Spring is here, and there are signs of it everywhere. Birds are singing, daffodils are blooming and shrubs are greening up. These are the typical hallmarks we look forward to, but the herp world has something to say about spring too. If you’ve been near a wetland around dusk lately, you’ve probably heard from one of our most famous herps.
Wait… you must be thinking, what on Earth is a herp? Well, “herp” is short for herpetology. That’s a term that refers to amphibians and reptiles collectively. Herpetology is the study of creatures like turtles, snakes, salamanders, frogs and lizards. These cold-blooded creatures have a lot in common, so they’re frequently referred to and studied together, although they’re classified separately. This branch of zoology is named from the Greek word herpeton, which means “reptile” or “creeping animal”, an apt reference to the way most reptiles walk. People with an avid interest in reptiles and amphibians are “herpers”, and if you head out specifically in search of wild reptiles and amphibians, you are “going herping”- as birders would say they’re going birding.
On Nantucket, we have a fairly limited cast of reptile and amphibian species compared to mainland habitats, but there is a surprising diversity. They’re an often under-appreciated and misunderstood group, so let’s dive and learn more.
Perhaps the most noticeable herp on Nantucket is the spring peeper. These tiny frogs are a fan favorite. Their emergence from hibernation, usually in March, signifies the start of spring. This year, people reported hearing spring peepers in January; a sure sign of a mild winter since peepers are notoriously sensitive to temperature. They congregate in shallow vernal pools and the males sing in harmony, by inflating and expelling air from their vocal sacs. For such a tiny frog, they have a loud, booming voice. Their peeps can be heard up to two miles away.
You’re much more likely to hear a spring peeper than you are to see one. But if you do get a chance to see one, they are easily identified by the ‘x’ shaped cross on their back. Peepers are about the size of a quarter and perfectly camouflaged to their wetland habitats, so look closely.
These frogs depend on vernal pools for adequate breeding habitat. Spring peepers may lay up to 1,000 eggs per clutch, which they attach to submerged vegetation. Tadpoles develop in water and leave to find suitable woodland areas once they’ve grown into adult frogs.
Another famous herp is the snapping turtle. Relatives of these reptiles have been on Earth for more than 90 million years- even before the dinosaurs. Snapping turtles are omnivores; their diet consists of aquatic plants, fish, and frogs. They’ve also been known to dine on small mammals (like mice or a young rabbit) and the occasional duckling.
Snapping turtles have a strong bite that can crush bone, but they are generally not aggressive towards people. When turtles are fed by people, they become more aggressive and can pursue people for food. Habituating turtles to human feeding is dangerous for people and the turtles, so it’s best to let them find their own food. They’re excellent hunters, and judging by the size of adult snappers, they certainly don’t need our help.
Adult snapping turtles can grow quite large- about 40 pounds, with shells over a foot long. However, every adult snapper once hatched from an egg about the size of a ping-pong ball. Baby snapping turtles are tiny, only an inch long. They mate in the spring, with females traveling great distances in search of a perfect place to dig a nest and lay 20-40 eggs. They prefer sandy places for easy digging, and many people find snapping turtle nests in their lawns and gardens. If this happens to you, fear not. Momma has come and gone, and won’t return. Let the eggs hatch on their own and the tiny baby turtles will disperse when they hatch in late summer.
Nantucket is also home to some slithery herps- snakes. We have six species that can be found on island, and none of them are venomous or dangerous to humans. Snakes are actually essential to our island ecosystems. With few mammals and other ground predators, many of our snake species perform an important job in eating small mammals such as white-footed mice, meadow voles, and shrews.
One species commonly seen is the garter snake, which happens to be the official state reptile of Massachusetts. You can recognize this snake by its distinct pattern of yellow stripes on a black-brown background. Garter snakes are frequently found in wetland habitats, but are also quite common in fields and gardens. I’d bet every avid gardener has bumped into a garter snake. On warm, spring days, you might see a garter snake laying in an open, sunny spot. Snakes (like all herps) are cold blooded, so unlike us mammals, they need to use the sun’s warmth.
Research conducted on our Nantucket garter snakes in 2014 demonstrated that the island garter snakes have a unique pattern when compared to the same species on the mainland. Nantucket garters are more checkered, while mainland snakes are more striped. The hypothesis is that our snakes have adapted to the unique vegetation on island and the striping pattern helps them camouflage better among the heathlands and shrubs of Nantucket.
In spring, snakes will emerge from the rocks, crevices and holes where they’ve overwintered together in brumation (essentially hibernation for cold-blooded animals) to mate. Garter snakes have an interesting reproductive cycle. Their eggs are incubated internally, then the mother snake births them live. In summer, females will birth 10-30 live, fully independent young snakes.
This spring, while we’re enjoying bird song and flowers, think of the herps- they’re singing, laying eggs and enjoying the sunshine too! You just may enjoy your next herp encounter now that you know a little more about these fascinating creatures.
Stay tuned for more editions of Current Nature, a bi-weekly column featuring seasonal topics, natural history information, and advice on the outdoors from the staff at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation.