Tiger Salamanders Ambystoma tigrinum

Tiger Salamander, Ambystoma tigrinum. Courtesy Andrey Zharkikh, Photographer, licensed under CreativeCommons 2.0
Tiger Salamander
Ambystoma tigrinum
Courtesy Andrey Zharkikh, Photographer
License: Creative Commons 2.0
Tiger Salamanders, named for their bold black-and-orange stripes, are Utah’s only salamander. Secretive inhabitants of our forests, streams, and lakes, these amphibians are rarely seen. Tiger Salamanders spend most of their year underground, in moist burrows beneath logs and among tree roots. They come to the surface just once a year, emerging at night in the early spring to trek across the snow to newly-thawed wetlands.

Many people see Tiger Salamanders only when one accidentally falls into their window well. About 6 inches long, with a 6-inch tail, they are often mistaken for lizards even though they are more closely related to frogs. This is more obvious when you look at a salamander’s aquatic larvae, which hatch from tiny, shell-less eggs that resemble caviar. At first, they sport gills and have only tiny limbs. Usually, they metamorphose after about 2 ½ months, transforming into boldly-barred adults. Occasionally, if wetland conditions are safe, they can mature in their natal pond, becoming juvenile-like adults called paedomorphs, which can breed but resemble gigantic larvae.

Tiger Salamanders select very particular wetlands. They particularly look for bodies of water that don’t have any large, predatory fishes that would eat their eggs. Well-known examples of breeding sites in Utah include Lake Solitude in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Tony Grove Lake in Logan Canyon, and the aptly-named Salamander Lake in Stewart Canyon on the northeast slope of Mt. Timpanogos.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Andrew Durso.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy Andrey Zharkikh, Photographer, licensed under CreativeCommons 2.0.
Text: Andrew Durso, http://www.biology.usu.edu/htm/our-people/graduate-students?memberID=6753

Additional Reading:

Amphibian Decline: Saving the Salamander, Karen Lips AAAS – The American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC 20005, http://youtu.be/mgVPh8PCCk4, (Accessed: Feb 15, 2016)

Save the salamanders, unsung heroes of the forest, Brian Resnick, Science Reporter Vox, Interviewing Matthew Grey, University of Tennessee Knoxville, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnrSa18-onc, (Accessed: Feb 15, 2016)

AmphibiaWeb: Information on amphibian biology and conservation. Ambystoma tigrinum. 2016. Berkeley, California: AmphibiaWeb. Available: http://amphibiaweb.org/. (Accessed: Feb 15, 2016).

Blind Snakes

Click for a larger view of Western Blind Snake in a bucket, Leptotyphlops humilis. Courtesy and Copyright 2006 John S. Ascher, Photographer, http://www.discoverlife.org/mp/20p?see=I_JSA1964&res=640
Western Blind Snake
Leptotyphlops humilis
Courtesy & Copyright 2006
John S. Ascher, Photographer

If you’re unfamiliar with blindsnakes, don’t worry; most people haven’t heard of them. The 400 species of these seriously strange serpents are mostly tropical. Two species do occur in the southwestern United States, including western Washington County in Utah. They are small, many no larger than a shoelace, and have smooth scales and small eyes.

Blindsnakes typically live underground in loose, moist soil, so you are most likely to find one when gardening. If you do, don’t be alarmed – these tiny snakes are harmless and beneficial. Look closely, or you might mistake one for a worm due to its pinkish color. A black light can be used to tell the difference, as Utah blindsnakes glow fluorescent like scorpions. Blindsnakes eat ants, termites, centipedes and spiders. They can help control populations of these invertebrate pests around your home.

Their jaw architecture is unique. The jaws work like tiny scoops to shovel the larvae and pupae of ants and termites into their mouths. Unlike most snakes, who only eat once every few weeks, blindsnakes consume huge numbers of prey items very quickly. One Australian Blackish Blindsnake was seen to ingest over 1,400 ant larvae without pause!

Biologist in Texas report that screech owls sometimes carry live blindsnakes to their nests. Up to fifteen live among the chicks. Nests with blindsnakes have fewer mites, insects and spiders. Owlets in these nests survived and grew faster than owlets from nests without blindsnakes. This amazing mutualism may have evolved long ago. At over 100 million years old, blindsnakes are the oldest living group of snakes. Although considered primitive, blindsnakes are incredibly successful, if secretive, members of our modern serpent fauna.

