A Clockwork Spotted

It happens every year like clockwork. The harsh ravages of winter begin to mellow, and merciless snow gives way to blessed rain. Where I live now, in the southeast, winter’s icy composure can crack anywhere from mid-February onward; but in the Northeast where I grew up, it was usually in March when Spring’s harbingers emerged. I’m speaking, of course, of the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) – at least that was the dominant Ambystoma where I grew up in Connecticut, though there are a few other species that may be more abundant at other eastern US locales.

Many-a-naturalist’s year starts with those early spring rains when, flashlight-in-hand, they go to drive sleepy country roads or hike a forest path in search of spotties. The yearly spotted salamander migration is, in some ways, the epitome of all the best things about herping. It is not about finding the coolest, meanest, rarest venomous snake; it’s about interacting with a world that’s usually hidden. A world that comes out to play on just a few nights a year when conditions in the heavens and on earth are just right and spotties frolic like the naiads and dryads of ancient myth. It’s an interaction that lets you bring friends and family along and see the fascination on small children’s faces when they witness hundreds of salamanders pass over the road and ask “why is this night different from all other nights?”

And the old timers amongst us can tell them: these salamanders are doing the same thing they’ve been doing ever since the glaciers receded and left us with a landscape pockmarked with vernal pools – wetlands that fill up with the spring thaw and dry up by late summer. They are traveling from their comfortable upland homes to these temporal, watery habitats to breed; to make more spotted salamanders to continue the species and mark the coming of spring. So, if you’re weary of winter and anxious for warmer days, make ready your boots, camera and flashlight and be vigilant – soon it will time for spotties!

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Posted by on 01/03/2019 in Uncategorized



Field Herping Gear: 10 Pieces to Bring on Your Next Outing (and Two Things to Leave Home)

One of the beautiful things about field herping is that it doesn’t require a bunch of new, fancy equipment to get started. In general, field herping gear is hiking and camping gear, so if you’re already a naturephile, you might find yourself outfitted with most of your herping gear.

Flashlight – I have an inordinate fondness for flashlights, I’ll admit, but a good chunk of the amphibians and reptiles in the world are best found under a starry night sky, which means we need some photo-assistance. Headlamps are essential because they allow you to keep your hands free to navigate hazards (dense forest, uneven ground, etc.), and catch/wrangle your finds. Handlights are nice too, especially if you need to ‘highlight’ something with a brighter beam that’s already appearing in your headlamp. Of course, you never want to get stuck out in the dark without a light, so it’s always a good idea to keep an extra light or two with you. I recommend Fenix lights far and away above anything else out there.

Boots (or other appropriate footwear) – A sturdy bit of footwear is a good idea – for most people that is going to be a good pair of boots, but remember that herps (especially amphibians) do enjoy a good soak now and again, so a good piece of aquatic footwear might be necessary. Water shoes, dive boots, or even hiking sandals may do – though some swamps, marshes and other wetlands are rife with biting bugs like the dreaded toebiter (Lethocerus sp. – google it and be terrified!) – so be aware if you go toes-out.

Of course, some folks choose just a good pair of flip-flops (yours truly, most of the time) – figure out what works for you while considering your foot health (and the possibility of venomous snakes).

Comfortable Clothing – Most hiking clothing is great for herping – just consider your activity. Quick-dry materials tend to be some of the best and most widely used, but if you’re getting into thick brush you might want a thicker cotton. There are a million options out there for every habitat! Also make sure you keep an eye on the weather and have some rain gear handy – wet can be synonymous with miserable during a cold rain!

GPS – GPS systems are great because they work where cellphones don’t. Don’t get lost on a herping trip with no way to find home!

Water – Sometimes “just a short hike” can become a longer ordeal – don’t forget to hydrate.

Camera – OK, so you don’t have to be a photographer to be a herper, but why wouldn’t you want to show off your cool finds to your friends? Plus, in the world of herping, ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ is a common (if annoying) refrain.

First Aid Kit – Injuries in the field are very rare, because herpers are usually aware of their surroundings, but there’s no sense in taking chances – be prepared and live to herp another day.

A fieldworthy notebook and pen – A notebook such as one of the Rite-in-the-Rain brand can be a big help – you’ll be amazed at how quick your memories from this-or-that field trip will get foggy, but a notebook will immortalize it forever, and let you find your old herping spots again. Use only pencil or a space pen with Rite-in-the-Rains, as normal pens will run if your notebook gets wet.

