Sunday, June 29, 2014

Graveyard Super Fun Time

I've come back with a terrible sunburn on my neck and a broken foot. Actually, I don't know if my foot is injured, but it kind of hurts when I walk. Regardless, I'm not into feet. I'm into lizards. They're so interesting that I'll spend all day in a graveyard in the middle of Queens observing and photographing them. Just another completely normal activity for a completely normal person.

What are you looking at?

But these aren't your average lizards. Actually, they might as well be. They're greenish with a long tail, four legs and they're cool. But the killer is that these are lacertids! Which means they're in the family lacertidae! Which means they're originally from the Old World and have no reason being in the Americas. This is concerning because "introduced species are bad," but if you're an optimist  like me, it's really an amazing opportunity to study a species from a completely unique and distinct lineage that is normally unavailable here in the United States.

Apparently a pet shop in Long Island went out of business way back when and with great foresight let loose their stock of Italian wall lizards, Podarcis sicula. Despite New York being colder than their native Italy, the lizards did not die off in the winter, but proceeded to spread around Long Island and various parts of New York City. Someone should give that guy a medal or the key to the city or a Nobel prize. Whichever is the easiest to mail.


Another common name for these fine reptiles is "ruin lizard" because they're often found on rocky wall faces, but it seems that tombstones make a fine substitute. Also, as you may notice from the bit of Hebrew above, this was a Jewish cemetery making me even more of an oddball to see stalking through the graves with a lizard noose and DSLR. Here is a video detailing the habitat and me walking around contemplating whether or not I am disrespecting the deceased.

A lizard does make a quick, barely-visible appearance in this video.
Watch in 1080 and full screen for your best chance of finding it. 

These lizards were extremely abundant and it was hard not to walk a few steps without seeing or hearing one a two dash off into the vegetation or under a loose gravestone. Instead of amazing camoulfage, these lizards rely on their wariness and speed to escape from predators or lizard-crazy weirdos like me. This alertness is visible as you can see the lizard staring back at the camera in some photos.

Get off my back.

As exciting as watching lizards run away from you can be (very) , lizards occasionally do other things too. One tried and true method to observe lizards behave naturally is to simply sit and wait for them to ignore your presence. As I sat on a conveniently placed bench nestled next to some graves, I was soon surrounded by a handful of lizards going about their business, although the lizard in the grave closest to me remained wary and only peeked his head out.

Is he gone yet?

At this point in the day the lizards seemed to be bumming out in the shade, not doing much. But the stiff tension was broken when two large quarreling males brought their disputes to the ground next to my feet. The tail-less male below was being chased by another male with a complete tail. Unfortunately this was more of a chase than a fight, but it was an interesting moment of natural history. Who doesn't love those?!


If you have too much time on your hands and spent a good chunk of time staring at these pictures or reading about lizard biology, you may have noticed the difference in head size between photos. In this case, males have larger jaws relative to females presumably because they spend so much time fighting each other. Males with bigger heads have stronger bite force and defeat punier males and then proceed to take all the ladies, just like in humans. 

Not the best picture to highlight the differences, but the male is on the left. 

And as if you haven't had enough enthralling facts and pictures of lizards today, the peeling sunburnt skin on the back reminds me that lizards also shed. 

This is what my neck looks like. 

Wasn't that just wonderful and enlightening? Knowledge is power and power corrupts, so be careful. 

Chilling in a cemetery.
A female Podarcis sicula bids you adieu from her stone perch placed neatly above a dead man. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The End of Summer

Well, the summer's over. Remember, it's a magical world and you should go exploring. It's been a good run.

Fine, the it's only mid-June and there's still plenty of good sunshine left to bring out the reptiles, but I'll be leaving the magical realm known as the temperate northeast for a while due to personal-medical-unemployment reasons AKA no actual reason at all. Actually I'll be going somewhere with many lizards. And then somewhere new with pretty lizards. More on that later. So before I leave here are some updates to the cliffhangers left by the last few taxonimically oriented posts to close out the end of the middle of the season.

Snakes: I have learned how to find snakes. I've found nine snakes since my last post. I am getting snake fever. I am no longer satisfied unless I find a snake.

