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On March 26th, my husband Nathan and I started off on a loop trip down through the southern states in search of unique native herpetofauna and flora. We spent six days exploring the outdoors and a final three days spending time with family in Tennessee. Nathan and I had a bet as to how many cottonmouths we would see during the trip through Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. I said we would find three, Nathan said we would see 30. We saw zero! Who takes a trip to the Deep South, wades through swamps, and doesn’t see a single cottonmouth OR alligator?! Instead, we came across rarities like striped newts, a Florida pine snake, Florida sand skinks, a gopher tortoise, Siren minima (newly described species), red-cockaded woodpeckers, and carnivorous plants! God’s creation is amazing and we are so grateful that we had the ability to see what we did. It is such a blessing not only to see those critters, but we are blessed with the health, freedom, and abilities to go out and find them.
Nathan drove through the night from Springfield, MO to meet up with Tyler and Brittany to hike at a Louisiana nature park. We met up with Tyler initially at the trailhead and started out towards the bog in search of Southern red salamanders and Gulf Coast mud salamanders. The first notable botanical find of the day was Florida red anise in bloom. I had never heard of this flowering understory tree that looked like a combination of rhododendron and witch hazel. I was quite astounded by their beauty. They were tough to photograph, though, because the blooms are shaded and nodding downwards. Brittany arrived later and caught up with us on the boardwalk trail. We had so much fun herping with our new friends, and I was especially intrigued with Brittany’s knowledge of insects and plants which she helped me identify. We spent about an hour and a half flipping logs with few significant herp finds. Finally, Brittany turned up a beautiful Southern red salamander which she named “Strawberry”. We snapped a few photos and headed on our merry way with Tyler to our next spot in Mississippi where we found our goal gulf coast mud salamander larvae and Valentine’s dusky salamanders. While in Louisiana, Brittany had given me some pointers on where to find some carnivorous plants that would be on our way to the Florida panhandle. One of the main things I was hoping to see on the trip were carnivorous plants, so I was excited by her news. So we said goodbye to Tyler and headed off to find those bug-eating, nutrient-deprived plants!
Florida red anise
Unknown flowering understory tree
Southern red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber vioscai) nicknamed “Strawberry”
Honeysuckle azalea bush (Rhododendron canescens)
Unknown moss, I call it “Lion’s mane moss”
Gulf coast mud salamander (Pseudotriton montanus flavissimus)
Broad-headed skink (Plestiodon laticeps) basking on a log over a Mississippi swamp
While at a Mississippi refuge, Nathan and I ambled towards where we felt there might be a bog in the landscape with pitcher plants that Brittany told us about. On our way to our supposed bog location, we came upon a darling 90-some year-old lady named Betty sitting on a park bench along the footpath with her outdoor trail walker, watching the birds playfully fluttering to and fro in the pine forest. Even though we had a certain allotted time for finding plants, I much preferred talking with this sweet, chipper lady. We ended up seeing quite a few carnivorous plants, including my highest plant goal of the trip, sundew! Sundew is even smaller than I thought. Oh, but what an absolutely beautiful plant! The sappy dew droplets are what traps tiny insects where to get nutrients. These “dew” droplets glisten in the sun prettier than any man-made arrangement of diamonds.
Palm warbler (I think) with insect
After spending too much time with plants, birds, and old ladies, we had to hustle to the final location of the day to move onto more important things (ha!) such as kicking through the muck in a seepage bog in search of a dark swamp salamander called Siren minima, a newly described, secretive species. Running out of daylight, we kicked up a couple Siren minima in the muck but weren’t able to catch them, much less confirm their identification at the time. I caught a juvenile pig frog and propped it up onto a butterwort carnivorous plant (don’t worry, they don’t eat frogs) for a photo. Nathan said he saw a red-colored salamander that resembled a bog dwarf salamander, but again, was not able to capture or confirm I.D. due to the dimming daylight.