Snake Hook  – Snake hooks are great for safely handling snakes or helping them cross a busy road, but they’re good for other jobs as well – they make a great impromptu hiking stick or weed-whacker!

Backpack  – You’ll need someplace to store all your gear – choose wisely!

…Two things to leave at home

Not all field gear is equally useful, and these two items might not help you on your herping venture

Snakebite Kit  – First off, venomous snakebites are extremely rare among field herpers – especially if you are not handling them – observe and enjoy from a safe distance, and chances are you’ll be fine. But primarily, snakebite kits just don’t work. If you’re bitten by a venomous snake, the best treatment is your car keys – drive to the nearest hospital and get professional medical attention immediately!

Bug Spray – OK, you might want to bring this if you’re in an area with mosquito-bourne dieseases, but bug spray can be a big problem for amphibians with their permeable skin. In short: it can poison them. If you’re going to be holding amphibians in a buggy area, it’s best to wear loose-fitting clothing that will cover your arms and legs from bug bites. If you need to wear bug spray, only observe your frog, toad, and salamander friends and don’t handle them.

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Posted by on 11/02/2019 in Uncategorized


Announcing: The Field Herping Guide

Most of you have probably read about it or seen it through social media – but Mike Pingleton and I are proud to announce the release of The Field Herping Guide: Finding Amphibians and Reptiles in the Wild on June 1st, published by the University of Georgia Press.

I have loved UGA Press’ books for years – and its an honor to have them as publishers. We’ve got the interior all laid out and it is gorgeous; so save a spot on your bookshelf and preorder on Amazon!

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Posted by on 08/02/2019 in Uncategorized


New Posts Coming Soon!

It’s been a long time for new posts on Field Ventures – but we’re going to be ramping up for some new content coming to help everyone get through the winter – Herping season’s coming!

New content soon to follow.

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Posted by on 07/02/2019 in Uncategorized


Men, Not Beavers (A Christian’s Response to Pyron)

If you want to become famous overnight, just say something controversial and foolish on a big enough stage. Not that I disliked everything about Dr. Alex Pyron’s recent piece in the Washington Post entitled “We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution.” – he managed to avoid the thinly-veiled contempt of human life that is, unfortunately, multiplying in the scientific community. However, in avoiding an error on one side of the boat, he jumped headlong off the other.

I have a couple things in common with Dr. Pyron – I’m a scientist, and more importantly, I’m also a herpetologist: a rare breed of biologist that will put 50,000 miles on their car in a year to see a handful of rare species only to decry corporate carbon emissions. As far as I can tell from this piece, though, that’s where the similarities cease. Dr. Pyron begins with an account of a rare species of frog in the genus Atelopus and states: “…they will go extinct one day, and the world will be none the poorer for it.” In a piece full of unscientific value assertions about biodiversity, his thesis is plainly stated: “The only reason we should conserve biodiversity is for ourselves, to create a stable future for human beings.” Put another way: we don’t need biodiversity – we like it and should save what we can (if it doesn’t inconvenience us). But let’s be honest: we need to be looking out for number one.

The piece ends with the gem-of-a-question “How will we live in the meantime?” Evidently selfishly, unambitiously and with a defeatist depression.

As a Christian, I couldn’t disagree more.

Now, of course, admitting I’m a Christian brings up a recent history of failures. We followers of Christ certainly don’t have a great reputation for being defenders of the Earth in the 21st century… But if my readers could look a little deeper into history, they would see the likes of St. Francis of Assisi or King Solomon the Wise – who could speak of plants, animals, birds, reptiles and fish with great wisdom (1 Kings 4:33). Look even farther and you might find a man who was tasked with naming every living animal – the first taxonomist (Genesis 2).

But, in the long run, I can’t answer for any of my brethren’s failures (or success): I can only speak from my own point of view. I’m an ecologist and a Christian. My work on Burmese Pythons was the first canary in the coal mine that they were having negative effects of mammal populations in the Florida Everglades. Later, in grad school, my research examined the effects of fish on reptile and amphibian diversity – work that has been used by the state of Florida to advise fish stocking practices. Before I began to teach at Montreat College nestled in western North Carolina (the salamander diversity capitol of the world, if you care), I worked training missionaries in sustainable, no-till agriculture practices – ones that are worlds better for biodiversity than traditional methods. Conservation (or “creation care,” as we Christians often call it) is of great importance to me.

