Master Naturalist Training, part 1: Amphibians and Reptiles

Salamander tries blending into a human’s fashion statement.

During the weekend of September 19th through the 21st, I had the opportunity to participate in the Master Naturalist program at the Arnot Teaching and Research Forest in Van Etten, New York. The master naturalist training was organized by Kristi Sullivan, a certified wildlife biologist, who works as co-director of the Conservation Education and Research Program, and director of the New York Master Naturalist Program at the Cornell University Department of Natural Resources.
Approximately 27 students from all over New York State and other states (Massachusetts and New Jersey) participated in the training, which covered a wide variety of topics, including tree identification, forest ecology and conservation issues, amphibians and reptiles, stream ecology, invasive insects, bats, owl calling, mushrooms and fungi, land snails, soils, and insects. It was a busy, activity- and information-filled weekend that I will report in in several blog posts.
Today, I will talk about amphibians and reptiles.
I have always liked amphibians and reptiles. When I was a little kid, I had a gigantic stuffed snake that lived on my bed. In fact, I couldn’t sleep unless I knew that snake was there. I guess that I was kind of an eccentric kid.
I no longer have stuffed snakes in my stuffed animal collect. In fact, now, I prefer bears. 
Anyway, this summer, when I was out walking and working in gardens, I took pictures of toads and frogs. I am very thankful to them for posing and for looking so photogenic (but I digress).

Beautiful frog poses at Buckhorn Island State Park

Another frog, on a path close to the Niagara River in Buckhorn Island State Park.

The instructor for the amphibians and reptiles presentation was Dr. Steve Morreale of the Cornell University Department of Natural Resources. He is truly enthusiastic about his subject. He said that he travels everywhere to find amphibians and reptiles and that he has to suffer and struggle in such paradises as Costa Rica. It sounded very difficult and probably something that required the skills of a brilliant journalist and blogger (me, of course!) to document it. I am brave and am willing to suffer along with him in the pursuit of colorful blog posts.
Well, at any rate, Steve told us about the differences between amphibians and reptiles. Reptiles lay their eggs on land. The reptiles do all of their larval development in the egg and burst out of their shells looking like little adult reptiles. Thus, it is obvious that a baby crocodile, snake, or alligator is a baby crocodile, snake, or alligator. Amphibians, on the other hand, are born in an aquatic setting. They are born, looking primitive and very much like fish. They live for various lengths of time in the water. Frogs are tadpoles for several months while toads mature quickly and experience the tadpole life for only about one week.
Young amphibians change shape quite dramatically. They grow legs and lose their gills and breathe, as other land creatures do, with lungs. They come out of the water and experience their adult life as terrestrial creatures. After several years, amphibians return to the water so that they can mate, lay their eggs in the water, and complete their life cycle.
Steve told us about salamanders. He said that there are several varieties of salamanders in New York State, which includes the eastern newt, the vermillian spotted newt, and the red spotted newt. These amphibians spend five months in their aquatic larval form. They then become terrestrial efts and live in that form for five to seven years. They lose their scales and their skin is hardened and they look like lizards. They then return to the water to mate. Salamanders in New York State live for about fifteen years.
Spotted salamanders are black, with yellow spots. They are, according to Steve, big and beautiful.  They mate after the snow melts and they make their homes deep in the woods. 

Salamanders apparently like closeness and do not seem to require any personal space.

Salamanders make friends with a human.

There are also upland salamanders that spend their entire lives on land. They lay their eggs underground or under rocks and the mother stays close by to protect the eggs from any predator.
OK… so frogs versus toads… what is the difference?

Very young toad, just beginning to develop its legs.

Well toads are actually a type of frogs and, no, they don’t give you warts. Toads like gardens and they don’t need a permanent source of water. They will drink from puddles or from any temporary source of water. They also are not particular where they mate. Any port in a storm! They produce strings of eggs in water, and the tadpole swim in herds. Toads live for four to five years. There is only one type of toad in New York State, and that is the American toad.
The nontoad types of frogs that live in New York State include peepers, green frogs, leopard frogs, pickerel frogs (they can be recognized by the neat and orderly looking markings on their backs), the gray tree frogs (they cackle maniacally and are capable of changing color to match their environment, which sounds like a good trait to possess). 
Reptiles! There are snakes in New York. And not to worry. Very few snakes in New York are venomous. There are snakes that are described as nonvenomous, yet super-aggressive biters. Well, I am not sure about why they feel the need to bite but I will try to stay away from their mouths (I hope they’re flossing after biting!). Fortunately, they are not especially kissable, so that’s not a problem. Many snakes in New York are actually quite docile and are more afraid of us than we are of them. 
Most snakes that I come across on my walks are tiny garter snakes but there are large snakes. Water snakes, for example, can be quite large. Green snakes are not large but they are very attractive. If they are slow, they could be photographed. Unfortunately, I have a slow camera so I need to photograph an even slower snake.
Turtles are a rather glamorous type of reptile. They walk around carrying their houses on their backs. Some of them, such as the painted turtles, are brightly colored and they like to bask in the sun. Other common turtles in New York State include mud turtles, snapping turtles, wood turtles, bog turtles, spotted turtles, and sea turtles. Sea turtles are considered to be an endangered and threatened species. 

Baby snapping turtles, too young to snap.

Baby snapping turtle explores the human hand.

There goes the baby snapping turtle, not too fast (it is a turtle and it carries its house on its back).

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