Alberta Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy

AARC Blogs

Canada 150 National Parks Blog #3 - Close to Home - Reptiles and Amphibians at Elk Island National Park
Alyssa Metro
AARC Treasurer
BSc Environmental and Conservation Sciences

Elk Island is a short 40-60 min drive east of Edmonton and is unique in that it is the only national park that is completely fenced in. Established in 1906, its 194 km2 is on a plateau of wetlands, mixed wood and aspen forests and grasslands. The populations of plains and wood bison along with elk, moose, deer and many species of birds and other mammals, attract many visitors.

Elk Island provides habitat for 5 species of amphibians; wood frog (Lithobates sylvaticus), boreal chorus frog (Pseudacris maculata), tiger salamander (Ambystoma mavortium), western toad (Anaxyrus boreas) and Canadian toad (Anaxyrus hemiophrys). There is also one species of reptile, the plains garter snake (Thamnophis radix). The range of the red sided garter snake extends to Edmonton but not much further east. It is possible they could be found in the area but currently there have been no verified recordings within the park.

Boreal chorus frogs and wood frogs can be seen throughout the park, in the spring you will hear them anywhere there is a body of water. Wood frogs gather together and mate in the vegetation near the edge of ponds, you can often find this site by listening for their soft quacking-like call and watching for the commotion and ripples. Their eggs are laid in large masses, about the size of your palm. Chorus frog eggs are also laid in masses but are much smaller. Later in the summer you will encounter both species on the paths. Wood frogs will be highly visible and generally hop as you near them, while chorus frogs are smaller and not as adept at jumping so some attention to detail may be needed.

Western Toads are considered a species at risk. They are located in the park but are not as wide spread. These terrestrial amphibians congregate in small shallow ponds in the spring and lay strings of eggs. Their mating call is fairly quiet, and sounds like soft peeping. Your best chance to see them is in the northeast corner of the park, in sites with coniferous trees. In late summer you may see young of the year on sunny days near wetlands. To see adults, you are most likely to encounter them at night in June- September.

The Canadian toad is smaller than the western toad, and has a more pronounced cranial crest. While their ranges overlap with the western toad, the aspen parkland is its primary habitat so it can likely be found throughout the park. The Canadian Toad is also diurnal so is much more likely to be seen during the day. The call is a loud 1-5 second trill.

The tiger salamander spends mating season in permanent standing water, and the rest of the year primarily underground in burrows. The best times of the year to find them are on a rainy night in the spring while they are looking for breeding sites, or in the fall when they are looking for hibernation sites. However on rainy days they may be seen wandering the paths as well. There is suitable habitat for this species throughout the park.

The plains garter snake has wide habitat preferences and can also be found throughout the park. However, it often stays close to wetlands as this is where they hunt frogs, fish and other prey. A warm sunny day is an ideal time to see them, basking in the sun on a trail or on a rock near a wetland. Often you will not notice them until they move, and they will be gone quick! Garter snakes congregate in hibernacula in the winter and you may come across a large group of snakes in the fall or spring. Be sure to not disturb them, hibernacula are protected by the Alberta Wildlife Act. You may want to consider reporting a hibernaculum to park staff or on Alberta Volunteer Amphibian Monitoring Program (AVAMP).

Elk Island offers an excellent volunteer herping activity in the park. There is a multi-year monitoring project which measures the change in occupancy of wetlands over time by key amphibians. The focus species for this is the Western Toad. Volunteers can take part in auditory surveys (mid-April to the end of May) at night. Or visual surveys can be conducted for tadpoles, young of the year or adults. This takes place May-August during the day. When you sign in you will be assigned a wetland to survey, and given a quick orientation. This activity is suitable for all ages.

As well, connected to the south side of the park is the Cooking Lake- Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area. This additional 97 km2 offers many of the same opportunities for wildlife viewing and has a large network of trails that span a variety of habitats in this Boreal Forest/ Dry Mixedwood natural region. Roughly half this area is pasture but the rest is in a natural state.

Boreal Chorus Frog

Western Toad

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Guest Blog - Nominating Important Amphibian and Reptile Areas (IMPARA) in Alberta
Darcey Shyry P.Biol., Instructor of Energy and Environmental Sciences, Lakeland College

Can you ID frogs and toads by their calls?

I am preparing a nomination for an Important Amphibian and Reptile Area (IMPARA) in the Parkland region along the Battle River (see map below) between Hardisty (AB) and Manitou Lake (SK). The IMPARA program, managed by the Canadian Herpteological Society, is similar to the Important Bird Areas (IBA's) in that they identify important areas for herptile conservation (see Canadian Herpetological Society).

This proposed IMPARA site is important because it:

The herptile observation records are somewhat limited so I am requesting that herptophiles with the ability to identify amphibians by their calls conduct surveys in the nomination area this spring (from mid-April to early-June) and report their results to the Alberta Volunteer Amphibian Monitoring Program (Alberta Conservation Association ) if in AB, and to the SK CDC if in SK. The survey protocols for amphibians are the same for AB and SK and can be found here. If it helps, please consider this an impromptu BioBlitz for Canada's 150th (BioBlitz Canada).

