Saturday, July 23, 2011

Arizona Epic Part 1

Most people flee from Arizona in the summer, when temperatures commonly exceed 105 and even 110 degrees F. Not herpers. This week, hundreds of rattlesnake biologists flocked to Tucson, AZ for the Biology of the Rattlesnake II conference, which was cunningly planned by the organizers to occur smack at the beginning of the monsoon season. During monsoons, it might be hot but it’s also wet, bringing scaly critters (and their distant batrachian cousins) out in droves.

The first thing we did was ditch the opening night social to go herping. We met up with Karla M., a graduate student at Arizona State University studying Gila monsters. Although the rains have begun, Arizona has been hit hard by a drought over the past few years. But this didn’t deter us, because we were able to go to Stone Canyon, a gated upscale community and golf course that is heavily irrigated and therefore a heaven for herps. Karla is studying Gilas there, and a larger group of researchers mainly from the University of Arizona are conducting a long-term study of the snakes in the community.

Within 10 minutes of getting out of the car, we found two western diamond-backed rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox) coiled up in the beautiful, lush Arizona Upland Sonoran Desert habitat. Here's a nice big male:

Next we began cruising around the road in Karla’s vehicle, looking for herps crossing the road. We immediately lucked out with this lyre snake (Trimorphodon biscutatus):

Lots of anurans were hopping around the roads, and several experienced the pleasure of meeting the grubby hands of my students. Here’s Scott admiring his first Sonoran Desert toad (Incilius [Bufo] alvarius), which he reluctantly refrained from licking:

Kory is holding a red-spotted toad (Anaxyrus [Bufo] punctatus):

Out wandering around the golf course, we found this big mellow blacktail rattlesnake (C. molossus), initially coiled under a plant right next to the green:

Back to the roads, we hoped to see one of the most common denizens of Stone Canyon, the tiger rattlesnake (C. tigris). This species is strongly associated with rocks, ranges widely in Mexico but has a relatively narrow distribution on the southwest US. We found this young of the year tiger on the road and he curled up nicely for a photo:

A few minutes later we found this adult out on the road:

Another photo of this guy:

We felt lucky to see some of the typical species, like C. atrox, C. molossus, and C. tigris, along with the amphibians, in this bad drought year. The lyre snake was a bonus. But we really lucked out when we learned that Karla needed to release a particularly prized and rarely seen snake that was caught earlier in the week. Check out this beautiful coral snake (Micruroides euryxanthus):

This guy got a lot of attention from the cameras:

To finish up the night, we jumped in Karla’s vehicle and drove out to her other field site, which incidentally was my field site during my graduate work, and is decidedly NOT benefiting from golf course irrigation. It was bone dry. Karla radiotracked four Gila monsters (Heloderma suspectum) she needed to check on, and along the way she showed us a contraption she built to monitor the temperatures within the nest of a Gila monster:

Despite the crummy, dry conditions, one of the Gila monsters was out walking around. This is a post-parturient female (check out the skinny tail):

Karla grabbed the Gila and took a blood sample because she is using doubly labeled water to examine water turnover and field metabolic rate in the animals:

Matt was very pleased to hold his first Gila monster:

The next night we went out for just a quick drive because we spent most of the evening snarfing fajitas and beer with the wonderful J-Ho and Keri. We went up the Catalina Highway and found two tiger rattlesnakes on the road. A young of the year:

And a good-looking subadult, 2 or 3 years old based on the rattle string:

Closer to Tucson there were a lot of anurans out and about, including spadefoot toads (Scaphiopus couchii):

By this time we had gotten about 8 hours of sleep total over the past three nights, and some of us couldn’t handle it:

Stay tuned for the next installment of AZ Herporama 2011!

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