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Herpers Help Scientists Protect Cold Blooded Wildlife

Zach Lim jostles side to side in the backseat of an SUV. It’s winding up an unpaved road deep into the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“Any time I go out hiking,” says Lim, “even just walking in the park, I’ll just flip over a log or something. If I see anything, could be a salamander or a lizard, I’ll just write down where I found it, time, date.”

Lim is a herper. He loves snakes like birders love birds.

While serpents could spoil a hike for some, Lim goes out of his way to find them. It turns out his hobby is helping advance science.

At the end of the ride, Lim steps out of the SUV to join six other herpers in a grassy clearing. They circle around Lawrence Erickson, a member of the North American Field Herping Association, or NAFHA.

“What we are hoping to get is some of the species that we haven’t seen here before,” says Erickson. 

He explains the best way to capture snakes: flip wood scraps with a hook -- not bare fingers -- to avoid rattlesnake bites. He's leading a herp survey.

Herps: that’s what they call the reptiles and amphibians they find. 

“California king snake would be a great one because we haven’t found those,” says Erickson. “Toads would be another one that we haven't found. But we’ll record everything.”

The group sets off into the forest hoping to find hiding herps. They flip a few boards to find nothing more than ants and dirt. Then they get lucky.

The next flip reveals nine tiny snakes, most of them coiled into a single, smooth ball. The group cheers.

The snakes look ashen. But when herper Dave Zeldan picks up the slithering mass, their bellies glow a bright coral.

They release a musky odor into the air. It’s a defense mechanism.

The crew launches into collecting data. Erickson takes a picture of each snake and marks the GPS coordinates in a notebook. Another herper records the temperature.

All that information goes into NAFHA's national database: a digital catalog where herpers log their discoveries. In just a decade, the database has accrued more than 230,000 records from across the country.

It started as a way for herpers to turn their casual hunts into something more scientific. And it’s working. Now groups like the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Geological Survey turn to the database for their research.

“Cal Fish and Wildlife just recently started getting an annual summary of all of the sightings in California that are entered in this database and it’s thousands,” says Erickson.

The herpers don’t just feed the database. They’re also its gatekeepers.

Anyone who wants to see the data has to make a request, and the herpers vote on who does and doesn’t get access. They’re protective of the records to prevent poaching of snakes and lizards from the wild.

One researcher who does have access is professor Barry Sinervo. He teaches herpetology -- the study of reptiles and amphibians -- at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

From his campus laboratory, where empty glass terrariums fill table tops, Sinervo says he uses the database to track how climate change affects herps in the Monterey Bay Area.

“We’re interested in if there are new records of species occurrences where they weren’t previously found,” says Sinervo. “The data that the herpers provide is valuable because it allows us to see whether things are escaping climate change.”

Sinervo says warming weather and drought can kill off whole populations of reptiles that normally thrive in cooler climates. The database helps him tracks these local extinctions.

“There are lots of extinctions going on,” he says. “You go somewhere and you want to find something like northern alligator lizards, and you go to a place where they were previously in the past, like Summit Road, and you never find them.”

Back in the mountains, the herpers tally their haul. They found more than 200 herps, mostly snakes and salamanders.

Whether they make you squirm or not, snakes and salamanders play big roles in maintaining healthy ecosystems. And with help from herpers, scientists can keep protecting the country’s cold-blooded wildlife. 

About the Reporter: Brendan Bane is a science journalist from the UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Program. Follow him on Twitter @brendan_bane.