Smell ya later!

Turtles: I found the box turtle. It was a very pleasant experience. I love turtles.


Salamanders: I got a shot of the red backed gerrymander with the added bonus of a worm. See if you can tell the two apart.

Where have you been living, under a rock?

Frogs: are still omnipresent and I still take pictures of them.


The end. If you'd like to see my photographic progress from the whole season you can do so here. I've managed to produce 44 pictures in the month I've been exploring the badlands of the northeast, surpassing the 29 pictures I took in Florida. Yeah, yeah I was only in Florida for a week and there were way more reptiles, but despite the depauperate herpetofauna I've had a blast this past month getting to know the fauna of my childhood and what the buttons on my camera do.

Also, don't forget to submit your questions, comments, and criticism to the Super Fun 3000 Views Extravaganza Festival Q&A Party that is coming up once 3000 views are reached. This is thanks to all of you! Yes, even you spambots from Russia.

That's all folks!

Saturday, June 14, 2014


If you asked me what my favorite group of animals was in elementary school I would have said salamanders. I think I've always wanted to focus on lizards, but they weren't around while salamanders were locally abundant and served as a superficial substitute. So I settled, but I was still the annoying kid who would harp on the differences if anyone were to generalize these two fundamentally different organisms. One key difference can barely be seen in the picture below:

Somewhere between the artsy fartsy-ness is a larval salamander in the genus Ambystoma

If you squint really hard there's an alien like creature floating towards the surface in the above picture. It has tiny toothpicks for hindlimbs and feathery plumes projecting from the back of its head to let it breath underwater. This may sound strange, but if you've ever played Pokemon this is the inspiration for Wooper and Mudkip. Except the design for Wooper is wrong because no salamander develops its legs before its arms. That's what frogs do. If you haven't played Pokemon and have no idea what I am talking about then I'm afraid there is nothing that can be done at this point (see hyperlinks).

Another reason why salamanders trump frogs in my unjust biased opinion is that all salamanders are born with a taste for blood. You'll never find a baby salamander being a wimp and scraping off some algae like some (but not all!) tadpoles. It's a general rule (in Jon's Guide to Cool Animals) that carnivorous animals are more interesting than herbivorous ones. Watching your pet lizard chase crickets is a lot more exciting than watching your pet tortoise chase a head of lettuce.

Forgot to wipe his mouth.
What are you looking at? You should be reading!

I could go on about the biology of salamanders for days, so I will. The next set of pictures illustrates the interesting life cycle of the interesting eastern newt. After the aquatic gilled Pokemon stage, this salamander goes onto land for two to seven years as a brightly colored " red eft" before finally going back to the water as an adult.

An ewt
Devoted subscribers may notice I already used the bottom picture before.
Good thing I don't have any of those!

Efts are extremely abundant on the forest floor after rains and it can be hard to walk without squashing one every few steps. It's quite unusual to see a salamander strutting about so boldly in broad day light as most of them are secretive nocturnal creatures, but the efts are toxic and if you eat them you will die. Actually, I'm not sure if a human could be killed by eastern newt toxins, but their cousins in California are extremely toxic having killed a human (upon ingestion). Despite the potential harm to people, eastern newts are conducive for studies of limb and eye regeneration therefore of use to humans; which is really the point of biodiversity anyway.

Eastern newts are so cool because aquatic amphibians are cooler than terrestrial ones (see Jon's Totally Unbiased Guide to Cool Animals). Unfortunately the next salamander is not aquatic. It even went so far as to pop out miniature adults without gills severing its dependence on freestanding water although it still needs to live in moist environments because it doesn't have lungs and breathes through its skin. Imagine that.

A very sticky salamander.
You can barely see the lungs on this guy. 

So without further ado we have the slimy salamander AKA Plethodon glutinosus although sticky salamander is a more fitting name. It secretes a very sticky mucus upon being picked up by curious herpetologists. I've actually only heard about this species in the field guides of yore so I cried tears of happiness upon finding one under a rotting log. Actually I cried tears of sadness because the first one was extremely skittish and disappeared before I could get a good picture so I cursed the heavens and flipped everything in sight until finding another. 