Today’s program was written by Andrew Durso of Utah State University’s biology department.

Our theme music was composed by Don Anderson and is performed by Leaping Lulu.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright 2006 John S. Ascher, Photographer

Text: Andrew Durso, http://www.biology.usu.edu/htm/our-people/graduate-students?memberID=6753

Additional Reading:

Screech Owls and Blindsnakes: An Unlikely Mutualism, Life is Short, But Snakes are Long, A blog about snake natural history and herpetology research, Andrew Durso, February 28, 2013, http://snakesarelong.blogspot.com/2013_02_01_archive.html

Western Blind Snake (Leptotyphlops humilis), Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Washington County HCP Administration, http://www.redcliffsdesertreserve.com/western-blind-snake

Feeding Mechanisms of Blindsnakes, Mandibular raking in Leptotyphlopidae, Video Clips, The Kley Lab, Department of Anatomical Sciences, Stony Brook University, The State University of New York, http://www.anat.stonybrook.edu/kleylab/videos.html

Desert Tortoises

Click for a larger view of an adult Desert Tortoise. Courtesy & Copyright 2009 Kevin Durso, Photographer
Adult Desert Tortoise
Gopherus agassizii
Courtesy & Copyright 2009
Kevin Durso, Photographer

Click for a larger view of an adult Desert Tortoise. Courtesy & Copyright 2009 Kevin Durso, PhotographerAdult Desert Tortoise
Gopherus agassizii
Courtesy & Copyright 2009
Kevin Durso, Photographer

Click for a larger view of an adult and juvenile Desert Tortoise. Courtesy & Copyright 2009 Andres Durso, PhotographerAdult & Juvenile Desert Tortoise
Gopherus agassizii
Courtesy & Copyright 2009
Andrew Durso, Photographer

Click for a larger view of a juvenile Desert Tortoise. Courtesy & Copyright 2009 Andres Durso, PhotographerJuvenile Desert Tortoise
Gopherus agassizii
Courtesy & Copyright 2009
Andrew Durso, Photographer

Tortoises are turtles that live their whole lives on land. Most tortoises are native to Africa and South America, but several are North American including the Desert Tortoise whose range extends to southwestern Utah. Their shells consist of enlarged scales called scutes. These scutes are tan, black, or dull orange, and etched with many concentric lines, like the growth rings of a tree. Desert Tortoises look like grizzled old men, even the Oreo-sized hatchlings, which over several decades will grow to football size.

Desert Tortoises mate in the spring, and a few months later, the female lays her 5 or 6 eggs in a funnel-shaped pit dug in the sand. The sex of the baby Desert Tortoises is determined by the sun’s heating rather than by genetics – cooler incubation yields males, hotter eggs produce females, with a mix of sexes developing at intermediate temperatures.

Desert Tortoises primarily eat the flowers of desert plants such as globemallow and threeawn. Because most desert plants only bloom briefly each spring, tortoises must eat a lot between April and June, although they can be active during all but the coldest months. Being toothless, they grind up their vegetarian fare using a specialized bone embedded in their jaw muscles. Like cows and other herbivores, they depend on microbes in their gut to digest the cellulose in their diet. Even more than food, water is precious to a Desert Tortoise. They have little to spare, sometimes going for months without urinating, but will pee defensively if handled. Resist the temptation to pick them up or you will rob the poor animal of its water supply for the entire year.

Once found throughout the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, Desert Tortoises are much less common than they were a century ago. They have not fared well with urbanization, highways, and off-road vehicle traffic. An upper respiratory tract disease can also be lethal, especially when crowded or stressed, as in captivity. Desert Tortoises are now protected by the US Endangered Species Act.

