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Herpin' around: Thought it just took a little water to make these critters happy? Biologists say it takes trees to make frogs sing and snakes slither.

On the side of the road in the middle of south-central Virginia nowhere, I cock my ears towards a patch of woods and try to make sense of an otherworldly clamor. It is inky dark, with fireflies flashing in the trees and a gibbous moon hanging over Venus.

But I can't think about stars or synchronously combusting beetle bellies. Matter of fact, I can barely hear myself think. I am covered up in amphibian acoustics, an unbelievable and ancient cacophony of singing frogs and toads. Cricket frogs click. Fowler's toads screech. Green frogs ploink like loose banjo strings. I hear a leopard frog, the sound of rubbing two wet balloons together: wreaaaak wreaaaak. Gray treefrogs trill in an unending chorus, like a herd of bleating woodpeckers.

This roadside forest is hut a scrubby mix of hardwoods and pines, with a wet smear of inch-deep creek running through the middle. But on this late spring night it is an orchestra pit. Frog and toad calls boil out of the woods, braiding together in a symphony of spring.

When most people think of amphibians and reptiles, the images in their minds are likely of wet, mucky, oozy places. Ponds and rivers. Creeks. Swamps. Desert seeps. But in years of "herping"--a curious term for that curious hobby of looking for frogs and salamanders and toads and turtles in the wet nights of spring and summer--I've discovered that some of the best places to ferret out amphibians and reptiles have as much to do with woods as water. Many of my favorite herp memories (surely you have a few?) took place in places where water was just a small component of the habitat.

One wet night in Massachusetts, I lay on my belly and watched scores of spotted salamanders migrate down a wooded hill towards a vernal pool below. A half-foot in length, the onyx-colored sallies live underground for months at a time, then emerge from subterranean chambers dug along tree roots to move downhill to breeding waters formed by melting snows and warm rains.

On another early-spring night not far from home in my native North Carolina, I hiked into a large block of woods where hurricanes had toppled trees. Untold numbers of tiny ponds had pooled in the root-wads, attracting uncountable numbers of breeding frogs. A chorus of spring peepers was so deafening it nearly drowned out the chorus frogs, whose exuberant songs nearly drowned out a lone, early-bird bullfrog.

And there by the side of that back-road, in a nondescript block of mixed pines and oaks, came a chorus beyond description. Viable woodlands are just as critical as clean waters for frogs, toads, turtles, salamanders, newts, and many species of reptiles.


That lesson is not lost on biologists seeking to restore habitat to places around the country that have lost many of their native trees. Prom the Eastern Seaboard to Arizona and beyond, projects to plant trees are becoming a boon to reptiles and amphibians.

These animals need trees for a number of reasons.

"The trouble with amphibians," explains Bill Schultz, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "is that they can't disperse if you clear out all their habitat." In Maryland, Schultz is part of a consortium of state and federal agencies, conservation groups, and private landowners working to restore native hardwoods cloaking more than 50 miles of riparian corridor along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Farmed for many years, these streamside acres are being rented from landowners and re-established with trees.

Using Global ReLeaf funds, more than 100,000 trees--black walnut, oak, sycamore, persimmon, dogwood, and others--have been reseeded along Maryland's Chesapeake waterways. For green tree frogs, spotted turtles, and American toads, the new woods provide cover and small depressions, which fill with water just in time for breeding season.

These reclaimed areas were once heavily farmed, so the trees help absorb and break down pesticides and herbicides, which means cleaner waters. "By planting trees," Schultz says, "we're giving them another chance." And a better one.

Any time natural vegetation and cover are restored to disturbed sites, reptiles and amphibians benefit. But in places like southern Texas, specific kinds of habitat are particularly critical. Along the lower Rio Grande River, more than 90 percent of the natural brushland habitat has vanished. What natural brush remains is fragmented and isolated and is the focus of a restoration plan at the Lower Rio Grande River Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

The key in this region is to revegetate corridors between remnant stands of native trees and shrubs, such as acacias, cacti, Texas ebony, and guayacan. Officials have targeted 750 acres for revegetation each year for the next half-century.

