Because it is February in NJ and at least three weeks away from being warm enough to search for any ambystomatidae, plethodontidae, bufonidae, or ranidae, I would like to begin a preliminary series of articles regarding what I am calling, “The Virtues and Etiquette of Field Herping.” This series will begin with the following article and will be followed by at least one more article. It may end there or may be updated again and again. This material may be redundant or obvious for many of you. In spite of this, because of the fact that many young herpers are gaining most of their information from the Internet, I believe that it is important that they are aware of some very basic “rules” while field herping. This series will provide what I consider to be some of the basic information that all young and new field herpers should follow. Of course, I recognize that my word is certainly not the only or the most authoritative. Therefore, if there is any information that I am lacking, please, make me aware and I will do my utmost to see to it that the information reaches its proper audience.
Most herpers have fond memories of their first wild snake, frog, turtle, or salamander; nostalgic episodes of the past that solidified their interest in these amazing creatures. At a young age there is often a strong desire to keep these animals and remove them from their natural habitat, a desire that may extend into adulthood. Unfortunately, as we enter the Anthropocene Epoch every move we make has the potential to tremendously affect, either positively or negatively, these incredible animals which we affectionately call “herps.” I would like to provide an overview of some of my own field experiences which have instilled in me what I call the “virtues and etiquette of field herping,” along with some of my own and others’ techniques to avoid disturbing species’ critical habitats and environments, in addition to the species themselves. As someone who is extremely passionate about wildlife and nature, especially reptiles and amphibians, I feel that we all have a duty to each other and future generations to provide the proper education to ensure that these animals continue to persist.
Respect for the Species & Its Habitat
Over the last four years, many of my frequent herping haunts have begun to exhibit the signs of anthropogenic disturbance. I categorize anthropogenic disturbances into four categories, ranking from least invasive to most invasive:
- Human generated litter – This refers to waste that has been left behind by hikers, runners, bikers, and/or off-roaders. In most cases, whenever I encounter any plastic bottles, aluminum cans, whole glass bottles, or food wrappers, I simply pick them up and place them into my carry-all. Of course, there are some human waste items that make excellent herp microhabitats, some of which are deliberately placed to attract herpetofauna. These items, mainly cover boards and tin, are always a great way to attract local herpetofauna. My only advice, with respect to this, is to make sure that you are not disturbing the integrity of the habitat in which you place the items (cover boards and tin are best placed in open areas that receive sunlight for part of the day for reptiles, and in darker, cooler, moister areas near permanent or temporary bodies of water for amphibians).
- Displaced rocks, logs, and leaf litter – This drives me crazy! I cannot emphasize enough that this is not proper field herping etiquette. If you ever move a rock, log, or leaf litter in search of herps, please, always return the rock, log, or leaf litter to its original position. These microhabitats do not solely serve the purpose of providing shelter for reptiles and amphibians. They also provide microhabitats and shelter for other animals which herps may prey upon. Therefore, it behooves one to replace the debris in order that either a herp, or its prey item may return to and utilize this space. Moreover, it is important for other non-prey species as well. Reptiles and amphibians are part of an intricate and fragile web in their ecosystems. They depend upon other species, just as other species depend on them. Always keep this in mind when rummaging through the field.
- Removal of species – In the case of certain hyper-common or common species, whose removal may not appear to pose a threat to the integrity of the population, please limit the number of specimens you take. Reptile and amphibian populations can be difficult to gauge. Always air on the side of caution, even when removing “common” species.
- Removal of rare, threatened, or endangered species – This is by far the worst thing you can do as a field herper. Unless you have been granted a special permit by the proper authorities, in most cases for research, this is an offense that may carry legal penalties. Never remove rare, threatened, or endangered species, and always be aware of the species in your range that are categorized as rare, threatened, or endangered. Despite many species being ostensibly commonplace in one location, their overall status in your state may not be what it appears. If you do encounter animals that are categorized as such, either deliberately or accidentally, minimize physical contact as much as possible, even entirely, if doable, and use discretion and acute judgment when photographing these animals. Make an attempt to limit the stress level of the animal, especially during times of critical importance for the species, such as: spring emergence, mating, egg laying, and fall/winter ingression.
Following up bullet 4, I would like to mention the importance of keeping the critical habitats of rare/endangered species and these species’ localities as ambiguous as possible. Never provide information regarding the whereabouts of rare, threatened, or endangered species, unless you are confident that the person with whom you are sharing this information is a trustworthy individual. Again, air on the side of caution and use your most acute judgment. Word of mouth travels quickly, even more so with our connectedness to the Internet, our smartphones, and tablets. Due to loose lips, a once secret safe haven for your most beloved herp species may disintegrate, unintentionally, over one herp season.
If these basic guidelines can be practiced by the majority of the field herping community, it will ensure that we all have access to these incredible animals. Furthermore, it will ensure that these animals have a place to thrive and that future herpers will have the opportunity to view them in their natural habitats, not just in books, museums, zoos, or private collections. It is important to promote awareness and respect for reptiles and amphibians and the ecosystems that they inhabit. Because the herping community is constantly advocating on behalf of herps to non-herpers, we may forget that the herping community may occasionally need to be given a friendly reminder to respect herps and their habitat, too.