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Category Archives: Ecological Musing

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: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/06/chameleons-ranching-florida-invasives-pets/

 

the best is yet to come,’

JDH

 

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Ecological Musings: Lifelisting

I grew up there, a road that was just a couple miles long – fairly unexciting as far as herps go. Except it was pretty exciting, I just didn’t realize it until a couple weeks ago. It was raining – a little bit chilly, but not cold enough to preclude some amphibian movement. As I drove, I cracked my window to the deafening cacophony of Grey Treefrogs (Hyla versicolor) calling and breeding in the ditches not far off the road. As I drove on, I began to turn up individuals wandering from the aquatic/arboreal party – three, four, five Grey Treefrogs hugging tight to the road, looking up to me with curious eyes. There were Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) too, and the occasional toad; all old friends that I took a moment to enjoy before moving on to meet the next one. After a while, another old friend showed up; a Redback Salamander (Plethodon cinereus), slowly dragging itself across the road. Nice! I thought to myself, and continued on along an old sphagnum-filled swamp.

Another salamander – this one much smaller – showed up in my headlights. A small Redback, no doubt; in my 18 years living here there had been no other Plethodontid in the area. But wait, what was this? I got out of the car and walked towards the unsuspecting Caudate. It looked like a Redback; but as anyone who comes to know an organism over many years can tell you, sometimes all the signs are right but something is wrong. This was not a Redback. And after a minute or two of me trying to figure out why it wasn’t a Redback, trying to qualify what I knew to be true, I figured it out. It was a Four-toed Salamander (Hemidactylum scutatum).

 

This made this particular individual a “lifer” for me; that is, the first of this species I had ever encountered; and thus it would be added to my “lifelist.” Lifelisting is a superb way to go about recreation herping. It is my belief that we, as humans, have an innate need and ability to create and to achieve, and lifelisting as a way of herping can partially help fulfill this need. Now, as with any good thing, there are caveats to this. Although goals are important, they certainly aren’t everything and one of the traits I associate with a well rounded, mature herper is the ability to see the “same old” herp species again and again and still be fascinated by them.

But even so, in my herpetofaunal exploits, lifelisting has me delving ever-deeper into the new colors, patterns and ecologies of new species. It has also given me the distinct pleasure of meeting up with, showing around and being shown around by herpers from all over the globe. If you’re just getting into the pursuit of Reptiles and Amphibians, I’d encourage you to start keeping your own lifelist. It can be as easy or as complex as you’d like to make it. Some people use online databases (such as naherp.com) to automatically record their lifelist for them, some (I’m in this category) keep big excel documents with all the particulars of each “lifer” encountered. Whatever way it’s done, lifelisting is a great way to focus your herp outings and to celebrate your success – all that’s needed is to get out there and start recording.

 
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Posted by on 26/07/2013 in Ecological Musing

 

Exotic South Florida Part V: The Veiled Chameleon (Chameleo calyptratus) in Florida

Well, based on the lovely statistics that WordPress sends me, most people find my blog by searching for “Chameleons,” it would seem. Well, there are other species other than the Oustalet’s Chameleons (which I’ve talked about previously) here in Florida. The most well known, and perhaps most dear to my heart, is the Veiled Chameleon. Well known because they are widespread (In at least 5 counties, by my reckoning); and dear to my heart because they are, in fact, the one animal species I have been shot at while looking for.

These chameleons from Yemen have been in the pet trade for a number of years. Though they can often be expensive and/or tedious to keep in captivity, they thrive in southern Florida for a number of reasons. Of course, food is typically abundant in the disturbed habitats where they thrive, and chameleons are slow, yet deadly predators; however the real thing that has a potential to limit their distribution is the cold weather. They can succumb to frigid temperatures just like any other reptile: Veiled Chameleons, however, have a trick up their sleeve. They have the ability to burrow down – up to several feet – under the ground, and will readily use this ability to find refuge from frost and extreme cold. There is yet another use for this magnificent adaptation: they will use the same excavation ability once full grown (which takes less than a year) to make a safe, temperature-buffered chamber in which to lay their dozens of eggs. And I mean ‘dozens’ most literally: one individual I found a few years ago laid about 70 eggs.

