Herpin’ in the Watershed: An Interview with Jason Poston

This summer was a dry one. On the rare rainy day, I would see a few toads out and about, enjoying the wet grass in front of my flower beds. I’ve recently started to take interest in the frogs, salamanders, and turtles around the Indian Creek watershed. I and my coworkers have seen multiple wood turtles in the area. We were excited to learn about our new critter interests from some amphibian enthusiasts.

I asked the good folks with the Pennsylvania Amphibian & Reptile Survey (PARS) to elaborate on their work. Throughout this interview, I hope you will find a spark of excitement to discover what crawling, slithering, wiggling, amphibians and reptiles live in your backyard and watershed.

Please enjoy this interview with Jason Poston, one of the Statewide Coordinators of PARS. Edits and additions by Brandon Ruhe, the other Statewide Coordinator for PARS.

Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. It seems as though a few of us in the MWA office have come down with “Herp Fever” and the only cure is more herps. Can you tell us more about Herpetology? How did you catch the fever? 

(Jason) Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians often called “Herps” for short. I guess you can say I grew up ‘herping’. My childhood was spent in the rural coastal plain of South Carolina where my cousins and I ran around catching and observing wildlife. My dad was a big influence in teaching me to identify herps (mainly snakes as he did not want me to pick up a venomous species) since he also was interested in snakes growing up. My parents have always been supportive of my love for the outdoors. 

I ran across your website, www.paherps.com, when I was looking for information about wood turtles. The site is a great resource to find out more about the reptiles and amphibians found in Pennsylvania. How long have you been compiling information on this site? 

I started researching and writing content for paherps.com back in 2006, and launched the site in 2008. There was no real digital reference to reptiles and amphibians in Pennsylvania at the time, so I thought it would be a great idea to have an online reference like several other states had started doing at that time. In the last few months I have updated the site and added many new higher quality photos, and plan to add several photos showing the difference in many species that often get mistaken for one another. 

Ravine Salamander photo by Jason Poston

I understand there is a connection between paherps.com and the Pennsylvania Amphibian and Reptile Survey (PARS). Tell us more about the Survey. 

I am the developer for both sites, but paherps.com I started as more of a hobby to help people identify species they might encounter at home or on a hike whereas PARS is my main focus and job. The paherps.com funnels visitors to the PARS site to submit their observations, and we have many visitors send in emails though both sites that help gather data for PARS. PARS is the official state herp atlas and that data is used to figure out where amphibians and reptiles are and then ultimately, leads to conservation decisions.

What is the desired outcome for PARS? How have people used this information?

The Pennsylvania Amphibian and Reptile Survey (PARS) is an important state-sponsored atlas project launched in 2013. PARS will determine the distribution and status of all amphibians and reptiles throughout Pennsylvania, building upon previous atlas efforts and combining modern technology with an army of citizen scientists. The project is a joint venture between the PA Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC) and The Mid-Atlantic Center for Herpetology and Conservation (MACHAC), funded by the PFBC (via the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s State Wildlife Grants Program), the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (Wildlife Resources Conservation Program), and The Mid-Atlantic Center for Herpetology and Conservation. At the end of the project there there will be a completed book outlining all of the information collected. Basically, we are trying to figure out what species are common versus rare, and where they are. 

How do professionals survey for herps that don’t have calls (turtles, salamanders, snakes)? 

There are many methods used to survey for different species of reptiles and amphibians. Many of these methods depend on the habitat, weather, environmental conditions, and the life stage of the animal. Some examples might include visual surveys where a surveyor will walk an area looking for animals in the open or under ‘cover’ objects, trapping or pitfall traps are also used for terrestrial and aquatic species. For those that aren’t too familiar with herps, just walking around and paying attention can yield many observations.

Tell us about some of your favorite surveying excursions. Any notable finds in the Indian Creek watershed/Yough watershed?  

Some more notable ones were usually some significant find, lifer or spending time in the field with like minded individuals; Hiking in the mountains for Green Salamanders with Brandon Ruhe and Thomas LaDuke, only to realize I am originally a flatlander and questioning why I moved to a place with mountains. “I don’t do hills”. Making a quick stop with my son to see Wehrle’s Salamander, but instead flipping our first Mountain Earthsnake; Hiking Indiana County with Ed Patterson to see Valley and Ridge Salamanders; Stopping on a country road in the middle of Fayette Co. and documenting one of the first county records for Cope’s Treefrogs in Pennsylvania, a species I have been surveying in SW PA for 7 years now. The years of heading to the Carolinas for a few day herping with my good friend Doug.

Cope’s Treefrog photo by Jason Poston

We recently completed a two year distribution survey of the Mudpuppy, and we were able to find this species in the Yough watershed. We hope to continue gathering data of this species throughout the species range, and in the Youghiogheny watershed as well. We are also interested in any Hellbender finds though the Youghiogheny River and Pennsylvania. https://paherpsurvey.org/doc/PARS-Hellbender-and-Mudpuppy-Alert-Flyer.pdf

Mudpuppy photo by Jason Poston

Anyone can post their observations to the PARS site, which makes the survey a great example of citizen science. Once someone submits a sighting, do you have an expert confirm the ID? How important is it to include a photo when you submit a sighting?

