for years and now I’ve got the time to do it.

As some of you might’ve picked up on, in an alternate reality I make my living studying reptiles and collecting data in the bush/muck

From what I’ve seen so far, I’m in the perfect place to explore these interests this year. Valdosta is nothing short of rich in culture, wildlife, and beauty. I’ve only just begun to explore the area and I must admit I’ve liked everything I’ve seen thus far. Everything.

The photographs posted here are from Langdale Park in Valdosta, about five miles from our house. It’s a modest-but-deceptively-expansive park on the north-side of the town. The Withlacoochee River runs through the park grounds, slowly swirling beneath the cypress and spanish moss, quietly feeding a series of swampy swaths of wetlands. I get the feeling I’ll be spending quite a bit of time in this park, trying to find the nooks less-often-spotted and more-densely-populated by my kindred reptiles.

Of course, this time of year isn’t the best for finding reptiles, unless you’re heading out early in the morning or toward dusk. It’s brutally hot and humid outside and the most of the reptiles tend to bunker down through the scolding heat of the sun-bashed day. Still, it’s August and that means September is coming soon…

(An Aside: I’m starting to sound like Rebecca Black’s lyrics in this post… Tuesday comes before Wednesday and Thursday comes after that… SHUDDER!)

Anyhow, fall is around the corner — and I suspect that by the time the air temperature cools down a bit, when the reptiles come out to play, I’m going to have a decent handle on where to go and when. Pretty soon I may be knee deep in new snake photographs.

This is, to put it mildly, an extremely exciting little turn in life!

~ janson

Uta stansburiana at Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Finally, a lizard I can actually identify!

Above is a male side-blotched lizard, Uta stansburiana, photographed on 10 June 2011 at Canyonlands National Park in the Island in the Sky district. The small turquoise spots are somewhat a give-away for the male of this species. Females are a bit tougher to identify, but once you’ve seen a few males they’re easy enough to recognize. At the bottom of this post is a photo of what I believe to be a female side-blotched lizard photographed the day prior, 09 June, in the Needles area of Canyonlands.

I keep thinking back to the two days and two nights I spent around Canyonlands and Arches National Park… I’d wanted to get to this part of the country for a long, long time and it most certainly did not disappoint. If anything, my only complaint is that I saw too much in too short a time. It was quite literally sensory overload.

Not a terrible problem to suffer, right? I’m not complaining.

I’ve got dozens more Utah-lizard photographs in the wings, but I’m going to wrap-up this micro-series here and see if I can make some progress identifying what I saw before I proceed further. Further, the semester is about to begin and I want to do some serious VSU photography next week during the first week of the semester. The Immediacy-of-Now beckons! I love this time of year, when classes start. So much energy, so much excitement. As grateful as I am to have experienced Canyonlands and all the other incredible places I traveled to this summer, I’m most grateful to be right here and right now.

~ janson

Flashback: The 2011 Drive from Alaska to Florida

Going through and posting the Utah lizard photographs these past few days made me realize a few things. First, I know next to nothing about the lizards of Utah and Arizona. Second, I’m sitting on a ridiculous amount of photographs taken this summer — the vast majority of which have not been shared on this blog or elsewhere. And third, I still needed to update and finish the Summer 2011 series index page.

After a day of copying, pasting, and writing, I’ve now completed the big index page introduction post for the Summer 2011 Drive from Alaska to Florida series. It’s located here:

http://dusttracks…/the-june-2011-drive-from-alaska-to-florida-an-introduction/

This page features a chronological listing of all liveblog posts I produced during that glorious romp across the North America continent this past June. Posts are marked with mileage readings and by location. I also updated the introduction/review of the trip from the original post to tidy the whole package together.