By one way or another, it seems the hardiness of these chameleons became well known and they began to be spread by helping hands across the southern peninsula of Florida and eventually some of the populations began to be published (See Krysko et al, 2004). And, once published these sites attracted many more visitors – some not observing the trespassing laws, jumping fences and wreaking havoc with concerned locals.

Interestingly enough, though these lizards are certainly exotic, at times hard to find, and can have voracious appetites; I haven’t seen any evidence as-of-yet to suggest that they are invasive. To be clear: an exotic species is not necessarily an invasive species. In fact, as far as is known the majority of exotic species that end up getting released into a new environment die off rather quickly, and a majority of those that do survive will not be able to find a mate and reproduce. But even if an animal is able to reproduce in the wild, it still may not meet the distinction of being invasive. According to the USDA, an invasive species is one that is “non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration and whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.”

Does the Veiled Chameleon meet these criteria? Perhaps it will be found to, but given the evidence at this point in time we cannot but sure, so it would be premature at best and completely false at worst to label them such. These are a species which thrive in disturbed habitats in Florida, habitat which is often comprised of mostly exotic plants to begin with; and even so it is not entirely known what they eat in Florida: many keepers of the species note their affinity for eating brown anoles in captivity, an invasive species itself, and a species for which the south Florida ecosystem would benefit from reduced numbers.

Now, I don’t make this argument as an activist of some sort who is “pro” having chameleons in the wild in Florida, I only wish to make the point that we do not know. It would be a mistake (and a common one) to assume that this lack of knowledge means that the Veiled Chameleon is a completely harmless exotic; and it would be equally foolish to assume that this is an invasive species here. For myself, the lack of knowledge more than anything is an invitation to let curiosity run wild and seek out the truth of the matter: to delve deep into the species, to watch and to study it. And hopefully one day, to know it – that is the essence of why I became a biologist in the first place.

Krysko, K. L., K. M. Enge, and F. W. King. 2004. The veiled chameleon, Chamaeleo calyptratus Duméril and Bibron 1851 (Sauria: Chamaeleonidae): a new exotic species in Florida. Florida Scientist 67:249-253.

 

The North American Field Herping Association and the First Annual NAFHA Meeting

There are a lot of field herpers in the world. Yes, we may not be as large of a group as birders, but there are a lot of people who get out on a regular basis to look for reptiles and amphibians in the field. For instance, FieldHerpForum.com, the biggest and best field herping dedicated website out there has a hair under 3,000 registered users and many herpers don’t post online or advertise their hobby. We’re looking at a big group and all the field hours represented by our group has the potential to add up to a lot of good information on life history, conservation status, ecology and many other facets of herpetology. Thankfully, for this, we have the North American Field Herping Association (NAFHA) and the HERP Database.

NAFHA is a group of field herpers who pool their field data and expertise for the purpose of education, conservation and knowledge of reptile and amphibian species. Make no mistake, these three goals are all highly interconnected and dependent upon one another: education to the public of reptile and amphibians matters make them seem less like beasts to be feared and more like wonders to behold which inevitably leads to greater conservation, especially on the small scale levels which are the most important – think of the number of people out there who no longer bludgeon snakes or other herps to death because a friend or family member is a herper. And also, gaining the knowledge on reptiles and amphibians allows those of us who enjoy them to educate others, and allows organizations to implement that knowledge for large scale projects such as habitat conservation, etc. I strongly recommend herpers out there get involved with NAFHA, get to some group outings, and enter some (or all, if you have the time) of your finds into the database at NAHERP.com.

Although I am passionate about education, conservation and gaining knowledge of reptiles and amphibians, perhaps the best reason I can think of for being involved in NAFHA is the community of herpers involved. My first NAFHA trip was one I organized to northern Alabama for our very own Southeast Chapter, and upon arrival all of us were instantly friends and we had a superb time camping as well as getting out and enjoying looking for critters together. A year almost to the day later and I got to join up with 70-ish other herpers for the first NAFHA annual meeting in southern Illinois at Snake Road. This was, perhaps, one of the most fun gatherings I have ever been a part of: 70 people came together, many of them for the first time, and it was as if we were all old friends.

