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Book of the Month: Frog Alphabet Book

*Featured Image: Frog Alphabet by Fruitful Designs

This month’s book of the month falls under the category of both art and book- it is one of Jerry Pallota’s Alphabet book series , illustrated by Ralph Masiello: “The Frog Alphabet Book.” This book is impressive, not only in artistic design, but in educational value. It uses specific species to represent letters of he alphabet and gives fun facts about each one. While it should be called the amphibian alphabet book (it uses newts, salamanders, and even caecilians), I like that it uses more than just frogs. As an aspiring herpetologist when I was a child, I would have LOVED this book. As an adult, and a herpetologist, I LOVE this book. Truly something all ages can enjoy.

 

Bottom line… “The Frog Alphabet Book” is awesome, for adults and kids  (this is coming from an adult who has no children, so take that as you will). I recommend it.

 

 

 

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Book of the Month: The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers

I know… I am awful at keeping Caudatart up to date. I live for the salamanders, and they keep me away from the computer. I hope you can forgive me.

That being said…

During my recent travels, I was able to read a wonderful piece of non-fiction: The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers, by Bryan Christy.

I actually listened to the audiobook. The narration was excellent, I recommend it.

I actually listened to the audiobook. The narration was excellent, I recommend it.

For many people, this book may be eye-opening. It may reveal to you how easily people become involved in trafficking of reptiles, and then how easily that becomes linked to more intense crimes. It may be shocking how little protection is provided for rare and endangered animals and, frankly, just how easy it is to smuggle them around the world. If you are not aware of these things, it will be a thrilling read that is more like a riveting crime drama than a non-fiction.

For me, and probably for many of you, none of what I just mentioned above comes as a surprise. As someone in the business of protecting rare and endangered animals, I am too familiar with how animal trafficking works. It’s a matter of understanding the “other side” of things. Frankly, many people who started out in the conservation business end up in the smuggling business, due to circumstances and personal choices. The point is… it is a world that is very close to home.

Bottom line, my understanding of how these operations work did not change the entertainment value of this book, and if you are also familiar with these concepts, do not think it will be a bore. The book is not written just for the shock value, or to surprise those who had no idea how over the top reptile smuggling can be. While it will certainly appeal to that audience, it will also be a pleasure for the audience who is familiar to the subject.

The book tells the story of the rise and fall of an empire in the reptile smuggling business over a few generations. Through telling both sides of the story, it pulls you into the drama. The smugglers are ingenious, loyal to family, and frequently very likable. The USFWS agents are the driven, passionate types, working at a goal that is viewed as worthless by most others. It is easy to empathize on both accounts. It is hard to believe, at many points, this is a non-fiction, due to the excitement, intrigue, and character of the story.

As a person with a passion for reptiles, I found myself intensely  absorbed in the tale.

If you enjoy any or all of the following: crime dramas, reptiles, justice, wildlife, conservation, good books…. I recommend reading The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest reptile Smugglers

 

This Lizard King

This Lizard King

 

Not this Lizard King.

Not this Lizard King.

 

 

 

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(Belated) June Species of the Month: Carpathian Newt

Sorry, still busy and behind, and this will be a brief species of the month…

For June of 2015: The Carpathian Newt (Lissotriton montandoni)!

carpathain

Vigo the Newtpathian

These little Carpathian newts are conquerors… That’s not really the right word, but I like the image. They are survivors. They appear to have adapted well to humans encroaching on their habitat (compared to most amphibians). Sometimes population densities can get up to 20 newts per meter square, which is pretty great.

Like most newts (for the difference between Newts vs. Salamanders see this post), the Carpathian newt has 3 life stages: larvae, eft, and adult. As the namesake suggests, these little guys range throughout the Carpathian mountains and are frequently found in the Ukraine and Romania.

Range of Carpathian newt.

Range of Carpathian newt.

The Carpathian newt seems to be more active during the daytime hours than any other species of newt (most newt species are moderately nocturnal).

Their breeding season varies based on how high they live in the mountains (groups living higher up the mountains will breed mid through late summer, vs. animals living in the foothills which will breed in late spring through mid summer). Efts usually start to climb out of the water in mid/late summer.

Adult newt in breeding colors.

Adult newt in breeding colors.

This is a brumating (brumation= mild form of hibernation) species that will brumate late fall through late spring.

Handsome newt.

Handsome newt.

All glory to the Carpathian newt!

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Mythology Monday: Brown Recluse

I was at an annual environmental camp and I was bit by something. Because I didn’t see what bit me, and because it is a necrotizing wound, it was diagnosed as brown recluse bite… with a treatment for tickborne disease just for good measure. I have little doubt it was a spider bite, it had the two little classic fang marks and I have been bit by enough spiders to recognize how I react to spider venom. I am not positive it was a recluse.