The areas that I believe survey efforts should focus include:

IMPARA Nomination

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Canada 150 National Parks Blog #2 - Reptiles and amphibians amidst mountainous peaks – Jasper National Park
Ian Kanda RVT
Alberta Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy Co-Founder
Exotic Animal and Wildlife Technician, Oklahoma State University

Jasper National Park is nearly 11,000 km2, is the largest of the national parks in the Canadian Rockies and has approximately 2 million visitors each year. Named after fur trader Jasper Hawes, the park was established in 1907 and given national park status in 1930. Jasper National Park was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. Parks Canada is the world’s first national park service and in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday admission to all national parks is free throughout 2017.

When exploring Jasper National Park, there are nearly 1,000km of trail to hike or bike your way through the back country. Picturesque mountain lakes dot the landscape, as well as the Sunwapta and Athabasca rivers. The alpine peaks and extreme elevations found in Jasper National Park are the primary limiting factors when looking to enjoy its herpetofauna. Montane regions in valleys and the lower elevations (985m) near the east entrance on Highway 16 offer home to some of the world’s most cold tolerant herpetofauna. Perhaps the most commonly encountered amphibian in the park is the western toad, Anaxyrus boreas. It has been observed regularly on nearly every hiking trail and will be most readily encountered after dark during warm summer evenings. In the spring, watch for them and their long strings of eggs along the shallow edges of wetlands. In doing so, you may also the other common amphibians in the area. Northern long-toed salamanders, Ambystoma macrodactylum krausi and Columbia spotted frogs, Rana luteiventris inhabit small, fishless wetlands and have been observed primarily along the highway 16 corridor and the northern, lower elevation of the highway 93 corridor. Another commonly encountered frog, the wood frog, Lithobates sylvaticus is common along the trails in northern half of the park. Watch for them in the evening, or basking along wetland edges on sunny mornings. In the spring, you may hear them calling from the water, often described as a soft duck call, and you may also see their round egg masses attached to aquatic vegetation.A frog common throughout Alberta, the boreal chorus frog, Pseudacris maculata, can be found along the Athabasca River floodplain and the many wetlands found along highway 16 out, and east of the park.

Reptiles are uncommonly encountered in Jasper National Park. The terrestrial garter snake, Thamnophis elegans, is widespread in the lower elevations and may be encountered along wetland edges looking to feed on amphibians, small fish, and invertebrates. Another garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis, or the red-sided garter snake has rarely been documented. It is common east of Jasper National Park in the foothills and boreal forest.

Jasper National Park is amongst the world’s most beautiful, picturesque areas and a Canadian treasure. Amidst the mountainous peaks, green valleys, vibrant blue lakes and wetlands is opportunity to enjoy wildlife that ranges from woodland caribou, to massive bear, elk and moose, to the tiny and peculiar frogs, toads and snakes that make western Alberta their home.

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Guest Blog
By Lisa Wilkinson, Species at Risk Biologist, Alberta Environment and Parks

At this time of year, amphibians are sleeping away the winter, hibernating underground or in mud at the bottom of ponds. Around the globe amphibian populations are declining. Here in Alberta all but 3 of our 10 species of amphibians are at some level of risk.

The good news is that people are helping to monitor amphibian populations. A dedicated group of volunteers in the Canmore area is continuing a long-term amphibian study (originally started by researchers). Because amphibian populations naturally fluctuate it is necessary to monitor them for several years to identify potential declines.

These intrepid volunteers help at two key times in the amphibian life cycle: 1. Early summer when amphibians travel to ponds to breed and lay eggs, and 2. Late summer when tadpoles have transformed into young adults and leave the pond

What do volunteers do?

Five species of amphibians have been detected in the Canmore area: Columbia spotted frog, wood frog, boreal chorus frog, boreal toad and long-toed salamander.

Anyone, anywhere in Alberta, can submit observations of amphibians by participating in the Alberta Volunteer Amphibian Monitoring Program. Amphibian monitoring provides essential information to help protect amphibians and their habitats.

Boreal toad eggs are laid in long strings
Photo by Kristen Cline

Boreal (western) toad. The boreal toad is the only species of toad found in the Rocky Mountains.

Wood frog eggs are laid in clumps
Photo by Kristen Cline

Long-toed salamander, photo: Mike Jokinen. The long-toed salamander, found in the Rocky Mountains, is a Species of Special Concern because it is found in isolated populations and vulnerable to habitat loss and degradation.

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Canada 150 National Parks Blog #1 - Waterton Lakes National Park
Dr. Teresa Bousquet

In honor of Canada's 150th birthday, we are going to be running a series of blogs highlighting the herping opportunities in the National Parks within Alberta. First up, Waterton Lakes National Park:

Waterton Lakes National Park is one of Canada’s smaller National Parks, at 505 square kilometers. The park is located in the southwest corner of Alberta, along the border with Montana. It is connected to Glacier National Park, and together, they were designated as a the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (IPP) in 1932, as a symbol of peace and goodwill between Canada and the United States. The IPP was established as a World Heritage Site in 1995. Waterton Lakes National Park is considered the core area of the Waterton Biosphere Reserve, established in 1979.

