Arizona Game and Fish Internship | 2016 Non-game Herp Team

Trip One | Non-Native Fish Removal and Narrow-Headed Gartersnake Surveys along the Blue River

Hiking along the Blue

Located in Eastern Arizona in the scenic Greenlee County, the Blue River has been the site of an Arizona Game and Fish Department Native Fish Restoration Project. The department has taken measures to eliminate Non-native Catfish and Green Sunfish above a fish barrier constructed in 2012 with the intentions to reestablish native Roundtable Chub and Spikedace species throughout the Blue.

We preformed snorkel surveys along an 8km stretch of the Lower Blue River to detect and remove non-native species. None were observed. This was the 3rd year without non-natives, a milestone for the project. The Blue has an intermittent flow during the summer and we had to walk from pool to pool.
Kinosternon sonoriense

The Sonora Mud Turtle (Kinosternon sonoriense) is one of 3 native species of mud turtle found in Arizona. It inhabits streams, rivers and tributaries near and below the Mogillon Rim of Arizona. It can also be found in ponds, cattle tanks and ditches.

This specimen was found on the Blue River during non-native fish removal and surveys.

Sonora Mud Turtles have markings on the head and neck and tubercules on the throat that distinguish it from the other species. When threatened they can produce a foul smelling musk to dissuade predators.

We came across an Arizona Toad, (Anaxyrus microscaphus) and toadlings as well as a number of Black-Necked Gartersnakes (Thamnophis cyrtopsis). Another goal of the trip was to verify sightings of the Narrow-Headed Gartersnake (Thamnophis rufipunctatus) in parts of the upper blue. We were able to locate 4 specimens and recorded some new and novel behavior and habitat selection that has since been published as a note in a herpetology journal.

Arizona Toad Metamorph in hand.
Two different specimens of the Black-Necked Gartersnake.

Our sightings were not limited to Herpetofauna. Below is an image of my hand next to a Black Bear print. We ran into this individual a couple of times during the survey as it sat in some of the rivers pools.

Trip Two | Mexican Gartersnake Surveys along the Santa Cruz River

The Crew hiking out with Minnow Traps at the end of the survey

The Santa Cruz River flows through parts of the San Rafael Valley in the southern part of the state. Located in Santa Cruz County, this portion of the river only has water in it starting approximately two kilometers North of the Mexican Border. Our surveys were conducted over 5-days and consisted of setting over 100 Minnow traps along the confluence of the river to trap snakes. We hiked to check the traps twice a day.

The Mexican Gartersnake (Thamnophis eques) is a threatened species in the state of Arizona. Loss of riparian habitat and threats from invasive species, such as bullfrogs and crayfish, contribute to this species decline.

The San Rafael Valley is an Arizona State Park. We lodged in this cabin owned by the state throughout the survey.

The Santa Cruz River

Not too impressive as far as rivers go, but this short stretch of water still serves as critical habitat for a vast array of wildlife. We encountered Mallards, juvenile Sonora Mud Turtles, a Kingsnake and were able to mark and capture 17 Mexican Gartersnakes. We found signs of deer and mountain lion activity as well.

As stated above, a major threat to the survival of The Mexican Gartersnake in this site are Bullfrogs. We did not survey for their abundance but from my observations they could easily number in the thousands along our study site. Large Bullfrogs, like the one in hand below, could easily eat neonate and juvenile snakes. We removed any bullfrogs caught.

The bullfrog in this image was easily one of the largest we found. We observed dozens this size and hundreds at this site. An invasive species, the Bullfrog is degrading the ecosystem and preying upon and competing for resources of native species.
The study used a Mark/Recapture method to calculate the number of snakes in the system. Once caught we weighed and measured each individual and gave them a unique scale brand for future identification. If they were large enough they received a PIT Tag. These procedures do not affect the snakes survivability. All snakes were released at the same location the next day.

Trip 3 | Sugarloaf Desert Tortoise Surveys

Prime Desert tortoise habitat

Three times a year Arizona Game and Fish holds a Sonoran Desert Tortoise survey, lead by Cristina Jones, in the Superstition Mountains. This population has a long history of being the focus of scientific studies and over 200 individuals have been recorded.