What struck me most today –as I went through each of these posts, copying their URLs for the index page– was how few photographs I actually posted in relation to how many I actually shot and kept during the trip. I’d dare to say that for each “stop” (post) I probably ended up with at least ten-to-twenty photos I really liked, and yet I usually only posted one or two per posting. Makes sense because I was liveblogging and processing photos takes time… But still, it surprised me. I really didn’t post that much. In other words I’ve got a lot of material waiting in the wings for later posts and musings.

Kinda cool.

The three images featured on this post are all from Canyonlands National Park on 09 June 2011. Specifically, they’re from the Needles area of Canyonlands. I probably have about fifty or sixty “keepers” from this one half-day hike alone. I’m still trying to grasp just how beautiful this land was… and how overwhelming it felt. Looking back through those liveblog/travelogue posts, the photos don’t serve the aura justice.

So, it’ll be fun to come back to this trip from time to time.

If you’re new to the blog and want to check out what I’m talking about, just head here and have at it. It was an incredible journey, no doubt. And it’s one I believe I’ll have quite a lot of fun revisiting from time to time.

Next? More Janson-Doesn’t-Know-Much-About-Arid-Lizards posts. But not too many more. Then it’ll be time for classes to begin and I’ll give you an introduction to my new work home: Valdosta State University.

~ janson

Sceloporus at Canyonlands, I think

We come to Lizard #3 in our Arid-Lizards-I-Can’t-Positively-Identify micro-series. This is an adult lizard photographed at Canyonlands National park on 09 June 2011. More specifically this was in the Needles region of Canyonlands a little after nine in the morning.

Looking at the lizard, I’m fairly sure this is a member of genus Sceloporus. I know Sceloporus undulatus, the Eastern fence lizard, quite well from my time in the southeast. This lizard was quite similar in build and in behavior. But which species is it?

That national park system lists the following Sceloporus species in the Southeast Utah Group, where Canyonlands is located:

  • Sceloporus magister, Desert spiny lizard
  • Sceloporus tristichus, Plateau lizard.
  • Sceloporus graciosus, Sagebrush lizard.

It also looks like this part of Utah is right on the line between Western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis) and Eastern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) ranges. So, it’s probably one of those five. Which of those five? I have no idea. (Darn those transitional zones!)

It’s also possible that this could be an ornate tree lizard, Urosaurus ornatus. Maybe? [Sigh]

At some point –when I have a bit more free time and energy– I need to just sit down and systematically go through these photographs and really try to peg out the minute, tiny differences between these individual lizards with formal documentation. My problem is that I work much better when I have more frames of reference by way of experience — and frames of reference I do not have when it comes to arid lizards of southern Utah and Arizona. My time in that part of the country was short indeed.

So in the meantime I’ll continue to stack up these photos on the blog in hopes that somebody somewhere will stumble across them and throw me a lifeline. Heh. At the very least, the lizards are lovely enough — regardless of the species identification.

UPDATE ON 20 DECEMBER 2011: Alright, I’m now of the opinion that this is a Northern plateau lizard, Sceloporus undulatus elongatus, a subspecies of the Eastern fence lizard. It could possibly be a southern plateau lizard, Sceloporus undulatus tristichus. These trinomial classifications vary a bit from the scientific names I pulled from the National Park system back in August.

Apparently both of these subspecies exist in this general range. Looking at my full range of photos, I have some that definitely look more like the southern plateau lizard; this individual, however, looks more like the Northern (to me, at least). As shotgunner commented back in August, it could be a female S. undulatus tristichus. As is often the case with subspecies, there’s some overlap, so I’m tagging this as both the Northern and the Southern plateau lizard. If you have any questions, comments, or corrections, please let me know!

~ janson

A Little Lizard at Arches National Park, Utah (2011)

(NOTE: An update from December 2011 follows!)

Our second lizard for the mini-series is an absolute mystery to me. I haven’t been able to identify or classify this one, though I believe it may be a member of either Family Phrynosomatidae (composed mostly of arid-adapted lizards and also including the Sceloporus fence and scrub lizards so common in Florida) or possibly Family Crotaphytidae (the collared lizards). The individual photographed here was quite young. It was a tiny little lizard. In general, it’s easier for me to identify full-grown adults than juveniles — especially when I have little to no frame of reference in field observations in a particular environment such as this one. Again: I’m not a desert dude. Heh.

