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Herpetology

Overview

The diverse herpetofauna of peninsular Florida and the long legacy of vertebrate-related research at Archbold provide a rich foundation for ongoing behavioral, ecological, and physiological studies of amphibians and reptiles. Fifty species of reptiles and 23 species of amphibians occur on the Station and adjoining Reserve; an additional three species occur on Buck Island Ranch. [Archbold Herp Checklist].

Scrub Species

Certain scrub-associated species have received considerable attention by resident and visiting scientists over the years. On sunny days, the first wildlife encounter for many Station visitors is seeing decades-old Gopher Tortoises grazing along the main entrance road. These tortoises are likely to be individually marked, thanks to mark-recapture studies conducted by James Layne and colleagues from 1967 to 1986. The first publication on Gopher Tortoises at Archbold was a thesis on the mating system of Gopher Tortoises in south Florida (Douglass 1976). Station research on these long-lived reptiles continues to this day, as evidenced by Kyle Ashton’s recent publications on geographic variation in body and clutch size (Ashton et al. 2007 Copeia) and the response of tortoises to reintroduction of fire on Red Hill (Ashton et al. 2008 Journal of Herpetology). We are continuing opportunistic mark-recapture surveys of tortoises on the Station, and we recently expanded our work on this species by initiating a study of gopher tortoises at nearby Avon Park Air Force Range.

Florida Sand Skinks and Eastern Indigo Snakes are also relatively common at the Station and have been the subjects of substantial observational and experimental research. For example, Layne and Steiner’s (1996) summary of 26 years of research on Eastern Indigo Snakes at Archbold represents a significant contribution to our knowledge of this species’ life history in the southern part of its range. Likewise, Archbold is an important study site for research on population dynamics and effects of prescribed fire on Sand Skinks and other scrub-associated species, led by Henry Mushinsky and Earl McCoy at the University of South Florida. Results of these and other studies provide valuable information for local and range-wide conservation planning efforts for these threatened species.

Aquatic Species

Past studies of anurans, turtles, and other aquatic and semi-aquatic species have examined topics ranging from reproductive biology and habitat associations to foraging ecology and predator-prey interactions. Two-toed Amphiumas and sirens, the only salamander species observed with any regularity in wetlands at Archbold, remain poorly studied. Of particular note is the research performed by Kimberly Babbitt and Matthew Baber on amphibian communities using seasonal wetlands on Buck Island Ranch (mid-1990s to 2001; >10 publications). Similar studies of amphibian communities in seasonal ponds in scrub are lacking, prompting us to initiate population monitoring of Gopher Frogs, Oak Toads, and hylids in seasonal ponds on the Station and Reserve in 2009. This research will examine the influences of hydroperiod, fire regime, and anthropogenic modification (e.g., ditching, cattle grazing) on amphibian occupancy. We are also interested in climatic factors affecting breeding phenology and recruitment of pond-breeding amphibians, given the extreme annual variation in amount and timing of rainfall in this subtropical climate. Additional topics of interest are the terrestrial ecology of postmetamorphic amphibians (e.g., migratory behavior, habitat selection, diet) and potential prevalence of emerging infectious diseases of amphibians.

Introduced Species

Interactions between native and introduced exotic species are another area of interest to Station researchers. Three exotic lizard species and two exotic amphibian species have been documented on the Station and Reserve, thanks largely to observations made by Walter Meshaka in the late 1990s; several species of exotic fish also inhabit ditches and other more permanent water features. Some introduced species appear to be naturalized; for example, Greenhouse Frogs are the most common vertebrate commensal in Gopher Tortoise burrows, based on a funnel trapping study conducted in the late 1980s (Lips 1991 Journal of Herpetology). Other species, such as Indo-Pacific Geckos and Cuban Treefrogs, are mostly restricted to the Station’s main campus, where they are often seen at night feeding on insects attracted to artificial lights. We remain vigilant for the arrival of other exotics known to be established in Highlands or adjacent counties, such as Cane Toads and Burmese Pythons. Our interest in the potential effects of exotics also extends to the ways in which invasive plants may alter terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, including effects on habitat quality and, ultimately, community dynamics of aquatic vertebrates.

A marked Gopher Tortoise returning to its burrow
photo: B. Rothermel
Gopher Tortoise and prickly pear cactus in scrub habitat at Archbold
photo: B. Rothermel
Indigo Snake, Drymarchon couperi
photo: J. N. Layne
Juvenile Gopher Frog, Lithobates capito
photo: N. Ihasz
Squirrel Treefrog, Hyla squirella
photo: N. Ihasz