As a scientist, I applaud many of the responses (summarized at Living Alongside Wildlife,) that extol the intrinsic value of biodiversity, as well as the unforeseen consequences of apathy toward it. Other authors have pointed out that if we do continue on our current path, known as the Anthropocene Extinction, the Earth’s biodiversity may one day return: but that day will not be in this Age of the Earth. My science-based reasons to reject Pyron’s argument (amorphous though his argument may be) are similar to the ones made by these authors. But more important are my reasons as a theist generally, and a Christian specifically[1].

Dr. Pyron’s view is unapologetically anthropocentric. And though the Bible is from the point-of-view of man’s interaction with God, its viewpoint is not the same as Dr. Pyron’s. Christianity is a religion built on giving yourself, primarily, to things which are outside of yourself. Of course, Christ tells us that the two main objects of this giving are: 1.) God, and 2.) other people. But even then, we often show love to these two entities by proxy. One of the ways we love God by caring for creation. In fact, I can think of at least three reasons why any Christian (indeed, any person) should care about biodiversity:

Firstly, animal life does have intrinsic value. Especially for a Christian. The Christian faith allows for interpretations ranging ‘Young Earth Creationism’ to ‘Theistic Evolution,’ but all of these views acknowledge that it was God who did the creating, and that creation was out of His goodness. This was by either special creation or an orchestral procession of billions of years – resulting in plants and animals about which it says, “God saw that it was good,” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21 & 25).

Secondly, to a Christian, wonder and awe are an end to themselves, and few places exude this wonder and awe like the natural world. In the end of the book of Job, God takes several chapters (38-41) to extol the wonders of His creation: speaking of mountain goats, deer, wild asses, oxen, and many other animals. Who knows: had Job known what they were perhaps God would’ve spoken of one or another ornate species of Atelopus. Jesus himself struck many a botanical note in His teaching. In one instance He tells us: “Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.” Not even the wisest of kings was clothed like they: truly awesome.

Finally, it is mankind’s duty to care for the diversity of Earthly life. Dr. Pyron evidently disagrees with this sentiment, stating that “…conserving a species we have helped to kill off, but on which we are not directly dependent, serves to discharge our own guilt, but little else.” To a Christian, though, the care and ordering of creation is one of our primary directives. In the creation poem, we are given the place of rulers of the creation on Earth – Kings and Queens of the animals and plants. This idea has been at times (our own time especially) misinterpreted to mean we can abuse creation. Nothing could be further from the truth: we have a word for a King who destroys and abuses his kingdom and people: a tyrant. God did not create us to be tyrants over creation, but kings and queens – good like Himself.

My points are from a theistic perspective, but many non-theistic scientists intrinsically believe these things too – that is, whether or not scientists believe in God, the majority would say we have an obligation to care for the Earth. We wouldn’t have conservation biologists if it were otherwise. The motivation, of course is different: for a non-theistic conservationist the impetus is this: we screwed it up, it’s our obligation to do something about it (never mind where that obligation came from…) The biblical word for this sort of thinking is repentance. To repent is to turn back around and get going in the right direction.

Dr. Pyron argues that we should temper our expectations and be satisfied with the fact that, eventually, biodiversity will rebound: “There is no return to a pre-human Eden; the goals of species conservation have to be aligned with the acceptance that large numbers of animals will go extinct.” Perhaps he should take some advice from any Christian who has ever fought to abstain from some-or-another sin: you don’t get anywhere by setting low expectations. Set them high, so that even if you fail to meet them, you’ll still be better than when you started. I argue that we, whether we be theists or not, need to repent and start working back on all the destruction we’ve wreaked with all the chutzpa we can muster.

But in the end, we Christians share Pyron’s optimism, but not for the same event. He looks past the Anthropocene bottleneck to the bumper crop of new species that may come thereafter. We Christians look to the restoration of all things: a New Heaven and a New Earth. But that doesn’t mean we should stop working now. For a Christian to give up on his or her job to be a good steward and ruler would be akin to ‘giving up’ up on our job to abstain from any other sin. We believe our bodies will be renewed one day, but still find it our duty to take care of them now.

At one point, Dr. Pyron mentions the fact that beavers may be detrimental to certain riverine-specialist fish – subtly making the point that it’s not just us that cause habitat degradation and extinction. But, that’s the point: we are men (I mean this in the sexually nonspecific sense, of course) not beavers. We know our actions, we can see their ramifications, and we can repent.  And we can change our ways and do better. The creation is worth saving – even the least of these that have been crafted by the hand of God – no matter how insurmountable the odds.