"Perhaps the most important benefit to wildlife is our goal of providing connections to the islands of habitat that remain," says David Blankinship, a wildlife biologist with the three national wildlife refuges in south Texas.


Corridors for wildlife ensure that local populations can mix, increasing the genetic diversity of a local population. And replanting creates a place to live and a prey base to live on. Insect populations diversify when you increase vegetation, Blankinship explains, and many amphibians and reptiles depend on insects. In addition, predator species such as the Texas indigo snake need a healthy population of rodents, which in turn thrive wherever insect populations are high. The glossy blue-black snake, endangered in the state, is one of the country's largest reptiles, growing up to 8 feet long.

The Rio Grande project already has posted success. "Some of those early Global ReLeaf plantings are 4 years old now," reports Christopher Best, a plant ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "and the trees are 25 feet tall."

Already Blankinship has reports of use by many reptiles and amphibians in the newly planted habitats: Texas tortoise and Texas indigo snake, both endangered in the state; the giant toad, threatened in Texas; Gulf Coast toad; checkered whiptail; six-lined racerunner. This spring the refuge will begin intensive monitoring of small animals on the replanted sites, including the installation of drift fences for amphibians and reptiles. These 2-foot-tall sheet metal fences will funnel snakes, toads, lizards, and other herps to buried collection buckets, where they can be counted.

"And once we get the monitoring up and running," Blankinship figures, "we expect a really substantial list."

Sometimes the relationship between reptiles, amphibians, and trees is as simple as giving a tree frog a place to sit and sing. In other places, it's deeply rooted in the complexities of a highly specialized ecosystem. That's the case in Georgia's Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, where restoring the native longleaf pine and wiregrass community should provide a springboard for the unusual gopher tortoise. Once called the "Hoover chicken" for its common appearances on Southeastern dinner tables during the Depression, these large tortoises are dependant on fire-driven pine woods, with their lush growths of herbs, forbs, and berries.

Decades of slash pine cultivation have encroached on the pockets of longleaf left in south Georgia, but on the national wildlife refuge biologists and volunteers have seeded tens of thousands of longleaf pine trees in small forest openings. That, says refuge forester Fred Wetzel, allows land managers to periodically burn the woods, for longleaf pine thrives after fire while slash pine just goes up in smoke.

"We're restoring the ecosystem by planting native trees and bringing back the historic fire regime," Wetzel says. That brings back the dense grass communities, which brings back the tortoise. And that, in turn, gives other reptiles and amphibians a boost. More than 400 animal species are known to use gopher tortoise burrows, including the federally endangered Eastern indigo snake.

It's a scenario being played out in more and more woodlands under restoration: Bring back native trees and native frogs, turtles, salamanders, and snakes will follow.

"The benefits of tree planting for reptiles and amphibians aren't always obvious," Maryland's Schultz says. "But they are real."

As they are for the people putting trees into the ground. "This is very rewarding," says Schultz, "because you can see your accomplishments growing right there in front of you."


Want to help protect singing frogs, slithering salamanders, trundling turtles and other reptiles and amphibians? AMERICAN FORESTS is planting ecosystem restoration projects in the following sites, helping the following species:

Arkansas: Bayou Bartholomew: American alligator. California: Afton Canyon: desert tortoises, sidewinders, Mojave fringe-toed lizards, side-blotched lizards, and desert iguanas.; Mt. Baldy Demonstration Forest: California whipsnake. Florida: Lake George & Tiger Bay State Forests: flatwood salamander, striped newt, Eastern indigo snake. Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, Florida pine snake, and gopher tortoise; St. Marks: Atlantic green turtle. New Jersey: Bass River State Forest: Eastern timber rattlesnake. New York: Beaverkill\Willowemoc Watershed: northern leopard frog, common map turtle, and eastern worm snake; Otego Creek: eastern tiger salamander. Ohio: Fernwood State Forest: eastern milk snake and eastern box turtle. Pennsylvania: Sproul State Forest: bog turtle. Texas: Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge: reticulate collared lizard, Mexican burrowing toad, and speckled racer; Roy E. Larson: American alligator and 29 other species of reptiles.

Eddie Nickens writes--and herps--from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina.
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Author:Nickens, T. Edward
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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