Coordinator says good-bye
2003 is our LAST year!
Summer 2002 and strategy for the final year
Progress and outlook
Egg and tadpole guide
Screening starred species records
Thanks to all Atlassers
| Coordinator says
I will be leaving the Herp Atlas Project as Coordinator in early December. I’m really sad to have to say good-bye, but I was very fortunate to receive a Ph.D. scholarship and I’ve decided to go back to school.
I want to thank everyone for their great sightings and for sharing all of their information this past year. I’ve learned a lot about Nova Scotia herps and will really miss being involved in the day to day aspects of the project! I would also like to thank Fred Scott and the rest of the Steering Committee for their solid advice and support.
If you have any questions or want to inform us of your atlassing plans, please contact Fred Scott. Contact info is given below:
NS Herp Atlas Project
| 2003 is our last year!
The Herp Atlas Project is now 80% complete thanks to the work of atlassers over the last four years. Next year is our last chance to collect atlas records and finish the last 20%. We hope that atlassers can go out and make one final massive effort next year! The following is our list of priorities:
1) Target squares first. If you have a choice between visiting a target square or a non-target square, please visit a target square. If you can commit to visiting a target square next year, please let us know as soon as possible so that the coordinator and assistant coordinator can plan to go to squares that atlassers probably won’t visit. Let us know your plans early by contacting Fred Scott (contact info to left). You can check to see how many species a target square still needs by visiting the website (click on "Database" and then "View map showing targeted squares").
2) Please submit any old records. They may not seem important, but they are! We often get old records that help to complete target squares. Any observations from 1999 on are considered current records. Observations prior to 1999 are considered historical records.
3) Non-target squares. Please continue to send in records for non-target squares, they really enhance our picture of herp distribution. If you plan to visit non-target squares, please visit those with the fewest number of species.
4) We are always looking for new atlassers. If you know anyone who would be interested in the Herp Atlas Project, encourage them to join!
Summer 2002 and strategy for the final year
The summer of 2002 was an exceptional year for the herp atlas. At the beginning of the year, the atlas was seriously behind with the target squares 38% complete instead of 60% complete. However, by the end of the season the situation had turned around and we were slightly above target at 81% complete. That means that 40% of the atlas was completed this summer! There were three major reasons for this summer’s success: the extra effort by atlassers, a reduction of the number of required species, and time spent by the coordinator and assistant coordinator to search difficult target squares.
The atlassers we have are doing absolutely outstanding work in the targeted squares and are contributing valuable records from a huge number of non-targeted squares as well (357 squares to date), which enormously enhances our picture of herp distribution. Many atlassers made an extra effort this year to visit target squares and it has paid off in a large number of complete target squares.
Early this spring, John Gilhen and Fred Scott also rigorously reviewed the expected species in each of the targeted squares; in a handful of them the number was raised by one or two, but in the vast majority it was lowered slightly, which proportionately reduced the number of species records needed to complete those squares. Concurrent with a reduction in the number of species required, 16 supplementary squares were added to fill in coverage gaps, raising the number of targeted squares from 98 to 114. The result of these two changes was a much better distribution of coverage, and a reduction of the total number of required species records (the sum of the number of species needed in each of the 114 squares) by 5.2%, from 1,335 to 1,266.
Finally, the one-time donation of $10,000 from the McLean Foundation allowed us to hire an additional staff member, Derek Potter, to do nothing but atlas targeted squares during the 2002 season, and we had Sabrina Taylor, our coordinater, spend at least 90% of her time atlassing as well. The problem we were having was that we simply didn’t have enough atlassers and they were not geographically well-distributed, there being few or none in some parts of the province. Derek and Sabrina were able to compensate for the lack of atlassers in and near the regions that were in most critical need of attention. Altogether, 46% of this year’s records were generated by our staff, and 54% by volunteer atlassers.
Next year (the last year of data-collection) our efforts will be focused on completing the targeted squares by existing atlassers and project staff. The field work will have to begin as soon as the season is under way, because many squares can only be completed with early spring species, and if those are missed the squares cannot be finished at all. It is going to be very tight. As the squares get progressively closer to completion, the remaining species are often harder to find and search time per species record can go up substantially. So we are seeking funding support for a full-time coordinator and an assistant for 2003 and with those people and all our great atlassers out there, we should have no difficulty finishing off every targeted square.
