Research Projects Developing as a Consequence of Herpetofaunal Inventories by the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL)

Thus far we have made great progress in our herpetofaunal surveys of the Southeast Coastal Network Parks.  In most parks we have documented and vouchered the majority of common species and are now generally focused on finding uncommon and cryptic species that may inhabit the parks.  While inventory is a necessary and important first step in the conservation of reptile and amphibian species, further research is needed to establish management schemes that will ensure the survival of each species in the future.  Thus, while the focus of our effort will continue to be the inventory of the 16 parks, we are also collaborating with several other researchers and graduate students conducting research on some of the individual reptile and amphibian species found within the parks. 

Data collection for these projects will be conducted as part of our normal surveys, not diminishing the time or effort we invest at each park, and none of the projects require killing specimens or causing undo harm to any of the reptiles or amphibians involved. We anticipate that each park involved in these peripheral research efforts will facilitate the process of any paperwork associated with the effort so that we can begin each project on our next visit. Following is a list of projects that we are collaborating on as part of the parks survey.

1.      Temperature-specific metabolism and diving behavior of the black swamp snake (Seminatrix pygaea).  University of Georgia. As part of a larger Ph.D. dissertation on the behavior and metabolism of aquatic snakes by Chris Winne, a graduate student in herpetology at SREL, this project is focused on studying the behavior of the little-studied black swamp snake, an aquatic species with a limited distribution in the Southeast.  In parks where these snakes occur a few individuals may be taken (with permission from the park administration) and temporarily housed in the laboratory at SREL.  There, behavioral attributes such as respiration frequency, metabolism, diving behavior, and foraging behavior will be studied.  Snakes will be returned to the park unharmed and released at their capture location at end of the study.  Data collected will be used to determine the reason for this species’ unusual distribution and to determine what habitats and conditions this species needs to survive. 

2.      Wide-ranging genetic analysis of brown watersnake (Nerodia taxispilota) and diamondback watersnake (Nerodia rhombifer) populations. University of Georgia. This project is also being conducted by Chris Winne, who will use genetic analysis to determine the evolutionary relationship between and within these two closely related species.  We will collect a small (< 0.2 ml) blood  sample from any brown or diamondback watersnake captured during our surveys and return these samples to SREL for genetic analysis.  Snakes will be immediately released. The data collected from this project will provide insight into the evolution of watersnakes in the Southeast.

3.      Testing for the presence of fungal or bacterial disease in amphibians in the Southeast. University of Georgia, in collaboration with Peter Daszack of the Consortium for Conservation Medicine; Although the exact cause of recently reported global amphibian declines remains in question, one of the leading theories is disease, particularly an infection called chytrid fungus.  This disease is thought to have caused dramatic declines in amphibian populations in other parts of the world but has not yet been reported in the southeastern United States.  We will collect any dead or dying amphibians we find in the parks and return them to Luke Fedewa, an M.S. student at the University of Georgia, for testing.  Results will determine if disease is threatening amphibian populations in the Southeast and help dictate what measures must be taken to ensure that amphibian populations persist in the future.

4.      Population structure in two species of skinks, the northern prairie skink (Eumeces septentrionalis) and the five-lined skink (Eumeces fasciatus). University of North Dakota.  While many studies have been done on the behavior and life history of skinks, little is known about the population structure of most of the species.  We will collaborate with Greg Fuerst, a researcher at the University of North Dakota, who is using genetic studies to compare the population structure of these two species, both across their range and in small isolated populations in Minnesota and southern Canada.  We will provide tissue samples (tail clips) from several five-lined skinks (the northern prairie skink does not occur in the southeastern United States) from each park where they occur, allowing for genetic comparison within populations and across the species’ range.  Tail clips are small (<1 cm) and, as these lizards drop and subsequently regrow their tails as a defense mechanism, cause little harm to the animal.  Data gathered in this study will help determine how genetically isolated skink populations differ from larger populations (an especially important issue as human development fragments and isolates animal populations) and what factors limit the distribution of these species.

5.      Leech I.D. key for North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. Smithsonian Institution.  We will collect all leeches encountered on reptiles or amphibians during our herpetofaunal surveys and send them to William Moser at the Smithsonian Institution for use in the development of a leech identification key for the Southeastern United States.  We will serve an important role in this project because some leech species rely reptiles and amphibians as hosts and thus are not often encountered in other surveys.

