Archive for category Herpetology
It has been some time since my last contribution to the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles‘ journal, Herpetological Review (see also SSAR’s facebook page), so I was honored when I was asked to contribute a retrospective on the late herpetologist and artist Dr. Robert (“Bob”) Cyril Stebbins (March 31, 1915—September 23, 2013) for the column, “Art in Herpetology.”
Hot off the presses in the second issue of the 2017 volume (page 472-473), The Herpetological Art of Robert Cyril Stebbins looks back at the life and career of a man whose contributions to the field of herpetology are still not only celebrated, but put to work on a daily basis as biologists young and old pick up their copy of Stebbins’ field guide, A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians, and thumb through the pages to identify this or that lizard, check a species’ range, or compare a specimen to the carefully illustrated plates within.
In the process of preparing this piece, I had the opportunity to handle Dr. Stebbins field notebooks and original intricate illustrations at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and Bancroft Library, and had the pleasure of speaking with Professor Emeritus David B. Wake, former Director and Curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, and Theodore Papenfuss, research specialist at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, about their experience working alongside this venerable herpetologist. But nothing says more about Dr. Stebbins’ passion for herpetology than his artwork.
Full Citation: Bettelheim, Matthew P. 2017. Art in Herpetology: The Herpetological Art of Robert Cyril Stebbins. Herpetological Review 48(2): p 472-473.
The Friends of the Jepson Herbarium recently announced the program for The Jepson Herbarium Workshop’s 2017 series on botanical and ecological subjects. These programs are open to the general public and consist of basic, introductory one- to four-day basic botany workshops and more technical one- to five-day weekend workshops.
The basic botany series includes “Introductory Plant Morphology for the Botanically-Curious” and the not-to-miss “Fifty Families in the Field: San Francisco Bay Area,” an excellent workshop I had the pleasure of taking in 2007 with instructor Linda Beidleman (co-author of Plants of the San Francisco Bay Region: Mendocino to Monterey) (and, in the past, the late ever-entertaining Richard Beidleman, the author of California’s Frontier Naturalists which was reviewed with great enthusiasm here). Among this year’s technical weekend workshop series are such select, wonkish offerings as “Northern California Seaweeds,” “Butterflies: Biology, Behavior, and Identification,” “Exploring the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness,” “Climate Change in California: Past, Present, and Future,” and “Insect-Induced Plant Galls of California.”
The workshops run throughout the year, but class sizes are limited and waiting lists back up quickly. Sign up soon.
It would appear that once again, this year’s attempts to breed two captive Swinhoe’s soft-shell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), the world’s rarest freshwater turtle, have hit a wall. This situation has become even more dire after it was announced in January 2016 that the Sword Lake Turtle, one of the only four individuals known to exist in the wild or captivity, had been had been found floating dead in Hoàn Kiếm Lake in central Hanoi, Vietnam.
Swinhoe’s softshell turtle has long been famous for it role in Vietnamese legend as the fabled Sword Lake Turtle, which inhabits Hoàn Kiếm Lake (“The Lake of the Returned Sword”) in Hanoi, Vietnam. But of the handful of Swinhoe’s softshell turtles known to scientists to exist in the wild or captivity in recent years, five have died since the 1990s, leaving only four remaining (until this year): one in Hoàn Kiếm Lake (now deceased), one in the wild in Đồng Mỏ Lake west of Hanoi, and two in captivity, the latter now both part of the Suzhou Zoo’s captive breeding program.
Since 2008, when the Changsha Zoo’s female, “China Girl,” was relocated to Suzhou, scientists at Suzhou Zoo have undertaken a captive breeding program with their older male turtle. But despite repeated bouts of courtship displays and mating between the pair in the years since, the resulting eggs have failed to hatch. Remediative actions to date, including steps to improve their diet by constructing a glass wall to prevent visitors from tossing junk food into their inclosure, provisioning the pair with a more natural diet (e.g. whole shrimp, freshwater crayfish, fishes, freshwater snails, frogs, quail, pigeons), and redesigning their enclosure to allow the pair more time together, have proven unsuccessful.
After the Suzhou Zoo’s captive breeding program reported in 2014 that their male may be infertile, the future of the program and the species were both at risk. In a move that lets slip their growing concern for the species’ survival, in the spring of 2015 researchers attempted what had until recently been considered by stakeholders too controversial – artificial insemination.