Most woodland salamanders could easily be mistaken for a worm, but that's not the case for ye olde slimy sally-mander. This was a huge skink-sized beast of around six inches that could easily eat lesser manders for breakfast. One of these smaller salamanders is the omnipresent redbacked salamander whose accumulated biomass in a forest can be heavier than deer according to some studies which I do not have a picture of yet. This is a shame as this species was the first amphibian I ever saw. 

Thus ends Taxon Week as the weather is nice again and I won't be sitting on my computer all day. We're coming up on 3000 views which is just 11,239,232 views short of the average viral video, an important milestone nonetheless. To celebrate I ask you, the readers, to ask me whatever it is you wanted to know about this mysterious man of mystery who writes such inane posts. Comment below or send a letter to my estate. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014


Frogs are boring. They do not have tails, further removing them from the semblance of lizards and causing me to lose interest. Snakes are virtually an entire tail so they get a pass. Salamanders might as well be lizards unless you're a nerd. Turtles are unique, beautiful creatures and despite modifying their ribcage into a shell, they still have a tail. Tadpoles are great. Frogs are not. But they are amphibians so I'll still take pictures of them. And at the end of they day they're more interesting than dogs, monkeys, and mammals.

A green frog, but not a green frog.

So that's a bullfrog. As a seasoned reader of this blog you can probably see how it is a totally separate entity from the below frog, which is the completely different green frog. Gee, these entries sure have gotten into the habit of questioning the validity of species, at least with relevance to the average person. Louis C.K. sums it up pretty well.

King of the Muddy Wasteland
A green frog, but it is rather brown.

But I must stick to my derpetologist roots and spearhead awareness of biodiversity. Obviously, you can tell these two species apart by the presence of dorsolateral ridges on the green frog which are absent on the bullfrog. In English, this means that there's a line that extends down the green frog's back visible in the above picture. In the bullfrog picture you can see how the ridge simply curls around the tympanum (the round thing; its what frogs use to hear) and extends downwards, not onto the back of the frog. Also, bullfrogs are huge. And they sound different. And their genomes probably have a bunch of differences. And the two frogs don't interbreed. But for the sake of easiness, perhaps we should just call all frogs "green frogs."

What better time to break the controversy with the first video of the season. I'm breaking into the educational nature video sector with this (extremely) short film to show you the differences between the calls of the two species in question. I imagined that simple frog calls by themselves would be a little dry so I added the most popular music on today's radios: jazz.

Watch in 1080!

Does it work? I don't know. You tell me. Either way, it's short and to the point. Anyway, let's celebrate the first video of the Magical Temperate Northeast project with everyone's favorite puzzle: Where's the Lithobates sylvaticus?

Just some leaves.
There is a frog here. Somewhere.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


Today we're going to talk about turtles. I love turtles. Actually, so do most other people. For whatever reason turtles have been spared the negative reputation that most other reptiles must face. A turtle generally brings good feels and smiles while people tend to kill snakes out of fear and disgust. People only kill turtles to eat them. Or accidentally with their cars. But that's another story.

Then there are the sea turtles. Also known as the worst turtles. Everyone loves sea turtles, but there are only seven species of sea turtle out of the ~300 species of turtles that exist in the world today. The remaining ~293 species is where I think the real beauty lies, specifically within the freshwater turtles. But of course, these don't classify as charismatic megafauna so nobody will ever care and they will all die. That might be a slight overstatement, but again, that's another story.

Spring is here.
This picture was taken in the small parish of Boston. 

Anyway, let's get acquainted with our first turtle: the painted turtle, Chrysemys picta picta, which is the most abundant reptile I've seen by far. Seriously, I counted over 40 individuals in a single instance. If I had a dollar everytime I've seen a painted turtle, I'd have over 40 dollars.

Imagine if Monet painted turtles instead of lilypads. If only. 

