By Dr. John Peterson
Like most Driftless inhabitants, the arrival of spring shifts my focus toward amphibians and reptiles. OK, most might not be thinking of these loathsome beasts, but instead of vociferous birds and budding vegetation. You will find that you have some surprising similarities with our cold-blooded counterparts.
One of the hallmarks of winter is over-consumption of sugar and swill. Dulcet desserts and drink are known to warm the body and may actually help us survive Wisconsin winters. Similarly, there is an amphibian known to the backwaters of the river valleys that has the ability to produce sugar-alcohols that help them survive freezing in winter. Wood frogs, named for their proclivity for woodlands and their sylvan coloration, can freeze solid. Even their scientific name, sylvaticus, is a reference to thickets of timber. In my postdoctoral research, I helped hundreds of wood frogs through metamorphosis and then housed them in a chest freezer for the winter. Like clockwork, the spring thaw resulting from me opening the freezer door brought them back to life. So the next time you are enjoying a dessert and brandy digestif, think of your amphibian ancestors surviving on the same substances. This warms the cockles of my herpetological heart.
I can’t help but think of loud, late-night bars on Second Street in Platteville when I hear the vernal voices of wood frogs. Males gregariously gather in polar pools and quack like ducks or clucking chickens hoping that females will join the party. They are termed “explosive breeders” for they only breed and make sounds for a couple of weeks while snow is still on the ground. My undergraduate researchers and I place recording devices, the acoustic equivalent of spy cameras, at ponds to identify when frogs call at night. We have found that when there are fewer frogs at a pond, they call later at night to avoid being found by predators.
Unfortunately, the majority of conservation funds for amphibians and reptiles comes from fees related to hunting. With hunting on the decline nation-wide I worry about how we will protect the animals that we hold so close to our hearts and that reflect the identity of our Driftless Area.
Every time I hear of folks vacationing to Florida in winter or Baby Boomer snowbirds migrating to a winter home in Arizona, I think of Western Worm snakes. In winter these snakes migrate hundreds of feet to south-facing sunny goat prairies where the soil doesn’t freeze, living under flat rocks that act like solar panel heaters. Western worm snakes were previously only known to occur at two locations in Wisconsin. The next nearest location is 100 miles away in Iowa. My researchers and I found them recently at another location in Wisconsin and we are hoping that there are more along the Driftless bluffs. They are called Worm Snakes because they are fossorial (like a fossil) and live their lives completely under the ground in subterranean mines, not unlike the historic miners of southwestern Wisconsin. Their moniker also comes from their diet of worms and the fact that their belly is pink and annulated like a worm. Little is known about these snakes, so little that they aren’t yet listed as endangered in the state because of lack of data. Besides being hard to find, their goat prairies that help them survive winter are disappearing due to human-caused fire suppression and invading cedar trees.
One inevitability of winter is illness and, just like us, our snakes are feeling a bit under the weather. Snake Fungal Disease is an emerging infectious disease that has the potential to devastate snake populations. The fungus invades their skin and eyes before invading their internal organs. It has been found in snakes across North America. I have observed many infected snakes throughout the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, but detailed studies of the impact on populations are needed. Funding is needed. Unfortunately, the majority of conservation funds for amphibians and reptiles comes from fees related to hunting. With hunting on the decline nation-wide I worry about how we will protect the animals that we hold so close to our hearts and that reflect the identity of our Driftless Area. These animals are important links in the food webs that keep our ecosystems healthy. They need our help preserving their homes, managing their habitat, and researching their secretive habits. Only we can help them survive the terrors of our shared terroir.
Dr. John Peterson is an associate professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. He is also an avid musician, photographer, foodie, father and husband. Find his science at www.facebook.com/drjohndpeterson, his music at https://johnpeterson.bandcamp.com and reach him at email@example.com.