The View from Here

Prehistoric Beasts in my Backyard
December 12, 2009, 12:24 pm
Filed under: Reptiles & Amphibians

Three hundred million years ago, before the Appalachian Mountains were pushed up by continental collision, the first land dwelling vertebrates were living in vast swamp forests. These were quadraped vertebrates, amphibians recently evolved from fish that had adapted to life in the shallows. Salamanders, essentially. Some were giants, several feet long. These creatures continued to evolve and radiate into many new species over many millions of years. Some would develop the ability to lay eggs on land and would become reptiles, eventually radiating into  dinosaurs, birds and mammals. Some would continue to enjoy life at the water’s edge.  Now, 300 million years later, the Appalachian Mountains are the center of salamander diversity, with over 60 species.  They range from tiny species like the Red-Backed Salamander a couple of inches long, to the stream-dwelling giants like the  two-foot long Hellbender and the Mudpuppy. The Asian relatives of the Hellbender approach the size of the ancient giants, at 3 to 4 feet long. Some of these species occupy a single mountain, others range over much of the country.

A Red-Backed Salamander in my ancient stairwell

My backyard in urban Cincinnati doesn’t seem like such a likely place for these primitive creatures. Still, salamanders are abundant in the local woodlands, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that they occupy a niche in my little oasis of wilderness. Some of our neighborhood preserves have what appear to be “original” trees (200+ years old), implying that parts of the woods are virgin. Salamanders from these undisturbed habitats can refill the areas where amphibians were extirpated by agriculture or development, when suitable habitat reappears in backyards across the neighborhood.
The stairwell leading down to my basement is a damp, mossy place. I suppose I should clean out the moss, but I really kind of like it, and now I find that it is a habitat for some of my favorite creatures. The other day I happened upon a tiny Red-Backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus), sitting on a step, contemplating an isopod that might make a good breakfast. It struck me that the little microhabitat he was in resembled those swamp forests of yore. Mosses and ferns were the predominant plant types in the coal swamps along with giant horsetails. A tiny descendent of those Carboniferous horsetails lives in my garden pond. I could picture the giant “salamanders” slithering about in the swampy waters, with giant dragonflies overhead. The dragonflies are still present as well. My pond and koi tub attract the winged predators, one the of the great benefits of having water in the garden. Of course, they don’t approach the 3ft wing span of the dragonflies of the Carboniferous swamps, but they are colorful and interesting nonetheless.

A Blue Dragonfly suns itself above my garden pond.

Redbacks are not the biggest or the most colorful salamanders in our area, but they might be among the most important. This is simply because of their abundance. They can account for a biomass equal to the mass of all the mammals in a given forest. This fact makes them among the most important actors in the woodland drama. It shouldn’t surprise any biologist that such a tiny, delicate creature has such a dominant role in an ecosystem. After all, the smallest creatures on earth, the bacteria, are the dominate life form. We like to think of ourselves as dominant, but we have only learned to dominate large creatures. We are still at the mercy of bacteria, who account for the most biomass of all living things on earth.

The Red-Backed Salamander strikes me as the Joe-Six Pack of the salamander world. Pedestrian in every way, they are widespread, are common, and have a dominant role in the economy of the forest floor. They are not particularly colorful or striking in any way. They are somewhat unusual in the salamander world because they skip the aquatic stage of life. They lay their eggs on land, guarding them until they hatch. The young pass through the larval stage while still in the egg, and hatch as fully formed, but tiny, salamanders. This might account for their relative abundance compared to other species. By skipping the need to return to water for reproduction, they can colonize wide areas of suitable habitat.

Other species in our neighborhood have more restricted habitats.  The Longtailed Salamander and the Cave salamander both inhabit the deep recesses of wet rock outcrops.

The Long-Tailed Salamander (Eurycea longicauda)

The Cave Salamander prefers limestone outcrops, and the deep caves of limestone areas. Spring Salamanders take after their name, and can also be seen in deep caves as larva.  Some of my favorites are the Red-Spotted newt and the whole Ambystoma genus. This includes the beautiful Marbled and Spotted Salamanders, along with the Tiger, The Jefferson’s and Narrow-Mouthed Salamanders.  These mostly occur in undisturbed woodlands, so they aren’t seen in or near Cincinnati except, perhaps, as isolated relict populations. Woodland streams in the area can host Two-Lined Salamanders or Dusky Salamanders, but both prefer clean water, something not see very often in streams around the city.