We, myself and good friend Don, arrived at the chilly campground late at night only to be faced with the predicament: we’re getting up early tomorrow to look for some hognoses – 6am-ish. We can either go to bed now, hang out for a little while and then go to bed, or go look for some cave salamanders. The answer? Anybody who’s ever been around a tried and true herper in a new locale certainly knows the answer: We hung out for a little bit, went out for cave salamanders (finding several thanks to our local guides,) hung out a little more – then at some point we closed our eyes for a minute or two.

            Despite this lack of sleep, we awoke the next morning and caravanned across the state lines. Donald and I had the distinct pleasure of riding with my friends Daniel and Yvonne Dye – I first met the Dyes through NAFHA and we’ve had some pretty stellar times herping together since then (and every once in a while Daniel looks at a bug too.) In short order (ok, we got lost once,) we were there: a beautiful sandy prairie – prime Dusty Hognose (Heterodon gloydi or Heterodon nasicus gloydi) habitat.

To back up a smidgen – Dusty Hognoses are not common in Missouri. In fact, when speaking later with Mike Pingleton, he informed me that they were on the state’s endangered species list and subsequently taken off. You might think getting taken off the endangered species list is a good thing; this is not the case with Missouri’s Dusty Hogs – they were taken off because one hadn’t been seen in the state in 80 years.
Flash forward to 2012, and one or two have turned up at the site we were at just in the past year. I have learned to be skeptical when it comes to my chances of finding hognoses in the field (see https://fieldventures.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/the-great-white-whale/ ); so I was hopeful but not necessarily expectant. The expectation came when we began finding small, triangle-shaped burrows, some of them with recent tail slides going into them. Yes, expectation and excitement. Kind of like Christmas.

So we walked and walked looking for the critters. During that time I took a few breaks and just admired the beauty of the sandy prairie: I began to wish I had a decade or two to live nearby and immerse myself in the flora and fauna of the area, there’s no telling what secrets the place had if it had been hiding Hogs for 80 years. Though I was not the one to walk up on any of them (I was only about 10 meters away from one of the find though, so I count it,) our group of 20 or so herpers ended up with three Dusty Hognoses that day. We also turned up a Northern Scarlet Snake (Cemephora coccinea copei), which I was a little dismissive of, given the dozens one can see every night in some areas of southern Florida. I was abruptly chastised by Mike for failing to show respect for the critter: it was one of less than ten ever found in the state. Sorry Mike. After this, most of us headed back to visit with the new arrivals to the camp, and a few went on to a glade that has turned up some interesting herps in the past.

Dusty Hognose (Heterodon nascicus gloydi)

I opted to head back because I wanted to greet all the newcomers (this was actually just as much a social trip as a herping trip for me, after all,) and I also wanted to get my first look at the infamous Snake Road in daylight. It ended up bring cold and wet, but the beautiful thing about Snake Road is that it’s situated right at the edge of the ranges of many western species (and subspecies), so many of the herps Donald and I saw that seemed like old friends were actually completely different animals (Western Cottonmouths, Western Slimy Salamanders, etc.)

Smooth Earth Snake (Virginia valeriae)

That evening a group of 12 of us or so decided to go into town for some Barbeque: I found it interesting that a Barbeque dinner is a herping tradition even for herpers in the great white north. We ate there then returned to the camp, where we all partook of some great conversation and fun times. It was especially fun to hear of some of the adventures of the more nomadic herpers in our group like Marisa I., Tim W., Donald, and several others who spend great swaths of time traveling and enjoying North America’s herpetofauna.

And Dan Krull’s pancakes really deserve their own photo and caption.

