Herps of the Issy Alps Part II: Reptiles
In part I of this series: Herps of the Issy Alps, I covered amphibians; therefore in this post I will describe the reptiles of the area. Reptiles are ectothermic animals that have dry cornified skin containing spiky epidermal scales. They reproduce with internal fertilization and produce amniotic eggs. They experience direct development, which means the young are hatched resembling the adults. Most reptiles are oviparous meaning that they produce eggs, some are ovoviviparous (Adder and Slow Worm), meaning eggs are hatched within the parent, and a few are truly viviparous meaning that they give birth to live young (Viviparous Lizard, Phrynosomatidae lizards, Southern Grass Skink). They rarely provide any parental care, but some skinks and snakes brood their eggs and some crocodilian species fiercely guard their nests.
Reptiles are mostly carnivorous, but some are omnivorous, and a few are even strictly herbivorous (Uromastyx, Iguanas, Tortoises). As a class, reptiles are typically terrestrial, but many are amphibious. There are a few that reside almost completely in fresh water (turtles) and some that are strictly saltwater dwelling (sea turtles).
Reptiles evolved from amphibians 300 million years ago during the Pennsylvanian Period. As opposed to amphibians that achieved their diversity peak in the Permian Period, reptile’s peak diversity occurred during the Mesozoic Era (225 to 65 million years ago). This is the same era that contained dinosaurs and 17 unique reptile orders. There are only four orders of extant reptiles in the world today.
There are 46 families, 900 genera, and about 6000 species. The majority of reptiles inhabit tropical and subtropical biomes. Like most species, the diversity of reptile species decreases closer to the poles. Also because reptiles are ectothermic, species in temperate weather climates must hibernate during the winter. Also some species aestivate during the hottest and driest months.
Order Testudines (Turtles and Tortoises)
Order Rhynchocephalia (Tuatara)
Order Crocodilia (Alligators, Crocodiles, and Gavials)
Order Squamata (Amphisbaenians, Lizards, and Snakes)
Because I am only focusing on reptiles of the Issy Alps, I will not dive too much further into the various families, but only the ones that occur in the Pacific Northwest. Order Rhynchocephalia or Tuataras only inhabit the country of New Zealand and Order Crocodilia is not found in the Pacific Northwest.
Order Testudines (Turtles and Tortoises)
This is perhaps the most distinct vertebrate on Earth due to the easily recognized protective shell. Most testudines have a dorsal carapace and a ventral plastron, which is joined bilaterally by a bridge. The shell is made up of hard scutes on the outer layer and bony plates on the inner layer. The ribs and vertebrae are fused to the shell, making testudines the only vertebrate with ribs external to the limb girdles. There are 11 families, 72 genera, and 230 species of turtles. In the Pacific Northwest there is only a single family of native testudines belonging to two different genera.
The two species of testudine that are found in the Pacific Northwest belong to Emydidae Family which are related to terrestrial tortoises but have hind feet that are more adapted for swimming than walking. They are the most diverse family of testudine and are found on five continents. They are most diverse in the eastern United States and southeastern Asia.
Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)
Painted Turtles are found all across the state of Washington and much of Canada, Mexico, and United States and belong to the genus Chrysemys. This genus contains only this one species, which is subdivided into four races defined by their geographic location. I witnessed my first Painted Turtle at Indian Trail Campground in Fitchville, Ohio back around 1999. Since that time I have seen many in my parent’s backyard in Tiffin, Ohio as well as other ponds across Ohio. Apryle and I first saw a Painted Turtle in Washington in Union Bay Natural Area in 2020. The most distinguishing feature of this turtle is the red lines on its plastron. Additionally, head, tail and limbs are marked with longitudinal lines that vary in color from yellow to red. I often confused this turtle with the highly invasive Red Eared Slider, which occupies a similar habitat.
Pond Turtle (Clemmys marmorata)
Apryle and I have not had the good fortune to spot a Pond Turtle yet since we have lived in Washington. It belongs to the genus Clemmys, which is distinguished from Chrysemys by having a smooth crushing surface on the upper jaw. The Pond Turtle is aquatic and is found in marshes and sloughs. They enjoy basking on partially submerged logs and often hibernate in the bottom of the mud in the winter.
