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Nobody Cares About Your Lifers: How to Make Herping Count

Photo courtesy of Becky Hardman

By Sean Graham

     Amateur naturalists and professional scientists alike enjoy being in nature and often go looking for things they haven’t seen before. We mount little hikes, expeditions, and vacations, and have in mind things we’d like to see. These have become codified as “lifers”—species we’ve never seen in our lives, which we have now seen, giving us an ever so brief drop of satisfaction. We pose with them in hand with big grins. Then, on to the next lifer. This is natural and commendable and I enjoy seeing a new lifer too.

            Here’s the thing: amphibians and reptiles are in trouble, and there are not that many people who are very excited about them. Compared to birders, “herpers” (folks who go “herping”—looking for amphibians and reptiles, or “herps”) are a tiny minority among naturalists. And compared to birds, butterflies, and other harmless and attractive creatures, amphibians and reptiles are undergoing alarming worldwide declines. Without a large, dedicated cadre of enthusiasts who even care about them, herps are blinking out everywhere. And sometimes we don’t even know if they are truly declining.

            Michael Lannoo, a herpetologist at the forefront of this conservation problem, once pointed out that, no matter what you’ve heard about great plagues of fungi, viruses, and chemicals, the biggest reason for these declines is habitat loss. But in order to determine if they’ve declined at all, “we need to know where these animals are and how to find them.” We need to know their distribution, aspects of their natural history, and have a good handle on how to sample for them. Lannoo put together the book “Amphibian Declines: Conservation Status of Untied States Species” which compiles what we already know about American amphibians. The idea was to make it easy for people to find new things and fill in the blanks about which we don’t know. I took his statement and the book to heart.

            During grad school my friends and I would go herping often, like many enthusiasts do. Only for the most part we made it count. We organized “bioblitz competitions,” descending upon areas which had few distribution records to find new “county records”. We made new friends, drank too much, and generally raised hell. It was also dirty, sweaty, and stingy. In many cases we simply documented common species where they had not been found before. But during the course of several of these competitions we documented over 200 new county records for Alabama and Georgia, including some rarities. Several people encountered new lifers, including me. And we published our results. And, it was fun. Probably more fun than just going out looking for “lifers”.

            I also took on surveys for fairly rare species. Most research focuses on either very common species—to get large sample sizes—or very rare species that receive conservation funding from federal or state agencies. This means many species slip through the cracks and are ignored. These are often referred to as “species of special concern” since we know so little about them. We don’t really know for sure if they’re rare or not. Because these species often receive no protection at the state or federal level, no special permits are required to study them. Anybody can do it. So during grad school I systematically searched for Southern Dusky Salamanders (Desmognathus auriculatus) and Seepage Salamanders (Desmognathus aeneus). 

     Most of these searches involved friends, so again, we spent weekends searching for rare critters, camped out, drank too much, raised hell, and did other things that college kids do. It was dirty, sweaty, and stingy, and in some cases we were not finding much, so it really sucked. But we were able to publish baseline inventories for rare species. In the case of Southern Dusky Salamanders, we established just how rare they are by looking for them and finding for the most part nothing. In the case of Seepage Salamanders we established that they are actually pretty common, you just need to know the trick for how to find them. We added several new localities, filled distribution gaps, and found the southernmost population known. Now we have a better idea of where they are and how to find them. We spent a lot of our own money to do it, and put in long, hard hours, just like many herp enthusiasts do. But it wasn’t herping for fun.

            I remember when I stopped herping for fun. I drove all the way to south Alabama on a wild goose chase to find my first Pine Woods Snake (Rhadinea flavilata). I struck out, and vowed never again to look for snakes just to grow my life list.

    Here’s what I propose. Never go herping just for fun. There are people who spend hundreds of dollars on gasoline, camera equipment, car rentals, and airline flights to see lifers. They travel thousands of miles and put in hundreds of person hours looking in the same hot spots where everyone knows you can find a Pigmy Rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius), Twin-spotted Rattlesnake (Crotalus priceii), or Pine Barrens Treefrog (Hyla andersonii). These are beautiful and charismatic species, and I understand their draw. But herps are too imperiled for people to target them just to admire them. This is an enormous waste of time, money, and effort, and many of the people who do this are really good at finding herps. Imagine if they spent that time and money looking for species of special concern? Every state has a list of such species that can be “adopted” by intrepid and courageous herpers who are ashamed of herping for fun. Imagine if instead of trying to find their lifer Pigmy Rattlesnake in Apalachicola National Forest, they instead went looking for them in central Alabama where records are few and patchy? If instead of herping for fun, everyone made their herping count?

            Birders do this. Some birders are losers who drive 500 miles just go to the same boardwalk in Florida where everyone knows Swainsons’ Warblers (Limnothlypis swainsonii) can be found, tick them off their list, and get back in their Subaru Outback to find the next bird. They’re stamp collectors. They spend thousands of dollars doing their Big Years—the ultimate waste of time and effort for nothing more than self-indulgence and bragging rights. [ check the comments for a clarification from the author on this statement ] On the other hand, some birders are cool. They spend their free time counting hawks all day, or doing breeding bird atlas routes for science. There are so many birders that it balances out, and despite the fact that most birders are jittery tickers who contribute nothing, enough of them do science that we know an incredible amount about the conservation status, distribution, and natural history of North American birds. Most of this information was not generated by professional ornithologists. It was gathered by birders doing science.

            But there aren’t enough herpers to go around. We can’t afford being simple life list tickers.

            So never go herping for fun. If you need to find a species for your life list, you had better find it in a county where it has never been found before, and publish these results, or send along the photos and data to somebody who will. If you spend weekends catching fistfuls of kingsnakes in the same tin yards, make sure you’re measuring them and marking them, and after a few years I want to see a paper. If you’re a teacher and take your students out to show them field techniques, go to some corner of your state with few records and hit it hard. Or, if you take them on field trips to the same reliable field site year after year, take detailed field notes because I want to see a long term study emerge from it. There are a million ways to go herping and contribute to science. Contact me or another herpetologist to find out how.

            Stop doing your annual field trip to the Santa Ritas and Chiricahuas to find that same southwestern stuff. Instead, explore some area of your state with sparse records. Nobody wants to see your picture of the Twin-spotted Rattlesnake from that same talus slope you didn’t have a permit to search anyway. Stop coming to the Big Bend for two weeks to find a Grey-banded Kingsnake (Lampropeltis alterna). We already know they’re here. They’ve never been found in Chihuahua, so look there. You are allowed one trip to the Great Smokies, but be sure to poke around for Green Salamanders (Aneides aeneus). They haven’t been seen there in almost 100 years. Then post your finds on social media, and I’ll be the first to congratulate you.

            I’m not chastising anybody in particular, and truthfully, I’m sometimes as guilty as anybody. Our priorities must shift because there are only a few of us, a lot of rare species to look after, and we’re losing them quickly. This is a call to arms.
            So get out there and find some rare herps, but be sure to make it count. It’ll be a blast.