Photographed late in the afternoon on 08 June 2011 at Arches National Park in southern Utah, this little lizard was hanging out on a rocky surface near the base of a scrub bush cluster not far from Balanced Rock. It was relatively low ground compared to the surrounding area.

I later checked out the formal U.S. checklist for lizards confirmed present in Arches National Park, itself a part of the Northern Colorado Plateau Network (link):

  • Western whiptail, Cnemidophorus tigris (Family Teiidae)
  • Long-nosed leopard lizard, Gambelia wislizenii (Family Crotaphytidae)
  • Greater short-horned lizard, Phrynosoma hernandesi (Family Phrynosomatidae)
  • Common sagebrush lizard, Sceloporus graciosus (Family Phrynosomatidae)
  • Plateau lizard, Sceloporus tristichus (Family Phrynosomatidae)
  • Tree lizard, Urosaurus ornatus (Family Phrynosomatidae)
  • Side-blotched lizard, Uta stansburiana (Family Phrynosomatidae)

And here’s the list of “Probably Present” and “Unconfirmed” lizard species in Arches:

  • Plateau spotted whiptail, Cnemidophorus innotatus (Family Teiidae)
  • Plateau striped whiptail, Cnemidophorus velox (Family Teiidae)
  • Eastern collared lizard, Crotaphytus collaris (Family Crotaphytidae)

Of these species, I can easily discount Genus Cnemidophorus, Gambelia, and Phrynosoma. It’s definitely not a whiptail, a leopard lizard, or a horned lizard!  And that leaves us with the following:

  • Common sagebrush lizard, Sceloporus graciosus (Family Phrynosomatidae)
  • Plateau lizard, Sceloporus tristichus (Family Phrynosomatidae)
  • Tree lizard, Urosaurus ornatus (Family Phrynosomatidae)
  • Side-blotched lizard, Uta stansburiana (Family Phrynosomatidae)
  • Eastern collared lizard, Crotaphytus collaris (Family Crotaphytidae)

Unfortunately the two photographs featured here are the best that I’ve got. The little bugger was not surprisingly fast in the late afternoon heat and not abundantly cooperative with me or my camera. At least I managed to get these two shots, both macro, just before the lizard bolted up the rock slab and into a jagged series of nooks at the base of a scrub bush cluster.

I find myself wanting to remove Crotaphytus collars from the list because adult collared lizards don’t look anything like this individual (especially the males); however, this was an incredibly young lizard and I’m not sure what juvenile collared lizards look like — especially the females. I also saw a good number of side-blotched lizards elsewhere during the trip and this little dude did not look like any of those adults… which doesn’t mean too much because this dude or dudette was so very young. Sigh.

And that’s where I’ll leave it. What say you? Any ideas, Reptile Experts of the Interwebs?

UPDATE ON 20 DECEMBER 2011: Long after publishing this post, I joined the iNaturalist community in December of 2011. I posted identification requests for this species (here). Though I’ve only had one response to date, it’s a pretty solid response and one I tend to agree with. This is possibly the ornate tree lizard, Urosaurus ornatus. I can almost positively rule out both Uta and Crotaphytus at this point. It could still be a Sceloporus, but Urosaurus is winning as of now. As always, if you have any ideas, let me know!

~ janson

Aspidoscelis tigris at Canyonlands National Park (2011)

As Summer 2011 officially wraps up (classes begin a week from today), I think it’s time to revisit the animals I encountered during the journey from Alaska to Florida this past June. I’d like to start with a handful of lizards I encountered in Utah and Arizona.