Joshua Holbrook

Dept. of Natural Sciences

Montreat College, Montreat NC


Authors note: From a purely-scientific point-of-view, I found Dr. Pyron’s argument of Florida’s exotic reptiles being positive for biodiversity altogether unconvincing. My work with Pythons and small mammal populations points to the likelihood that Pythons may, regionally, persecute some species excessively, perhaps driving extinctions in imperiled populations such as the Key Largo woodrat or the marsh rabbit.

[1] I say that my viewpoints are theist as well as Christian, because I know that many other theists will agree with my reasoning – in fact, where I cite scripture here, I’ve used mostly quotes from the Hebrew Bible to appeal to my Jewish friends.



Posted by on 13/12/2017 in Uncategorized


The Coastal Mangroves: Protection, habitat – what’s not to like?

When someone thinks of southern Florida, they might think of beautiful, vast beaches and harsh, sunny weather – but my research often takes me to a habitat that, though not as picturesque to most, is vitally more important. It’s no secret that Mangrove Saltmarsh Snakes (Nerodia clarkii compressicauda) are one of my favorite study organisms, but the Mangrove swamp habitats they inhabit are worthy of significant attention as well.

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Some of the dense (and herp-filled) mangrove forest in Everglades National Park.

I was reminded of mangroves as plants (and a “vegetative habitat,” as we ecologists call them) when talking with a friend, Heather Stewart, who is working on her PhD with mangroves in Panama and the United States. They’re an interesting and extremely beneficial plant group. They keep to the southern Florida coast because they are relatively cold-intolerant (keeping them south) and relatively poor competitors when compared to our freshwater swampy trees like cypress (keeping them to the salty zones where cypress can’t establish.) But, for a heat-loving, poorly competing group of organisms, Mangroves do wonderfully in the high-disturbance wild-west of the world’s tropical coastlines.


Mangrove bays are some of southern Florida’s most picturesque habitat, but they can be quite a trifle to hike in – Mangroves trap all sorts of sediment and that substrate is deep mud, not sand.

That’s great and all, but what have mangroves ever done for us? Wouldn’t southern Florida be better with more beach and less mangrove? Not a chance!


Of course, given Irma’s track in the Caribbean and Florida, perhaps the most timely benefit of mangroves is the benefit they provide during catastrophic events. Mangroves can provide significant protection from storm surge and erosion – especially one of our most common mangroves in Florida, the Red Mangrove (Rhizophora mangle). Beyond flood protection and erosion protection during catastrophic events, mangroves provide day-to-day erosion protection from the tides and waves that can wreak havoc on our beaches.

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Black and Red Mangroves mix near the northern end of their range on the Gulf Coast.

Not only do they protect us from erosion – they can make erosion work backward. Mangroves, especially our friendly neighborhood Red Mangroves, can trap sediments in their roots and, over time, build entirely new islands – many of the islands in Florida Bay and the keys can trace their history back to a few helpful Rhizophora.


Then, of course, Mangroves provide great habitat for other organisms – whether that be fish, epifauna (stuff that lives on the mangrove roots), or even the friendly Mangrove Saltmarsh Snake – mangroves provide an enormous ecological benefit. That’s some of the research my friend Heather is working on – what other living things are calling the mangroves home. Mangroves give a sizable economic benefit as well: much of the sports fishery is supported in some way by mangrove swamp.


An Everglades mangrove swamp gives way to freshwater marsh…

So, next time you’re in southern Florida or the tropics, take some time to appreciate the fertile, protective wonderful mangrove swamp. Its secrets are still being probed and its beauties open to anyone willing to visit and invest their time in it.


We can thank mangroves (and ancient reefs) for much of the landmass of the keys.


Posted by on 11/09/2017 in Uncategorized


A NatGeo chameleon hunt and more Ventures ahead…

Hey folks,

Its been almost a year since my last post – it has been a turbulent year, but the posts will be picking up again – starting here. I’ve started this semester as a full-time professor at Montreat College – a small Christian liberal arts college in western North Carolina. I’ll be teaching biology and environmental science classes, and of course bringing students out to look for reptiles, amphibians, and all sorts of other creeping things.


In the meantime, I’ve got another book in the works and some collaborations with other universities. And, of course, the occasional wildlife filming. Just this past spring I got out with NatGeo and some friends from the Souh Florida Herpetological Society to look for some chameleons. They ended up putting out a well-put together video (of course – it’s NatGeo!) and we had an excellent time that had us out until morning broke in southern Florida. Check it out here, with the accompanying video:


the best is yet to come,’