Voucher photos and audio files are very important just like a specimen collected for a museum collection. Without a voucher there is a higher rate of identification error, that can be corrected with a good photo or audio recording. Each observation with a voucher photo or audio record goes through screening by the PARS verification committee and is stored and curated like a voucher specimen.

Do you have any advice on the best way for a novice to look for and observe salamanders and turtles?   

The best advice is to be observant of your surroundings and the habitat and habits of the species you are looking to encounter. Many salamanders are more secretive than turtles, and sometimes require flipping over a rock or log, which should be done cautiously. Also, replace the object without damaging the micro-habitat or animals underneath. Turtles can often be seen basking, foraging, or swimming and are more easily observed while taking a leisurely hike. It is important to note that in Pennsylvania, you need to have a fishing license to intentionally look for herps if over the age of 16.

Among MWA staff and supporters, we have had multiple wood turtle sightings within the Indian Creek watershed recently and it seems as though wood turtles aren’t very common. What are your observations regarding wood turtles in the watershed and the greater southwest PA region?

Southwestern PA is not great for Wood Turtles as the species is at the edge of its range here. We do feel there are small pocket populations through these counties, but will need future observations and sightings to really determine their presents within these counties. 

Looking at the recorded observations in Westmoreland and Fayette counties, people have reported Common five-lined skinks and Eastern fence lizards. So I’m wondering, is Southwestern PA home to any other lizards and are they common? On a staff call, we were chatting about this interview with you and a few of our staff didn’t realize there were lizards living in this region and have never seen one. Where are you most likely to see lizards?

Lizards in Southwestern PA are not common, and we are not sure why they aren’t. There is a big gap in the distribution, and lack of observations to determine the range or status of them in the SW portion of the state. The southwestern portion of the state has Fence Lizards and Five-lined Skinks, but these populations are really scattered and isolated. Coal Skinks were historically encountered in Somerset County, but haven’t been seen there in 35 years.

In our introductory email exchange, you had mentioned you were recently in the Indian Creek watershed surveying for Mountain Chorus Frogs. The PARS site has these frogs listed as “Species of Special Concern”. What does that mean? Is there a reason for their sparse populations?

A species of special concern refers to a species that has a small distribution range, and or a  lack of observations/ declining observations through the years. The Mountain Chorus Frog, and many of the other chorus frog members (New Jersey, Uplands, and Western) were once very common throughout the state. We don’t know why they declined so much. It could be a result of habitat loss, pesitice/chemical use, or even pathogens. Mountain Chorus Frogs formerly ranged over thousands of square miles in PA, and has been reduced to a fraction of that range.

I’ve been an avid birder, mostly identifying by song rather than sight. For someone with an untrained ear, it is hard to decipher specific species among the crowd. Do you have any tips for folks interested in learning frog calls? What indicators do you use within their calls to tell them apart? 

Most frogs have a distinct call, though some can be a little tricky; for instance the call between the territorial trill of Spring Peeper and call of other chorus frogs, which can confuse even the seasoned amateur herper. The best way to learn the calls of frogs is to first gather a list of frogs in your area, and listen to those calls on sites like Youtube, or there are a few CDs on Amazon for frog calls from North America, especially by Elliot Lang. There are far fewer frogs in PA than birds, so it is easier to learn than bird calls!

I’m curious to know what herp sighting had you the most excited to find. Why was it so special?

I will keep this relevant to Pennsylvania since I have had many exciting finds from many states. For Pennsylvania it would have to have been my first Queensnake; because it was one of the first species I added to my ‘lifer’ list when I moved to PA in 2005. I still find this species to be one of my favorite snakes in PA, and it is still just as exciting to see one many years later as it was the first time I found one. 

Queensnake photo by Jason Poston

Do you have any advice for folks who are interested in preserving amphibian and reptile habitat on their property? As a watershed organization, what are some things we can do to promote and preserve their habitats within the watershed?

There are several ways folks can go about doing this. The first is to reach out to a land trust or local conservancy and sign your property up for a permanent easement. You can also reach out to state and federal agencies for resources and they will help come up with management plans for certain species or habitats and may even have easement programs that you can enroll in. The Mid-Atlantic Center for Herpetology and Conservation (MACHAC) can help folks that are interested in finding out more information (you can email us at info@machac.org or visit www.machac.org to learn more).

As a watershed group you are in a great position to work with landowners and understand your local area. Keeping streams cool, oxygenated, and unpolluted are great ways to help aquatic species, particularly salamanders such as Hellbenders and Mudpuppies, and reptiles such as Wood Turtles and Queensnakes. Many species like edge habitats, so diverse habitats in a landscape are also important, such as wetlands and riparian meadows. 

Thank you again for chatting with us. I hope this will inspire others to learn more about their local reptiles and amphibians.