The next day was a riot (almost literally, except there was no smashing of windows or looting.) All 70 NAFHA herpers departed to the road and began walking and searching. On paper, the conditions were pretty terrible that day: cold, still wet from yesterday. Did I mention cold? Well, with 70 herpers, even terrible conditions can be productive – in fact, it would be amazing to see what such a group would find under ideal conditions, because even so our species list was pretty impressive: Red Milksnake, Copperhead, Cottonmouth, Timber Rattler, Lesser Siren, Smooth Earth Snake, and others that I’m sure I’m forgetting. That evening I gave a talk on aquatic herp trapping, and once again enjoyed some time around the fire.

Donald and I had to leave early the next day for our last leg of the trip: going to Pigeon Mountain, GA in search of the Pigeon Mountain Salamander, and we left the group shortly into a search for a few Amystomid salamanders and a few other snakes in another area of IL. It was saddening to depart from a group that we’d had such a wonderful time with, but a few lifers were calling our name and we had a flight to catch some 8 or 9 hours south of where we were.

Over the long weekend, we had a huge mix of a lot of different views and philosophies, a lot of different ways to be divided: Atheists, Christians, republicans, democrats, libertarians, socialists, artists, businessmen, and any number of other categories. Despite this, I am not aware of one instance of strife or not getting along amongst the group: just one shared passion for reptiles and amphibians. It’s a beautiful thing, and begs one question: Who’s in for the NAFHA 2013 Annual Meeting?

 
 

The Great White Whale

Every herper, birder, mammal watcher or general wildlife enthusiast has one: the White Whale. That creature which, like Captain Nemo before us has caused us to mount our vessels, arm ourselves with a mighty spear (or snake hook) and depart on worldwide ventures, bent on killing (or photographing) our White Whale. I’ve had a couple in my day. Some embarrassing, and most just downright frustrating.

Like the Eastern Spadefoot (Scaphiopus holbrookii) – not necessarily a rare species, in fact, it is extremely widespread in Florida. I anxiously awaited every torrential rain, every tropical depression, suiting up with rain gear and saddling up in my flooded-road ready Rav4 (or the HRV/Herpetological Research Vehicle, as I like to call it) and hitting the roads, waiting for the screaming calls of the mass-breeding toad in a wetland or ditch. I even believed the spadefoots were mocking me: not one, but two separate times I heard single individuals calling from far away, only to stop when I got close. One night I even heard a chorus of them: just before sunrise as I lay camping in a State Forest. I sprung up from my sleeping bag, rushing to pull some clothes on and got to the small wetland they called from, only to have them fall silent mere seconds before I arrived. I finally found one in the oddest of places: a friend’s back yard in northern Florida on a rainless night.

But that’s not been my only white whale – there have been many. Interestingly, it seems for me that once I nab a white whale the jig is up and I usually can turn up others without much issue. Take hognoses – my favorite group of snake. I have literally put hundreds upon hundreds of miles into this group of snakes with nothing to show for it. It was when I turned up my first hognose – a Tricolored Hognose (Xenodon pulcher) in Paraguay (by the way, a story of my trip to Paraguay will be in an upcoming issue of Herp Nation Magazine); that I knew the other hognoses should come relatively easy (well, easier then before.) A little over a year later, and I have since turned up my lifer Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platyrhinos) and just recently, my lifer Southern Hognose Snake (Heterodon simus) as well.

White Whales provide for a constant source of frustration and entertainment mixed together, and are a natural side effect of any interest in wildlife. The interesting thing about White Whales is; you usually find them – when you do, you might do a happy dance, or a fist bump, but usually there’s another White Whale waiting in the wings.

 
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Posted by on 21/05/2012 in Ecological Musing

 

The Mystery of the South Florida Rainbow Snake

(Adapted from a previous essay by the author)

A great many people live under a false pretense… To them, the world has been completely explored, recorded, prodded, analyzed, exploited, raped, and exported in clean packaging; arriving comfortably in their houses in the form of T.V., the internet, or magazines. But this is certainly not fact, for the world is a wide and untamed place, full of mystery – a place where any answers crack open a Pandora’s box of more questions, and any semblance of understanding and control is regularly interrupted with exclamations of “Where did that come from?!” In the moon glow of this reality slithers a serpent known only by a name and a few observations of long dead explorers: The South Florida rainbow snake (Farancia erytrogramma seminola).

