Most of our frogs have come from the permanent pond on the Konza property. We have found four species here: northern cricket frogs, Cope’s gray tree frog, leopard frogs, and bullfrogs. We’ve also found a red-sided garter snake and one particularly unhappy common snapping turtle, shown above.
-Matt Jones, graduate student in geology/vertebrate paleontology.
We are about to embark on our second week of fieldwork. Students have had the weekend at home to do laundry and regroup before we head off to Barber County and the Alexander Ranch. I’m told that this will be the first KU party to visit the ranch in 40 years.
Our hope is that with a little rain we might also be among the few to ever hear a chorus of the Red-spotted toad in Kansas. Our second stop will be Baxter Springs in Cherokee County, home to a number of salamanders found nowhere else in the state.
Last week was a great success. I’m so proud of the students! Many are pre-health care students headed for careers as nurses, doctors, and physical therapists. Perhaps unlikely participants in a field biology course, but here they are catching lizards, snakes and frogs. While handing a prairie king snake at the end of last week, one student remarked “If you’d told me a week ago that I’d be wrangling snakes for a photo session, I’d have told you that you were nuts!” Yet, here she was, pillowcase held over the snake on a picturesque rock set against a landscape of sandstone, mixed grasses, and desert plants at Wilson State Lake.
Our most exciting finds last week were the abundance of Collared lizards in central Kansas, the grass-swimming Glass lizard (which has no legs), some “horned toads” (really lizards), and two 5’ long Coachwhip snakes. Who knows what this week will hold.
-David McLeod, instructor
I don’t know when the last time was that KU offered a field Herpetology course. Months ago it was decided that this would be a good year to correct for this absence. Our goal: to collect local amphibians and reptiles from different regions of the state to bolster our genetic resources at the BI.
On May 19th, 12 would-be herpetologists set off on a grand expedition across the state. First stop—Konza Prairie Biological Research Station in the heart of the Flint Hills. This unique tall grass prairie ecosystem reserve boasts a diverse community of amphibians and reptiles, amazing views, and is home to a herd of about 300 bison.
Our first two days at Konza have been outstanding! Next stop—Wilson State Lake in the Smokey Hills region of Kansas (Russel Co.)
The herpetology division regularly receives requests for help with snake identification. In most cases, this involves a snake that somebody thinks is venomous on or near their home. We recently received a call from someone near Lawrence who believed they had a Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) in their basement. We asked for a photo and description of the snake, but initially received only the blurry ventral photo above. What do you think? Is this a Copperhead?
The snake photograph above was just taken by a Lawrence resident near the intersection of Kasold and Princeton streets. The snake is clearly a black ratsnake (Pantherophi obsoletu), but why is it so kinky? Did it just swallow a string of ping pong balls? Snake expert and former KU Herpetology trainee Harry Greene offered one possible explanation: "My hunch is that it's root mimicry, a last ditch effort at crypsis--but then I've been accused of seeing mimicry everywhere!"
The Panorama was full of families today creating their own diorama. And what better place to do it than the biggest diorama any of them had ever seen? Everyone created a scene in their museum boxes — favorite scenes from books, nature, their family.
One of the challenges has been to figure out how to plug in the special vacuum units that the conservation team is using. Unlike a home, these can’t be plugged in and then drag a cord across the floor. A cord could damage the plants, or even snag an animal mount.
To solve this puzzle, exhibits director Bruce Scherting went up into the attic above the Panorama. Using outlets near the Panorama’s upper lights, he plugged in extension cords and fed them thirty feet to the floor. But that led to another issue: the cords might chip the paint at the top of the exhibit if staff pulled them along the surface. Pieces of hose, cut into two-foot lengths and eased over the cords turned out to be the perfect solution. The hoses hooked on the lip of the exhibit and dangled the cords to the floor, where sandbags held them in place.
Conservation assessment team member Tara Hornung hails from Colorado, so rocky surfaces and mountains are familiar terrain. Today we could see her scaling the surface of the Panorama’s “mountain,” the plaster, wood and wire form on which several mountain goats, bears and birds are displayed.
“It’s not like rock climbing,” she said. Instead of granite, she moved across plaster edges that threatened to crumble if she went too close to the edge. What might look solid to museum visitors peering in is often a loosely supported structure underneath.
But while working on the mountain goats, she had a good view of the Panorama from up high. Visitors waved from the Panorama overlook on the 6th floor. “It looked like I was king of the mountain for a while today.” If the king of the mountain wore a protective suit and held a vacuum cleaner, anyway.
One of the most challenging aspects of working inside the museum’s Panorama exhibit is its fragility. In fact, Ron Harvey has described it as “working inside a painting.” But instead of straddling the brushstrokes of Van Gogh, the assessment team is carefully maneuvering across plaster “rocks,” along narrow foot paths, and between animal mounts.
Nancy Bixler described the work as physically demanding and requiring a three-dimensional consciousness.
“It looks easy from the outside, but it is a huge challenge,” she said. “You can’t lean on anything and you must keep your balance as you move around the animals and plants.”
The team wears Tyvek suits, booties, and respirators over their street clothes to protect against particles in the air that may include arsenic or lead. With every step, they must assess where their feet will fall, and make sure that they don’t step on the dried grasses — one misstep and the grasses turn to dust.
The contorted positions would make anyone sore at the end of the day. Perhaps we should consider yoga sessions in the Panorama to stretch out at the end of the day?
Nancy Bixler concentrated on cleaning the impressive 6-foot moose today. She’s from Maine, so while she has seen these animals in the wild, it’s certainly a unique experience to walk carefully under and around one to clean the mount.
While carefully documenting the condition of the moose in the Panorama, the team discovered something strange in a moose’s ear: a tail. A tail of a moose, stuffed into its ear! Ron Harvey surmised that the moose lost its tail, and an employee decades ago thought it might get lost. So they stuffed it into the ear, and then years passed.
Other not so strange finds have included two dead bats. Once every few years, a bat sometimes crawls into the exhibit from the attic of Dyche Hall. These bats, which have probably always lived in the museum’s attic, are small brown bats about the size of an adult’s hand. At some point years ago, these two became stuck in the exhibit, and no one knew.