Waterton Lakes National Park is home to six species of amphibians and four species of reptiles. These include: Long Toed-Salamanders (Ambystoma macrodactylum), Boreal Toads (Anaxyrus boreas), Columbia Spotted Frogs (Rana luteiventris), Tiger Salamanders (Ambystoma mavortium), Boreal Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris maculata), Leopard Frogs (extirpated/re-introduced)(Lithobates pipiens), Wandering Garter Snakes (Thamnophis elegans), Red-Sided Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis), Bullsnakes (Pituophis catenifer), and Plains Garter Snakes (Thamnophis radix). In 2015, a Rocky Mountain Tailed frog (Ascaphus montanus) was found in a creek just south of the American border in Glacier National Park, but in spite of environmental DNA testing, this species has yet to be identified in Waterton Lakes National Park.

In Wateron Lakes National Park, the best place to see herps is often along roadways. Wandering and Red-sided Garter snakes like to bask on the parkway on sunny spring and summer afternoons. On rainy spring and summer evenings, various amphibians such as Boreal Toads and Tiger Salamanders take to the roadways near Driftwood Beach and the Bison Paddock. Watch for wandering Boreal Toads as you hike the park’s trails. Linnet Lake trail is another good spot to visit in the spring and fall. There are four special underpasses in this area, that allow long-salamanders to cross from the slopes of Crandell Mountain, where they over-winter, to the lake, where they breed. These underpasses have been found to reduce salamander roadway mortality.

Special Notes: There is an on-going project within the Park to re-establish the extirpated Nothern Leopard Frog. The frogs are being released in specially selected locations around the park that are ideal Northern Leopard Frog habitat. The exact sites are not being made public, to try to reduce stress and give the frogs as much undisturbed space as possible. However, if you happen to come across Northern Leopard Frogs, please contact Parks Canada staff and report your sighting. This helps them track how the frogs are doing and if they are moving within the Park. Sightings of all other herps are also of interest to park staff – ask the Visitor Reception Centre staff for forms to record your observations, and contribute to the monitoring of these important populations!

Parks Canada works hard to protect national parks against aquatic invasive species, such as quagga mussles and whirling disease. Please also note that whirling disease, which is an infectious disease of finfish, is now in Alberta, though it has not been detected to date in Waterton Lakes National Park. To help protect the park’s ecological integrity and avoid cross-contamination between infected and uninfected water bodies, please avoid wading into the water. If you see fish swimming in a whirling pattern, please contact Parks Canada staff immediately.

Thank you to Kimberly Peason and John Stoesser for your input and assistance!

Waterton Lakes National Park - Salamander Crossing
Waterton Lakes National Park - Herptiles

Long-toed salamanders: A Recent Graduate Student’s Experience
By Matt Adams

The long-toed salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum) is one of only two salamander species found in Alberta. Salamanders in the genus Ambystoma are also known as “mole salamanders” because they are seldom found above ground. Tiger salamanders (Ambystoma mavortium), the other salamander species found in Alberta, is also a member of this genus, although the two species barely overlap in range within the province.

Long-toed salamanders are one of the most common salamander species throughout the Pacific Northwest and are found in a diverse array of habitats ranging from arid systems in eastern Oregon and Idaho to the temperate rain forests of coastal British Columbia and Alaska. In Alberta, long-toed salamanders occur only along the Rocky Mountains and foothills and occupy both alpine and valley-bottom systems. The life history of long-toed salamanders is similar throughout its range, but the timing, or phenology, of breeding and overwintering activities can vary. Generally, breeding adult long-toed salamanders emerge from below-ground overwintering sites in the spring to make overland nighttime migrations en masse to an aquatic breeding site. Like many amphibians, long-toed salamanders are “pond-breeding”, which means they require a permanent to semi-permanent standing body of water in which to lay eggs, and for larvae to develop and metamorphose into terrestrial juveniles. After breeding and egg-laying activities have concluded, adults will migrate back into the terrestrial areas around their breeding site and remain there for the remainder of the warm months until cold winter temperatures drive them below ground, back to their overwintering sites. Larvae metamorphose into terrestrial juveniles later in the year and emerge from the water body to find their own foraging grounds and overwintering refuges.

I worked with long-toed salamanders in Waterton Lakes National Park in 2013 and 2014, focusing my research activities on the breeding population inhabiting Linnet Lake. This population had been studied by grad students two other times, beginning in 1993, and has experienced over a 60% population decline since then. The decline is thought be caused by high road mortality and predation of aquatic larvae by fish in Linnet Lake. The installation of under-road tunnels in 2008, and fish removals in 2010 and 2011 were done with the hope of reversing the population decline, and one of the main goals of my research was to find out if these two mitigation actions had any measureable effect. Other goals of my research were to determine how well wildlife cameras worked for monitoring tunnel use by salamanders, find out what sorts of refuges salamanders use to overwinter, and investigate the orientation of migrating adults and dispersing juveniles with respect to the breeding site shoreline. I used a unique method of tracking in my investigations, termed “PIT telemetry”, which is simply using a large portable radio frequency identification (RFID) antenna to relocate passive integrated transponder (PIT)-tagged salamanders in the field. I also used PIT tags to create mark-recapture population estimates as well as detect movement of tagged salamanders through some of the tunnels.

