Enjoy Our Spring “Symphony”
By Brian MacGowan
Although perhaps a bit late, spring has seemingly sprung upon us. One of the best signals of spring is the symphony of calling frogs and toads in and around wetlands, ponds and lakes throughout Indiana. Amphibians native to Indiana are an important component of healthy ecosystems. They play important roles as both predator and prey in food webs. We can also consider many amphibians as “bio-indicators” of environmental health. Unfortunately, many species of amphibians and reptiles are thought to be in decline. While the causes for declines are species-specific, the actions that people take can be a contributing factor.
Unlike other vertebrates, most amphibians and reptiles can be observed up close or even captured by hand – some more easily than others. Exploring natural habitats while searching for, catching and photographing reptiles and amphibians are great ways to gain hands-on experience with nature. However, be mindful that some activities, or the manner in which they are conducted, can harm the very creatures we value. Reptiles and amphibians represent numerous examples where interactions between wildlife and people can have negative consequences despite the best of intentions.
When you go outdoors to observe amphibians and other wildlife, keep these simple tips in mind:
Stay on designated roads and trail systems - Human foot traffic can affect plants and animals in some habitats (e.g., you may have noticed the compressed soil and lack of vegetation on even lightly used foot trails). Focusing foot traffic on trails can minimize human impacts on sensitive plants and animals. It is also required on some public properties.
Be a responsible pet owner - Dogs make good companions when hiking outdoors. However, research has demonstrated dogs can disturb, harass, or even kill wildlife. While impacts on reptiles and amphibians are unclear, it is good practice to keep your dog leashed while exploring natural areas. Many parks and properties require dogs to be leashed.
Be a good steward of the land - Carelessly turning over logs and coarse woody debris in search of reptiles and amphibians can destroy microhabitat features that took decades to create. It is also prohibited on many public properties. If you do find an animal under a log or rock, return the object to its original location then place the animal next to it rather than rolling the object directly over the animal.
Minimize or avoid handling animals - If you must handle a wild amphibian or reptile, there are safe ways to hold and restrain them. Avoid handling amphibians for long periods of time. Amphibians are prone to desiccation (drying out). There are no formal guidelines on the length of time to handle an amphibian, and it is not clear how handling impacts an animal’s health and wellbeing. Common sense dictates that handling time should be minimized to the greatest extent possible. If a frog or salamander feels “dry,” you have handled it too long and it should be returned to its location of capture immediately. Keep your hands moist and free of chemicals (e.g., bug spray or sunscreen).
Use good hygiene - The transmission of many diseases among animals can be facilitated by people. There are a number of safeguards that can be implemented to not only protect you, but also the animal populations as well. To prevent spreading diseases and pathogens from one site to another, regularly wash clothing, and especially boots, that you use in the field. All equipment that contacts an animal or the water the animal was in should be decontaminated using a 1-3 percent bleach solution, or air dried for at least three hours before traveling to another water body. You also should use hand sanitizer before and after handling animals in nature. Before eating or handling food, thoroughly wash hands in hot, soapy water if possible; hand sanitizer is an acceptable substitute for remote locations.
For more information about responsibly enjoying wildlife and nature, see Appreciating Reptiles and Amphibians in Nature at https://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/FNR/FNR-478-W.pdf.
Brian MacGowan is an Extension Wildlife Specialist with Purdue University’s Department of Forestry. He also has served as secretary and editor for the Woodland Steward since 2008.