Today’s program was written by Andrew Durso of USU’s biology department.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Andrew Durso and Kevin Durso

Text: Andrew Durso, http://www.biology.usu.edu/htm/our-people/graduate-students?memberID=6753

Additional Reading:


World Turtle Database, EMYSystem Species Page: Gopherus agassizii, http://emys.geo.orst.edu/ (Search for “Desert Tortoise”)

Grover, Mark C., DeFalco, Lesley A, Desert Tortoise(Gopherus agassizii): Status-of-Knowledge, Outline With References, USDA, 1995, http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_int/int_gtr316.pdf

Desert Tortoise, Gopherus agassizii, Mojave National Preserve, http://www.mojavenp.org/Gopherus_agassizii.htm

Gopherus agassizii (COOPER, 1861), The Reptile Database, Peter Uetz and Jakob Hallermann, Zoological Museum Hamburg,
http://reptile-database.reptarium.cz/species?genus=Gopherus&species=agassizii

Desert Tortoise, Animal Species, Utah Division of Natural Resources, http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/search
/Display.asp?FlNm=gophagas

Desert Tortoise Information and Collaboration, Mojave Desert Ecosystem Program, http://www.mojavedata.gov/deserttortoise_gov/index.html

Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, http://www.redcliffsdesertreserve.com

Rubber Boas

Rubber Boas: Click for a larger view of a Rubber boa showing tail scarred by rodent bites, Charina bottae.  Courtesy and Copyright Edmund 'Butch' Brodie, Photographer
Rubber boa Charina bottae
showing tail scarred by rodent bites

Courtesy & Copyright,
Edmund ‘Butch’ Brodie, Photographer


Click for a larger view of a Rubber boa showing a small head.  Courtesy Andrew Durso, PhotographerRubber boa Charina bottae
showing small head

Courtesy & Copyright ©
Andrew Durso, Photographer


Click for a larger view of a Rubber boa showing a blunt tail.  Courtesy and Copyright Andrew Durso, PhotographerRubber boa Charina bottae
showing blunt tail

Courtesy & Copyright ©
Andrew Durso, Photographer

Mention boas and we imagine steaming South American rain forests, home to emerald tree boas and enormous boa constrictors. However, the canyons of northern Utah are home to the rubber boa, one of only two native North American boas. Rubber boas range from northern Utah west to the Pacific coast and north to Vancouver. An adult rubber boa resembles a thin kielbasa sausage in size and shape, having both a blunt tail and head. Juveniles are the size of a crayon. A rubber boa’s leathery skin is the color of creamy coffee, its small scales giving it a rubbery texture. Like other boas, it has vestigial hind legs, called spurs, with which males stimulate females during mating.

Rubber boas are active at night during the summer. In spring they can be among the first snakes to come out from the talus slopes and rock crevices where they hibernate. In Cache County, rubber boas can be found basking from March through November. From April to August, pregnant females use these rocky habitats to maintain body temperatures around 88 degrees. When not pregnant, rubber boas stay remarkably cool for a snake, around 57 degrees. In late summer, females bear an average of four live young. They only reproduce every two to three years, so juvenile survival must be quite high. In captivity, rubber boas can live 30 years or more.

It’s hard to imagine these docile, slow-moving snakes as predators, but rubber boas eat mammals, birds, reptiles and eggs. Like other boas, they have no venom and kill by constriction. Rubber boas often consume whole litters of nestling mice, voles, pocket gophers, shrew and moles. The snakes fend off the protective rodent parents with their short, blunt tails, which often bear bite scars. Both rubber boas and rodents evolved in Asia about 45 million years ago which suggests that they have been predator and prey for a very long time.

Thanks to Andrew Durso, Utah State University herpetology student, for today’s essay.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy and Copyright Andrew Durso and Edmund ‘Butch’ Brodie

Text: Andrew Durso, Utah State University herpetology doctoral candidate, http://www.biology.usu.edu/htm/our-people/graduate-students?memberID=6753

Additional Reading:

Life is Short, but Snakes are Long: http://snakesarelong.blogspot.com/2012/04/utahs-boa.html

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources: http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/search/Display.asp?FlNm=charbott

Cox DT & WW Tanner (1995) Snakes of Utah. Bean Life Science Museum, Provo, UT http://www.amazon.com/Snakes-Utah-Douglas-C-Cox/dp/0842523316

Ernst CH & EM Ernst (2003) Snakes of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. http://www.amazon.com/Snakes-United-States-Canada-Ernst/dp/1588340198