In April 2016, the Turtle Survival Alliance reports that herpetologist Gerald Kuchling oversaw a surgical artificial insemination attempt that injected the semen directly into the female’s oviducts while the turtle was anesthetized. Kuchling was able to closely examine the male’s penis during past insemination attempts and found that it had been mangled, possibly during an ill-fated encounter with a second captive male several years ago. Last year’s attempt involved depositing the sperm into the anesthetized female’s oviducts.
As she has in the past, this year the female laid 65 eggs at the Suzhou Zoo. However, when Kuchling candled the eggs in late June, all were found to be infertile.
This summer I had the honor of being invited to give a presentation on western pond turtles at the Napa County Library as part of the Wild Napa lecture series, a monthly event put on collaboratively by the Napa County Resource Conservation District, the Napa County Library, and Friends of the Napa River. This is a presentation I’ve given before, but this time I was surprised when I was asked in the eleventh hour whether they could record the talk to share with the public. The result is the video I’m pleased to link to below.
Fortunately for me, after two minutes and change, I fade out into a shadowy figure. Better yet, I bring out a live western pond turtle at the end of the presentation. But with a running time of an hour and fifteen minutes, I can’t blame you if you skip to the end; unless, that is, you are trapped in an elevator, or camping on a sidewalk in line for the next Apple smartphone release or American Ninja Warrior tryouts. So no worries if you don’t watch the whole thing – I think we can all agree the promise of seeing a live turtle really only works in person.
Here’s the teaser, followed by the video:
Imagine a time in California’s history when California cuisine was truly a natural, grass-roots effort. Not the vegetarian dives, nor the seasonal menus of Chez Panisse fame, but a living-off-the-land sort of lifestyle: succulent frog legs, a seabird-egg custard, or a piping-hot bowl of terrapin soup. It’s true; at the turn of the twentieth century, the west coast’s lone native turtle – the western pond turtle (or terrapin as it was once known) – once featured prominently on menus throughout San Francisco for soups and stews.
Join wildlife biologist Matthew Bettelheim to explore the history and natural history of the western pond turtle. This trip through time will roughly follow the discovery and description of the western pond turtle by first Russian explorers and later European naturalists in the 1800s, then Native American accounts of collecting the turtle for sustenance and ceremonial purposes, and next the extensive terrapin harvest at the turn of the twentieth century centered around the San Francisco market. In addition to the colorful stories that surround the rich and as yet untold history of San Francisco’s terrapin trade, we will also examine the western pond turtle’s present struggle to persist in what little remains of its former west coast range and review the growing body of natural history data and contemporary research before peering into the future of turtle conservation.
In a move meant to make manifest the real dangers turtles face in the wild today, the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) London Zoo unveiled their new Annam leaf turtle (Mauremys annamensis) exhibit last year. But to tell the raw story behind this turtle’s Critically Endangered status, ZSL bypassed the traditional bucolic exhibit depicting turtles in the lowland wetlands characteristic of Vietnam in lieu of a tell-tale tableau that reveals where they more frequently end up: in a traditional Vietnamese kitchen. The resulting still life of still-live turtles shows the stark realities of the wildlife trade, tapping into the grim fate these and other Asian turtles face from overhunting for meat, not to mention traditional medicine and the pet trade.
The ZSL’s all-too-real exhibit takes advantage of everything and the kitchen sink to bring this restaurant kitchen to life. The only thing more macabre than the axeman’s butchering knife, pendant woks, and bubbling soup pot are the kitchen sink itself and the butcher’s block doing double duty as aquarium and basking platform.
According to Ben Tapley, team leader of the Reptile House at ZSL London Zoo, “We’ve gone to town on the new Annam leaf turtle exhibit here at ZSL London Zoo, as we want our visitors to really understand the threats facing these animals. Providing a great habitat for these beautiful turtles, with water for them to swim in and a secluded nesting area hidden behind a carefully positioned wok, the creative exhibit tells a serious story.”
Knowing that Asian turtles like the Annam leaf turtle and Swinhoe’s soft-shell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), the world’s rarest freshwater turtle, are close to extinction, perhaps it’s time more zoological institutions explore this morbid mode of storytelling.