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Show Me State Salamanders and Snakes

Posted: October 12th, 2019, 1:44 pm
by Jefferson
Three video companions to this post can be viewed on my channel ( ... fdL3g1JQ8Q) or Bethany's channel (

As those of you who read our posts know, the early summer was a North Carolina bonanza this year: one trip to the lush deciduous mountains in the west, the Salamander Capitol of the World, and another trip to the swampy, low, coniferous eastern section of the state with my family for July 4th. Both trips were awesome, and both produced unforgettable lifers characteristic of their environs. In the west, the Hellbender, Bat Cave Yonahlossee, and Shovelnose, and in the east, the Eastern Kingsnake, Greenish Rat Snake, Green Treefrog and Eastern Lesser Siren. After that trip, Bethany and I relocated to DC, where I had three weeks of training, and then we moved to our new home, in Southwest Missouri.

Thus, as we adjust to married life and our new work schedules, we've been doing a fair amount of herping in Ozark Mountain land this late summer and fall. Things started off with a few haphazard road cruises around Branson that yielded only rat snakes and blurry pictures of fast-moving Copperheads. A few early trips to the local nature center, where the summer heat only emboldened the Three-toed box turtles and map turtles to sun, revealed a herpetologically decent getaway right on our back door step--a park with not a terrible number of lifers, but some old friends like bullfrogs and sliders and tranquil forest walks. A rainy-night road cruise turned up a couple of gimme-level lifers, the Dwarf American toad (they don't have the generic Eastern American toads here) and Blanchard's Cricket frog. A few more trips to the nature center yielded a pair of snapping turtles that didn't understand personal space (and fought as a result), some more Three-toed box turtles, and a heap more of frogs.

Three-toed Box Turtle, Greene co., MO

Snappers about to go to war, Greene co., MO

Northern Map Turtle, Greene co., MO

Dwarf American Toad, Greene co., MO

To celebrate Bethany's birthday, we trekked south into the mountains to visit several spots. After rescuing a turtle from the highway and arriving at our first stop, we flipped large rocks around the edge of a pond before the sun got too high and the temperature too blistering. As I turned over the third or fourth one, I got one of the biggest shocks I've ever had herping. Under the rock sat a TARANTULA. Of course, these guys are perfectly harmless, but it's still a gargantuan spider, and I don't like spiders. I refrained from making any loud noises indicative of fear, and instead just calmly reported that I had flipped a wild tarantula, which impressed Bethany somewhat.

Texas Brown Tarantula-Southern Missouri

We took pictures and moved along, seeing an adult coachwhip on the road that got away into the brush as soon as our car got within 50 yards. I have never seen a snake move so fast in my life! I had always heard that Coachwhips were fast snakes, but it's hard to believe just how fast until you see one moving at full getaway speed. Our next stop was a rocky glade, and it proved good for lizards as expected. Amid the building midday heat, we braved the rocky, dry habitat in search of our quarry, and found Bethany a pair of lizard lifers for her birthday: Prairie Lizard (the MO version of fence lizards) and a Prairie Six-lined Racerunner. The racerunners here in MO have bright green sides and are much more ornate than the Six-lined racerunners back east. With that, we toured a cave (it is the Ozarks after all), and besides the brilliant rock formations and cool underground reprieve from the heat, got a couple Western Slimy salamanders.

Prairie Racerunner, Southern Missouri

On the drive out from the caverns, we happened upon the day's best find--another Coachwhip, this one a juvenile snake, basking on the heat of the blacktop. Despite the adult's amazing speed earlier in the day, this Coachwhip didn't move until it was too late for escape, as Bethany sprinted up to the snake and captured it easily off the roadside. We set up the beauty of a snake beneath a pine tree and took pictures and video, and what struck me about the Coachwhip is that, unlike other snakes, it will look you straight in the eyes, and when it decides to strike defensively, it aims for your face. It didn't tag me, but it was just strange to see a snake looking at me eye-to-eye like that. We let him go back at the roadside in the direction he was initially facing and after dinner tried (unsuccessfully) to cruise a pigmy rattler.

Eastern Coachwhip, Southern Missouri

Though we failed to find our Western Pigmy on Bethany's birthday, opportune weather and some precision research gave us a plausible chance about two weeks later a little closer to home. As the blazing heat died down with sunset, Bethany and I drove into the rocky woods and pastures of the Ozarks on two-lane byways, and about five minutes after twilight, we saw something lumpy on the road. To me, it didn't look like a snake, and I continued driving. It was too thick and short, but Bethany insisted that I go back and check, and man am I glad that we did. It was a Western Pigmy Rattler!! He was coiled twice over, so from the car, he looked like a piece of a branch or something due to the thickness, but it was a rattler. Realizing that we forgot flashlights (go figure), we relied on the camera flash to illuminate our video. We soon noticed that the snake wasn't moving very much, even when touched with a stick. It wasn't dead, for it moved its head and body slightly when touched, but did not rattle or slither. It had no apparent wounds from being run over, and showed no signs of shedding either, so the reason was a mystery until we examined the photos on the way home (stopped at a Sonic) and noticed a growth/abcess of some kind on the snake's jaw scales. Perhaps it had acquired a nasty infection, rendering it lethargic.

