Monday, 6 February 2012

Herps are contagious!

You may read the title and think my spelling is rubbish and my love of natural history goes right down to the virus level.  Well, you'd be wrong in both cases.  I'm sure viruses are interesting in their own right, but I typically enjoy nature at the macro scale.  Instead, I am referring to reptiles and amphibians which are collectively referred to as herptiles or herpetofauna, and the vernacular term is "herps".

In British Columbia, 42 species have been recorded in the province and another two species are considered possible but have yet to be recorded.  Two of the species, Pygmy Short-horned Lizard and Western Pond Turtle, have been extirpated from British Columbia, six are introduced, and Green Sea Turtle is an accidental stray to B.C. waters.  Several of my co-workers over the years have been excited at the prospects of finding herps while out working and this enthusiasm is rather infectious.  I got hooked on herps while working in western Washington when I saw my first Coastal Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon tenebrosus).  Over the course of the same work trip, I also encountered Coastal Tailed Frogs (Ascaphus truei), Columbia Torrent Salamander (Rhyacotriton kezeri), and Red-legged Frogs (Rana aurora).  Since then, I have attempted to find reptiles and amphibians on my work and personal travels.

As I spend most of my time in Victoria, I will limit the scale of this little blurb to my local patch.  Amazingly, Vancouver Island hosts or has historically hosted just over half of B.C.'s herps.  The following is a list of those species that have been recorded, along with their status:
  1. Long-toed Salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum)  Native
  2. Northwestern Salamander (Ambystoma gracile)  Native
  3. Rough-skinned Newt (Taricha granulosa)  Native
  4. Ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii)  Native
  5. Western Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon vehiculum)  Native
  6. Wandering Salamander (Aneides vagrans)  Native
  7. Western Toad (Anaxyrus boreas)  Native
  8. Pacific Chorus Frog (Pseudacris regilla)  Native
  9. Red-legged Frog (Rana aurora)  Native
  10. Green Frog (Rana clamitans)  Exotic
  11. Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana)  Exotic
  12. Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)  Native
  13. Chinese Pond Turtle (Chinemys reevesii)  Exotic, possibly extirpated
  14. Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta)  Exotic
  15. Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas)  Native, accidental stray to offshore waters
  16. Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)  Native, offshore waters
  17. European Wall Lizard (Podacris muralis)  Exotic
  18. Northern Alligator Lizard (Elegaria coerulea)  Native
  19. Sharp-tailed Snake (Contia tenuis)  Native
  20. Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)  Native
  21. Northwestern Garter Snake (Thamnophis ordinoides)  Native
  22. Western Terrestrial Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans)  Native
In the last few years, I have managed to photograph many of these species.  Hopefully you'll see why many naturalists find herps charming and charismatic in their own way.

On Vancouver Island, Long-toed Salamanders can be readily distinguished
by their yellowish dorsal stripe contrasting their dark brown to black body

Many salamanders have five toes on their rear feet and this close-up shows the
 namesake long toe of the Long-toed Salamander, which is the outer fourth toe

Northwestern Salamanders are the largest species of salamander found on Vancouver
 Island and can easily be recognized by their uniform brownish colour

The prominent parotoid glands, seen in this shot, secrete a milky toxin as
a defense mechanism when Northwestern Salamanders are threatened

Rough-skinned Newts are the only newt species in B.C. and can be readily
 identified by their granular-textured skin and bright orange underside

Despite their rather unassuming appearance, Rough-skinned Newts have highly toxic skin; however,
 individuals on Vancouver Island apparently have significantly lower levels of toxins in their skin

This side profile shot of this Ensatina shows the diagnostic constricted
 tail base and the often-present pale bases to the legs

Ensatinas are a ring species (see diagram and explanation below), but the "ring" is contained entirely
within California and the subspecies found in B.C. has range that extends down to northern California

A ring species is made up of a series of interbreeding populations (A) that form a cline around a geographic
barrier (B), such as a mountain or desert, and when the two end populations meet they cannot interbreed (C)

Western Red-backed Salamanders, like Ensatinas and Wandering Salamanders, are lungless salamanders
that breathe through their skin and spend their entire lives in moist environments on land

Western Red-backed Salamanders have many colour morphs and this individual is unusual in possessing orange sides

Wandering Salamanders belong to a group known as the climbing salamanders and
adults have been found nearly 100 metres up Coast Redwoods in California

The dark body colour with coppery or grey marbling helps distinguish Wandering Salamanders from
other species of salamanders on Vancouver Island, but their square-tipped toes are truly diagnostic

Western Toads, considered a species of Special Concern nationally and
 blue-listed provincially, are easily recognized by their warty skin

Pacific Chorus Frogs, with their dark mask and round-tipped toes, can be a range
 of colours and this is the most striking individual I have encountered

