Citizen science meets technology in unique herpetology survey
In what often seems to be an ever-shrinking world, there's still room for discovery.
Ed Patterson can speak to that.
Director of Indiana County's parks system, he has been prowling those and other lands with purpose of late. He's finding more than might be expected, too.
An admitted amateur when it comes to herpetology, he nonetheless has documented all kinds of reptiles and amphibians. His personal list includes more than a dozen species, including Wehrle's salamanders, seal salamanders, bullfrogs, pickerel frogs, eastern American toads, eastern ratsnakes and a queen snake.
He also has found, close to home, valley and ridge salamanders, which he never had seen and didn't know existed.
“A lot of these species, I didn't know anything about them before this. It's just a matter of looking and being observant,” Patterson said.
He and about 1,200 others statewide are looking in ways never done before through the Pennsylvania Amphibian and Reptile Survey. Begun in 2013, it's a 10-year joint project of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and Mid-Atlantic Center for Herpetology and Conservation. Its goal is a lofty one: to figure out just which salamanders, lizards, frogs, toads, turtles and snakes live in Pennsylvania, where they live and in what numbers.
There are a lot of gaps in that knowledge, said Chris Urban, chief of the commission's natural diversity section.
“People think we know a lot of this. The reality is, we know very little about where some of these animals are,” Urban said.
The survey has three components.
One is to create an atlas, such as the statewide breeding bird atlases done here, of what's out there, Urban said.
What's great is that anyone can participate, and — unlike pre-smartphone era surveys — all finds can be verified, said Brandon Ruhe, president of the Mid-Atlantic Center.
Volunteers, from professional herpetologists to the most amateur naturalist, submit records by emailing a photo of their discovery, along with informationsuch as where it was found, the temperature and weather conditions, to the Survey website. Experts — three for every submission — confirm the identity of the creature involved. The information is then shared for all to see.
“It's kind of a neat project where old-school citizen science meets technology,” Ruhe said.
Going into the weekend, nearly 88,000 submissions had been verified.
“On a good day, we might get 100 records,” said Jason Poston of the South Hills, a longtime “herper” who also takes care of the project's website. “We've got a good base of volunteers.”
There have been some interesting finds.
The Cope's gray treefrog was thought to exist in Pennsylvania, but its presence never been documented. It has turned up in eight or nine counties in the past year, including Allegheny, Fayette, Greene, Washington, Westmoreland and Beaver. Never-before-confirmed Atlantic coast leopard frogs have been recorded, too, and Eastern smooth earthsnakes have been found for the first time since 1962.
The survey also is providing information on common species, and that's just as important, said Mark Lethaby, curator of the Natural History Museum at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center and a regional project coordinator.
“A lot of the historical records go back 100 years, and they've never really been updated. So we don't know if some species exist anymore. We don't know if some common species are still common. We don't know if some species we're finding in unusual places have expanded their range or if we're just finding them in places we didn't know they existed before,” Lethaby said.
“So this is definitely turning up a lot of new knowledge about the species in the state.”
A second component of the survey involves pulling all of the those historical reptile and amphibian records — widely scattered among universities and institutions — together so they can be compared with what's being found now, Urban said.
“We can look at all of that and say, ‘OK, a species was once here. Is it still there? And if it's not there, why is it not there? What happened to it?' That's important for making management decisions,” Urban said.
The project's third component involves forming teams of experts and sending them into the field to look specifically for the rarest species, he said.
Taken together, all three aspects of the study are vital, Ruhe said, because reptiles and amphibians have value for their own sakes and for utilitarian reasons.
“These animals are important parts of ecosystems. The more we do this, the more we learn, the more we help ourselves,” he said.
Patterson, who has become a volunteer coordinator with the survey, agreed. He knows this work is important, and he encourages people to get involved.
But he tells them it's fun making little discoveries, too.
“Reptiles and amphibians have always been kind of overlooked. It's been interesting trying to locate and document them,” Patterson said.