Western Pigmy Rattlesnake, Missouri

Close-up on abscess-that must hurt...

The next few weeks of herping were rather uneventful in terms of lifers and excitement, but good for scenery and covering new ground. We cruised a beautiful flower-laden prairie to our west at dusk, hiked a oak woodland conservation area to our east a few times (only seeing a few frogs and watersnakes), and hit a locale to our southwest in the Ozarks. This latter spot has an absolutely beautiful, crystal-clear trout stream and hatchery, where trout fishermen cast lines for the hundreds of fish swimming around in the pools and riffles adjacent a spring. Of course, all those fish translated to an abundance of watersnakes. Along a thirty-yard stretch of the rocky banks of this stream, we counted at least five Midland Watersnakes hunting or basking. A hike up a nearby hill yielded some Five-lined skinks, some interesting geological formations, a few caves (which had some slimy salamanders but nothing else), and a few small snakes...and lots of spider webs across the trail. I think I stopped counting somewhere around the 50 spider web mark, but it was a nice jaunt through the shaded forest.

Our next major herping operation occurred last weekend, the first weekend of October. September here, until the last few days of it, blazed like July or August does in Michigan. But the last few days of September and the first week of October brought an abrupt cool-down and series of rains and drizzles. High temps went from 90s to 60s and 70s, and clouds became the norm. With those conditions, we decided to head northeast toward St. Louis to try for some Ambystoma and do some caving. I picked Bethany up from work just after a torrential thunderstorm had knocked out a few traffic lights in Springfield, and we got on the freeway, stopping in Rolla for some great-tasting BBQ and then pressing on to a special night-time cave tour.

Arriving an hour early at the spot where the meet-up was scheduled, we discovered that the park was humming with campers, hundreds of them. We felt sorry for the campers just downhill of the parking lot--so many people coming and going with their lights on and going to the bathhouse, how were they ever going to get to sleep?! A crowd began coalescing just downhill, so we walked up, gave our tickets to one of the guides, received a spare flashlight, and waited for the tour to begin. On account of the large turnout, they divided us into two groups, small and large families (the line of demarcation being two people). The large family group went first, which we were worried would mean that they'd scare away al the salamanders in the cave back into their hiding places before we came along, but that fear turned out to be unfounded. In the black night, we hiked around a half mile to reach the cave entrance, which was padlocked and had an air-lock. Once inside the cave, we saw beautiful formations everywhere: soda straws, "wind-swept" soda straws, huge stalagmites and stalactites, flowstones, pitfall rooms, and buried coral fossils. We also spied a bat hanging from the cave ceiling, one of few remaining since the detection of White-nose syndrome at the site. After a steep descent into a deeper section of the cave, water abounded. Clear, crystal clear water so clean and untrammeled by human activities or natural sedimentation that it was difficult to determine where the underground stream began and ended--for the rocks on the bottom of the shallow water were as clear as if they had been under no water at all. At first pass, we saw nothing, but on the way back, the tour guide noticed a translucent-white Grotto larvae hanging out in a pipe under the walking path. They kindly let us hang back to photograph and video the cave-dweller, and then we left to get some sleep.

Grotto Salamander, Missouri

The next morning, we started bright and early with a rousing hike at a private nature center through some diverse habitat. The park itself was well-kept and the foliage was labelled here and there, but we only found a hoard of cricket frogs, some leopard frogs, and a water snake. We next drove to a spot rumored to have one of our top Missouri targets: Ringed Salamanders. Within ten feet of the parking lot, we flipped several Central Newts, a dead Prairie Ring-neck, and a juvenile Spotted Salamander.

Central Newt, Missouri

In the woods adjacent, we flipped a few more newts, and under a log adjacent the pond, a beautiful, huge Ringed Salamander with bright yellow rings!!! We photographed the Ambystoma on some moss and found another about thirty yards away, reveling in the find, and strode back to the car on air.

Ringed Salamander #1

Ringed Salamander #2

Bethany holding Ringed Salamander

Just a short drive away in the floodplain of the Missouri River, the topography changed from rocky soil to low, mucky terrain and bottomland hardwoods. Rain began falling as we flipped logs along a deer trail, finding Southern Leopard frogs everywhere but no sign of salamanders for over the first 100 logs. Bethany flipped a juvie Spotted after about forty-five minutes, and only a few logs later, we flipped a big adult Smallmouth! I'd been chasing this Ambystoma for years without avail in Ohio, but it only took one lucky afternoon in Missouri.

Smallmouth Salamander, Missouri

With that, we pigged out a local Arby's, stopped at one more park just for fun and saw from frogs, and went home. What a weekend.

Well, that's all. We received our first frost this morning, so with the exception of zigzag salamanders and stream-dwelling caudates, the herping season is probably ending. Until next time from the Ozark Plateau, and happy fall herping!