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You Literally Can’t Go Herping for Fun: a Response to the Controversy

    My recent post Nobody Cares about Your Lifers: How to Make Herping Count created a stir within the tight-knit herper community, and had both intended and unintended consequences. My attempt to half-jokingly shake things up while seriously trying to pull people into a good cause led to unnecessary misunderstandings. I take full responsibility and learned a lot from my first viral writing experience. But I want a second chance to convince amateur and professional herpers alike to try what they can to make their herping count. So, let’s air out the laundry and address what appear to have been your most pressing concerns:

The approach was too overbearing. You should have been more diplomatic and more inclusive. You suck at science communication.

    Fair points all, but let me explain that I deliberately wrote the post in a provocative, absurdist, over-the-top style. Calls to arms are rarely wishy-washy. My intention was to stir the pot and get in your face, so that the post would get noticed. I have written posts for this blog before, and have used almost every tried-and-true method you can imagine to get conservation messages across. My previous “nice guy” posts have reached a few thousand folks and usually get over 100 facebook likes. Not too bad. For this one, I studied blog posts that went viral and they all share common tropes: ridiculous, in-your-face titles. Over-the-top stances that create friction. Absurd hyperbole. My “gut-punch” post generated 12k reads and over a thousand likes on facebook within a day. So, if this is the style that gets people talking, mission accomplished. Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s have a nice, polite conversation.

But I want to have fun.

    Herping is fun either way. Some thought I was arguing literally that people shouldn’t enjoy herping or should feel guilty if they’re having fun. The last line says: “So get out there and find rare herps. But be sure to make it count. It’ll be a blast.” This was the little twist at the end, the little wink-wink, that lets you know that I know it’ll still be fun. This is what I’m saying: If you’re going to use your time and money to herp for fun anyway, why not try to make it count?

I’m just a hiker who likes to go outside, stop yelling at me.

    I wasn’t really writing this post with everyone in mind. I’m not talking to kids, beginners, and ordinary outdoor enthusiasts. You guys just keep having a nice time outside. This post was for those with the skills and means to make herping count. This was for those die-hard enthusiasts who spend nearly every waking hour thinking about their next trip. However, as many herpers know, there is often astonishing beginner’s luck associated with herping. So even beginners can make it count. Especially if everyone is doing it. Beginners will learn from the people with more experience, get in the habit of making it count, and so-on.

You didn’t provide helpful suggestions for how to make it count.

    Fair point. I wanted to keep it short and sweet. The conversations the post started took it further: many people found out about HerpMapper, Herpetological Reivew, and Herpetological Conservation and Biologyfor the first time. Priya Nanjappa, head of Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, gave several excellent suggestions for how to help chronically underfunded state agencies, pointing out that “some states are able to use volunteer time as match toward State Wildlife Grants, and all states have herps among their Species of Greatest Conservation Need; in many cases, these are species that need better distribution/population data to help support management actions.” Your state non-game wildlife programs are great resources and need your help! Still, my goal isn’t just to get people posting the results of their annual trip to Apalachicola National Forest or the Chiricahuas on iNaturalist. I hoped to point out that our priorities should shift to targeting poorly studied areas and species.

Check out these links to learn more:

Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation:

Esteemed venue for publishing noteworthy observations and new county records.

You can publish observations here, even if they’re not novel.
Herpetological Conservation and Biology:

Slightly more technical in nature, but Herp Cons Biol publishes inventories. You can target a place or species, do surveys, and publish your results.  

General information about reporting natural history and distribution observations: You can publish noteworthy single observations in Herpetological Review. First, you should do a little research on what is already known; for this, consult recent handbooks on the group of interest: Ernst and Ernst’s Snakes, Ernst and Lovich’s Turtles, Petranka’s Salamanders, and Dodd’s Frogs of the U.S. and Canada are all comprehensive sources that you can check. If what you saw is not mentioned in those books, you can probably report it. Let’s say you notice a gartersnake eating an Alligator. A clutch of eggs laid by a chirping frog. That kind of thing. You’ll need to consult a recent issue of Herpetological Review to see how to format the report. You receive 4 copies of Herp Review a year when you become a member of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles. You can contact one of the editors for help. If you tell them you’re just getting started, they’ll take it easy on you.

    For distribution, your sources are state herpetology books, such as Mount’s classic Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama, Hulse’s Amphibians and Reptiles of Pennsylvania and the Northeastern States, Niemiller and Reynold’s Amphibians of Tennessee, Palmer’s Reptiles of North Carolina, and others. Most of these have excellent regional information on the herps of your state, and most contain county level range maps. You can use these maps to target poorly surveyed areas of your state, and to see if you’ve got a new record. You will have to consult the pages of Herpetological Review to format your report, and it’s possible somebody else has already found the species in your county since the publication of the book. You also need to formally voucher a specimen of the animal at a natural history museum. The good news though, is that a nice photograph is sufficient as a voucher specimen. Museums that will accept and verify your photo vouchers include Auburn University Museum of Natural History, Florida Museum of Natural History, Georgia Museum of Natural History and many others. The curators at these museums are also excellent resources for local information on herps and how to make your herping count.