Though I’ve lived in Oklahoma for a decent run of my life, I’m not a desert/arid guy. Oklahoma’s all about prairies — not the arid, dry climes of the old west. This past summer was my first full-on introduction into desert flora and fauna. Sure, I’d visited Arizona a few times prior, but I’d never been to Utah and I’d never gone to really hunt out the reptiles of the region. Because of this, most of the lizards and snakes I encountered were entirely new to me. And because of that, my identifications aren’t 100% guaranteed to be accurate. I’m hoping some folks may stumble across these posts and either confirm or correct my base observations. I’m particularly interested in sub-species classifications, if and when applicable.

So, having said that, let’s kick it off, shall we?

Our first new-species is the Western whiptail, Cnemidophorus tigris, photographed in the Needles region of Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah on 09 June 2011. Also more-recently classified as Aspidoscelis tigris, the western whiptail is (from what I’ve read) fairly common throughout this region. They were certainly common in Canyonlands, especially around shrub-laden environments… It seems I couldn’t get very far before coming across another individual scampering here or there. I found them to be quick, alert, and extremely agile little lizards.

I didn’t really try to catch any of the lizards I saw in Utah and Arizona and instead focused on simply observing them doing their thing. I get the feeling that these particular lizards, the whiptails, would’ve given me a run for my money if I had tried to catch them. They were fast, fast, fast. Me? I’m slow, slow, slow. Especially after lumbering through four years in Alaska. Indeed, I think these lizards were slightly more acclimated to the dry heat than I was. Heh.

Most of the individuals I saw averaged about eight inches in length, from the snout to the end of the tail. Apparently they grow upwards to about a foot in length. They were extremely active during the day when I saw them and were very, very busy eating. I saw more than a few of these lizards munching on various insects across the Needles area of Canyonlands.

Interestingly, I don’t remember seeing any whiptails at Arches National Park — which is literally just down the road a stretch — though I did see more of them at the Island in the Sky area of Canyonlands.

On the personal side, how exhilarating it was to see these lizards doing their thing… It may sound gimpy to some of you, but after four years of living in Alaska, it felt so damn good to be grounded again (even while in transit to the southeast) — back in a land populated by reptiles.

~ janson

Anaxyrus terrestris in Valdosta, Georgia

In southcentral Alaska we had one frog, the wood frog (Rana sylvatica). It was always easy to identify. Why? Because we had one and only one frog species. The wood frog. Anyhow, these frogs (sort of) “freeze solid” in the winters. Technically that’s not entirely forthcoming or accurate; they produce higher levels of urea and glucose in their bodies to help protect them from the harshness of freezing temperatures. Think of it as natural anti-freeze. They’ll bury down into the ground and sleep through the winter with their built in anti-freeze, waiting for the rising temperatures to thaw and wake them up. Then? Breeding, of course! A cold-ass frog’s got to procreate!

Continue reading

A Youngster Anole, One of Many Neighborhood Critters

Today was a busy day here in Valdosta, Georgia. I’m amping up for class (starting a week from Monday) and prepping my course plan. Still working on the house and still organizing all my data (it’s spread out between the MacBook, an online backup system, and two external hard drives, 2TB each).  I did manage to head outside and scout the yard several times to see what local animals were out and about. It’s not cool staying in all day long, especially when you’ve got so much damn wildlife in your yard.

In the mornings, eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) are quite common in our yard. They’re everywhere in the wee hours. Later in the day it’s the March of the Slugs. It looks like we’ve got two dominant species of slugs, but I haven’t been able to peg down identifications yet. One is an extremely dark and small slug, the other fatter and mottled light-brown. I think the latter might be Philomycus carolinianus, the Carolina mantleslug. Not sure yet. Need to get better photographs and do some research.

At night we’re being bombarded by cicadas, though I’m not sure which species. I do know that “Brood 19″ –a group of thirteen-year cicadas– emerged this summer in central Georgia. How cool would it be if that’s what we’ve been getting hit by? And yes, they literally have been hitting the house, the windows, and the patio furniture at night. Again: it’s awesome.