Order Squamata (Amphisbaenians, Lizards, and Snakes)
This is the most diverse order of reptiles containing 96% of species richness. Amphisbaenians have 135 species and are a strange worm-like burrowing animal that is found in the tropics and subtropics. Lizards contain 2300 species and snakes have 3300 species. Snakes and lizards are easily distinguished in the Pacific Northwest, but in many areas of the world, snakes and lizards are hard to distinguish due to similar body types. Because there are very few lizards in the Izzy Alps, I will focus on lizards of Washington State.
Suborder Lacertilia or Lizards
Northern Alligator Lizards (Elgaria coerulea) and Southern Alligator Lizards (Elgaria multicarinata)
These two lizards belong to Family Anguidae and can be found in Washington. The Northern Alligator Lizard can be found in the Issy Alps (though I have yet to see one). Genus Elgaria has six members and are native to western North America. This family of lizards is distinguished by bony plates beneath their scales, skin fused to their head, and a fleshy tongue. Genus Elgaria is identified by quadrangular dorsal and ventral scales in their skin folds. They are secretive but aggressive and spend most of their time hidden in leaves or grass. They tend to live in groups and are able to loose their tail if attacked.
Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma douglassi)
This lizard belongs to the family Iguanidae, which contains 52 genera and 700 species worldwide. They are typically a new world family and in the Pacific Northwest, they are found mostly in arid flatlands and warm craggy canyons. The Short-horned Lizard belongs to Genus Phrynosoma, which are referred to as the horned lizards. They are strictly ground-dwellers and in my opinion have the coolest look of all lizards because of their enlarged projecting scales. Although, the Short-horned Lizard is not found in the Issy Alps, Apryle and I did have the good fortune to see this species in Synarep, Washington while hunting for a lost deer radio collar.
Sagebrush Lizard (Sceloporus gracious)
This lizard also belongs to the Iguana Family and the Genus Sceloporus, which is found exclusively in Central and North America. They are distinguished by rounded elongate bodies with long tails. They are typically the most common in the Northwest and are seen on fences, woodpiles, and even building sides, however, I have never seen this lizard in Washington. Given the name, it is of course not found in the Issy Alps due to the lack of sagebrush.
Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)
This lizard is found in the Issy Alps, though I have never seen one. It has large spiny dorsal scales and keeled scales on the posterior thighs. They prefer vertical habitats – fences, trees, and boulders. They feed on insects and spiders and also lose their tails when attacked. They are most active in the daylight hours but hibernate in the winter.
Side-blotched Lizard (Uta stansburiana)
Side-blotched Lizards are desert dwelling lizards that are found mainly in desert landscapes of Washington. They prefer canyon areas and in Washington are not found above 460 meters due to shorter growing seasons. Due to their habitat requirements, they are not found in the Issy Alps. In terms of appearance, they have small uniform and smooth dorsal scales.
Western Skink (Eumeces skiltonianus)
This Skink is a member of Family Scincidae, which contains 85 genera and 1030 species. The family is found worldwide with its greatest diversity in Australia, Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and Africa. It is least diverse in North America and South America. Members of the family have cylindrical bodies, smooth cycloid scales and bony plates on the head and body. The Western Skink is the only species of Skink found in the Pacific Northwest and though it is not found in the Issy Alps, it is found in central and eastern Washington. They are small and shiny and have longitudinal stripes with bright blue tails. They occupy habitats of desert canyons, open woodlands and high elevation forests. This animal also loses its tail when attacked and is a very skittish lizard.
Suborder Ophidia or Snakes
Rubber Boa (Charina Bottae)
This unique snake is in the Family Boidae, which is found worldwide with the greatest species richness in the tropics. The family contains two of the largest recorded snakes on Earth, the Anaconda and the African Rock Python. There are 26 genera and 80 species in the family, but only one species occurs in the Pacific Northwest. It is often difficult to distinguish this snake’s head from its tail due to the shape of each. It is uniformly olive green, and it kills its prey via constriction and it never bites. They are successful in many habitats from desert to foothills to high mountain forests. They can be found in rotting logs or under talus rocks, though I have not yet seen one.