Species of special concern: Make these your targets. Many states lack the funding to conduct survey or monitoring studies for these species, and have natural heritage programs with lists of the species they can’t afford to keep tabs on. Here’s how this can work. The Seepage Salamander was once a special concern species in Georgia. I did surveys in locations where they were known in the past as well as at new locations. We found them at almost all historic localities, and many new ones. So Georgia dropped them from consideration for protection. Now, they can focus their efforts on species that are in worse shape. Consult this paper for methods.

Examples of special concern lists from different corners of the U.S.

You offended birders.

    The bit about birders was deliberately over-the-top. It was tongue-in-cheek. I wanted folks to get a chuckle. I wanted herpers to see themselves as different from birders who obsess over checklists, because there is a natural rivalry between herpers and birders. But I love birds and birders. I have birder envy. I envy their numbers, their enthusiastic membership, and the scale and reach of their public outreach and citizen science programs. I want to see the day when herpers provide the kind of time, effort, and information that “cool” birders do. However, I admit there is a level of truth to the scorn I implied. I do think people who contribute to science should be held with more esteem than those who simply collect sightings for their personal enjoyment. People who pointed out that birders and herpers provide many benefits just by doing what they do are missing the point: you can do all of that and much more if you try to make it count. And I never want to hear about a herpetological “Big Year.”

Stay tuned next week for a special post just for the birders.

You are driving a wedge between academics and herpers.

    I was aware of friction between professional herpetologists and herp enthusiasts, but never had any idea what it was really like. Academics seemed to enjoy the article and its approach, and understood what I was saying. But the target audience was never supposed to just be herp enthusiasts. I know herpetologists who go herping “just for fun” and this was for them, too.

I’m not giving you my secret spots, because poachers will find them.

    First, I have always been under the impression that poachers are better at finding these animals than responsible herpers. And you can avoid publicizing localities. Academic venues allow you to use vague locality information if you’re deliberately concealing them due to this concern. Also, you can target ugly species that nobody wants. Southern Dusky Salamanders are a great example. If they were as attractive as Ringed Salamanders, they would already be federally protected and you wouldn’t be able to do the kind of survey I did. But they’re ugly, so you can target them and nobody is going to want to come behind you to find them at your sites. Look for ugly herps. Dingy Mud Turtles. Stupid Toads. Boring skinks. Repugnant Rainbow Snakes. Lame gartersnakes. They need our help too. If you only want to find the sexy species, change your mindset.

You created a backlash.

    This is the part that most surprised me the most. The post struck a nerve with many people, and I can only assume that my message landed too close to home for those who were insulted. I come from a Catholic family where guilt, shame, and sarcasm are supreme motivators. I assumed that if I made an appeal to conservation, everyone would snap-to. It seems as though this appeal carried very little weight with many hobbyists. Some even suggested they were going to refuse to join the cause because of the way I delivered the message, even though they agreed with my points! Listen, I don’t want you to stop herping and I certainly don’t want you to stop going for glory! Imagine the glory of finding some of these things where they have never been found!

   While I was disappointed that some reacted negatively to the article, a “silent majority” liked it. I got a dozen facebook friend requests on the first day it was posted, and several folks wrote privately they liked the approach, the article, and that they were going to change their herping habits because of it. Strangers stood up for me on social media, and I will always be indebted to them. Those were the people I wanted to reach, and if my sensational approach turned some people off in the process, it was a cheap price to pay for the exposure. The nay-sayers will soon realize they are outnumbered. And then they will join us.

You insulted Kameron Burgess. 

This figure is from Jeff Beane’s Southern
Hog-nosed Snake paper in the journal Copeia.
    I feel pretty bad about this. I asked Kameron permission to use his recent post because it was such a good example. I left his name out but his friends quickly outed him. I don’t think Kameron is a loser. His post reminded me of the kind of herping I used to do. He’s one step away from doing a lot of good for conservation. He spent 80 days looking for Southern Hog-nosed Snakes (Heterodon simus) and only found one. If he keeps looking in a systematic way, keeping track of all the hours and routes and number of snakes he finds, this would be a prime example of herping for a cause! Those data would be invaluable for a state agency that lacks the funds to keep track of that species. He and his friends need only make a few adjustments, and they could continue to look for that charismatic snake and make an important contribution. The only paper written about the natural history of that species was by somebody who did exactly that. And for the record, I’ve never seen a Southern Hog-nosed Snake, so Kameron’s got that over me! 

You could have written a broader post about other branches of natural history.

    True, too. I used the fact that amphibians and reptiles are in decline worldwide as the backbone for my call-to-arms. Biodiversity in general is declining, but herps are in real dire straits. Like Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits. However, enough people pointed this out that I’m listing citizen scientist platforms for other biological disciplines:

Never go birding for fun:

Your local Audubon Society chapter: Christmas Bird Counts, Backyard Bird Counts, Breeding Bird Counts, Breeding bird survey routes.
The Birder’s Handbook: compendium of natural history information about birds. It was put together to establish what we know, so you can contribute to what we don’t know. It was the model for Mike Lannoo’s Amphibian Declines: Conservation Status of United States Species book.
What do birds eat?
Never go bugging for fun:

The Big Bug Hunt:

Never botanize for fun:

EDDMapS invasive species early detection:
Contact also your local Natural History Museum for botanical collection ideas; you can find new county records for plants!

Never have sex for fun:

The Kinsey Institute encourages discrete disclosure of your bedroom antics: