Little Brown Skink (Scincella lateralis)

While hiking in the woods of my college, I started at the sound of rustling leaves on the edge of the trail. My mind immediately thought “herp.” I scrutinized the leaf litter until I saw a small copper-colored skink partly concealed under a leaf. When I tried to get a better look, it dove deeper into the ground. This was my first personal encounter with a little brown skink (Scincella lateralis). I have found them many times now that I live in their range, but getting a picture of them is really hard. To get a photo for this post, I held a photography contest at my college. Congratulations to the winner, Trevor Sleight! His photo is shown below.

S. lateralis photographed by Trevor Sleight
S. lateralis photographed by Trevor Sleight

S. lateralis ranges from mid-Texas to the Atlantic and as far north as southern Ohio. They grow to be five inches in length and are found predominately in leaf litter. Unlike some other species of skink, brown skinks are not arboreal. Instead, they stay amongst the forest debris. When chased, they run underneath leaves or into decaying logs. There have been some recorded instances of brown skinks escaping into stagnant pools of water with only their head above the surface.

The easiest field mark is the brown to copper coloration running from the snout to the base of the tail along the back. These skinks share similar characteristics to the coal and mole skinks. Coal skinks have yellow striping on their sides, which the brown skink lacks, and mole skinks have a red tail which is also not present in the brown skink. Another cool feature of Scincella lateralis is its  clear membrane, often referred to as a “window,” in the lower eyelid  which allows them to see even when their eyes are closed.

The little brown skink’s diet includes invertebrates such as spiders, millipedes, termites, and isopods. Their predators are wolf spiders, a number of snakes, and several species of birds. They are also preyed upon by domestic dogs and cats.

This species is readily found in a variety of habitats across their range. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) lists them as a species of least concern and marks their population as stable. There are no conservation concerns for this species.

Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this article, follow my twitter where I post all of my writings! I used Lizards & Crocodilians of The Southeast by Whit Gibbons, Judy Greene, and Tony Mills for research. Matthew Anthony edited this article.

Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas)

My friends and I walked over the cold sand along Tom’s Cove in Chincoteague, Virginia. I pulled on my gloves to ward off the November chill. We were there to find winter shorebirds, but we found something much, much cooler! A flock of geese ahead of us took flight, revealing a prone form behind them. We ran out to what we thought was a dead Snow Goose, but as we approached it became clear it was actually a sea turtle!

Chelonia mydas, the green sea turtle, is readily identified by their single pair of prefrontal scales. Their range is hard to describe, so I attached a picture. They breed mostly in tropical waters, but the Virginia Aquarium told me we have a couple C. mydas nests on our coasts as well. Other species of sea turtles Virginia sees in its waters include Loggerhead, Kemp’s Ridley, Hawksbill, and Leatherback. The other species known to nest with any regularity is the Loggerhead.

Range of the green sea turtle. Image appropriated from here.
Range of the green sea turtle. Image courtesy of this website.

C. mydas are unique among sea turtles for having a serrated lower jaw which they use to tear at grass beds. Although they are largely herbivores in their adult lives, they prefer a carnivorous diet until approximately their third year. The grass bed sites regularly fed upon by green sea turtles are known as ‘pastures’ and are a prime breeding ground for many marine animals such as sea horses. The West Indian Manatee is also a ‘pasture grazer,’ but it is not known whether the green sea turtle and the manatee compete for food.

Unfortunately, we soon discovered that the sea turtle we found had recently died. We called the Virginia Stranding Team, a group with the Virginia Aquarium that rescues live and collects dead marine mammals and sea turtles, to let them know about the turtle for collection. They asked us for the exact location, so we used Google maps to plot the location and send it to them. We also posed for some photos with the turtle to document our amazing find! The people at the aquarium collect dead sea turtles and perform necropsies to determine the cause of death, so that they can learn what threats sea turtles face and figure out ways to conserve them. Later, I contacted the aquarium and discovered our sea turtle friend passed from a cold stun – a sudden drop of temperature in the water.

