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Biodiversity – Reptiles and Amphibians

Collectively reptiles and amphibians are called herptiles. The native herptiles of Nebraska are made up of 14 species of amphibians and 49 species of reptiles. Eleven species of frogs and toads and three species of salamanders make up the amphibians of the state. The reptiles include nine species of turtles, 10 species of lizards and 30 species of snakes. There are four species of venomous snakes in the state. Some species of amphibians and reptiles are found statewide while some species are found only in small portions of the state as their distribution in Nebraska is at the edge of their ranges in North America. Many species of reptiles are secretive and seldom seen; these species include the western worm snake which spends the majority of its time underground eating earthworms and insect larvae. Others, like the bullsnake and snapping turtle, occur statewide and are some of the most recognized of all herptiles.

Selected species of conservation interest

Herptiles in Nebraska are at risk due to a variety of factors. Several species are very rare in the state due to loss of habitat. Some species are at risk due to over-collecting from individuals in the pet trade and commercial pet food trade. Others seek herptiles for commercial sale. The color pattern of milk snakes found in Nebraska is prized by snake collectors and breeders. Box turtles are a favorite of the pet trade for sale as pets. Leopard frogs and salamanders are collected in large numbers for sale by biological supply companies and bait sellers. Snapping and soft shelled turtles are taken for the oriental food trade. Due to the broad range of collecting pressure and large numbers of reptiles and amphibians being taken from Nebraska, regulations were developed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to limit the number and type of take of all species of herptiles in the state. In addition to collecting, diseases such as chytrid fungus and Rana virus represent an increasing and widespread threat to many reptiles and amphibians. Pollution from pesticide and chemical runoff is also a widespread threat to many species.

Massasauga

The massasauga is a small rattlesnake found in the southeast portion of the state. It is an inhabitant of moist tallgrass prairie sites. Massasauga require crayfish burrows, which they use as denning sites to hibernate. They emerge from the burrows in early spring and move to upland sites in the prairie during the summer to forage. In early fall they return to the area near the burrows to bear their live young. Massasauga enter the burrows for hibernation in mid to late fall. The loss of tallgrass prairie habitat and crayfish burrows has reduced the number and distribution of the massasauga to the point that it was listed as threatened at the state level.

Although massasauga is venomous, it is reluctant to strike preferring to allow threats to move away. However, if it is harassed or attacked it will strike.

Slender glass lizard

One of the rarest and most secretive of reptiles is the slender glass lizard. Often mistaken for a snake, the slender glass lizard is actually a legless lizard closely related to skinks. Like skinks, as a defense when grabbed by the tail, slender glass lizards will drop its tail and escape leaving its attacker with just a wiggling tail. The tail will regenerate in time. The slender glass lizard is a very secretive species and spends most of its time in dense grass vegetation and loss soil. It overwinters in rodent burrows. Once considered extinct in the state, recent surveys have documented its presences in two counties in the south-central portion of the state.

Blanding’s turtle

The Blanding’s turtle is unique among turtles because of both its appearance and its habitat preference. The Blanding’s turtle is an attractive species with a dark brown or black shell with small yellow spots and radiating streaks. It has a distinguishing bright yellow chin and throat. Its shell has a higher dome than aquatic species like the painted turtle but not as high as terrestrial turtles like the box turtles. In habitat selection, the Blanding’s Turtle is semi-aquatic, using wetlands during part of the year and for overwintering and using upland areas extensively during the summer, at times moving long distances from water. Historically, the Blanding’s turtle was common throughout its range in the northern states from New England to the Great Plains and Canada. Today the species is rare in most of its range and is listed in many states. Nebraska represents the stronghold of the species with stable populations in the Sandhills and scattered populations in the eastern portion of the state. For this reason, the Blanding’s Turtle is a priority species for conservation in the Nebraska Natural Legacy Plan.

Barred salamander

Although not an official at-risk species, the barred salamander (often called tiger salamander) is a species showing the beginning symptoms characteristic of a species in significant decline. The barred salamander was once a common species statewide, but now has all but disappeared from the eastern portion of the state. The causes for the decline is unclear but is likely linked to a number of factors including disease, pesticide runoff, loss of wetlands, the interruption of corridors from breeding sites to foraging habitat and the stocking of fish in that prey on salamander and other amphibian tadpoles. Work is just beginning to determine the cause of the decline. The decline of common ubiquitous species like the barred salamander and monarch butterfly illustrate the extent to which native habitats have been lost and degraded and the need for conservation of all types of remaining native habitats.