Progress and Outlook for the Herp Atlas
We now have two ways to track our progress: the familiar figure to the left and a calculation that gives an overall percentage for the degree of completion. To determine overall completion, we sum the number of species found in each target square and divide it by the number required. As of November 12th, the atlas was 81% complete, which is slightly above our goal. From the figure to the left, you will notice that a large proportion of the squares are 100% complete (39 squares) and the remaining majority are at least 60% complete (62 squares). Congratulations on a job well done!
Seasonal Square Priorities: Note that the number in each square is the number of species that remain to be found. Square colours correspond to the legend above. This map is posted on the webste and regularly updated.
vs Current Records
Over the summer, several people have asked about the difference between atlassed records and current records. Atlassed records are records in which volunteers have actively spent time to look for herps. Current records include both atlassed records and incidental records (no search time).
Table 1. Frogs and toads appear to be the most abundant group in Nova Scotia. However, frogs and toads sing, so they are usually easier to find than the more secretive salamanders and reptiles.
Table 2. The number of new records generated and atlassers registered for each year of the atlas project (note that not all registered atlasers have submitted records).
| Table 3. Now that we
have four years of data it’s possible to start some cautious
interpretation. So far it appears that our most common salamanders are
the Eastern Redback Salamander and the Yellow-spotted Salamander. In
the frog department, Green Frogs are the most abundant followed by
Spring Peepers and American Toads. Garter Snakes out number the other
four snake species, and Painted Turtles and Snapping turtles are the
winners in the turtle group. Clearly, abundance is related to how easy
it is to find individuals, so we will have to correct our abundance
estimates in the final atlas publication.
Thanks to the efforts of herp atlassers, the big picture on herp distribution and the location of rare species in Nova Scotia is starting to become clear. We now have enough data to look at distribution, and we’d like to highlight some of the more interesting findings here. Specifically, some important gaps have been filled for the distribution of bullfrogs (see below) and new populations of ringneck snakes have been found (page 6).
Atlassers have also led us to new populations of threatened wood turtles and, potentially, ribbon snakes. This important information is shared with and used by the Department of Natural Resources and the Conservation Data Centre to help protect these species.
Several highly significant Herp Atlas records show that Bullfrogs are much more common and widespread in the northwest and southern mainland than historical records had revealed. Bullfrogs have never been confirmed on Cape Breton Island.
Egg and tadpole guide
We will be posting a preliminary egg and tadpole guide on the web (look under Species Identification) for atlassers interested in identifying these stages of herp life. Hopefully, the website will be ready when you receive this newsletter. We expect this guide to evolve as we gather more information so keep your eyes open for changes. Additional pictures of Nova Scotia tadpoles and eggs are most welcome.
Ringneck Snakes appear to be quite common in the Atlantic coastal mainland areas of the province but much less common in the northwest areas and Cape Breton Island. The southeastern areas of the province are characterized by granite, slate and quartzite, which may be a factor in the distribution.
Hibernation in snakes
As the fall brings cool temperatures, our scaly friends the snakes will start looking for places to hibernate. Snakes do not produce body heat the way that mammals do, so as the temperature drops, they become inactive. Snakes wait-out the winter in hibernating places or hibernacula, which they may share with other snakes, including snakes from other species. Common hibernacula include deep underground dens, shale cliffs, rock piles, old foundations, old wells, and in some parts, ant mounds. Hibernacula can range in size from a few snakes to thousands.The most important feature of a hibernaculum is temperature. Snakes cannot withstand freezing, so they need to find a spot that’s safely below the frost line. Access to moisture or groundwater also appears be an important feature of denning sites.
In Nova Scotia, we don’t have good information on important hibernating sites. If you’re tempted to look for hibernacula, keep your eyes open for groups of snakes sunning together on warm fall days. These are snakes that are spending their last few days outdoors before retiring for the winter. Alternatively, you might get lucky and see several individuals emerging together in the spring. In Nova Scotia, there don’t appear to be any large and obvious hibernacula, so snakes may use many small sites instead. Let us know what you see!