Sea turtle selfie! Photographed by Mathew Anthony
Sea turtle selfie! Photographed by Matthew Anthony

Green sea turtles are listed in CITES as Appendix I and as endangered on the IUCN red list. Appendix I means the species is threatened with extinction and could be impacted by trade. Historically, C. mydas were much more numerous, but human exploitation and hunting has reduced populations to about 3-7% of their historic levels. Current conservation concerns include shrimp trawling, light pollution, and nitrogen pollution among others. Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) that are now standard for shrimp trawling nets prevent the drowning of sea turtles and dolphins, but it is thought that the sea turtles still die from shock, proving TEDs useless for sea turtle survival; hatchling sea turtles travel towards the lightest horizon which, naturally, would be the horizon over the ocean, but light pollution from cities and towns cause the hatchlings to travel in the opposite direction to be picked off by ghost crabs, raccoons, and other predators; excess nitrogen causes red algae blooms, outcompeting green algae and giving sea turtles one option of algae for consumption – the kind known to cause fibropapillomatosis, a herpes like virus plaguing sea turtle populations. Sea turtles have many conservation concerns but, due to their world-wide range, a global conservation effort is needed to conserve this species and other species of sea turtles.

C. mydas are readily identified by their single pair of prefrontal scales.
C. mydas are readily identified by their single pair of prefrontal scales. Photographed by Matthew Anthony
This green sea turtle passed from a cold stun - a sudden drop in temperature in the water
This green sea turtle passed from a cold stun – a sudden drop in temperature in the water. Photographed by Matthew Anthony

Thank you for reading! I used “Sea Turtles of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the United States” by Carol Ruckdeschel and C. Robert Shoop and “Turtles of the South east” by Kurt Buhlmann, Tracey Tuberville, and Whit Gibbons. This article was edited by Matthew Anthony. If you liked this post, you may want to read my other works. Follow my twitter to get updates!

Eastern Worm Snake (Carphophis amoenus amoenus)

I flipped over log after log on my way to class, searching for a particular species. I’m sure all the other students thought I was a bit strange, walking parallel to the sidewalk in the woods, rolling over decaying logs. Earthworms wiggled and spiders scurried away, and I put another log back. Methodically, I flipped a log and my heart beat took off because this earthworm had scales.

The eastern worm snake (Carphophis amoenus amoenus) spends almost the entirety of its life underground, feeding primarily on earthworms but will also eat soft-bodied grubs and slugs. It is a small snake reaching an average length of 8 to 12 inches. It will venture above ground at night in the warmer months, but you’d have better luck finding them by flipping logs and rocks.

C. amoenus is present in every state in the south east except for Florida. They are brown to gray with white to pink bellies. There are two subspecies: the eastern worm snake (C. a. amoenus) and the midland worm snake (C. a. helenae) which are distinguished by number of head scales and range. Another species of worm snake is described alongside C. a. amoenus and C. a. helenae. The western worm snake (Carphophis vermis) has the same diet and behaviors but is typically of darker coloration than its counterparts.

When handled the worm snake tries to burry its small hand between your fingers in an attempt to escape underground. It also uses its spiked tail to dig into your hand. The hard, sharp end of the worm snake is used to position worms for feeding, but is also used as a weapon. The tail does not break skin and very rarely will this species bite humans.

Conservation concerns for this species include destruction of forest habitat, flooding, and poisoning via insecticides. Because worm snakes live underground, flooding can kill off populations. This would make damming in forested areas detrimental to local worm snakes.

C. a. amoenus fresh from under a log
C. a. amoenus fresh from under a log

 

 

Thank you for reading! I used “Snakes of the Southeast” by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas and “A Guide to the Snakes of Virginia” published by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. If you enjoyed this article, you may enjoy my other writings! Be sure to follow my twitter for updates!

Northern Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi dekayi)

I gave up on my shoes early on. They rested on the bank while I waded into the cold stream, scanning the muddy banks and submerged rocks for herps. It was slightly chilly as spring had only just begun and a cold rain soaked the ground the night before. After at least a half hour of stalking the stream and turning over rocks, I spotted an oddly shaped stick on the bank beside me. But it wasn’t a stick at all! A northern brown snake (Storeria dekayi dekayi) was lying perfectly still on the slope above the water.