When a doctor diagnoses a patient with a brown recluse bite, they are frequently using the diagnosis as a catch all term for a necrotic skin ulcer. Is a necrotic skin ulcer fun? No. Frequently, though, it is a bad bacterial infection or fungal infection misdiagnosed as a recluse bite (my brother had a MRSA infection that was called a recluse bite… and then it reoccurred in the exact same spot), or it is a bad reaction to a bite by another kind of spider or insect, which can, if you react to bug bites like I do, cause quite the reaction. I got bit by a bitty little jewel orb weaver last year and it bothered me quite a lot. The bite I have right now is disgusting and awful; I am not saying the diagnosis is wrong, and regardless, the treatment I was given for the bite is right. The only point I am trying to make is the brown recluse does not cause as many bites as are reported.

I guess this makes me special if I was bitten...

I guess this makes me special if I was bitten…

Spiders get some bad press. I personally love spiders. Even if I did get bit by a recluse, I can pinpoint when it happened, and I wouldn’t blame the little guy/lady. I am huge and scary and, let’s face it, pretty clumsy. I would have terrified it and it would have had no escape. The only option would have been to give me a lil’ nip and hope it would then have time to run away. Unfortunately I didn’t know I was bit until much later, I assume the spider got away safely, and I hope it did. Spiders aren’t out to get us. Spiders are our pals, our buddies. They eat all the bugs that are NOT our friends. They eat the things that fly up in our faces and transmit diseases. I have a wolf spider living under my couch that eats all the house centipedes (I HATE house centipedes).

This creepy image came up when I was looking up "shy recluse." And that is how most people picture recluses... lurking around corners.

This creepy image came up when I was looking up “shy recluse.” And that is how most people picture recluses… lurking around corners.

Recluses were named because they are shy and don’t like being around areas of activity. The name, however, seems to give the impression that these spiders lurk in corners waiting to ambush people. The big MYTH to dispel: I have a hard time with this one because, having grown up in recluse territory, this one has been deeply ingrained in me… recluses are extremely unlikely to hide in shoes. A shoe would make a recluse feel trapped (even before your foot is in it) and it would smell like you long after you wore the shoe. That is not to say a recluse has NEVER hid in a shoe (the myth probably started from some truth), but it is probably one of the last places a recluse would pick to hide.

They think we stink. The cartoon says so.

They think we stink. The cartoon says so.

Having lived in Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi, I have heard lots of stories about recluse infested buildings. Heck, one of the buildings at my undergraduate institution had been infested at one point, and it was rumored the basement was still filled with recluses. Oddly enough, many of these stories are true. The infestation occurrence with recluses is not understood, because they ARE shy animals and they don’t like being close to other spiders. You may notice, though, in all of these infestation scenarios (at least all the ones I have ever heard and all the major ones in the news), no one living in the buildings gets bit. Here is a great summary  of one of these instances that really helps take away the sensationalism that most journalism gives to these stories.

It’s true that most people see a brown spider and they assume it’s a recluse. I have been guilty of this myself. And, honestly, if you are afraid a spider is a recluse, are you really going to take the time to check the eyes or inspect the “fiddle?” If you look at enough pictures, though, the recluse is pretty distinct and hard to misidentify. If you are faced with an unfamiliar brown spider, be cautious, scoop it up in a container, and check a photo. If it IS a recluse… I would just put it safely outside. But that’s me. I like my spider friends, they keep me safe. I also sleep with 4 tarantulas above my bed (in tanks, of course, but still).

Additionally… the scary pictures of recluse bites you see online? Some of them are real. The SUPER NASTY disgusting ones that show people’s limbs falling off? Not a recluse bite. You can find the exact same pictures under labels for different injuries. These pictures are reused in order to freak people out. What are they actually from? I could guess, but they have been reused so much it is hard to say. I can say that your entire hand does not turn black, with pus and bone exposure, on “day 3” after the bite.

Do brown recluses bite? Yes, but only if  they think they are in grave danger and have no escape route. They are flighters, not fighters. Does a brown recluse bite hurt like the dickens and will it take a long time (up to 6 months) to heal? Yes. Will it kill you? No death has ever been recorded from a brown recluse bite, so unless you’re the first, highly unlikely.

Respect the recluse! Don’t hate. They keep our ecosystem balanced and happy and healthy. And they play the fiddle.

violin

I really wanted there to be a picture of a spider playing the fiddle. Why does that not exist???? This is as close as I could find.

 

 

(Belated) June Book of the Month: Salamanders and Other Wonders

Another belated book of the month for you…

For June, we have a Non-fiction: Salamanders and Other Wonders: Still More Adventures of a Romantic Naturalist, by Willy Ley.