The Cave Salamander (Eurycea lucifuga)

Being colorful and somewhat anthropomorphic, they make great subjects for paintings.  I’ve done a few over the years:

"Cave Salamander" 20 x 30 acrylic on canvas. A Cave salamander on the scalloped limestone of a cave wall.

"A Walk Across Time" 32 x 48 Acrylic on canvas. A Red Eft walks across fossils from the swamps of the Carboniferous, where salamanders first evolved.

"The Slimy Salamander" 10 x 8 Acrylic on panel.

"Spotted Salamander" 8 x 10 Acrylic on panel


Frog update
July 31, 2009, 10:25 am
Filed under: Reptiles & Amphibians

We’re well into froggy season now, and we’ve seen our second batch of bullfrog eggs. For some reason, both the Bulls and the Greens seem to prefer to breed in the 2 x 4 x 2 koi tub instead of the big pond. There are fish in both the pond and the tub, so go figure. What really puzzles me is how the frogs find the tub. The water is not visible from ground level (the tub is 2 ft high) and there is no water noise of any kind. It doesn’t seem like instinct would lead one UP to water. They must either be able to sense the water, or they just explore a lot and found it by accident.

The frogs have been especially noisy this year, which hasn’t bothered the neighbors as far as I know. The bullfrogs can be quite loud at times.  When the males are singing, they puff themselves up with air like a balloon so that they float high on the water. When they call, the air transfers from their inflated lungs into the ballooning throat as if an invisible hand was squeezing him like a balloon. While in this inflated condition they seem to be especially agitated, charging and barking at other frogs. Ahhrummm!

An inflated male Bullfrog. This is a stereo photo. Cross your eyes slowly and merge the images to see it in 3D!

An inflated male Bullfrog. This is a stereo photo. Cross your eyes slowly and merge the images to see it in 3D!

The eggs develop very quickly, hatching tiny black tadpoles in about 3 days, but it takes two years to get from egg to frog. Right now, I have tadpoles morphing into frogs in the big pond, survivors of eggs laid in 2007. There are several dozen little frogs visible at any time, and big tadpoles frequently rise to the surface. The big bullfrogs are getting fat by eating little frogs, but every year I see a few that survive to sub-adulthood. Out of the thousands of eggs laid each year, only a couple will survive to produce the next generation. In a larger pond, the tadpoles would have slightly better odds, but the percentage of survivors in nature is always low. This selection for survival keeps the frogs healthy and the population at a sustainable level.

New Green Frog eggs

New Green Frog eggs

Developing into tadpoles...

Developing into tadpoles...

Snakes ‘n Art
July 1, 2009, 9:32 am
Filed under: Art News, Reptiles & Amphibians
Coelophysis, detail from a mural for the Riverbanks Zoo

Coelophysis, detail from a mural for the Riverbanks Zoo

I’ve been a snake guy as long as I can remember. Well, that’s not really true, dinosaurs came first, then lizards, and THEN snakes. That’s the same track many reptile lovers have followed. Dinosaurs fired the imagination as a youngster, followed by the realization that living reptiles are just as cool, if not quite as big. My first pet was a Green Anole, a real dinosaur in my 7 year-old imagination. I still love dinosaurs, and have made several paintings of them.

Deinonychus, a detail from a mural for the Riverbanks Zoo

Deinonychus, a detail from a mural for the Riverbanks Zoo

Snakes are really special animals, however. They have that reptile “coolness,” an aspect that says “danger!” the same way a gang-banger might try to say it by looking tough.  Many snakes even have a supraocular scale that gives them a wicked look, as if they’re frowning.  Combine that with the use of venom and swallowing their victims whole, and you have the perfect attractants for adolescent boys.  As we mature, we begin to appreciate other snake qualities, such as their beauty (both subtle and outrageous)and amazing adaptions for life without legs.

The first snakes I kept were Northern Water snakes, readily available in Ohio.  Then came Garter snakes, Black Rat snakes, and the holy grail for young snake catchers in my neighborhood, the Eastern Milksnake. By the time I was about 13, I got my first exotic snake, a Columbian Rainbow Boa.

"Brazilian Rainbow" 20 x 15, acrylic on illustration board. Collection of Paul Beaver

"Brazilian Rainbow" 20 x 15, acrylic on illustration board. Collection of Paul Beaver

I paid $15 dollars for it at a local pet store. My dad helped me build a cage for it, a wooden box with a glass front and screened vents.  I worried over it for about 2 months because it wouldn’t eat. One day after returning home from school, I went to my basement corner to check on the snake, and was astounded to see a squirming mass of baby boas and afterbirth!  My Rainbow Boa had 17 babies, all live born.  I was, of course, thrilled.  They all had a spot and rosette pattern like the more exotic Brazilian Rainbow Boa. The mother was essentially plain brown (but very iridescent).  At about 12 inches long, they needed baby mice (pinkies), which wasn’t always easy for me to get. I started trading the baby boas for other snakes. I did keep a few that I raised to adulthood and kept until I was in college.

