By Ryan Richardson
Globe Staff Writer
GALENA, Kan. —
Pouring rain and cool weather put a damper on most outdoor excursions, but members of the Kansas Herpetological Society said that was prime weather for their prey.
Close to 100 members of the organization waded through the dense trees and brush over the weekend near Oak Hill Cemetery, north of Galena, and continued their work at Schermerhorn Park. They were attempting to catalog different species as part of their periodic field excursions.
The Kansas Herpetological Society has been instrumental in disseminating information about different snakes, turtles and amphibians that are native to Kansas.
But experts say few places are as important to Kansas as the far southeastern corner, where an estimated 30 percent of the state’s threatened and endangered species are found because of the area’s similarity to the Ozarks.
While Schermerhorn Park has been surveyed several times since 1974, this was the first survey to be conducted near the cemetery since 1930, according to the group’s president, Dan Murrow, of Hutchinson. Murrow said the combination of cool weather and relatively undisturbed natural habitat usually produces interesting results.
“The cold weather slows down their bodies, making them easier to catch because they are coldblooded,” Murrow said. “With this cool weather, we can turn over some logs or cover and find more salamanders and frogs than we would have if it was a warm, sunny day.”
Within an hour of the initial search Saturday, many of the group’s members were taking their finds back to the main road to begin identification. Small amphibians were pulled out of long, white canvas bags as group members opened up their pocket guides to begin the identification steps.
Murrow took inventory of the features of one captured critter while Suzanne Collins, historian with the state group, consulted her copy of “Amphibians, Reptiles and Turtles in Kansas.” She co-wrote the book with her late husband, Joseph Collins, and biologist Travis Taggart, who also participated in the weekend survey. Collins was quick to point out the color of the skin and the scale features, as she proclaimed the lizard to be a male coal skink, which is common in the area.
Her husband founded the Kansas Herpetological Society in 1974 as a way to promote academic research and education across the state. He also founded the Center for North American Herpetology and was an instructor at the University of Kansas. After he died in 2012, Suzanne Collins continued his work in the field.
“We track and we keep everything online, and over time it becomes a historical guidepost for environmental change,” Collins said Saturday. “By looking at peaks in population, we can get a good idea of what has changed in the area, and if some species have completely departed or if they are thriving.”
In the case of Oak Hill Cemetery, 80 years can be telling for population change.
“That much time can be so great for wildlife populations,” Collins said. “Looking at the last survey here, the pickerel frog was common to find in the ’30s, but now is an amphibian that they are trying to reintroduce into the wild. That population may be completely gone ... in those 80 years.”
That kind of information is what Southeast Kansas Nature Center founder Linda Phipps wanted.
“I was thrilled to have them come here,” Phipps said Saturday. “It is exciting to have them survey the area with such a gap since the last one. We hope that it promotes a stronger interest to the area.”
Taggart is the field trip chairman and a past president of the state society. He said that while tracking data is important, such events also educate younger members.
Murrow said the results of the two-day survey will be published later this year, with information provided online at a database called the Kansas Herp Atlas for access by those who are curious about the changes in population.
“The group will return here eventually to conduct the same survey years from now,” Murrow said. “The work we do here today will help keep that passion up for many more years to come and will help uncover the changes across the state.”