The ssssssskinny on Maine’s reptiles and amphibians

An endangered black racer snake, only known to be found in roughly 12 spots in Maine in York and Oxford counties. VSourtesy of Derek Yorks

Maine is only home to 18 amphibian species, one of whom shouldn’t even be here: A Colby College professor accidentally set them loose when cages broke free in a storm in 1939.

Maine is also home to turtles still reproducing into their 80s. Yeah. 8-0-s.

spotted salamander Courtesy of Jonathan Mays

And there’s a salamander here so darling that Disney could have had a hand.

They are small in numbers, and well, in size, too, but Maine’s reptile and amphibian populations are also the subject of the longest-running citizen-scientist project in the state.

A project that would like your help.

We asked two experts what makes the mini so mighty in Maine’s ecosystem, what species they’re monitoring, why New Hampshire rattlesnakes couldn’t just slither across the border into Maine and, when pressed, could these two serious scientists nominate a contender for Maine’s Cutest Reptile or Amphibian?

They did not disappoint.

WORKING FROM THE GROUND UP

To start with the basics: Maine has 18 species of frogs and salamanders and 17 species of turtles and snakes living here.

The diminutive figures reflect Maine’s location (northern, chilly) and not-so-distant past, said wildlife biologist Derek Yorks at Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

“This whole area was under a mile of ice not super, super long ago, so everything here, plants and animals, all had to colonize the area after the glaciers,” he said.

Yet that hasn’t lessened their impact.

northern leopard frog Courtesy of Phillip de Maynadier

“Any biologist will tell you that about their favorite creature, but a special case can be made for reptiles and amphibians,” said Phillip deMaynadier, wildlife biologist and leader of the Maine Reptile, Amphibian and Invertebrate Group at IF&W. “They have a special niche in the forest floor as being especially important because they’re so small, in many cases. They have body shapes that allow them to access root channels and get under logs into the leaf litter, under debris and into small mammal burrows, rock walls and places that most other vertebrates, birds and mammals mainly, can’t access.”

He describes that especially important role as moving things around the food chain: they eat the small stuff — worms, beetles, dragon fly larvae, millipedes — and the big stuff eats them.

“It’s that sort of linchpin between super abundant microfauna and the larger macrofauna in the food chain,” he said.

A red-shouldered hawk hanging out near wetlands is unlikely to eat a small frog, but a northern water snake will — and then the hawk will eat the snake.

WATCHING, PROTECTING

The state has three endangered reptile species:

  • the eastern box turtle
  • black racer snake
  • Blanding’s turtle

It has one threatened species:

And it has six species of special concern:

  • the wood turtle
  • eastern ribbon snake
  • northern brown snake
  • northern spring salamander
  • blue spotted salamander
  • northern leopard frog.

Black racer snake Courtesy of Phillip deMaynadier

The latter group is a “watch list, things on the cusp that we are trying to protect, to prevent from ever becoming endangered or threatened,” deMaynadier said.

(An additional five state and federally endangered and threatened sea turtles are under separate agency jurisdictions, he said.)

Biologists keep busy here in the summer months with fieldwork that includes habitat projects, such as tracking black racers in York County.

They’re only known to be in about 12 spots in York and Oxford counties, according to an annual IF&W report, with one of the largest recently home to a new solar development.

“We’re keeping tabs to see how the snakes respond and how they use the site differently and do they avoid areas with solar panels or not,” said Yorks.

Keeping tabs how?

“We have a veterinarian (Russell Danner) in Waterville; he’s good at putting radio transmitters in snakes,” said Yorks.

A mudpuppy in Great Pond in the Belgrade Lakes. Courtesy of Trevor Persons

ABOUT THOSE ACCIDENTAL AMPHIBIANS. . .

A Colby College professor studying the physiology of mudpuppies imported a bunch of the salamanders in 1939 from Pennsylvania and kept them in cages in an outlet of Great Pond on the Belgrade Lakes, according to deMaynadier.

“A major storm came in and washed the cages free from where they were anchored and broke some and set them free and they Great Pond from there,” he said. These days, “they’re super abundant . . . seemingly more abundant than many parts of their native range.”

The largest amphibian in Maine at 12- to 14-inches long, they’ve been found in at least a dozen bodies of water.

A mudpuppy, up close and personal. VSourtesy of Jonathan Mays

Another Colby College professor, Cathy Bevier, “is now leading one of the most in-depth investigations’ of the mudpuppies’ diet anywhere,” said deMaynadier. “We have some interesting preliminary results on what the mudpuppies are eating and it seems to be just about anything the can swallow, which is what we were worried about. They’re a big animal, they have a big head, which means they have a large mouth, they forage on the bottom on live and dead material, fish eggs, other amphibians. They undoubtedly have had an impact on the Belgrade Lake ecosystem.”