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Honestly, I will recommend any of the books by Willy Ley. As the title denotes, this is one of a sort of series of books he wrote about his knowledge and what he had seen. His books are all very much the rambling experiences of someone who knows what the heck they are talking about. Which is awesome. It reminds me of my own lecturing style. Also he writes on fascinating topics, picking animals that many people have never heard of and detailing their histories for the reader. He chooses topics that sounds made up and really bizarre.

I was given this book as a gift, not only because salamanders, but because I have a love of vintage and antique books. This very classy 1955 naturalist tome is a great addition to the ol’ library.

I had a bit of a nerdy freak out when the first species addressed in the book, in great detail and with a very accurate historical recap, is the Cave Olm. This is one of the coolest animals in the world and hardly anyone has heard of them. Reading about them in Willy Ley’s dry wit was a delight. When he describes the surprise of researchers at the reproductive anomalies of these animals, I imagine him drinking tea in a room of strange artifacts looking bored. The book did not disappoint from there.

I kind of want this to be turned into an audiobook. I frequently download books of LibraVox (if you have never used it, it’s great: all free public domain audiobooks read by volunteers. You can volunteer to read as well if you have the will and the time). There is this one guy who read Bartleby the Scrivener who has the best charming professorial voice, and he would be perfect for this book. I need to find out if this book is public domain, and if it is I need to see if I can put in a request for that guy to read it, because that would be amazing.

Read this book. You will learn lots and be amused.

Willy Ley says you should read his books.

Willy Ley says you should read his books.

 

 

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Sea Slugs for Saturday

Everyone loves a sea slug. They’re so attractive! My favorite is Glaucus atlanticus, the “blue dragon” sea slug. They are tiny things, and so pretty.

They are a work of art in themselves (like most under-appreciated animals).

Getty image of sea slug eating a jellyfish

Getty image of sea slug eating a jellyfish

But of course they inspire great art.

And…. what cute critter doesn’t inspire some sort of knitted/plushy thing?

Awww.

Awww.

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Species of the Month: Mississippi Slimy Salamander

I was out at the Noxubee Wildlife refuge with my dogs, and there were slimy salamanders (the species, not the characteristic) under almost every other log I looked under. I feel that they were nominating themselves for Species of the Month. Let’s talk slimy salamanders! (The gallery below is the salamanders I found today)

You can see then rubbing themselves all over my hand in the picture above. They got their name from this sticky goo/mucus they secrete whey they are handled (or something tried to eat them). It’s kinda tacky like drying glue and mildly irritating. They get real into rubbing the stuff on you.

Slimy salamanders are plethodontid salamanders, which is a HUGE group of salamanders that can vary quite a bit in looks, behavior, and breeding methods. What plethodontids all share is that they are lungless. They rely on their skin to breathe.

Getting some air? Or just bad at hiding?

Getting some air? Or just bad at hiding?

As far as “slimy salamander” species specifically, there are 13 species of slimy salamanders. They are more or less separated by region and, honestly, aside from minor genetic differences, I don’t know what classifies them as different species. Overall they look very similar (two or three of the species have notably fewer spots or a different shade of skin) and they can all interbreed. The little fellas and ladies I was finding were Plethodon mississipi, the Mississippi slimy salamander.

Map of slimy salamander species distribution. Any is your area?

Map of slimy salamander species distribution. Any in your area?

Everyone always wants to know how to tell a male from a female. With most plethodontids, it can be difficult outside the breeding season. The male cloaca will have papilla and be swollen when breeding, but outside that time they will look much like a female. The male will also get swelling under his chin during breeding season- this is his mental gland, which he uses to spread pheromones to the female.

Look at that sexy mental gland.

Look at that sexy mental gland.

 

My favorite way to tell males from females in most plethodontids, which many biologists will argue with me because it hasn’t been proven in all species (but statistically I find it works 100% of the time, I have yet to have it fail me, you just need good eyes): look for the ‘stache. Males have a “mustache” (or fangs), which is actually enlarged premaxillary teeth (plethodontid means “lots of teeth”) that they use to ensure delivery of pheromone to the female.

Mississippi slimy salamanders go a courtin’ in the late summer, July and August. They have teeny tiny clutches of 4-20 eggs that they lay under logs where the little female ferociously guards them… for about 2 to 3 months until they hatch. Good moms!

Momma guarding her eggs.

Momma guarding her eggs.

Eggs hatch into tiny terrestrial salamanders (no larval stage for slimy salamanders) that look like itty bitty adults. Super cute. They take about 3 years to reach maturity… and the cycle continues!

Newborn slimy. He'll get his color in a couple weeks.

Newborn slimy. He’ll get his color in a couple weeks.

So go out, flip some logs and find some cute little slimy salamanders today!