I count twenty-two in this heavily cropped and edited picture of poor quality and this is only a portion of the whole picture so there are probably about fifty more, give or take a hundred. Which leads me to my next point. I've been trying to get a really nice closeup while they're basking, but so far success has been lacking. As any professional photographer would do, I'll blame it on my gear, or lack thereof. But seriously, I think I'll need a longer lens because these darn things are really wary and won't let me get close enough for a crisp head shot.

I'll be back!

So I've been visiting this pristine turtle haven, located within meters of a baseball field, at various times to study the routine of these lovely creatures. I've discovered that like myself, these guys are early risers starting to bask at 6:30 in the morning. Also like myself, they do not appear to enjoy junior league baseball as they seem to promptly disappear at 1:00 after the first kickoff or however it is baseball games are started.

I'll spare the exciting sports details for my sports blog, but there are events more thrilling than America's favorite pastime to write about. One day I was pleasantly surprised to find this monstrosity in place of the usual horde of painted turtles.

One of these things is not like the others.

A snapping turtle! A large one at that, but despite its gargantuan size it was still a scaredy cat and immediately plummeted into the muddy depths as soon as I inched closer for a better shot. I thought all these icky creatures were out to get humans and bite them, not run away from them. Last time I listen to the general public about the intricacies of reptile behavior and biology. Luckily the next day I came across a juvenile who so kindly let me take his portrait.

Smile! You've probably read way more about turtles than you expected to today!
Wasn't that enlightening/fun/painless/edifying?!

Alright, so I probably ruined its day by picking it up and putting it on a rock and shoving a camera in its face, but speaking of disturbing wildlife I did the same for another species of turtle: the highly famed musk turtle

If you've made it this far, I applaud you and hope I haven't bored you to death. 

Fine, you've probably never heard or even seen a musk turtle before. Actually, even I've never seen one in the wild, so as you might imagine I was as gleeful as a little schoolgirl when I found this guy. I did raise a hatchling of this species as a pet for five years until the turtle plague took away two of my dearest companions so tears were shed in remembrance. RIP, Turtle Durden. 

Why are they called "musk turtles?" I'm glad you asked! These turtles excrete a foul smelling substance to deter predators lending this turtle its species name, Sternotherus odoratus. I'm lucky to have taken a whiff of this odor once and it was not pleasant, but I think the garter snake from the other day takes the musky cake. The pictured individual was particularly shy and did not exude any musk at all. Or I've lost my sense of smell. Either way, I'm extremely happy to have seen this species in the wild.

Weird rock.
Thanks for reading!

So that makes three species of turtles from three different families all occurring in close proximity to one another. How cool! There are also box turtles, who share a family with the painted turtles, so stay tuned. Until next time. To be continued. Coming soon to a theater near you. 

Monday, June 9, 2014


Snakes. What are snakes? We'll never know.

I've largely avoided snakes my entire life because my mother is deathly afraid of them so I never bothered seeking them out. But even when I went out to look for them I could never find any. That, or they were running away from me. They might have well have been girls. In my expansive lifetime of twenty-something I'd only seen about a grand total of two garter snakes and a water snake or five. It wasn't until I went down south and accidentally noosed a viper that I started to look deeper into the mystery that is "snakes." Turns out, they're reptiles too!

While I've learned a little bit more about snakes in the past year, my snake-finding skills are still subpar at best. Will I ever find snakes?! Yes. On a return trip to Skink Mountain, I unwittingly almost stepped on a five-foot long black racer basking in the afternoon sun. I quickly chased it and it quickly turned around ready to bite my face.

Pissed off.
Ready to bite my face. Or more reallistically my shins. 

Instead of placing my face near the snake's jaw I neared my shoe towards the serpent which it struck and then FLEW off the mountain top. Literally. Not really, but it is quite comical to see a cylindrical object with no appendages somehow propel itself at such high speeds. They're onto something, these snakes.

Rejuvenated by this encounter I thought to myself "Gee, it sure would be great to run into another black racer to get a picture from a different angle!" and then this thing slides right in front of me:

Just passing through.
Except this wasn't a black racer, but a black rat snake. They're totally different, I swear. Totally unperturbed by the large hulking mammal following it, the snake decided to climb up a tree. This was an extremely impressive feat for something with no... feet.