One theory is that they’re being spread to new bodies of water by fishermen using them as bait, bringing them home for the curiosity factor, then setting live ones free.

WHY RATTLESNAKES WILL CONTINUE TO LIVE FREE OR DIE

Derek York removes a snapping turtle from a trap. Courtesy of Phillip de Maynadier

Maine used to have timber rattlesnakes, but the species is now considered extirpated, or wiped out, in the state.

(Only two states have extirpated rattlers, according to deMaynadier: Maine and Rhode Island.)

Back in colonial times, rattlesnakes had a bounty on their heads, Yorks said, and that lasted into the 20th century.

From the snakes’ perspective, it didn’t help that they have such specialized habitat in New England, preferring ledge and rock dens with a southern exposure in a forested environment.

Hunters could just find a den and wait for them to concentrate in the spring as they leave or head back in the winter, Yorks said.

Phillip de Maynadier holds a wood turtle. Courtesy of Derek Yorks

Why don’t they just slither back across the border from Maine’s one neighboring state?

“There’s not many left in New Hampshire and they’re really limited in their ability to disperse and start a new population somewhere because they’re so tied to den sites, of which there are relatively few to begin with,” Yorks said.

So, no venomous snakes here? Check. Aim . . .

“Technically, we do have some poisonous amphibians in Maine in that they have some toxin in their body that can hurt another species. They just don’t deliver it,” said deMaynadier. “Eastern newts have a neurotoxin in them that’s pretty strong. The orange salamander, they’re actually quite bright and they’re advertising the fact that they are poisonous. It helps keep predators away. A naïve predator that bites into them gets sick.”

WHERE YOU COME IN

The Maine Amphibian and Reptile Atlas Project, ongoing since 1984, tracks what has been spotted where by township.

So far, 1,700-plus volunteers have submitted nearly 14,000 records for the atlas.

The threatened eastern ribbon snake. Courtesy of Jonathan Mays

“There’s also certain species that we’ve been defining their range for decades with this effort within the state of Maine to a really fine scale: What towns they’re in, to understand are they in watersheds, what elevations do they go up to , what islands are they on or not found on? We’re always trying to find or improve those to get a better understanding,” said deMaynadier.

The state is working on the third edition a book based on the latest data, due out in 2023, so it’s launching a big push in 2022 for the public to get out, observe, photograph and submit.

Anything amphibian or reptile goes.

“People will be credited for their records and their names will be included and it’s a pretty simple way to make an important contribution,” he said. “I think people are surprised to know that the common red-backed salamander in a log pile, or the common wood frog or green frog in the farm pond out back are not known to us in many cases. There’s still townships in Maine with zero amphibian records and, obviously, we know there are many species of amphibians and reptiles there.”

Three areas of emphasis next year: Down East, northwest Maine and western Maine townships.

“Those are the three areas that still have a lot of blank space (on our maps) where anybody who encounters any species would be making a novel contribution,” he said.

BRING ON THE SUPERLATIVES! THE OLDEST? CUTEST?

A Blanding’s turtle Courtesy of Jonathan Mays

Turtles in general are very long-lived, Yorks said, with endangered Blanding’s turtles “documented to live into their 80s and still be reproductive at that age, too. Blanding’s turtles probably can live over 100 years, speculating, but if they’re reproducing into their mid-80s it doesn’t seem like a stretch.”

A wood turtle Courtesy of Jonathan Mays

The super subjective cutest reptile or amphibian in Maine?

He’d have to go with baby turtles.

“Someone just sent me some photos today of hatchling musk turtles found down along the Penobscot River,” Yorks said. “They’re so tiny — their shell is like the size of nickel when they hatch.”

(Less cute: the musk turtles’ nickname, the stinkpot, for odoriferous reasons.)

“I’ll throw another one in the mix because it might be one people are more familiar with: the spotted salamander,” said deMaynadier. “I don’t know if it’s the cutest, but I think it’s up there in terms of charisma. It’s an amazing creature. It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t created by Hollywood, or something, or Disney. It’s a really large black salamander with these huge polka dots all over its body and has a big, broad head and what looks to me almost like a sublime little grimace on its face. It looks like he’s slightly smiling all of the time.”

Spotted Salamander Courtesy of Jonathan Mays


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