Racer (Coluber constrictor)
This snake has smooth dorsal scales arranged in 17 rows on the fore and mid body and 15 rows on the rear body. It is found in meadows, sagebrush steppe, and forest edges and feed on insects, rodents, and smaller reptiles. It belongs to Family Colubridae, which contains 68% of the worlds snake species or 295 genera and 1550 species. Most Colubridae in the Pacific Northwest area are not venomous and the Racer is no exception, though it is very aggressive. I have never encountered this snake and it likely does not inhabit the Issy Alps.
Sharptail Snake (Contia tenuis)
This snake is secretive and is usually found in moist rotting logs and talus slopes. It is distinguished by the black and white barred ventral surface. It exclusively eats small slugs with its long sharp teeth. They are found in Washington State but not likely in the Issy Alps.
Ringneck Snake (Diadophis punctatus)
This snake is very small with slate-green dorsum and a bright orange ventral surface. They inhabit wooded areas, brushy areas and rocky canyons. Their diet consists mainly of salamanders and lizards. They are found in Washington, but not the Issy Alps.
Night Snake (Hypsiglena torquata)
This is a small mildly venomous snake. It resembles young Gopher Snakes and has rear upper teeth that are enlarged as fangs. Their diet consists of lizards and frogs and they typically live in arid regions with rocky outcroppings. They are found in Washington, but not the Issy Alps.
California Mountain Kingsnake (Lampropeltis zonata)
This snake has a bright pattern of red, white, and black bands and is found in southern Washington, but not the Issy Alps. They inhabit oak and pine forests as well as chaparral slopes and eat lizards, snakes, mice, and birds.
Striped Whipsnake (Mastiophis taeniatus)
This snake is long and slender with dark and light stripes. It is found in Washington, but not the Issy Alps. It lives in prairies, sagebrush steppe, and rocky canyons. It eats primarily lizards and other snakes.
Gopher Snake (Pituophis melanoleucus)
This is a snake species that I saw slithering through the front yard of the bunkhouse in Nespelem, Washington. It is a large chunky snake that has black splotches over a tan body. It lives everywhere from prairies to coniferous forests, and deserts. Its diet consists of rodents, rabbits, birds, and lizards. They are aggressive snakes that puff up, hiss and vibrate their tails to ward off predators (perhaps attempting to mimic the Western Rattlesnake). It is found in Washington State, but not the Issy Alps.
These are one of the most successful of all snakes based on individual numbers. All North American members of this family give birth to fully developed offspring. There is only one genus that occurs in North America: Thamnophis, which contains 22 species in North America, four in the Pacific Northwest and three in the Issy Alps.
Western Terrestrial Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans)
These snakes thrive throughout Washington, including the Issy Alps. They are a long slender snake that feeds on salamanders, mice, slugs, and lizards. They give birth to 4-19 live young.
Northwestern Garter Snake (Thamnophis ordinoides)
This is a terrestrial snake that has a small head and long body. It has a body pattern of stripes and spots as well as a dorsal stripe, which could be red, orange, yellow, blue, or white. It is typically found in meadows, edges of forests, and brushy areas. It is found in Western Washington and the Issy Alps.
Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)
Apryle and I have seen this snake many times on runs in Squak and Tiger Mountain. It is a heavy-bodied snake that lives at both low and high elevations in coniferous forests as well as open valleys. I have also seen this snake in my parents yard back in Tiffin, Ohio. They feed predominately on amphibians, small mammals and fish.
Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis)
This is the only rattlesnake and only dangerously venomous snake in the Pacific Northwest. Though this snake is found in Washington, it is not found in the Issy Alps. Apryle and I have been fortunate enough to run into this snake on several occasions when we lived in Tonasket, Washington. I have seen several in Whistler Canyon and on the Similkameen Trail outside of Oroville. This snake is distinguished by the rattle on the tail as well as the wide triangular head. It belongs to Family Viperidae, which has 11 genera and 60 spread across five countries.
Childhood Reptile Sightings
Growing up in northwest Ohio, I was lucky enough to see several reptiles. These reptiles include: Painted Turtles at the lake at Indian Trail Campground in Fitchville, Ohio and in the backyard in Tiffin, Ohio. Additionally, I saw many Red Eared Sliders and Common Snapping Turtles near streams in Seneca County. In addition to turtles, I also came across many Eastern Garter Snakes slithering around my parent’s backyard as well as hiding in the woodpiles. We used to share our home with an Eastern Box Turtle named Seymore as well.