Essentially, I found: no evidence that the long-toed salamander population at Linnet Lake is recovering, and, in fact, the population may still be in decline; long-toed salamanders overwintered exclusively in rotten tree roots (n = 10), sometimes associated with a decaying tree stump; on average, cameras capture about 15% of salamanders passing through tunnels; and adult and juvenile salamanders orient non-randomly (and differently) during movements to and from breeding locations, which has implications for protecting terrestrial areas around breeding sites.

Salamanders are pretty cool critters! I would encourage any nature-lover to take a moment next time you’re in the Rocky’s to gently flip a log or two near a fishless wetland in the spring and see if you can spot one of these elusive amphibians. The results of my research are available in the form of a MSc. thesis through the University of Alberta libraries, and I can be reached by email at

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AARC Blog #11
Dr. Teresa Bousquet
Exotic Animal Veterinarian and AARC President

Creature Feature – Bullsnake (aka - Gopher snake) Pituophis catenifer

Bullsnakes are the largest snake species in Alberta, reaching up to 2 m in length (Bet you thought rattlers were the biggest. Who knew?). They are heavy-bodied, light colored, with dark brown, black or reddish rectangular blotches along their length. Bullsnakes are found in desert, short-grass prairie, and dry, open scrubland habitats in the south eastern corner of Alberta, with the Red Deer River basin being the northern edge of their range. When herping, look for rock piles and boulders in areas with sandy soil.

They are also the only snake species in Alberta that kills their prey by constriction. As recent research has shown, constrictors do not actually kill their prey by suffocating them, as previously believed. Instead, they squeeze their prey, causing severe derangement in their blood pressure, causing circulatory collapse.

Bullsnakes are burrowers, using their modified rostral (nose) scale to dig. They are diurnal (most active during the day).

Bullsnakes are primarily rodent-eaters, but will also eat birds and eggs. Because of their taste for rodents, they are valuable as a natural biological control for farmers.

Bullsnakes are oviparous, meaning that they lay eggs. They can lay 2-24 eggs, 1-2 times during the summer. Young snakes emerge in the late summer or early fall.

Threats to the Bullsnake include cultivation and irrigation of their grassland habitats, increased road density (road mortalities). Sadly, they are also the victims of human persecution, primarily directed at their hibernacula (the gathering place where they hibernate), as the snakes are big, look a bit like rattlesnakes, and will shake their tails when frightened (though they do not have rattles). There is insufficient population information for us to determine their threat status at this time.

Alberta Conservancy Association “Reptiles of Alberta”
Canadian Herpetological Society
COSEWIC Species Database: Bullsnake.

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AARC Blog #10
Dr. Teresa Bousquet
Exotic Animal Veterinarian and AARC President

Creature Feature – Western Painted Turtle Chrysemys picta belli

Attention turtle lovers! Were you feeling left out? Well, your time has finally come!

The painted turtle is the only turtle species native to Alberta. In Canada, their range extends from Lake Nipigon in Ontario, to Vancouver Island. In Alberta, hey are found in a few locations in Southern Alberta, in the Milk River drainage basin, Cypress Hills, the upper Oldman River. Recently (2005), a new population was discovered in the Waterton Lakes National Park. One population reported near Edmonton was thought to be the result of the release of captive individuals.

Western Painted Turtles are the largest sub-species of Painted Turtles, with carapace lengths of about 251 mm. They are described as having a long, smooth, unkeeled carapace (top shell). They are generally black, brown or olive, with the front edge of the shield bordered with yellow, orange or red. The plastron (lower shell) is usually marked with red with a large central figure, which has branches extending along the furrows between the scutes (sections of the shell). They also have red and yellow patterns on their limbs.

They are a fresh-water aquatic species, hanging out in ponds, marshes, lakes, ditches and slow-moving streams with soft, sandy or muddy bottoms. During the winter, these turtles hibernate buried in the mud where they will not freeze, and breathe through their skin!

Their diet consists of aquatic plants, insects, spiders, earthworms, mollusks, crayfish, fish and amphibians. Feeding starts in the spring when water temperatures reach about 15-18 C.

In Canada, mating season is late May-August. Like the familiar red eared slider, the females are generally larger than the males. A female painted turtle may lay her eggs 150 m or more from water, and can lay up to 23 eggs. Incubation averages about 76 days. As with many reptile species, the sex-ratio of the offspring is determined by the temperature of the nest site. With incubation temperatures over 29 C, all females will be produced, and with incubation temperatures under 27 C, mostly males will be produced. New baby turtles over-winter in the nest and emerge in the spring.

Threats to the Western Painted Turtle include habitat loss due to drainage of wetlands, road construction (habitat loss and increased road mortalities), increased predation during drought years, climate change, water pollution, expanding raccoon populations, and release of captive exotic turtles (such as Red Eared Sliders), which compete for resources, and introduce new parasites and diseases into the population.

Remember, it is illegal to keep painted turtles as pets in Alberta. We especially discourage keeping wild-collected individuals. Wild turtle populations are already under stress, and do not need the added pressures of being captured for the pet trade. Depending on climatic conditions, it takes up to 10 years for a painted turtle to reach maturity, and given the low number of offspring they produce, each individual is important in a wild population!

Peterson Field Guides: Western Reptiles and Amphibians (3rd ed) by Robert C Stebbins.
Alberta Conservancy Association “Reptiles of Alberta”
COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the Western Painted Turtle in Canada, 2006.