It shares the genus Farancia with one other species – the Mudsnake, Farancia abacura. This genus is distinguished by a primarily aquatic lifestyle, similar body shape and structure, and a spine at the end of the tail. The South Florida Rainbow Snake’s specific name, erytrogramma,  is actually a misspelling of the latin erythrogramma. The seminola subspecies was described by Wilfred Neill in 1952. This subspecies is of particular interest because its rarity – only three specimens have ever been found, and those three were found between 1949 and 1952, placing it firmly as a contender for the rarest snake in North America.

What is equally fascinating is that the seminola subspecies occurs over 250 miles disjunct from any other populations of rainbow snakes. Two of the three specimens, according to Wilfred Neill; “…were found in water of a sizeable stream at night,” stating its location as “Fisheating Creek, about 1 mile South of Palmdale, September 13, 1952.” (Neill, 270) Other than these two, only one other specimen was known, from the collection of herpetological legend Ross Allen, preserved and jarred – the locality given by the jar label was ‘Glades County, near Lake Okeechobee, July 24, 1949,’ which is likely synonymous to the mouth of Fisheating Creek.

The South Florida rainbow snake, like all of the other members of the genus Farancia, is non-aggressive – in fact, the pinnacle of their protest to handling is not biting, but jabbing (unpainfully so) with their tail. Because of this defenselessness, rainbow snakes are predated upon by a number of other animals. These animals include the ‘usual suspects’ for snake predation: raccoons, opossums, and hawks. Additionally, species such as the Eastern Indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi) have been seen eating F. e. erytrogramma. Indigo snakes are not uncommon in Glades County so it is likely that they have made a meal from F. e. seminola from time to time. in the distant past.

Rainbow snakes are a non-venomous species, and a long and heavy bodied animal; the largest of the F. e. seminola individuals was 131 centimeters long (4 ft, 3 inches,) though F. e. erytrogramma has a record size of 168 centimeters (5′ 6″.) Rainbow snakes are so called for a rainbow-like iridescence which is very pronounced and brilliant in the sun. They have one dorsal and two lateral red lines that run down the length of their body, though the dorsal line is reduced in F. e. seminola. All members of the genus Farancia have a hardened spine at the end of their tail, which is often used to control their prey while eating. Rainbow snakes are smooth scaled, with a divided anal plate – they are a nocturnal species most frequently seen during the months of March, June and October.

Fisheating Creek (https://fieldventures.wordpress.com/2011/09/09/area-profile-fisheating-creek-wma/) itself is a large stream that snakes from Lake Okeechobee through Glades county and west to the Gulf of Mexico. In dry years it is often no more than a cluster of ponds and lakes where there once was a creek. The area in and around Fisheating Creek is one of the most pristine remaining in Florida –  rare species such as Indigo snakes (Drymarchon couperi) and Eastern Diamonback Rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus) are relatively commonplace, and even road signs in the area tout caution at the presence of Florida black bears (Ursus americanus floridanus).

This pristine habitat is likely the combination of the relative lack of large settlements nearby (The closest towns are small ones like Venus, Palmdale, with the nearest settlement of any size are Labelle to the south and Sebring and Lake Placid to the north – and even these are small towns,) and the fact that much of Fisheating Creek was blocked from access by the Lykes Brothers (of hotdog fame) for many years.

Rainbow snakes are most often seen by researchers in the water by night, being revealed in floating mats of vegetation by a small head periscoping out of the water, in fact, this is how Neill’s two individuals were found. They have also been found on roads on warm nights shortly after dark, and are also sometimes seen in the knees and roots of cypress trees in the early morning. Despite their occasional collection on land, rainbow snakes are primarily aquatic – even more so than other aquatic species of the genus’s Nerodia.