College Track Trips to Florida and South Carolina
I had not visited the southeastern United States until my freshman year in college during the 2009 outdoor track season. Then the following three years our team continued to train at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. We stayed in the same hotel each year, near Lake Ebby and there was a mulch trail that circumnavigated the lake. This nature trail offered excellent reptile viewing opportunities, though the majority of the lizards I found were in the raised landscape beds at the hotel. During my time in Orlando I found a Brown Anole and probably many more that I was unable to photograph. Before returning home to Berea, Ohio, we would run a track meet at Coastal Carolina University or Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. In Myrtle Beach, I was able to get some quality photographs of a Common Snapping Turtle.
Post College Trips
I stayed in Leadville, Colorado for a time in 2012, and did not see any reptiles in that area, but on a trip to Zion National Park, I did see an Eastern Fence Lizard in the canyon.
Grad School Trip to Brazoria and San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge
During my time in Physical Therapy school in Austin, Texas, I traveled quite a bit and explored many areas in the state. On one of my internships in Columbus, Texas, I made the trip down to Brazoria and San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge. This was the first time I encountered American Alligators and there were many swimming around the marshes and basking on the rocky river banks. While living in the Columbus/Giddings area there were also several dozen Red Eared Sliders that would cross the roads, many unfortunately became victims of traffic collisions.
Grad School Trips to Big Bend and Guadalupe, and Carlsbad Cavern National Parks
I made several trips to west Texas to explore Big Bend National Park and Guadalupe National Park. In my trips to Big Bend I came across a vibrant pink Western Coachwhip Snake with a bat in its mouth near the Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande. I saw many more reptiles at Guadalupe National Park on the numerous trails circumnavigating the park. A Bullsnake slithered across the Tejas Trail near Pine Springs Campground and looked intimidating, but was harmless. I also ran past a Chihuahuan Spotted Whiptail, Texas Horned Lizard (Blue Ridge Campsite), and Prairie Lizard along the trail near Guadalupe Peak. While not exploring the cave system below ground, I spotted several unique lizards in Carlsbad National Park. There was a Common Collared Lizard basking on boulders on the nature trail, which was one of my favorite reptile sightings of all time.
Grad School Trips to the Gulf Coast
In perhaps one of the most special moments of my life, my parents and I witnessed baby Kemps Ridley Sea Turtles crawling to the ocean. We drove through the night to North Padre Sea Shore where park rangers were releasing hundreds of recently hatched turtles and for several minutes we watched the little sea turtles making their journey to the water. Additionally, while swimming at Port Aransas, I came close to many adult Kemps Ridley Sea Turtles.
Austin, Texas Trail Running
During my time trail running in the Austin and Texas Hill Country area I saw many reptiles, including Rattlesnakes, Copperheads, and Texas Coral Snakes. Most of these snakes I spotted near the Mopac Forest near Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the Goodwater Loop in Georgetown, and Slaughter Creek Metroparks. Additionally, I saw many Green Anoles crawling up and down the brick house that I was renting. At McKinney Falls State Park, I saw many large Red Eared Sliders near the falls and Texas Spiny Lizards in the open prairie areas.
Costa Rica Trip
During my trip to Costa Rica I saw many reptiles at several different areas. There were American Crocodiles near Carara National Park on the banks of the Río Tárcoles. Additionally, I saw a Costa Rica Caiman at Bogarin Wildlife Park in the Sarapiquí Valley. In terms of lizards, there were Green Basilisk Lizards running across streams in Carara National Park and walking around hotel grounds in the Sarapiquí Valley. The Green Iguanas were quite bold and friendly in Carara National Park and were walking all around the visitor center. We also saw several Black Wood Turtles sunning themselves on a log in the Río Sarapiquí.
In addition to all the wild reptiles that I have seen, I have also cared for several in my home. This list includes the Bearded Dragon from Australia, the Veiled Chameleon from the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, the Leopard Gecko from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, the Ball Python from central Africa, Red Eared Sliders from southern United States, and the Box Turtle from eastern North America.
A photographic collection of reptiles I have seen throughout my life.
Aligators and Crocodiles