Juvenile pig frog (Lithobates grylio)
Butterwort carnivorous plant
The next day we got up extra early (it wasn’t too hard to- our AirBNB the night before was sketchy, so we slept in our car instead!) to head back to our Siren minima location. Within a couple minutes, Nathan flipped a log that had a Southeastern slimy salamander underneath. Not too long after Nathan’s slimy salamander find, I kicked up the first Siren minima of the day. It was in a shallower area of muck. I kicked it up along with decayed leaves and mud, lost it, then saw it in a flash and quickly scooped it up in a handful of mud. This is what we do on our vacations, folks. Nathan and I chuckled to ourselves a few times at just how ridiculous what we were doing actually was. Siren minima “swim” though the muck and can disappear so easily, so they are pretty hard to catch. After taking photos and video, we released it and found about six more of the same species, along with a one adult and a handful of Southern red salamander larva.
Siren minima with apparent bite marks. Sirens are known to be territorial with each other.
We finished up at the seepage and drove to Southern Alabama to nab a few more lifer salamanders. Nathan found another beautifully speckled Southern red salamander and later, this teeny-tiny bog dwarf salamander that could fit on a penny! This species is associated with sphagnum moss. We later dip-netted some leaf packs in a blackwater stream for Escambia waterdogs. We netted two juveniles, along with bycatch of crayfish and tiny shrimp. That night we stayed at a really quaint AirBNB in Marianna, FL. Our hosts were exceedingly gracious in their hospitality! The walls were covered with Michael’s prize-winning artwork, and June even cooked us breakfast in the morning. Nathan and I have really enjoyed staying at AirBNB’s in most of our travels. Despite just a couple of bad experiences (though not terrible), they are much better and far cheaper than hotels. Plus, you have access to the kitchen and laundry room most times.
Bog dwarf salamander (Eurycea sphagnicola)
Bog dwarf salamander and Southern red salamander habitat
Escambia waterdog (Necturus monti)
Southern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix) found while searching unsuccessfully for Coastal plains dwarf salamander and Apalachicola dusky salamanders.The gnats and mosquitoes were terrible!
The next morning we were unsuccessful at our locations for rusty mud salamander, one-toed amphiuma, Hillis’s dwarf, Coastal plains dwarf, and Apalachicola dusky salamander. So we moved on to the next spot where Nathan had a backup spot for Apalachicola duskies and potential gulf coast mud salamanders (we had already seen a gulf coast mud salamander but were hoping to see an adult). We hiked along a seepage bog for about an hour and a half, turning up slimy and three-lined salamanders. I love the color combination of black, white, and tan or copper, so these salamanders are always a welcome find. While I was photographing a three-lined salamander (photography is a good excuse to get out of having to flip rocks and logs) Nathan excitedly yelled across the bog to me that he had found two Apalachicola dusky salamanders. We snapped some photos and got some film, then head out of there! The gnats were pretty bad!
Three-lined salamander (Eurycea guttolineata)
Seepage swamp where Apalachicola dusky and three-lined salamanders were found
Apalachicola dusky salamander (Desmognathus apalachicolae)
The next morning we headed to a spot in a saw-palmetto pine woodland to search for a population of the southernmost Southern dusky (we’ve seen the ones further north in North Carolina). We cruised up a beautiful lifer corn snake whose copper-orange color was easily recognizable from a distance in the car. What a beauty of a snake! Hiking on the trail towards the Southern dusky salamanders, we realized just how hard-core native herpers have to be in Florida. You have to contend with the mosquitoes, gnats, heat, extremely brambly and overgrown thickets (make me miss the old-growth hardwood forests of Appalachia!), numerous venomous snake species, humidity, alligators, etc. Our trail, which was maintained by volunteers in theory only, was becoming more and more impassable with each step because the vegetation was so thick. Nathan and I decided that since we’ve already seen Southern dusky salamanders, it wasn’t worth it to continue our misery.
Corn snake basking in the morning sun (Pantherophis guttatus)
Corn snake making its escape up the pine tree.