In the spring, the night air is filled with the sound of male Pacific Chorus Frogs around ponds, lakes, and marshes

Red-legged Frogs belong to the "true frogs" and have smooth skin, a narrow waist, and long, powerful
legs for jumping, and they also have a reddish underside to their hind limbs as their name implies

Painted Turtles are the only native freshwater turtle still found in B.C. and on Vancouver
Island they are now limited to select few lakes and ponds on southern Vancouver Island

European Wall Lizards were introduced to the Saanich Peninsula in the 1970s when
 a private zoo closed down and since then they have managed a modest spread

Despite their modest spread, their numbers at some sites are quite staggering as
 is evident in this shot of one rock face at Oak Haven Park in Brentwood Bay

Northern Alligator Lizards, which occupy the same dry, rocky sites as the European Wall Lizards, have a diagnostic
 skin fold (see photo) on their sides that separates the keeled scales on their back from the smooth scales on their underside

Sharp-tailed Snakes have, as the name implies, a pointed scale at their tail tip which
 distinguishes them from the three species of garter snakes found locally

Common Garter Snakes have the broadest distribution of any snake in Canada, spanning coast to coast,
and I usually recognize them by their straight, yellow dorsal stripe and orange-red marks set again black

Northwestern Garter Snakes are variable (as are the other two local garter snakes) but apparently
 consistently show a white "lip", and this form is readily recognized by its orange dorsal stripe

Western Terrestrial Garter Snakes typically have a slightly wavy dorsal stripe that is yellow-tan
 in colour and they possess a head that is large in comparison to Northwestern Garters

I hope this visual journey with added factoids sparks a little interest in our local reptiles and amphibians.  Now you're all set for the spring when these scaled or moist-skinned denizens come out to slither, hop, crawl, and swim through our local environs.  If you have any further questions on how to identify any of these species, where to look for them, or perhaps would just like to regale others with a tale, just drop a comment here for all to see.


  1. Excellent post Jeremy. I'm a herpophile myself and i find this kind of post really useful, particularly as an introduced non-native to these parts. Personally, I don't trust anyone who claims to be a birder but has no interest in wider natural history!

  2. Great series of photographs. Though my main interests are birds and flowers, everything in nature interests me. I've seen most of the species in the photos, but where would I be most likely to find the following in southern VI:
    Long-toed Salamander
    Wandering Salamander
    Alligator Lizard
    I'd really appreciate any tips. Thanks.

    Val George

    1. Hi Val,

      For both Long-toed and Wandering Salamanders, I would recommend getting into coniferous forest and try to find good cover objects, such as scaled bark or relatively flat pieces of coarse woody debris. I have heard that McKenzie Bight is a good area to look for Wandering Salamander, but that likely means you can search anywhere in the Highlands. The one I found was actually up on Observatory Hill in mature Doug-fir forest. They can be tough to find as their habitats are not like other local salamanders. For one, they can be arboreal! Also, adults don't always use cover objects and may prefer to hide out in decaying wood. Additionally, you can't go out in the spring and hope to find adults in or near breeding ponds because Wandering Salamanders are terrestrial and clutches are laid in rotting wood or at the base of tree limbs. For Long-toed Salamanders, they do use breeding ponds and their egg masses, with practice, can be identified. Typically, egg masses are soft, plum-sized and may be anchored to vegetation or laid freely near the pond floor. Eggs are large (> 2mm) and widely spaced due to the thick jelly layer that coats each one. The colour of the eggs - dark brown above and creamy-white below - also helps distinguish their eggs from other pond-breeding amphibians. You might want to try around Durrance Lake, Spectacle Lake, or any other local ponds and lakes that are bordered by forest.

      Northern Alligator Lizards are not too hard to find in the right habitats. They like dry, open, rocky habitats. I see one or two at Oak Haven Park right beside the service road where bedrock has been broken and is exposed with cracks. It takes a bit of work to pick one out because they are vastly outnumbered by European Wall Lizards at that site. Other examples of places I've seen them include: Mount Doug, Jocelyn Hill, and Pike Lake substation. Other potential sites I can think of off the top of my head would be: Observatory Hill, Mill Hill, Mount Wells, Mount Finlayson, and all over the Sooke Hills.

      I hope that helps in your searches!

    2. Hi Jeremy!

      This is such a great list of the local herps. Do you have any photos of the Alligator Lizards from Oak Haven Park? I run the communication for the land trust, Habitat Acquisition Trust, tasked with managing that park and it would be lovely to share them if you'd be okay with that. For that matter, any nice photos you have of the park would be of interest if you'd like to share. :) Always happy to credit of course.



  3. Thank you SO MUCH for helping me identify the Northern Alligator Lizards!! Our new place here in Qualicum Beach (up the hill in the Meadowood area) has a healthy population of them & we love those lil gators!

  4. I can't tell you how much this page helped me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.