The Chinese zodiac has twelve animal signs, with 2013 being the Year of the Snake. Ancient Chinese wisdom says, "A Snake in the house is a good omen."
Those people who study snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, toads and salamanders are called herpetologists; reptiles (snakes, lizards, and turtles, all with scales) and amphibians (toads, frogs and salamanders, with soft wet skins) are called "herps."
They are ectotherms (getting their heat from their surroundings), lying in the sun to heat up on cool days. Thus their distributions are temperature-dependent. The amphibians must also have water nearby to keep their skin moist and for their young to develop.
To our north we have the northern coniferous forest or taiga, with discontinuous permafrost, a challenging zone for herps, since many overwinter in underground dens or mud, needing to get beneath the soil surface to survive winter. Consequently only frogs occur in much of the taiga to about treeline. There is no permafrost under bodies of water, so frogs can survive winters burrowed in mud beside rivers and lakes. Lizards occur more southerly, with snakes and turtles found up to the southern border of the taiga.
Locally we have the following reptiles: one turtle, one lizard and six snakes. We have the large western painted turtle, often seen basking on logs in shallow ponds, eating aquatic vegetation, insects, small fish and small snails. The northern alligator lizard produces live young.
The northern Pacific rattlesnake is the only poisonous species and should not be handled.
It eats mice, birds, other snakes and lizards. Other snakes include the fast yellow-bellied racer (which often goes up into sagebrush to escape predators), the western terrestrial garter snake, the rubber boa with its blunt tail, and the handsome black and white gopher snake (eating rodents, lizards, other snakes and young birds).
Most often we might see the common garter snake, which is 50 to 65 centimetres long, and found near water, where it eats frogs, tadpoles, salamanders, fish and worms. It overwinters in communal underground dens. It also has red or orange bars on its sides.
Our local amphibians eat many insects and invertebrates and include two species of toads, two frogs and one salamander. Most toads (except for the spadefoot toad) have poison glands, bumps behind their indented ears which secrete poison - handle them with care.
The small (3-5 cm) spadefoot toad, found in sandy soils, can burrow vertically downwards with the "spades" on its feet. It keeps moist by burrowing underground.
Commonly we see the large "warty" western toad in the evenings and early mornings. Our most vocal frog is the Pacific chorus frog, starting up a chorus in the fall breeding season, found up to the Yukon border. The brown Columbia spotted frog calls in the spring. The secretive long-toed salamander lives under moist rotten logs, always near water.
"Snake Man" Frank Ritcey of the Kamloops Naturalist Club, along with his cohorts Lloyd Bishop and Peter Sulzle, have produced some very interesting and informative short videos on wildlife. Those devoted to herps can be seen at www.interiorsnakesden.com
He will be leading a trip to find local herps for Kamloops Naturalists Club members on Saturday, June 1. For those interested, you can become a member of the KNC by going to the website www.kamloopsnaturalists.com
June 3 is designated as Herp Day. Individuals who want to be "herpers" can go out that day to document species and locations of herps, respecting them, the risk, the environment, other "herpers", property and the law. Find more information online at www.interiorsnakesden.com/herp-day .