Nathan and me in a saw-palmetto longleaf pine woodland
Our next location is top-secret because we found a very rare species called the striped newt. That was probably my favorite place of the whole trip just because of the diverse plants and animals we saw there. We saw larval striped newts, probable gopher frog tadpoles, more sundew, zebra swallowtails, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and a very interesting display of bumblebees and honeybees around some blueberry bushes. Native bumblebees are compatible pollinators for blueberries. They are able to reach their mouths inside the flower for the nectar and in turn, pollinate each flower as the bumblebee flies from shrub to shrub. Honeybees, on the other hand, couldn’t reach inside the wild blueberry flowers so they have a sneaky and destructive way of accessing the nectar, “nectar robbing”. They chewed holes at the base of the flower to access the nectar without even bothering to pollinate! Sneaky! Nathan and I got to see all of this in action on two blueberry shrubs that had attracted bees. I was so happy to see this in action because I had only read about it over this winter in my Xerces Society books.
Bumblebees are designed for pollination of blueberries
Our next stop for dwarf and greater sirens was not successful in terms of those goal species, but we saw many curious anoles, a watersnake, five-lined skink, and delightful honeybees and wasps on the blooming willow trees.
Curious anole (Anolis carolinensis)
Delightful bee lighted on a willow
That night we road-cruised for snakes on the Gulf Coast and ended up finding this dusky pygmy rattlesnake! We also came across a deranged wild piglet. It came out of the brush running in circles! Nathan and I are still baffled as to why, but my guess is that it may have been bitten by a venomous snake and was trying to outrun the source of pain. Who knows.
Dusky pygmy rattlesnake
The next morning we met up with our friend Noah, a local herpetofauna expert, to start off our day in search of greater sirens in the floodplain of a sandy-bottomed river. There were none in the traps he had set overnight, but we managed two lifer Peninsula newts that was dip-netted in mats of aquatic vegetation at our first location . While we were ambling through the shallow swamp, Noah pointed out a “tree snail” to me and also identified a huge apple snail shell that I found.
We headed off to a totally different habitat further south with sandy scrub habitat in search of endemic Florida scrub lizards and gopher tortoises. We saw several baby gopher tortoise burrows and two Florida scrub lizards. Later in similar habitat we turned up a Peninsula mole skink and even saw a rare Florida sand skink! I never even thought we would’ve seen that species on our trip. Check the box for another incredible find! I snapped a few photos before it swam under the sand.
White billows of lichen carpeting the sand dunes in the morning light
Florida scrub lizard (Sceloporus woodi)
Peninsula mole skink (Plestiodon egregius onocrepis)
Florida sand skink (Plestiodon egregius onocrepis)
On our way to our next striped-newt pond we decided to traverse a sandy road and go out of our way a little to see if we could find any adult gopher tortoises that happened to be crossing the road. Instead, we cruised up this beautiful sub-adult Florida pine snake! Noah was in the car ahead of us and so reached the snake first. He threw up his hands in excitement and right as I was close enough to see for myself, he exclaimed “PINESNAKE!” He had been hoping to see one in the wild for quite some time and was visibly shaking from the excitement of this rare and elusive find and about fainted! Nathan and I were extremely excited with this find too, and thought it was pretty spectacular that we saw a pine snake on our first-ever herping trip to Florida. We spent the rest of the day dip-netting for various aquatic salamanders and turned up several striped newts that were larger than the ones still in their larval form at Nathan’s location further east. We later caught two larval greater sirens and a musk turtle by dip-netting aquatic vegetation near a bridge. We tried our hand at one final spot for sirens and dip-netted for them in a huge pond with lots of floating vegetation. Noah taught us that the best way to catch them is to wade into the water, scoop under the aquatic vegetation with a strong d-framed net, then pull up a mat of it and carry it to the outside edge of the water and stack up the vegetation into mounds. Once you get a big enough mound, sift through it and throw the vegetation back into the water as you go. If there is a siren that you didn’t see in your net initially, you can see it hiding in the pile of vegetation as you sift through it. We found a two-toed amphiuma this way, but no such luck with our goal siren. A neighbor living across the road from where we were dip-netting was curious about what we were doing. He asked “Are the alligators leaving you alone?”. We chatted with this friendly man about his observations of alligators on his property and we explained to him that we were looking for aquatic salamanders. He was fascinated with the amphiuma we caught and had never heard of them before. He was happy to learn of a cool species that lived right across the road from him. It was really nice to meet him! Our final find of the day was a pinewoods snake that Noah found while we walked along a cypress pond in search of Coastal plains dwarf salamanders.
