KIMBALL, Neb. – Here in the tri-state region of the Northern Great Plains, farmers, ranchers, and others who spend a lot of time outdoors and away from urban areas are not unaccustomed to seeing reptiles. For the most part, however, the reptiles we see are usually snakes, most often bull snakes and rattlesnakes. This makes sense as they are the largest of the regions reptile species and spend a good bit of time sunning themselves where they are most likely to be seen, on or near county roads and rural highways, for instance.
Our region is home to many more reptiles than two species of snakes, though, and home also to amphibians and turtles. Just because we don’t commonly see them doesn’t mean that they don’t exist, nor does it mean that they don’t hold an important place in our High Plains ecosystem.
In order to kindle a bit of enthusiasm for this little-seen segment of nature and to make identifying these animals a bit easier, the Herpetology Department of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has developed an online and smartphone-friendly resource which is simple, easy to use, and free. Their “Guide to Snakes, Turtles, Frogs, Lizards, and Salamanders” is available at this web address: http://snr.unl.edu/herpneb/
The guide is an online resource which is accessible at home or via your smartphone, so long as you have cell reception. It includes a comprehensive search engine which allows you to identify animals by entering a few key attributes, such as animal size, color, markings, etc.
Dennis Ferraro is one of the UNL faculty who helped put the online guide together. Dennis is the resident herpetologist and an professor of practice at the School of Natural Resources at UNL and has been a faculty member since 1990. Dennis and a pair of undergraduate students stopped by a south Panhandle ranch on Sunday to collect a few specimens.
The group were hoping to collect a couple of male and female pairs of Greater Short-Horned Lizards (Phrynosoma hernandesi), also known as Mountain Short-Horned Lizards, and colloquially, “horned toads.”
One of the purposes of collecting these specimens is to take a close look at their genetics. Ferraro said that recent studies have identified two ranges of genetically distinct lizards. One range is more western, and the other more eastern. Where the ranges meet, some interbreeding takes place. Ferraro hopes to collect lizards from both ranges, as well as some interbreeding animals if possible. Studying the genetics of such specimens will increase our understanding of short-horned lizards and their place in the environment, as well as help pin down the exact boundary of eastern and western species ranges.
Unfortunately, Sunday wasn’t a good day for collecting short-horned lizards. Air temperatures were slightly cooler than average and a cold front was moving into the area, bringing cloud cover and brisk breezes.
“It’s difficult for the lizards to thermoregulate under these conditions,” he said. The radiant heat of the sun warms them, but convection from the wind cools them even faster. They are less active and more sluggish and less apt to be out hunting their normal prey of ants. Some of these wind gusts are strong enough to lift the lizards off the ground and into the air, and they probably want to avoid that as well.”
While the group failed to collect any short-horned lizards, they were able to collect a male Common Lesser Earless Lizard (Holbrookia maculata) and a pair of male Many-Lined Skinks (Plestiodon multivirgatus).
The earless lizard, or “Brooksie” as Ferraro called it, was a very handsome but also very small lizard. Ferraro noted that they live only about 18 months and that their diet consists of small arthropods and other small lizards.
The skinks were also fascinating. The pair collected were found beneath rotting fence posts where conditions were relatively damp and cool and where there was an abundant supply worms and arthropods for them to feast on. Skinks are also quite interesting because they can lose -- and then regenerate -- their tails.
“It’s an evolved escape mechanism,” said Ferraro. “Predators grab them by the tail, and the tail breaks off and continues to wiggle, keeping the attention of the predator while the skink escapes. Physiologically, the tail separates at a suture line where blood vessels automatically seal. The skink begins regrowing the lost tail immediately, though it takes several months to grow back completely.”
If you’re out and about and happen across some interesting herpetofauna, be sure to use your smartphone to access UNL’s “Guide to Snakes, Turtles, Frogs, Lizards, and Salamanders.” If you’re still stumped after using the guide, you can also send questions and photos of your find to Dennis by accessing the Herpetology department’s “contact an expert” page at http://snr.unl.edu/herpneb/ContactExpert.asp