In Canada, Narcisse (Manitoba) is world famous for its snake hibernacula. In the winter over 10,000 snakes may all den together at the biggest site to escape temperatures as low as -40 C. In the spring there is an astonishing mass emergence of snakes - truly one of nature’s wonders. The first to emerge are the males, who then wait for the females to come out. As each female emerges, several males will attempt to mate with her, creating a "mating ball". If you decide to go and visit, mid-May is the best time to be there.
Some snakes are at risk because their hibernacula are threatened or destroyed and they are left to weather the winter exposed and unprotected. This is especially serious in areas lacking good hibernating spots because snakes congregate to only a few sites. If these few sites are destroyed, thousands of snakes could freeze to death. Some conservation biologists are using artificial hibernacula to restore populations of endangered species. For instance, the endangered blue racer snake on Pt. Pelee is getting a boost from local landowners and conservation biologists. They are working together to create artificial hibernacula that provide safe hibernating places for this special snake.
Screening Starred Species Records
Some atlassers are unclear about how we evaluate records of starred species or forms, so here is a full description of the process and the criteria we use. The vast majority of starred records are accepted after going through this process, but in some the ID is changed or the record is rejected because the species is not what it was thought to be, but cannot be clearly identified as anything else either.
1) Like any other record, it is initially screened by the coordinator, who first makes sure that all the required information has been provided, and in the right places and formats. If there is a good photograph available, it is easy to confirm or change the identification.
2) If no photograph has been taken, the coordinator and Fred Scott then look at the plausibility of the identification. For example, is the location, habitat or description of the animal’s appearance or behaviour in any way inconsistent with what we know about that species? Is the species one that is often confused with a common one? Does that common one also occur in that locality and habitat, at that time of year? What is the atlasser’s knowledge and skill level?
3) The coordinator and/or Fred Scott will then contact the atlasser, by phone if at all possible, and ask for additional information to help us assess the identification. If this does not resolve the uncertainty we ask John Gilhen to review it and comment. John is by far the most knowledgable person in the province, with field experience of all species in every region of NS over the last 40 years.
4) In some cases (see below), it is necessary for an expert to visit the site and try to confirm the ID.
There are several pairs of similar unstarred/starred species that are commonly mistaken for each other by inexperienced people, notably:
- diploid female and triploid female Blue-spotted Salamanders
- Blue-spotted Salamander and leadback-phase Redback Salamander
- red eft and erythristic Redback Salamander
- Green Frog and Bullfrog
- Garter Snake and Ribbon Snake.
The criteria for acceptance are slightly different in two of the species. In the case of triploid Blue-spotted Salamanders, all we can do is accept a record as a probable triploid, because it can only be confirmed by counting chromosomes or measuring the size of red blood cells. But if the animal’s size and nature of spotting are consistent with a triploid, then the site can be visited during another breeding season by an expert such as John Gilhen to confirm the ID. However, this will not necessarily happen within the atlas time-window. We will map both the probable and the confirmed triploids (if any) in the final atlas.
The very common striped phase of the Garter Snake is frequently mistaken for a Ribbon Snake, because of lack of experience and a well-known visual illusion caused by the snake’s motion. A moving snake always looks thinner and much more distinctly striped than a motionless one. If not identified by a person with experience of Ribbon Snakes, no record is accepted without a clear confirming photograph.
If you know you submitted records, but your name isn’t in the list of active atlassers, the most probable reason is that the records were not identified to species, which is a requirement for inclusion in the atlas. For instance, we receive many records of "tadpoles" or "egg mass" which cannot be accepted because they are unidentified. The information is not thrown out, but these records go into a separate permanent database and are potentially useful in other ways, especially if accompanied by detailed locality and habitat information.
The Herp Atlas got a lot of media coverage this year ranging from radio interviews to a television spot on the CBC’s Nature Now and an article in Canadian Geographic. This coverage helped promote the Atlas Project and recruit new volunteers.
A big thank-you to everyone who has submitted records to the Herp Atlas!
Betty and Rusty Gentile
Carol and Larry Lamey
Cynthia and Randy MacDermid
Carol Anne MacMillan
David and Jacqueline McPhee
Peter and Linda Payzant
Jeff and Melanie Prest
Jason Thomas Stewart
David and Forest Underwood
Sam and Peter vander Kloet
Thanks also to those who aren’t individually registered, but who have contributed sightings: park visitors and staff, Nature NS listserve postings, and observations reported directly to the coordinator.