Category Archives: Fish, Frogs

Sights and Sounds of Early Spring

Sun pillar at sunrise, 6 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

14 March 2021

Spring is coming! Our native trees are slow to bloom but cultivated flowers and amphibians are already active. There’s a lot to see and hear.

Above, on 6 March we were greeted by a sun pillar caused by ice crystals slowly falling through the air at sunrise.

A shagbark hickory lives up to its name in bright sunlight.

Shagbark hickory, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 12 March 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

American basswood now has bright red buds that are still cautious about opening.

American basswood buds, Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 12 Mar 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Cultivated European white willows have bright yellow twigs in March.

Cultivated willows turn yellow in early spring, Homewood Cemetery, 9 Mar 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Non-native crocuses are blooming so I hoped to see native snow trillium at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve on Friday, 12 March 2021. I did not find any, not even leaves. Was I too early or did the deer eat them?

However I was rewarded with the sound of frogs! Spring peepers and a few wood frogs called from the first vernal pool.

Peepers calling at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve, 12 March 2021

Wood frogs quacked in the second pool joined by a few solo peepers (hear that slow “creeeek” sound). In the video you can see the surface of the water moving with so many wood frogs.

Get outside while the sun’s shining. There’s more spring to come!

(photos audio and video by Kate St. John)

Butterflies Drink Turtle Tears

Butterflies drinking turtle tears (screenshot from Phil Torres YouTube video)

17 February 2021

In 2018 in the Peruvian Amazon Phil Torres of The Jungle Diaries filmed colorful butterflies fluttering around turtles at the edge of the Tambopata River. He explains what the butterflies were doing:

Learn more about this phenomenon in Phil Torres’ video: Butterflies drinking Turtle Tears!?

One commenter wrote: “So if I cry, will butterflies come to me?”

(screenshot from Phil Torres Jungle Diaries video)

Show Me Your Tail

Male zebra-tailed lizard, Tucson, AZ (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 December 2020

One thing we don’t see in Pittsburgh are the antics of lizards. Only two lizard species occur in southwestern Pennsylvania but are rarely found, so when I saw Russ McSpadden’s tweet of two zebra-tailed lizards in the Sonoran Desert I was fascinated.

Their territorial sparring looks like cartoon dinosaurs.

So who are these guys?

Zebra-tailed lizards (Callisaurus draconoides) are 2.5 to 4 inches long, not including their tails, and are endemic to the open desert of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico.

During the breeding season, May to August, males are particularly colorful with iridescent blue and sometimes orange on their bellies. Each male defends a territory and works to attract multiple females. The more females he has the greater his social status and the more aggressively he defends his territory. Hence the threatening dance.

You can’t see much of the zebra tail in the video but these lizards use it as a social signal and predator deterrent. According to Wikipedia, “When threatened zebra-tailed lizards run quickly with their toes curled up and tails raised over their backs, exposing the stripes” as shown in the photo below.

Zebra-tailed lizard, Death Valley (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The dominant lizard in the video must be shouting at the other guy, “Leave now! Run away! Show me your tail!”

(*) The two lizard species that occur in southwestern PA are the northern fence lizard and five-lined skink. I’ve never seen a five-line skink and have only seen a fence lizard once — in Virginia Beach.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. embedded tweet from Russ McSpadden @PeccaryNotPig)

Make Every Day Count

In November, when the rains begin in southwest Madagascar, all the Labord’s chameleons (Furcifer labordi) hatch from eggs and begin their growth spurt to adulthood. They will live a glorious four to five months.

Labord’s chameleon, Madagascar (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

By January they are sexually mature, the males fight for dominance, they breed and the females lay eggs. (Male shown above. Females lack the snout “horn” and bony head casque.)

Labord’s chameleon, Madagascar (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

By the end of March, all of them die. Every one of them. All that’s left of Labord’s chameleons are their eggs, waiting eight months for the next rainy season.

There is no other terrestrial vertebrate with a shorter known active life-span.

from Labord’s chameleon description at Wikimedia Commons

Our own lives are short, too, compared to Galapagos tortoises (190 years), Greenland sharks (300-500 years) and giant bristlecone pines (5,000 years).

Make every day count.

Thanks to Jason Bittel (@bittelmethis) for his tweet that brought Labord’s chameleon to my attention.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Tracker Eggs May Save Endangered Turtles

Green sea turtle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas, above) are endangered and olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea, below) are vulnerable even though both have a wide distribution in the tropical oceans. The threats they face are caused by humans including boat strikes, nets, poaching of the adults and collecting their eggs.

Olive ridley sea turtles nesting in Mexico (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Back in 2015 conservation scientist Kim Williams-Guillén came up with a way to protect turtle eggs by using GPS-equipped decoys. Her award-winning idea was tried recently in Costa Rica with the results published this month in Current Biology.

Green sea turtle laying eggs (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A team of scientists led by Helen Pheasey placed a decoy egg in each of 101 clutches of green sea and olive ridley turtles. 25 of the clutches were stolen by poachers. Five of the GPS eggs were taken for a ride. One traveled 85 miles. This diagram from Current Biology shows the decoys and the routes they traveled.

Decoy eggs, data, and estimated routes used by turtle egg traffickers (illustration from Current Biology PDF. Click this caption for the full description)

Revealing the trade routes is a step toward saving the turtles though not the silver bullet. Conservation laws and their enforcement can be ambiguous from country to country. As Science Magazine explains:

Ultimately, though, scientists and nonprofits are going to need to engage communities with local outreach and education programs to save sea turtles, Williams-Guillén says. “The real meat and potatoes of conservation isn’t going to come from deploying eggs.”

Science Magazine — Endangered baby sea turtles may have new savior: GPS eggs

Every little bit helps. Fake eggs will allow more baby turtles to hatch and walk to the sea.

Baby green sea turtle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Read more in Current Biology Magazine: Using GPS-enabled decoy turtle eggs to track illegal trade.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, diagram from Current Biology Magazine: Using GPS-enabled decoy turtle eggs to track illegal trade; click on the captions to see the originals)