Don't mind me.
"Look mom! No hands!"

And then my camera battery died. After mourning the loss of the power source and the chance for a beautiful picture of a snake in a tree, I reveled in my fortune. Two species of snakes in a single day! That's a new world record, I think! Could my luck be repeated the next day?


No. All I found was that conveniently placed snake skeleton in the shape of a question mark.

But the next day, I found two more species of snakes under the same abandoned piece of tarp by a riverside. Snakes love abandoned pieces of tarp.

Can't see anything.
"$%#@, I can't see %#$@!"-Snake

First up we have a garter snake which proceeded to expel piss and musk all over my hand while I helplessly attempted to take a picture with the other. Its eyes normally aren't that cloudy and this indicates that it's going getting ready to shed soon. Had to throw in at least one science fact in here. I don't know to what extent this alters the snake's vision, but I think it's funny to imagine a visually impaired snake bumbling through the grass, cursing whenever it bumps into anything.

Ol' blue eyes. 

And here we have what I first thought was a "brown garter snake," but I think it's just the completely different "brown snake" or Storeria dekayi for all you snake aficionados. I didn't handle this one too much because I had recently reached my quota for getting pissed on by animals for the day.

In conclusion, wow. Two instances with two species of snake. Double double snake days. Good things always come in threes so this can only mean I'll find a copperhead and a rattlesnake on my next adventure. Here's to hoping I don't get bitten by both and die. Where else would you guys get mildly entertaining, subpar prose and amateur photography on the internet?!

Things people say to me.

"You look like a horticulturist!"

"Do you work for the environmental department? Can I get an internship or something?"

"Lizards? That sure is an interesting hobby. SCOFF!"

Many of these comments are instigated by the fact that I dress like a grade-A doofus, refusing normal shorts and t-shirts for adventure pants and fishing shirts.

To be continued. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Official Managerial Business and Logistics of the Highest Order

Hello all. Thank you for your loyal viewership. This will be an official announcement for the tumblr I started two weeks ago. The decision to branch out into other forms of social media was spurred by my friend in the art community, who convinced me that tumblr was not solely a place where hormonal pre-teens dwell and post their angsty pictures and diary entries.

My audience on this new website is small, but loyal. And apparently growing. Indeed, I posted a picture of a swallowtail butterfly which garnered two "likes" from two complete strangers! Yeah, they were both porn tumblrs specializing in pictures of naked woman bums and titled "assfans" and "myfantasticass," but I'll take it! Beggars can't be choosers, they say.

So hairy.
This was probably due to the fact that I used the hashtag "hairy."
It really is a hairy butterfly though!

Anyway, the point of the tumblr is a personal challenge to produce a "good" picture everyday as a means of working on my photography skills and to track my progress as I shoot for the stars, or closer to earth, National Geographic, or more realistically, 10 faves on flickr. Also, these are all going towards a project of sorts I'm tentatively dubbing "The Magical Temperate Northeast" (sarcasm in title).

Biger Teetle
"Wow! Look at that interesting beetle! It sure is interesting. I had no idea it lived in my backyard!"- Anonymous denizen from the northeastern United States.

For the normal human being (not you crazy nature people) a temperate woodland is seemingly far from magical. They're right in your backyard and don't have the allure of hyper-diverse tropical rainforests, but life is everywhere and if you look a little closer (or at my pictures!) it can be quite beautiful. Plus, there are a few things that are more diverse at higher latitudes than at the tropics, like salamanders and turtles!

King of the Muddy Wasteland
"Who needs poison dart frogs when you have this?!"-Blogger in denial

This is also part "ode to my childhood" (or rather entire existence as I still trudged around swamp with a net throughout college) as I revisit my old stomping grounds with camera in hand instead of net. Oh, who am I kidding, I still bring a net. In addition to old favorites like mayflies and tadpoles, I plan on adding some new species to the list like lizards and rattlesnakes and map turtles, oh my! Apparently there are lot of online services to create a photobook, so perhaps my pictures and sarcasm may someday exist in printed form. Coming soon to a theater near you.

Relevant links for the hyperlink blind:

Johannes J. