Speckled kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula holbrooki)

On a recent trip to Mississippi, I stopped to look at a freshly killed roadkill snake (I didn’t hit it). It turns out it was a speckled kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula holbrooki). The snake is black with flecks of yellow through and a yellow belly. They can reach up to 132 cm long (51 inches).  The one I found looked almost green. They are also called the salt-and-pepper snake for their unique coloration and commonly kept as pets due to their beauty. Apparently, you can buy one online for 60 dollars. However, they often bite and it’s unclear if their populations in the wild are steady. They will also rattle their tail when threatened to mimic a rattlesnake, and spray musk from their scent gland. This musk is actually used to let other snakes in the area know that there is danger.

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It’s one of the eight subspecies of the eastern kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula). Kingsnakes are a type of racer snake, and kill their prey via constriction which you would be able to guess if you looked at their heads and how small their jaws are. They are found throughout the united states and even in Baja Mexico. They prefer to live in grassland, swamps, and near streams. They have really varied diets and will even eat other snakes. They have evolved to clamp down on the jaws of other snakes to avoid being bitten by a venomous one but even if they are bitten they are immune to the venom as well. Because they eat and kill venomous snakes people tend to really like kingsnakes and even state they are protecting the neighborhood. Snakes also help to reduce the populations of rodents and other “nuisance” animals.

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Interestingly, the Alabama Department of conservation and natural resources says there is a high conservation concern for the snake as the past 30 years have led to rapid declines in populations for unknown reasons. It is suspected that red ant prey on the young and eggs of the snakes and contributed to their decline. Declines are also thought to be related to the logging of hardwood trees in the area. The Mississippi deparmtent of wildlife, fisheries, and parks did not have any information on the snake. Kingsnakes are also eaten by alligators, striped skunks, and possums.

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) is a desert plant that is found in the Sonoran Desert and Chihuahuan Deserts of North America. Although there are other ocotillo species that are found further south. The plant is made up of long thin individual stacks and when it is in bloom those stacks are tipped with a cone of bright red flowers. In fact, they are named for these flowers as ocotillo is Spanish for little torch. This flowering actually is timed to happen when the hummingbirds are migrating through the desert.

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Queen parrotfish (Scarus vetula)

The male queen parrotfish (Scarus vetula) is one of the most striking fish in the Carribean and happens to be my 2nd favorite fish. Females are a drab blue brown color while males are green-blue. This is an example of sexual dimorphism. Both sexes have plate-like beaks which give them the name parrotfish. They use these beaks to break off coral covered in algae. they then chew that mass and excrete the matter that isn’t algae. This process creates sand from the coral they ingest and is actually a major way in which sand is produced. This grazing also opens up space for coral to grow back in areas overtaken by algae. In areas without parrotfish reefs have been shown to shrink because coral can’t out-compete algae. They also feed on sponges and other creatures that may be attached to the reef. The fish is also known by the names blownose, blue chub, blueman, blue parrotfish, Joblin crow parrot, moontail, Okra peji, and slimy head. They are native to reefs in the Carribean, and thus also restricted to shallow water. 1622-parrotfish_0

The fish breed throughout the year but typically restrict breeding to mornings. The fish exercise harem polygyny, which means that one male mates with a harem of females. They school in groups with one male and 3-4 females. However, the fish are also protogynous hermaphrodite which means that they can change their sex from female to male. In fact, all queen parrotfish are born as females. As they mature the largest in the school becomes male. The male that mates with the females is called a supermale and is identifiable by his bright coloration. The male chases the females and they swim in tighter and tighter circles until they release their gametes and the eggs are fertilized through external fertilization.

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A female queen parrotfish (Scarus vetula)

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Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)

The spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) is a small frog that produces a very loud sound that those who live on the East Coast of the United States are very familiar with. Peepers range in size from 0.5 inches to only an inch. Males call to attract females. They either sit on vegetation or in the water to call. They will defend a small territory in which they call. Those males who can peep more loudly and rapidly have an increased chance of attracting a female. Larger males also tend to breed more. Due to the energetic cost of this event, peepers are not sexually mature until they are 3 years old. Once they are mature they waste no time, and one of the 1st frog species to start reproducing after hibernation ends. Females also lay a whopping 600 to 1000 eggs per season making them an R selected species. They are in the family, Hylidae which contains a wide range of species but is generally considered to be treefrogs and their allies.

