Creeping and crawling out from under rocks and pond shallows to bask in the warm sun this spring are the herpetofauna: reptiles (turtles, snakes and lizards) and amphibians (frogs, toads, salamanders and newts). They may not be as attractive as other warm-weather species — butterflies and the like — but they are fascinating to study, and they're sensitive indicators of environmental well-being.
If you're not familiar with these creatures, you might want to experience some hands-on learning in an outdoor environment. The two-day Field Studies workshops organized by Floracliff Nature Sanctuary in rural southern Fayette County could be a way to increase your awareness of biodiversity.
Herpetology is on the agenda for next weekend, and other topics are offered at other times.
The workshop will be led by a team of university biologists including Stephen Richter, an associate professor in Eastern Kentucky University's department of biological sciences; Steven Price, an assistant professor of wildlife biology in the University of Kentucky's department of forestry; and Andrea Drayer, a senior forestry technician in UK's forestry department.
The program will take place at both Floracliff, a 287-acre preserve along the Kentucky River palisades, and at EKU's Maywoods Environmental and Educational Laboratory, a 1,700-acre preserve about 20 miles south of Richmond.
"In addition to the many herps we'll have from our live collections, participants will have the opportunity to see over 50 species of reptiles and amphibians that have been observed at Floracliff and Maywoods in the past," Richter says. "Some of the more charismatic species include mud and cave salamanders; copperheads and timber rattlesnakes; and softshell, snapping and box turtles."
Price, who studies population ecology, adds a bit of background information.
"Amphibians and reptiles are fascinating animals and exhibit really interesting physiological and ecological properties," he says. "They can be extremely abundant in certain habitats, but many species are experiencing widespread and unprecedented population declines."
Classes will include discussions; finding, trapping and identifying species; keeping field notes on observations; and learning about their role in the ecosystems. It's a hands-on, wet, muddy but enlightening experience.
The Field Studies program, now in its second year, is aimed at adults with a keen interest in wildlife biology.
"Participants have been a mix of biologists using the classes for professional development, retirees, and parents wanting to learn more about a topic to share with their children," said Floracliff's preserve manager Beverly James.
Eric Ruschman of Lexington, who attended one of last year's workshops, says he got a lot out of the program.
"The Field Studies Program allows an old biology major, or anyone with more than a pedestrian interest in biology, to reignite the flames of learning on a regular basis," he says. "The hikes at Floracliff allow me to introduce my kids to wonders of nature, to pass down the traditions of stewardship of the environment, and to show them the joy of lifelong learning."
These classes are in line with the vision held by Floracliff's founder, Mary Wharton.
"Dr. Wharton was interested in making natural sciences available to a wider audience," James says. "One of my visions for Floracliff is to provide environmental education opportunities that are unique to the region and have a very low impact on the preserve. An added bonus is when we also add to our knowledge about the preserve by adding to our species list. When we get biologists out here to cover a variety of topics, I gain information and tools that I can continue to use in the field. Hopefully, other natural areas can benefit in a similar way as people walk away from these programs as 'citizen scientists.'"
According to the national organization Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, these animals are important in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Hints for establishing a herp-friendly habitat are listed on its website, Parcplace.org. Just a few of the benefits listed include helping to control populations of insects like mosquitoes, and themselves providing a food source for other animals.
Drayer, the technician at UK, says that larger snakes even consume rodents including mice and rats that infest gardens and homes in the urban environment.
"Amphibians are sensitive to contaminants because they breathe through their skin, so the presence of these species tends to indicate a healthy environment," Drayer says. "Globally, the scientific community has documented substantial declines in amphibian populations; this has come to light in the past 30 years or so. There are several reasons amphibians are declining globally, including habitat loss, disease and pesticide or herbicide contamination, among others."
She says she hopes the workshop will increase awareness of these species, which people can find in their own backyards.
"Herpetofauna, especially snakes, tend to have a bad reputation," Drayer adds.
The workshops might put them in a better light. With proper care, garter snakes, black rat snakes, black racers and milk snakes might come to inhabit your garden — and you might like having them there.
Some ideas for enhancing your own backyard habitat:
■ Plant native species, which require little use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.
■ Include tree logs, rocks and brush as shelter for turtles, salamanders and snakes.
■ A pond will help attract frogs and turtles.
■ Avoid letting cats roam the garden, as they are quite good at catching the critters.
■ To get familiar with these creatures, a recommended reference is the Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern/Central North America by Roger Conant and Joseph T. Collins (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $21).
IF YOU GO
Field Studies Workshops
Topics: Herpetology on May 3 and 4; ferns will be studied June 28 and 29; and Kentucky insects and spiders will be the focus Sept. 13 and 14. Shorter programs are also offered on similar topics.
Where: Floracliff Nature Sanctuary in Fayette County, Maywoods Environmental and Education Laboratory in Madison County, and other sites in Central and Eastern Kentucky
Fee: $50, which covers a book or other resources. Registration is strongly encouraged.
Learn more: (859) 351-7770, Floracliff.org.
Susan Smith-Durisek is a master gardener and writer from Lexington. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blog: gardening.bloginky.com.