Herp Survey Techniques, Collecting Ethics, Safety and the Law

For many of us, our first hands-on experience with nature was with a reptile or amphibian; perhaps observing a garter snake slither across the driveway or catching a Fowler’s toad as it hopped on the lawn. People who have had a positive experience with wildlife during their childhood are more likely to support nature conservation as adults. The authors of this field guide were such children, and still maintain a youthful awe at the amazing beauty and diversity of these magnificent creatures.

So how can we protect and conserve native reptiles and amphibians while maintaining the educational and economic benefits derived from them? First, it is better to let wild animals remain wild. However, the educational value of studying and learning to care for such animals can ultimately result in on-the-ground conservation, so it is something we do not want to completely discourage. Putting the well being of the animals and their habitats first always, we can study wild reptiles and amphibians in an ethical manner; we have compiled a number of acceptable capture and handling techniques which should be followed. If you are considering purchasing tadpoles or frogs and releasing them into the wild, then please read Problems with Buying Frogs and Tadpoles for Wild Release.

If possible, work with someone who has experience safely and ethically handling reptiles and amphibians. The most common technique used to find many species, particularly salamanders, lizards, and small snakes, is by looking under and within rotting logs, peeling bark, rocks, and other debris. Please be sure to return the rock or log back to it’s original position to reduce alteration to the animals micro-habitat. Do not place the animal under its cover then put the rock or log on it. Released animals should be placed next to the rock or log after it has been returned to its original position to avoid injuring the released animal. The animal will find its own way back “home”.

Of course care should also be taken for your own safety when attempting to capture or handle any animal. Be aware of who you might meet in a given habitat before you go looking. Venomous snakes also reside under rocks, logs and debris so it is wise to use a “snake hook” or rake when lifting rocks and logs to avoid being bitten, and always first lift the side farthest from you so your lower extremities are not exposed to danger.

Handling the animals also requires care.  Amphibian’s mucus-covered skin performs many functions and is easily damaged. These functions include: protection against abrasions and pathogens; as a respiratory membrane (they absorb oxygen through it); body water regulation; aid in control of body temperature; protection against predators through poisons in the skin (Stebbins and Cohen 1995). The safety tips below are intended to protect both the handler and the animal.

Tips for handling amphibians and reptiles:

  • Always wet your hands before handling amphibians, hold them firmly but gently, and then wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water when you are through.
  • Never put your fingers in your mouth or rub your eyes after handling any amphibian or reptile until you have washed your hands, or you could poison yourself, contract Salmonella, and/or cause irritation or an allergic reaction. If you handle more than1 species you should wash hands in between species, as skin toxins from one species may harm the other.
  • Do not allow amphibians to touch clothing or skin that is covered with insect repellant or sun screen. It can injure or kill them.
  • Make sure you have control of the animal's head. Many animals are capable of biting you, some quite painfully. Therefore you should not handle any animal unless you have control over its head, or hold it in such a way that its mouth cannot reach you.
  • Turtles should be handled from the rear of the shell. Do not hold them by their tails, as is often incorrectly done with snapping turtles, as this can injure their spines.
  • Venomous snakes should not be handled by anyone but recognized experts; and even they get bitten sometimes.
  • Legal Issues

    There are some legal issues which must be considered. In 1993, regulations were passed in Maryland called “Reptile and Amphibian Possession and Permits” (COMAR 08.03.11). These clearly defined what species could be collected from the wild, set possession limits for those species that could be collected with a permit, stated which species may be collected without a permit, and other allowed activities, such as captive breeding, which requires a permit. These regulations are also important for what they state cannot be done, such as commercial trade in “wild” caught animals. They also identify illegal methods of taking an animal from the wild. For instance, did you know it is illegal to kill a snake? Other Maryland laws and regulations that you should be aware of include:

    • a prohibition on importation of venomous snakes, alligators, and crocodiles as pets (Article 10-621);
    • seasons and size limits for the harvest of diamond-backed terrapins, and complete protection of their nests (COMAR 08.02.01);
    • prohibited methods of take for snapping turtles (COMAR 08.02.01);
    • limitations on the sale of turtles (COMAR 10.06.02);
    • and designation and protection of state endangered species (Article 10-2A-01 and COMAR 08.03.01).

    Scientists use a myriad of surveying techniques for reptiles and amphibians. The simplest may be using a dip-net to collect frogs from ponds. Something more complicated may involve building a long drift fence with various funnel, pit-fall and other traps attached to capture most species occurring in an area. However, even scientists are required to obtain a scientific collecting permit from the state in order to use these techniques. Simple observation, or what we call random visual surveys, are often a great way to learn the herpetofauna of an area and witness interesting behaviors. So whatever your interests are, be safe, be ethical, and be legal. Happy herpin’!

    Literature Cited

    Stebbins, R. C. and N. W. Cohen. 1995. A natural history of amphibians. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, New Jersey. 316 pp.