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AARC Blog #9
Dr. Teresa Bousquet
Exotic Animal Veterinarian and AARC Board Member

Why Garter Snakes Make Good Neighbors

There are 3 species of garter snakes living in Alberta: The Plains Garter Snake (Thamnophis radix), The Wandering Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans), and the Red-sided Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). None of them is considered venomous, and they are non-aggressive, avoiding human contact rather than standing and defending themselves. If caught, they may (in my experience, almost certainly will) excrete a foul-smelling fluid, but they rarely bite.

If there is a snake in your yard, it means that there likely is also a food source in your yard. Garter snakes will eat small fish, amphibians, small mammals, earthworms, slugs and leeches. Most of these are unwanted tenants, so the snake is providing a valuable service.

Garter snakes do not dig holes themselves, so they will not harm garden plants by digging around them. Being carnivorous, they also will not chew or eat the plants. Apart from over winter, when garter snakes famously garter in hibernacula, they are generally solitary hunters, so your neighbors need not fear that the presence of one snake will soon have their yards seething with snakes.

If you see a wild garter snake, and would like to encourage it to hang out in your area, here are some tips to making your yard garter snake friendly:

  1. Provide a basking area, such as a pile of wood or rocks. Snakes like these types of habitat because they can bask, but also have quick access to a bolt hole should a predator appear
  2. Provide ground cover for hiding. This may be low-growing plants, or (as many herpers will tell you), a board lying on the ground.
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AARC Blog #8
Dr. Teresa Bousquet
Exotic Animal Veterinarian and AARC Board Member


Ranavirus is a virus that playing a major role in the decline of wild amphibians, and it’s impact has been compared to the devastation caused by chytridomycosis. Like Chytrid, Ranavirus has a world-wide distribution, having been identified in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa.

Ranavirus can infect not only amphibians, but reptiles, and fish as well. More than 173 different species of affected animals have been identified so far, which broadens the economic and conservational concern of this disease.

Transmission can occur through exposure to contaminated water, contaminated soil, direct contact with an infected individual, or ingestion of infected tissue through predation, or cannibalism. “Stressors”, like pesticides and herbicides appear to increase susceptibility to Ranavirus infection.

Clinical signs can appear rapidly, and vary with the species affected. Mass die-offs can occur, particularly among juvenile and larval animals, and can affect more than 90% of animals in a given area. In amphibians, symptoms include lethargy, generalized reddening, fluid accumulation under the skin in lymphatic sacs, hemorrhage, swelling of the body and the limbs. Cases have been identified in wild Eastern Box Turtles, and in those cases, symptoms included weakness, swollen eyelids, discharge from the mouth and nose, and plaques in the mouth. Given that the virus cannot survive and replicate above 30C, it does not appear to pose a risk to humans, mammals and birds.

Prevention of spread would be similar to chytrid:

To reduce the risk of spreading Ranavirus from captive populations to wild populations, captive individuals must never be released into the wild. Water from captive tanks should never be poured into storm drains, which are not treated before flowing into lakes and rivers.

To avoid accidentally spreading Ranavirus between wild populations, boots, clothing and equipment must be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected between herping trips. Do not relocate amphibians between bodies of water. If you ever find evidence of a mass mortality event, please report it to your local Fish and Wildlife office, and the Alberta Volunteer Amphibian Monitoring Program.

For more information, please see the following websites:
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AARC Blog #7 – Field Herping Etiquette
Ian Kanda
Exotic, Wildlife and Zoo Animal Health Technologist and AARC Board Member

Field Herping Etiquette

Simple Guide to Enjoying Nature with Minimal Impact

Field herping is the act of seeking out reptiles and amphibians in the wild. “Herp” comes from herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians. The small and secretive nature of these species makes this a very different experience than searching for birds or large mammals. It also makes for a different set of challenges to do so without negatively affecting the flora and fauna of where you trek.

It is no secret that humanity negatively affects the environment. Most of the threats facing wildlife are human in nature, so how do we enjoy it without ruining it? This is never more apparent when your target animals are reptiles and amphibians. A simple foot step can literally crush their world! I have put together some recommendations for you and organized them according to how they affect the herp’s you are searching for.

Individual Animal

Walk slowly and carefully, and ideally on a path or short vegetation. Herp’s are masters at hiding and can often do so right in the open. At night it is even harder to avoid them as you hike.

Handling animals can be a fun aspect that sets herping apart from other nature activities. I do recommend to minimize or avoid handling. Keep it to a short experience, and you need not handle every animal you encounter. It is stressful for these animals that think they have been caught by a predator. Amphibians have delicate, permeable skin that is easily damaged. Cold animals need to remain cold during much of the year and warming them up with your hands may be detrimental.

Do not remove animals from the wild. They fare best where they are familiar with their surroundings and can continue to contribute to the native population.

When flipping rocks or logs to see what may be living underneath follow a few simple rules but the main thing is to remember is that you are entering their homes, so return things back to the way they were. First, only flip what you can comfortably hold with one hand, in order to have a free hand to remove any animal underneath before replacing the object. We don’t want to accidently crush any animals! If you are rolling or flipping a log and it begins to fall apart; discontinue and try to return it back to its original position. Once the animal is removed, carefully replace the object in the exact position it was found in. If there is any debris or soil that was pushed aside, replace it as well to recreate the “moisture seal” that makes hiding under these objects so appealing. Once you have repaired their home, you can return the animal next to the object and watch them crawl back underneath.