Cristina Jones briefing volunteers (left). Myself after a day out in the field (right).
The Sonoran Desert Tortoise

The Sonoran Desert Tortoise (Gopherus morafkai) is a threatened species in Arizona. These tortoises are a long-lived species, not reaching sexual maturity until 15-20 years old and capable of living 80-100 years. Populations are monitored by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. This species is threatened by habitat loss and degradation as well as an Upper Respiratory Tract Disease (URTD). Symptoms include a runny nose, labored breathing, swollen eyelids and sunken eyes. Tortoises use their olfactory senses to locate food. When infected with URTD it has been shown that individual are less capable of successfully foraging.

Tortoises were weighed and measured using tall cans as bases to stabilize the animal during the process.

We took measurements of carapace length, weight, shell wear class and looked for signs of disease. The cans the tortoise rests on allowed us to keep the animal steady and stopped it from running away. Any shell damage or deformities were noted for future identification.

Trip 4 | Canyon Creek Surveys for Narrow-headed Gartersnakes

Canyon Creek, AZ

Another threatened species we surveyed are Narrow-headed Gartersnakes (Thamnophis rufipunctatus). These snakes are incredibly unique. They are highly aquatic with a diet consisting predominantly of fish. Loss of riparian habitat and introduction of non-native species are the main threats to this species survival.

The Narrow-headed Gartersnake.

Two individuals caught during our 3-day survey in Canyon Creek.

As with the Mexican Gartersnake, our methods for the Narrow-head include a mark/recapture study to estimate abundance. Individuals captured were marked and measured in the field and then released. The goal is to get an estimate of how many snakes are in each area in order to establish sound management efforts.

Speckled Dace, a native fish and prey item of The Narrow-headed Gartersnake.

Many introduced fish species have spiny fins which can get lodged in the digestive tracts of these snakes leading to obstruction and ultimately death. Healthy native fish populations and fast flowing streams are integral to their recovery.

Other Herpetofauna species encountered.

(Top) Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus); (Left) The Terrestrial Gartersnake (Thamnopis elegans); (Right) Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake (Lampropeltis pyromelana).

We came across a wide range of snakes during this survey, with the Terrestrial Gartersnake being the most prevalent. My personal favorite was the Ring-necked snake, a mildly venomous rear fanged snake that, despite its rare occurances has a wide distribution across the nation. The female pictured above was gravid, you were able to see the eggs she was carrying.

Canyon Creek was one of the most beautiful spots we surveyed. Despite its name, it actually flowed more than most of the rivers did. It was lush with wild mint and picturesque throughout.

Trip 5 | Box turtle surveys and bioblitz in the chiricauhas

The Chiricahuas at dawn

The Chiricahua Mountains are in the far south east corner of Arizona. The surrounding mesquite brush and grasslands are prime habitat for the Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata). Our team spent 3 days mostly doing road surveys for Box Turtles and then converged with a larger group to participate in the Charlie Painter Bio-Blitz taking place just over the state line in Rodeo New Mexico's Chiricahua Desert Museum.

Desert Box Turtles (Terrapene ornata)

Two specimens found during the surveys. The larger one (left and bottom) is an adult. The turtle in the top right is a juvenile, young of year.

With a distribution only into the south east corner of the state this turtle is another threatened species. Its habitat is primarily semidesert grassland moving into desert scrub communities with occasional sightings in madrean oak woodlands. The Ornate Box Turtle is most active after rain. It's primary threat is loss of grassland habitat due to human and mesquite encroachment and road mortality.

Ornate Box Turtle found dead on road during surveys.

Our team put in over 600+ people hours surveying for Ornate Box Turtles and we were able to find 6. However 2 were dead on road (DOR) upon arrival. Road mortality is increasingly common in this species. Since it is a rather long lived species this presents a threat to population numbers.

High up on the Talos Slopes near Barfoot Peak, Chiricahua Mountains.

from The top of the Chiricahuas

You can see the extensive fire damage from the Horseshoe 2 fire in 2011. Petrane conifer forests are exceedingly at risk to wildfire damage due to wildfire suppression throughout the 20th century. It could take centuries for the forest to regenerate, if it does at all in the face of climate change. The second half of the Chiricahua trip took place during a Bioblitz, large scale biological inventory, within the surrounding areas.

Herpetofauna of the Chiricahua Mountains and Surrounding Ecosystems

(Top) Eastern Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus collaris); (Bottom Left) Gophersnake (Pituophis catenipher); (Bottom Right) Mexican Hognose Snake (Heterodon kennerlyi).
(Top) Tarantula Hawk (genera Pepsis) with Tarantula prey; (Bottom Left) Gila Monster (Heloderma suspects); (Bottom Right) Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum).

The End.

Created By
Corey SHAW


All photos taken by Corey Shaw

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