We’ve got a fair number of spiders around the house –not much a surprise in south Georgia. Of happy note, we seem to have lovely black-and-yellow garden spiders, Argiope aurantia, in the bushes. They’re gorgeous. I suspect there’ll also be some golden silk orb-weavers (Nephila clavipes) around here as well, probably in the woods behind our house.

And let’s not forget the toads! We’ve also got plenty of toads, probably the southern toad, Bufo terrestris (I haven’t looked at them closely yet, but plan to tonight).

And then, of course, there are the anoles. Most definitely a healthy and robust population of Carolina green anoles (Anolis carolinensis) in our yard — and still not one single Cuban brown anole (Anolis sagrei). I feel like I’ve been obsessing on these lizards for quite some time… Heh. So let it be.

Photographed on this post is a lovely young green anole sporting a soft green coat — not nearly as bright as they come, but not brown either. Continuing my line of thought from yesterday, the adults I saw today were mixed — about half of them green, the other half brown. There was no discernible environmental patterns of difference between the green- and brown-coats that I noticed. On reflection, I’m wondering if this heat my be stoking the brown-coats for some of these anoles? Carolina greens (it is believed) generally shift to the brown-coat when they’re stressed or uncomfortable. We’ve been riding some wicked hot temperatures recently, as has most of the nation. I wonder if the heat is getting to them? Maybe? August is just kicking in — and that’s usually the most brutal month of the year for heat discomfort in this area. I’ll keep an eye out for green-vs-brown in the months to come, for sure.

So, I leave you with a second shot of this little tiny bundle of Anolis joy — and later? I’m heading out a’-toadin’.

Damn good to be back down south.

~ janson

Anolis carolinensis at Lake Miccosukee, Florida

On my way back to Valdosta yesterday, I stopped a couple of times to do quick, informal anole surveys. I didn’t do too much hiking given the shaky, post-CJO, sleep-deprived abuse my body had just undergone in Tally, but I did manage to survey a few locations with relative ease and little discomfort.

I’m mainly curious if a.) the Cuban brown anoles (Anolis sagrei) have made it this far north and to what degree; and b.) how the native Carolina green anoles (Anolis carolinensis) behave in response to Cuban brown anole population density. So far, in the two-weeks-or-so we’ve been in Valdosta, we’ve seen a good number of Carolina greens, but no Cuban browns (I think I might’ve seen one in Valdosta, but I couldn’t confirm it and don’t trust my fleeting glance as any kind of concrete identification). Stopping at both Lake Miccosukee and the Upper Aucilla Conservation Area at Snead’s Lake (both in North Florida), I found the same variety as in Valdosta these past two weeks — a healthy number of large Carolina greens and no Cuban brown anoles to speak of.

Though I have little doubt Cuban browns have made it to north Florida and south Georgia (probably closer to the Atlantic coast), they definitely aren’t dominating the interior region as they do farther south on the peninsula. Further, the greens are essentially doing what I remember them doing as a kid in central Florida — they’re hanging out low, about three to six feet from the ground. They’re on the house walls and window screens. They’re perching on fences and flanking the trunks and low branches of trees. They’re bobbing their heads on patio furniture and the like. Whereas in central Florida I usually now find them higher up in response to the Cuban brown anoles’ dominance on the ground, up here in north Florida and south Georgia the greens are still playing it old school. This area feels like the central Florida of my youth.

Interestingly, most of the Carolina green anoles I’ve seen thus far have been quite large and mainly sporting their browncoat coloring. I haven’t seen this many large green anoles in quite some time — and I’m struck by the boldness of their browncoats.

In the months to come (or years, actually), I’d like to informally keep track of where I find Cuban browns and par these population clusters with local green anole behaviors. How many brown anoles does it take to force a green anole higher into the trees? A fun question and one I look forward to playing with in the field.

Both of these images are of Carolina green anoles photographed at Lake Miccosukee in North Florida on Sunday 31 July 2011.

~ janson