Animal Population

While on the topic of flipping cover objects, I think it is important to recommend that some animals be left hidden. Let them win some times and find them another day. What I am getting at is that if you systematically flip every single rock and log in an area, you have not only maximized your chance of finding your target animal, but you have maximized your disturbance of the habitat and thus any effects of your presence.

Clean your shoes and any equipment when moving from location to location. Diseases in wildlife are a big problem for both reptiles and amphibians. We need not contribute spreading pathogens from place to place. Washing with a 10% bleach solution is ideal, but most important is to remove any mud and plants, and then to thoroughly dry in the sun for a day.

Again, do not remove animals from the wild, but even more important is to not release animals (both native and non-native) into the wild. Once in captivity animals can come across a plethora of pathogens that absolutely must not be introduced into the native populations. Invasive species are also a big concern in many areas.

Reporting your observations to Fish and Wildlife or a conservation database can help with future protection efforts. However keep sensitive areas somewhat secretive. Sharing exact locations in public places like the internet can lead to severe damage as many people travel to see what you have seen. This can also draw the negative attention of people that seek to pillage or destroy a population.

General Environment

We impact the herp’s we love whether we are seeking them out or not. Environmental change, like pollution, deforestation, urbanization, or another human impact have all led to species declines worldwide. As individuals we can’t expect to cure any of these problems, but we can do our part, as one of 7 billion people, to reduce our negative impact. So direct your litter to the appropriate garbage can, reduce, reuse and recycle, turn of the power, and use less fuel. Spread the word, so a greater number of the billions might do their part too

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AARC Blog #6
Dr. Teresa Bousquet
Exotic Animal Veterinarian and AARC Board Member

Creature Feature – Western Hog-nosed Snake

Okay, so I admit that these guys are not very common in Alberta, but they are my personal favorite Alberta reptile, and SUPER cute, so I am writing about them.

There are 6 species of snakes that are native to Alberta – the Bullsnake, Plains Garter Snake, Prairie rattle snake, Red-sided garter snake, Wandering garter snake, and the Western hog-nosed snake. Western hog-nosed snakes (Heterodon nasicus nasicus) can be found in the short-grass prairie of the south-eastern corner of Alberta.

Adult Hog-nosed snakes can reach 75 cm in length, with the females typically being larger than the males. They are oviparous (laying eggs, not giving birth to live young), and can lay 4-23 eggs. They feed on toads, which they use their specially evolved shovel-like rostral scale to dig out of underground burrows.

Hog-nosed snakes are famous for their threat displays. They will hiss and flatten themselves to make themselves look larger, and will even exhibit closed-mouth strikes. If the bluff fails to deter the threat, they will fake death, flipping on their backs, gaping the mouth, hanging the tongue out, and salivate. Of course, snakes performing this behavior are deeply stressed, so please do not try to provoke this behavior if you meet one.

Interestingly, these snakes until recently were considered non-venomous. Though they still did not present a risk to humans (there has never been a reported death due to a Hog-nose bite), recent evidence shows that they are actually rear-fanged and venomous. They produce the venom (or toxin, depending on who you believe), in Duvernoy’s Gland, which is a modified salivary gland, not a venom gland as found in other better known venomous snakes. Their fangs are also not hollow, so they cannot inject the venom, and must depend on a chewing action to get the venom into the wounds cause by their teeth.
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AARC Blog #5 - Top Five Alberta Herping Spots
Ian Kanda
Exotic, Wildlife and Zoo Animal Health Technologist and AARC Board Member

Alberta is a vast province with various biomes which include short grass prairie, aspen parkland, boreal forest and mountainous regions. Our province has a rich history in prehistoric herpetofauna but our current climate has slowed the repatriation of extant species since the void created by the last ice age and ending approximately 12,000 years ago. Nonetheless we have 19 species of very charismatic reptiles and amphibians to observe while we are enjoying the great outdoors. If you are looking for a herp orientated adventure try my selection of Alberta’s top herping locations. My selection process took into account public accessibility, variety of habitat and geography, and covering all native species.

  1. Dinosaur Provincial Park

    This is a world class herping spot right here in Alberta. The fantastic badland scenery is a hotbed for prehistoric activity and the Royal Tyrell Museum has a research station and education centre. There are also camping facilities and plenty of herp species to discover. Bull snakes and prairie rattlesnakes are most common but plains and wandering garter snakes can also be found. Spadefoot toads and northern leopard frogs are common amphibians in the area. Drive slowly once off the main highway as you approach the park because snakes commonly are found on the road!
  2. Elk Island National Park and Cooking Lake / Blackfoot Recreation Area

    With the facilities of a national park and large endless tracts of aspen parkland, these combined areas are a great central Alberta getaway. Enjoy the megafauna of bison and elk as you hike the many kilometres of trails around the numerous wetlands. Wood frogs, boreal chorus frogs, boreal toads and tiger salamanders are very numerous in the region. Plains garter snakes are a common sight to see basking on the trails. Red sided garter snakes can also be found.
  3. West Castle Wetlands in Kananaskis Country