S. dekayi range from the tip of Florida to southern Maine and stretch as far west as middle Texas. Another common name for this snake is Dekay’s snake, but it is not used much because people sometimes think you are referring to a “decayed” snake. They are not big, adults averaging 12 inches in Virginia, have keeled scales, and are primarily nocturnal.

There are four subspecies of the brown snake: northern brown snake (S. d. dekayi), midland brown snake (S. d. wrightorum), marsh brown snake (S. d. limnetes), and the Texas brown snake (S. d. texana). The Florida brown snake (Storeria victa) used to be a subspecies but was recently renamed. These snakes can be distinguished by slight differences in patterning and range. Since I was in Williamsburg, VA, I found a northern brown snake.

Their most common prey items are earthworms and slugs, but they have also been recorded to eat salamanders, spiders, an assortment of insects, and snails. A cool fact about them: brown snakes pull the snail out of the shell before eating it (escargot – yum!). Some of their predators include birds, other snakes, mammals, toads, and spiders. It’s tough being so small that even spiders can eat you! The second picture in this article will give an idea of just how small a full grown northern brown snake is.

There are no conservation concerns for Storeria dekayi. In some regions, it is estimated that more individuals thrive in urban parks and lawns than in the forest.

S. d. dekayi on the stream bank
S. d. dekayi on the stream bank
Adult northern brown snakes average 12 inches in length.
Adult northern brown snakes average 12 inches in length.

I used “Snakes of the Southeast” by Mike Dorcas and Whit Gibbons and “A Guide to the Snakes of Virginia” published by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to follow my twitter!

Smooth Green Snake (Opheodrys vernalis)

My ornithology professor pulled his car to the side of the gravel road, and my boyfriend, Matt, and I jumped out. While Matt and my professor were completely focused on birds, I wandered around the grassy, mountain meadow and explored the abandoned house on the edge of the woods. After finding a new-looking boat in the middle of a decaying dining room, I went back outside and decided to check the little stream meandering through the meadow for herps. I crouched in the tall grass, scrutinizing the banks of the stream while the sun shone brightly overhead. After a few minutes of looking up and down the stream, I glanced directly across from me and saw a smooth green snake (Opheodrys vernalis) frozen on the edge of the grass.

O. vernalis are the only southeastern species of snake found only in Virginia, growing to an average length of 24 inches. They range from southern Canada to Virginia and west to Montana. There are small, isolated populations of smooth greens in the mid-west as well. In Virginia they inhabit mountain meadows and bogs, sticking close to streams.

Smooth Green Snakes prey on insects, spiders, worms, millipedes, centipedes, salamanders, and crayfish, grabbing and swallowing their food instead of constricting. Their main predators are hawks and other snakes. There have even been records of spiders eating green snakes.

The distinctive feature that sets O. vernalis apart from the rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus) is the texture of the scales. Rough greens have keeled scales, while smooth greens have smooth scales. Keeled is a term referring to the rise present in the middle of the scale that resembles a mountain ridge. The first picture at the bottom of this article shows an illustration of both keeled and smooth scales. The following picture is of the smooth green snake I found by the meadow stream.

The Virginia Herpetological Society lists this species as Tier III: High Conservation Need in the Virginia Wildlife Action Plan.  Human threats to this species include cars and habitat destruction (i.e. development around mountain wetlands). In the United States O. vernalis is a species of concern because it is in decline. Some states, including Texas, Missouri, North Carolina, Montana, Iowa, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Indiana, already protect this species.

Image appropriated from Lifeandscience.org
Image appropriated from lifeandscience.org
Photo taken by Matthew Anthony with his iphone through his binoculars.
Photo taken by Matthew Anthony with his iphone through his binoculars. Kudos to your skills, Matt.

Thank you for reading! I used “Snakes of the Southeast” by Mike Dorcas and Whit Gibbons and “A Guide to the Snakes of Virginia” published by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to follow my twitter page where I post links to all the articles I write.