Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Herping: Searching for Reptiles in California's Deserts

You've heard of birding.  Now we come to something similar, but entirely different: herping, the act of intentionally searching for reptiles and amphibians in the wild.  And what better place to search for herps than in a hotbed of reptilian diversity, California's deserts.

Home to 80% of California's species of reptiles, the Mojave and Colorado Deserts support more diversity, of both plants and animals, than a cursory glance through the windshield at 55 miles per hour would suggest.  The best way to explore, in my opinion, is always to get out of the car and leave the buildings behind, put boots to earth and start walking.

A beautiful Long-nosed Leopard Lizard (Gambelia wislizenii) at Joshua Tree National Park

As a naturalist, I love to explore.  I love to see new species and learn about the complex interactions going on in the ecosystems around me.  But I have a phobia. 

As a naturalist, I am embarrassed to admit that I am afraid of snakes. 

No, it's not so much fear that drives me to avoid slithery serpents.  It's different from the rational trepidation one might experience upon encountering a rattlesnake.  My "fear" is more akin to feeling, as some might say, "totally creeped out" by snakes.  I can't seem to help it, try as I might.  I know all of the correct, rational things: snakes are much more afraid of me than I am of them, they will usually slither away to avoid me, and very few in California are dangerous (rattlesnakes and sidewinders in the genus Crotalus are California's only venomous terrestrial snakes).

Long-nosed Leopard Lizard

I appreciate and highly value the role of snakes in their habitats.  Not one piece of the intricate and beautiful puzzles that are our precious ecosystems ought to be disregarded or, worse, harmed.  And snakes, no matter how "creepy," are critical components of the delicate web of life, especially in our deserts.

Long-nosed Leopard Lizard

But I still get creeped out every time I happen upon a snake.  So before embarking on a week-long camping trip in the desert, the heart of reptile country, at just the time of year snakes tend to emerge from their winter slumbers to catch a few rays, I did what any sensible person with an abnormal fear of snakes would do: I researched them.  Extensively.

Desert Iguana (Dipsosaurus dorsalis) along the Bajada Trail in Joshua Tree National Park.  Hopefully the missing
tail is due to a close encounter with a natural predator rather than human-induced.
I read books, scoured internet sites, made lists of species and created charts noting preferred habitat, feeding habits and the diurnal or nocturnal tendencies of each species of snake (a very important piece of information, in my book).  I wanted to know everything I could about these guys; the fewer surprises, the better!  I found it particularly important to know if I'm likely to run into a certain species while scrambling over boulders in the afternoon, or while making a 3 a.m. run to the outhouse.

Desert Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma platyrhinos), spotted by Eric along the trail to the Desert Queen Mine in
Joshua Tree National Park

As luck would have it, the week passed without one single snake sighting.  I confess, I was actually a little disappointed; after all that work, I hoped to have at least one chance to put my new snake identification skills to the test.  (On second thought, I suppose I was perfectly fine without seeing any snakes.)

The Desert Horned Lizard is known for its predilection for feasting on ants.

That's not meant to imply that snakes weren't around; I'm sure they were, hiding under boulders and debris, tucked away in rock crevices and such.  (I've watched enough episodes of Jeff Corwin's television shows to know that!)  I just wasn't particularly motivated to search them out specifically!  I'm not much of a herpetologist, I suppose.  The other reptiles we came across on our hikes - the array of lizard species - were pretty cool!

Male Side-blotched Lizard (Uta stansburiana elegans)

So, if you were hoping for snake photos, I suppose I'm about to disappoint you: lizards only today.  But don't dismiss them quite yet.  Take a closer look at the coloring and adaptations exhibited by these beautiful creatures.  They're not just drab, "creepy" little things; these lizards are both brilliantly patterned and perfectly camouflaged to blend in with their desert surroundings, as well as physiologically fine-tuned to make their living in a very harsh environment.  They might not be as bright as orioles, as cute as kangaroo rats, or as famous as endangered desert tortoise and bighorn sheep, but these lizards, these small, often overlooked herps, are amazing animals, well worth a longer glance.

Female Side-blotched Lizard

I should mention that while I enjoy photographing reptiles (from a respectful distance), I don't make any attempt to capture them.  I believe catching the animals puts undue stress on them, in an already stressful environment, while providing very little "return" in the name of science.  I am far from a professional herpetologist and would gain little additional information about these animals from closer examination.  (And as I understand, capturing reptiles and amphibians in the state of California is illegal without a license.)  I think it is best to leave the live capture of reptiles to the herpetologists.  For casual naturalists, the best practice is to observe the animals as they go about their lives, take photographs and notes, then leave them in peace.

Western Whiptail (Aspidoscelis tigris)

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