Florida pine snake (Pituophis melanoleucus mugitus) found crossing a road
Striped newt (Notophthalmus perstriatus)
Greater siren larvae (Siren lacertina)
Osprey male and female at nest
Two-toed amphiuma (Amphiuma means)
Pinewoods snake (Rhadinaea flavilata)
Georgia was the final state in our herping trip. Our goal species were Ocmulgee slimy salamanders, gopher tortoises, and the last dusky salamander to complete the Desmognathus genus (yay!). We drove quite a bit to get to a Central Georgia locale where Nathan was determined that we would find an Ocmulgee slimy salamander. I was determined that we also find a gopher tortoise! And we were successful in both! I was so excited to see a gopher tortoise because they are such an integral part of that sandy savanna type of ecosystem. They build burrows in the sand where they, and upwards of 80 other species that have been documented, take shelter and thermoregulate. We saw multiple burrows but still hadn’t seen a tortoise. Finally I double-checked one large burrow to make sure there wasn’t a tortoise close to the entrance. I ducked closer to the burrow and saw an interesting pattern in the darkness that looked like something but I couldn’t tell for sure what. I didn’t want to call Nathan over just yet in case I was wrong. I pulled out my phone’s flashlight and revealed an adult gopher tortoise! I was thrilled to be able to see one! We snapped a few photos and took some video of it in its burrow.
Spanish moss in the afternoon southern light
Ocmulgee slimy salamander (Plethodon ocmulgee)
Gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)
Nathan surprised me with a swing by the Sac-O-Suds where the initial scene of My Cousin Vinny (one of our favorites) was filmed
The final location of our trip was in northern Georgia to find the very last species of Desmognathus that we needed to check off our lifer list: the dwarf black-bellied dusky salamander. Nathan and I pulled the car off a curving road in a pull-off next to a cascade. Within 15 minutes I nabbed four different species of dusky salamander. For being such an annoyingly common species, I actually missed being able to see them. They don’t live here in Missouri, or anywhere else west of the Mississippi for that matter. Dusky salamanders are semi-aquatic and therefore extremely difficult to catch. It is important to have a net handy to aid in their capture (and plastic bags for easier identification before release). I caught Ocoee duskies, spotted duskies, a black-bellied dusky, and finally our goal species, the dwarf black-bellied dusky salamander! It was surreal to have seen the final member of the genus Desmognathus. And kind of bittersweet, too, because dusky salamanders are such an icon of the Appalachian mountains. Nathan and I love Appalachia, and finding the final Desmognathus sort of symbolized that Nathan and I have been through many wonderful travels together through the mountains that we love so dearly. With that, our herping trip was over and the family gathering fun began in Tennessee!
Ocoee dusky salamander (Desmognathus ocoee)
Black-bellied dusky salamander (Desmognathus quadramaculatus)
Dwarf black-bellied dusky salamander (Desmognathus folkertsi), the last dusky salamander we needed to check off our lifer list
Georgia waterfall where four species of dusky salamanders were found.
Thanks for reading, and happy herping! Nathan is writing an account of all our other herping since July 2020 besides this trip to the Gulf, which should be on the forum in the next couple days.
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Last December Dave Beamer and Alex Pyron showed me a new species of dusky salamander that they had caught a couple of days earlier in one of the states you passed through. This was a true new species, not some genetic variant of a known species. Based on Dave's research, there are many more 'desmog' species that remain to be formally described. Enjoy your 100% while you can, because I think there will always be a Desmognathus 'asymptoticus' yet to be found.The final location of our trip was in northern Georgia to find the very last species of Desmognathus that we needed to check off our lifer list: the dwarf black-bellied dusky salamander.
As usual, your post was informative and fun!