    This is the most remote of my selections but it’s the one place readily available to find both Columbian spotted frogs and long toed salamanders, both beautiful and enigmatic species. This mountainous habitat is undeveloped and there are no facilities so bring a lunch and carry out any garbage. The breathtaking scenery and unmistakable mountain fresh air is a unique place to go herping.
  4. Writing on Stone Provincial Park

    Reptiles love the south! Writing on Stone PP is a long trek for most Albertans but I highly suggest making it a summer vacation spot. The milk river valley is an intricate mosaic of hoodoos and erosive landscape where bull snakes, rattlesnakes, and garter snakes are common. You may even find a western hognose snake or if extremely lucky you could find Alberta’s latest native, the yellowbelly racer. To find species that only barely enter the province like the racer, and the western painted turtle, you will likely have to drive east on the sparse and deserted backroads. Go slow, they may be right on the road!
  5. Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park

    Cypress Hills is another of Alberta’s geologic wonders. The hills tower above the surrounding prairie and their elevation offers cooler temperatures and forest cover. The park has lots of camping, fishing and hiking opportunities. Leopard frogs and garter snakes can be found and if you’re lucky you may observe a western hognose snake.
  6. Just off the bubble of this list is your neighborhood wetland. Don’t underestimate the pleasantness of the frog calls during a casual evening walk, or a gartersnake crossing the path on a morning stroll. These often ignored habitats are often havens for wildlife of all sorts. Their close proximity offers an intimacy with nature without the stress and planning of a road trip.

Look forward to my future blog about herping etiquette so we can all have fun without negatively affecting our cold blooded friends

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AARC Blog #4 – Wildlife as pets
Dr. Teresa Bousquet
Exotic Animal Veterinarian and AARC Board Member

As much as possible, we recommend adopting only captive-bred reptiles and amphibians. Wild-caught individuals tend to do very poorly in captivity. They often come with heavy burdens of parasites, some of which are very difficult to treat, let alone cure. They usually suffer extremes of stress during capture, holding and transport, and many do not survive this process. By the time a wild-caught individual reaches you, their health status is often very precarious. Many of these animals also come from populations that are already under ecological stress, and the added stress of collecting for sale can push their species towards the brink of extinction. It is not always easy to determine which animals are wild caught, and which are not. Pet store employees do not always know where their supplier got the animals they are offering for sale. Do your research to determine whether the species you are considering is commonly bred in captivity. If it is not commonly bred, expect to have to go on a waiting list, and pay a lot of money for a captive-bred baby. If someone is selling an adult animal cheaply, it is likely a wild-caught animal, and should be avoided. Visit reptile shows, read reptile magazines, and get in contact with your local reptile club (such as the Edmonton Reptile and Amphibian Society here) to find a reputable breeder for your chosen species.

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AARC Blog #3
Dr. Teresa Bousquet
Exotic Animal Veterinarian and AARC Board Member

Creature Feature – Western (Boreal) Toad Anaxyrus boreas

One of my first Alberta herping experiences was at the Wagner Bog with my friend, and fellow AARC Board Member, Ian Kanda. It was a late summer evening, shortly after dark, and we were looking for Boreal Toads.

There are 3 native toad species in Alberta: the Canadian Toad, The Great Plains Toad, and The Western Toad. True toads have “warty” skin, little webbing between the toes, enlarged parotid glands, and prominent tubercles on their feet for digging. In addition to our “true” toads, we also have the Plains Spadefoot Toad, which is not as warty as the other species, and lack the parotid gland.

Western Toads are native to western North America. In Canada, they are found in British Columbia, Alberta, Yukon and Northwest Territories. In Alberta, they are found primarily in the western and central part of the province. They tend to live near lakes, streams and ponds in boreal, foothill and mountain regions. Adults feed on slugs, worms, and insects, while tadpoles are algae eaters. They are the largest of Alberta’s toads, ranging from 2-5” in length. The average lifespan for a Western Toad is 9-11 years

Male Western Toads are sexually mature at 3 years, while the females are mature at 4-5 years. At breeding sites, males can out-number females 20 to 1. It is thought that this ratio may be related to the size of the egg clutches produced. Western Toads are described as “explosive” breeders, with females producing 5000-15000 eggs at a time. It is thought that this effort is so energetically draining that females can only breed every few years.

Western Toads populations are considered “Sensitive” in Alberta.

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AARC Blog #2 – Amphibian Gardening
Dr. Teresa Bousquet
Exotic Animal Veterinarian and AARC Board Member

I am an avid gardener, and I don’t know about you, but the appearance of patches of dirt emerging from under the Alberta snow has got my fingers itching! I can hardly wait to get planting. With wild amphibians being threatened worldwide, here are some suggestions on planning an amphibian-friendly garden. Some of these can be helpful, even if no wild herps ever hop on by