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They are a terrestrial species and prefer to live in wooded areas near water bodies that they breed in. While they are good climbers (in fact they even have tiny suction cups at the end of each finger) they prefer to live hidden in the leaf litter or on the ground. They will lay their eggs in vernal pools, ponds or wetlands. The larvae then metaphorize 45 to 90 days later depending on water availability.  The frogs have a preference for those waterbodies that have vegetation and those without fish which can be predators of their larvae.  A study in Arkansas documented that the species uses caves in the event of a drought because of the high relative humidity.

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A spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) on my friend’s hand. Captured by Lauren Schramm

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Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)

The Brown Headed cowbird  (Molothrus ater) is a parasitic bird of North America. They used to follow the bison around and consume the insects associated with them. With the expansion of cattle in North American, the brown-headed cowbird populations have also expanded which has raised some interesting questions. Female cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and allow those birds to raise their young. This type of parasitism is called brood parasitism. Because the cowbird is typically larger than these birds their young die in the process of raising the cowbird. Because the cowbird was not tied to a nest this allowed them to follow the bison which was a food rich source. It is unknown if they evolve this strategy to follow bison or were able to follow bison because of this strategy. They also are able to produce more eggs in a season than a typical bird, up to 3 dozen. Bird populations of the birds they parasitize have suffered as a result of this and efforts have been made to try to reduce this. Using feed designed for small birds, not spreading seed on the ground, and avoid feeding sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and millet will reduce the number of cowbirds in your area. It is important to note that the birds are covered by the Migratory Bird Act so it is illegal to remove their eggs from a nest or harm them in any other way without a permit. In some states, if they threaten an endangered species you can obtain a permit to trap the birds.

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Marsh Rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris)

While on a boardwalk in Okefenokee National wildlife refuge, which is in South Georgia, my friend and I heard chewing noises. After waiting patiently, a tiny rabbit with short ears and small paws appeared out of the bush! It was a marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris). Marsh rabbits are a species of rabbits that are adapted to live in wetlands. There is also a species called swamp rabbits (Sylvilagus aquaticus), but they the largest species of rabbit in the Southeast and weight between 4 and 6.5 pounds. The ranges of the two species do not entirely overlap which is how I figured out I had seen a marsh rabbit and not a swamp rabbit. You can see marsh rabbits in southeast Virginia, southern Georgia, eastern Alabama, and the Florida peninsula. The largest population is found in the Dismal Swamp. There is a subspecies, Lower Keys marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri), which is found in south Florida. The subspecies has darker fur and has a different sized skull than the regular marsh rabbit. The subspecies is considered by IUCN to be critically endangered and is federally listed as endangered. Most of these rabbits can be found on Big Pine and Boca Chica keys. Because of its conservation status, there is more information available about the Lower Keys marsh rabbit.

 

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Marsh Rabbit. Captured by Lauren Schramm. Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

 

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Common snapping turtle

The United States has the most turtle species out of any country in the world (51 species). Common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are one of the most easily identified of these 51 species. In 5th grade, our class pet was even a snapping turtle baby that someone had found in a parking lot. They have a wide range of areas that they live in North America; basically all of the U.S. minus the west coast and Texas. Sadly there is also a wide range of misconceptions to go along with their wide geographic range. The biggest misconception is that they are aggressive and should be killed if seen. Others have negative views of the turtles because they kill game fish, which is true but have a minimal impact on populations. Generally, they are only aggressive on land as it is hard for them to walk on land. They tend to only be found on land during the breeding season when females go in search of sandy patches in which to lay their eggs. These sandy patches are often found along roads. If you see a snapping turtle in the road if you decided to move you should know they have a long reach with their neck and their claws are also very sharp. Typically I just stand in the road with the turtle until it safety crosses. If the turtle is a baby you can carefully pick it up and place it near a waterbody where it can hide from predators.

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Young Lauren carrying a baby common snapping turtle to a safe location. Hyde Park, Vermont.

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