The next several years saw an enlarging collection of snakes. I began working at the Dayton Museum of Natural History (Now the Boonshoft Museum) as a high school Junior Curator, and took care of the Museum’s live snake display. I had visions of becoming a herpetologist.  As I became acquainted with sources for exotic snakes, I began to covet the venomous ones. They were extra-cool. Not only were some really extraordinary in appearance (like the Rhino Viper),  they were dangerous.

A Speckled Rattler, photographed in Arizona. A cryptic beauty, but snappy.

A Speckled Rattler, photographed in Arizona. A cryptic beauty, but snappy.

Teenage boys love dangerous stuff.  I bought by mail order some fairly dangerous snakes that I kept hidden under my bed or explained away as a harmless venomous snake look-alike.  I was very lucky and was never bitten. I also had a little training by some of the older staff at the museum, watching them handle the museum’s live Copperheads and Timber Rattlers. I never tried to actually touch my “hot” snakes, using hooks or tongs to transfer the snakes to a secure box before cleaning the cages.

I eventually got on a track that took me into a career in museum exhibit design and then fine art, instead of becoming a herpetologist. I usually point to Algebra 3 as my turning point from a career in the sciences to one in art, but it probably had more to do with growing up with artists for parents.

"Buddha's Protector" 20 x 15 acrylic.  This snake is modeled on one that I kept for yearss

"Buddha's Protector" 20 x 15 acrylic. This cobra is modeled on one that I kept for years. Collection of the Artist

It took many years to outgrow my desire to keep deadly snakes, but I never lost my fascination for them. Perhaps was the realization that I make my living with my hands (definitely at risk in a bite), and the arrival of a baby in the house.  While living in Florida and Kentucky, I was able to observe venomous snakes in my own yard, without having to keep them. There were Diamondbacks in my Florida yard, and Copperheads in Kentucky. Other folks might be pretty upset about this, but I was thrilled.

A Western Diamondback in Arizona

A Western Diamondback in Arizona

A sidewinder, photographed in Arizona. My favorite rattlesnake.

A sidewinder, photographed in Arizona. My favorite rattlesnake.

I still love vipers, cobras, rattlesnakes and all the rest.  Whenever I travel to places where these animals live, they are highest on my list of desired sightings. After growing up reading the adventures of famous herpetologists, it has been a thrill to see rattlers in the Arizona desert, Fer-de-Lance in the Amazon, cottonmouths in southern swamps, and cobras in Borneo.

The dangerous ones will remain my favorite snakes to paint. They offer a measure of drama just because of their dangerous potential, and many are quite beautiful.  Some are beautiful in their cryptic camouflage, and others are outrageously colored, such as the coral snakes or the African vipers like the Rhino viper and Gaboon viper. All of them have that special something that appeals to my inner 15 year-old.

A Fer-de-Lance, photographed in the Peruvian Amazon.

A Fer-de-Lance, photographed in the Peruvian Amazon. I searched the rainforest for this snake, finally finding one beneath our lodge.

A Cottonmouth in the Everglades

A Cottonmouth in the Everglades that I rescued from certain death on the main park road

"Diamond In The Rough" 11 x 20, acrylic on illustration board. Collection of the Artist.

"Diamond In The Rough" 11 x 20, acrylic on illustration board. This snake lived behind my house in Florida. Collection of the Artist.

"The Feathered Serpent"  15 x 20, acrylic on canvas. Collection of Mary Huels

"The Feathered Serpent" 15 x 20, acrylic on canvas. There is a joke hidden in this painting, but you have to be able to read Mayan glyphs to get it. Collection of Mary Huels

I actually haven’t painted all that many snakes, despite having a reputation as a herp artist. Really, only a handful. Perhaps it’s because they are incredibly difficult to paint well, or maybe it is the limited market for snake art. If you know my art, you know I like to do detail. Detail on snakes means lots of scales, and in specific patterns and numbers.  Not only that, but the scales change in perspective as they go around the snake’s curves, and they change in how they overlap each other depending on if they are on the inside or outside of a curve. This is very difficult and tedious to re-create. It is not so simple as drawing cris-crossed lines as we did when we were kids. Still, I’ve pushed my way through a few snake pieces, and will likely do more in the future.