6.      Genetic studies of cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) and copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix). Louisiana State University.  The southeastern United States is home to the only two rattle-less pitvipers in the United States. While these snakes are two of the most common snakes in this region, little is known about their genetics.  We will collect tissue samples from any dead (usually roadkilled) snakes we find.  Genetic analysis, conducted by Frank Burbrink of Louisiana State University, of cottonmouths and copperheads across their range will shed light on the evolution of these species. 

7.      Genetic studies of tri-colored snakes: eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius) and scarlet kingsnake (Lampropeltis triangulum) and the evolution of mimicry.  American Museum of Natural History. Although it is widely speculated that the harmless scarlet snake and scarlet kingsnake are brightly colored as a mimic of the venomous coral snake, the evolution and geographic variation of this phenomenon are poorly understood.  We will collaborate with Mike Friedman at the American Museum of Natural History to gather data on the genetics and pattern variation of these species across their range in the Southeast.  We will photograph and take small tissue samples from any tri-colored snakes encountered in our surveys, following which the snakes will be immediately released.  Data gathered will shed light on the complex concept of mimicry and its evolution in the Southeast.

8.      Using rare, unusual, and environmentally sensitive species of snakes to assess biological diversity in national parksUniversity of Georgia.  As part of his  Ph.D. research on the natural history and ecology of mud and rainbow snakes (genus Farancia), Cameron Young of the University of Georgia will conduct specialized surveys for Farancia at selected national parks in the Southeast Coastal Network.  Surveys will be conducted during the activity and nesting seasons in order to detect the species’ presence and assess population viability.  The project will also attempt to quantify biological diversity, in terms of both the habitat and the entire herpetofaunal community.  The goal of the project is to determine the importance of maintaining mosaics of biologically diverse habitats in order to support rare and environmentally sensitive herpetofauna species.  The project should provide valuable management information to the National Park Service by investigating whether populations of Farancia have persisted in selected national parks as a direct result of the park’s conservation and management practices. 

9.       Snake skin I.D. key for southeastern Coastal Plain of the Carolinas, Georgia,   Alabama, and northern FloridaUniversity of Georgia.  Terrestrial snakes are one of the most problematic groups of reptiles and amphibians to inventory.  Even large, mobile species can be difficult to document from a site because: 1) they may be inactive for extended periods (both daily and annually), 2) they do not congregate, and 3) few species can be effectively trapped.  However, snakes will periodically shed their outer dermal layer, leaving a behind a physical record of their presence.  This shed skin can often be attributed to a particular species based on scale counts and distinct markings visible in the shed skin.  As a result, it is possible to document some snake species, even rare species, not observed during the inventory project.  The University of Georgia is developing a snake skin identification guide for snakes occurring within the Southeast Coastal Network parks.  It will be the first snake skin guide published for the southeastern United States.

10.  Range-wide genetic analysis of the ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus). Utah State University. The ringneck snake is one of the most widely-distributed and phenotypically variable snakes in North America.  However, it is secretive and has seldom been specifically studied. As his M.S. research, Chris Feldman performed a fine-scale phylogeographic study of the ringneck snake in California’s Central Valley.  As part of his PhD research at Utah State University, Chris will expand this study across the entire range of Diadophis punctatus.  He will use genetic analysis to investigate relationships, taxonomy, and evolution of certain morphological and behavioral traits of this small snake across its extensive range.

11.  Range-wide phylogenetic studies of the Gopher Frog (Rana sevosa and Rana capito)University of Oklahoma, Southeastern Louisiana University, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Gopher frogs are on of the most terrestrial frog species and are seldom seen except during their short breeding season.  Because they require temporary wetlands in sandy areas these frogs are generally uncommon throughout their range in the southeastern U.S. and have declined in many areas.  As part of a range-wide status review of gopher frog populations by USFWS, endangered species biologist Linda LaClaire, PhD student Stephen Richter and geneticist Brian Crother are conducting a range-wide phylogeographic study of these frogs across their range.  This study will determine the phylogenetic relationships of gopher frog populations and will be useful in developing conservation measures for these species.

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