reptiles

A visitor takes a closer look at some of the amphibians and reptiles discussed during a talk with UCSB professor Sam Sweet at the Arroyo Hondo Preserve. Click here for more photos. (Robert Bernstein / Noozhawk photo)

Arroyo Hondo Preserve is a very special place along our coast managed by The Land Trust for Santa Barbara County. Sam Sweet is a professor of evolution and ecology at UCSB, specializing in the amphibians and reptiles of our region.

Access to either one of these local treasures (Arroyo Hondo or Sweet) is a rare treat. But to have both together for a reptile and amphibian outing was an opportunity not to miss. Sweet donated his time to this fundraising event for the Land Trust and Arroyo Hondo.

Full disclosure of my passion for this event with Sweet: In high school I volunteered at the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. I originally planned to make a career of it until I changed life course. Sweet did not disappoint, educating me in many new ways.

We think of cold-blooded animals as more primitive than warm-blooded ones. But Sweet pointed out cold-blooded animals have many evolutionary advantages that allow them to occupy many special niches, quite literally.

Warm-blooded animals tend to be roughly spherical in shape to conserve their heat. They do not tolerate getting wet. Lizards, snakes and salamanders do very well with their long, slender shapes allowing them access to tight spaces. And they don’t mind getting wet. Their energy goes for growth and reproduction instead of for maintaining body heat.

Sweet warned us that this outing would not be like bird watching.

We might see nothing at all. Reptiles and amphibians generally hide and have no evolutionary need to be visible. We were very fortunate with a group of excellent observers, some of whom were avid bird watchers. Sweet was very deft in catching what the spotters found.

His first catches were fence lizards, often called a Blue Belly. (He even noose-caught a few before our outing in case we had no more luck.)

He showed us a gland at their cloaca (combined port for reproduction and excretion). This gland secretes a waxy substance that is only visible in ultraviolet light to mark the male’s territory. It also is full of pheremones.

As he held the lizards in his hand he explained: Hold them gently on top of your hand, gripping their feet in between your fingers. This way they feel like they are “king of the hill” and will not feel threatened or distressed.

Most female herps (herptiles are reptiles and amphibians) stop growing when they start to reproduce to direct their energy to reproduction. Males just keep on growing.

Sam told us that legless lizards are the most common vertebrate in our area. But they are seldom seen. They are typically buried in leaf litter where there is no clay in the soil. We saw none.

He showed us that alligator lizards and fence lizards often have ticks on them. And that these two animals are unique for being able to detoxify the lyme disease virus! He theorized that lyme disease is less of a threat here than back east because we have an abundance of these lizards. Interestingly, Sam grew up near Old Lyme, Connecticut where the disease was first named. He suspects that early exposure may give him some extra immunity.

Thanks to a self-described novice Audubon bird-watcher, we soon got to see a rattlesnake. She said she just spotted its bright skin glinting in the sunlight through the grass. Sweet brought it out with a potato rake for us to see. (Make sure the rake is forged, not welded, as welds break, he advised us.) As long as you don’t actually injure the snake it will not feel threatened enough to bite. Biting wastes precious venom that it wants to conserve.

Then we moved to a wetter area near a stream and spotters in the group began to find California newts. (The first one was a dead one spotted by Sweet in the grass. It had been killed by a lawn mower and buzzing flies attracted his attention.)

A new lesson: Almost nothing eats these animals because their skin can be toxic. The toxin is closely related to the powerfully deadly alkaloid toxin of the puffer fish. In every species known, that toxin is generated by either a plant that is eaten or by a bacteria that symbiotically lives with the animal. In captivity, most animals lose their toxicity.

But not so for newts. They become more toxic in captivity. No one yet knows how they generate this toxin!

Turning over logs yielded some tiny slender salamanders. (Always be sure to gently put the logs back exactly as found!) They first appear to be earthworms until you look closely and see their tiny legs. They have no lungs nor gills and respire through their skin. There are many different species and they are genetically enormously diverse. They are far more different from each other than we are from other apes.

At the stream, Sweet spotted a California pond turtle and brought it up with a net to show us. He showed us the slightly concave plastron (lower shell) and the long, slender tail that show that it is a male.

One of Sweet’s pet peeves is the introduction of non-native plants and animals. Many such species are so common we think of them as native, yet they are not. One example is the so-called “wild turkey.”

One member of the group asked how he could help with local reptile and amphibian research. Sam’s answer: Be willing to hike into places that take two to three days to hike in and count animals. He said he has a long list of such places that he would love to get help with.

Robert Bernstein is a local photographer and frequent Noozhawk contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.