  1. Water feature – Of course, a pond is a good way to attract amphibians, who need a body of water in order to breed. Aim for a depth of 60-90 cm, though chorus and wood frogs may be satisfied with less, and a gradual slope up and out. You want some nice plants around the edges so that amphibians have somewhere to hide and bask without being excessively exposed. The plants also provide perching spots for dragonflies, which helps to control mosquito numbers (amphibians prefer non-moving bodies of water, but so do mosquitoes). Bat boxes placed near your pond will attract bats, which is another natural method of pest control! If you are trying to attract amphibians, do not stock your pond with fish, as they absolutely will act as predators, eating a feast of eggs and tadpoles.
  2. Provide nature shelter – piles of rocks or logs provide an excellent hiding place for snakes, frogs and toads. They can bask as they wish, but can also quickly and easily escape predators that may be flying by. These piles can also be utilized as a hibernation site for some species. Place the shelter pile near the borders between habitats to increase usage. You can increase the attractiveness of your shelter to humans by surrounding it with native mosses and plants. Over time, logs will decay, adding nutrients back into the soil (remember, decay is a part of nature!)
  3. Artificial shelter – If you consider log piles or rock piles unsightly, then there are still other options. You can build frog/toad huts that look like tiny cabins. Place your hut under foliage to keep it cool during the daytime hours. Clay pots placed on their sides, or with small doors cut into them are also popular hidey holes. They can also be painted in attractive designs with water-resistant paint.
  4. Avoid the use of pesticides and other chemicals – This cannot be stressed enough. Amphibians have very specialized skin, which is a major site of oxygen exchange and nitrogen excretion in their bodies. However, one of the side effects of this special skin is that they also are more prone to environmental toxins than reptiles, birds and mammals. There is plenty of evidence that shows that exposure to pesticides can predispose amphibians to infection and death from chytridomycosis (see Blog #1).
  5. To avoid the spread of disease, never release captive animals into your pond or garden, and do not bring animals from distant sites to your garden. You don’t want to run the risk of introducing a disease, like chytrid or ranavirus, into a population that previously didn’t have it. It is better to wait and let the amphibians find you, rather than try to introduce them
  6. Keep the kitties inside! Domestic house cats will hunt and kill all sorts of wildlife, from birds to amphibians. For the safety of your garden visitors, and for the safety of your cats, it is best to keep them indoor-only, or only allow them outside on leash with direct supervision.

For more information on Amphibian gardening, please check out these resources:

NatureScape Alberta – Creating and caring for wildlife habitat at home, Myrna Pearman and Ted Pike, Red deer River Naturalists and Federation of Alberta Naturalists, 2001.
The Illustrated Practical Guide to Wildlife Gardening, Christine and Michael Lavelle, Anness Publishing Ltd, 2011.

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AARC Blog #1 - Chytrid
Dr. Teresa Bousquet
Exotic Animal Veterinarian and AARC Board Member

Many herp-savy people are aware that there has been a catastrophic decline in amphibian populations world-wide over the last few decades. There are a number of factors that are causing this decline, including habitat loss, global warming, and pollution. One factor that is poorly understood, but that you may have heard of, is the emergence of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). Bd is a highly infectious fungal disease, and many scientists believe that it has resulted in the extinction of some amphibian species, and that more may be heading in that direction. No one is completely sure where this pathogen came from, but international trade of African Clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis) and/or American bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeiana) is thought to play a significant role in its spread around the world.

Bd has been shown to be able to infect all major classes of amphibians, though some species and populations are more susceptible than others. Bd is found on all continents where amphibians live, both in captive and wild populations. In adult animals, it attacks the skin, where it interferes with electrolyte balance, causing a spike in blood potassium levels, acidification of the blood, slowing of the heart, and ultimately cardiac arrest. Symptoms in adults vary from sudden death with no apparent signs, to abnormal posture and behavior, lethargy, loss of reflexes, roughening, sloughing, and reddening of the skin, and increased time soaking in water. In the tadpoles, the fungus causes damage to the mouthparts, leading to decreased food intake, slowed metamorphosis, failure to thrive, and death. Symptoms are difficult to detect, given the size of the patients, but they may have abnormal swimming, and discoloration of the mouthparts.

Chytrid can be spread by direct contact between an infected individual with a non-infected individual, but also indirectly through fomites (any object or substance capable of carrying infectious organisms), such as contaminated soil, contaminated water, boots, equipment, etc.

For keepers of captive amphibians, we always recommend quarantining new animals for 30-60 days prior to introducing them into an established population. There are some tests available through your herp-savy veterinarian to check new animals for Bd, which ideally should be completed during this quarantine period. Hard surfaces and cages should be cleaned with quaternary ammonium, didecyl dimethy ammonium chloride, sodium hypochlorite, ethanol and Virkon. All of these must be rinsed extremely thoroughly before returning amphibians to the enclosures. If you ever have suspicions that you might have infected individuals in your collection, please contact a herp-savy veterinarian immediately for advise on testing and preventing further spread.

To reduce the risk of spreading Chytrid from captive populations to wild populations, captive individuals must never be released into the wild. Some species can carry Bd without showing clinical symptoms, but can still transmit it to susceptible animals. Water from captive tanks should never be poured into storm drains, which are not treated before flowing into lakes and rivers.

To avoid accidentally spreading Chytrid between wild populations, boots, clothing and equipment must be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected between herping trips. Do not relocate amphibians between bodies of water. If you ever find evidence of a mass mortality event, please report it to your local Fish and Wildlife office, and the Alberta Volunteer Amphibian Monitoring Program.

For more information, please see the following websites:

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