Unlike the sympatric mudsnakes, which prefer stagnate, turbid and isolated bodies of water and swamps, rainbow snakes prefer unpolluted, clear, calcareous moving water systems – note that this preference may be due to their prey, the American Eel (Anguilla rostrata). According to Neill, locals would often say of rainbow snakes “Ever’ time ya see one, he got an eel tail a’hangin’ out his mouth.”  (Neill, 274.) This observation is surprisingly accurate due to the typical feeding behavior of F. erytrogramma – They will often capture an eel under water and subsequently finish the meal among cypress roots or in bushes along their section of a stream, at times seen resting with the eel’s posterior hanging from the snake’s mouth. In fact, the best time to see the South Florida rainbow snake may very well be in the morning, when it is finishing its meal.

Because their diet consists almost entirely of eel, manmade structures such as dams and locks, which heavily modify the water flow, can often decimate a rainbow snake population. With this is mind, it is possible that rainbow snake populations existed in other areas in the past (the Kissimmee River, etc.) and may have been decimated by ‘wetlands reclamation’ and water flow modification.

Despite speculation of another time when Rainbow snakes might have been “common,” some species, it seems, are naturally rare or seldom encountered by man. An example of this is the South Florida mole kingsnake (Lampropeltis calligaster occipitolineata) – this species was not discovered until even later than the rainbow snake – it was described in 1987, and since then under 100 specimens have been encountered alive in the wild. The South Florida rainbow snake likely falls into the same category as the South Florida mole kingsnake. A likely explanation for the natural rarity of these two species (and a number of other South Floridian animal species, including at least two other snake species: Tantilla oolitica and the Lake Placid population of Virginia valeriae,) lies within Florida’s geologic history.

Florida consists of a long history of fluctuating water levels, and quite recently in Florida’s history the peninsula was under water, save for a couple elevated dunes/sand bars; the largest of which was the Lake Wales Ridge – it stretched through central Florida and south through what is currently Sebring and dipped off a bit south of present day Lake Placid, Florida. This ancient island served as a Noah’s ark for many species, which experienced divergent evolution over time from their mainland counterparts – when the waters receded the animals spread out slightly, but most South Florida endemics remain relatively close to their original ‘island’.

Though the rainbow snake seems to be uncommon even without man’s meddling, it would be highly profitable, scientifically, to research and rediscover the species. Several attempts have been made to locate more specimens in recent history by myself and others, but have come to naught – it is difficult to find even a F. e. erytrogramma in its native range, much less seminola. During August of 2009, I trapped and searched with some colleagues for the South Florida Rainbow snake to no avail. Recreational ‘field herpers’ too have tried within the past couple of years to come across one, but they have also failed.

In light of such ‘slim pickings,’ it is tempting to label this animal as outright extinct, but it is of the opinion of the author that it is very likely that this species does, in fact, persist to the current time, but the isolation of its locale and naturally few numbers make it rare to encounter. Either way, for now it remains but a mystery, open only to speculation – and dreaming.

-Neill, W. T., 1964, Taxonomy, Natural History and Zoogeography of the Rainbow Snake, Farancia erytrogramma, The American Midland Naturalist, V. 71, p. 257.

 
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Posted by on 20/09/2011 in Ecological Musing, Species Profiles

 

Expanding Fascination

I once considered myself a herper; the kind of herper that was only interested in snakes. Then I found just about all the snakes that can be had in my area and so if a night of herping wasn’t stupendous, I got kind of bored and disappointed. This disappointment, however, was probably a good thing – it spurred me on to expand my fascination to include a wider array of wildlife. I began to meet people like my friends Jason B and Curtis who had a wider interest and started me thinking about something besides snakes.

Enter Frogs: frogs are cool because they chorus; meaning that one can actually find and identify them just by hearing them cal. So, whereas before a night of roadcruising would be only long hours staring at a (mostly empty) road; I could roll down the windows and be immersed in a new world I had no idea existed!

From there, I moved on to enjoy lizards, salamanders, turtles and the like. What happened then? Mammals started to get pretty cool.

All this has meant that whereas a few years ago a random night hike or the like might be terribly boring, now is seldom without excitement and wonder.What next, birds? (doubtful…)

So, next time you’re out and start to gloss over the by-catch; remember that the world is rife with fun, beautiful, exciting and significant life.

 
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Posted by on 08/09/2011 in Ecological Musing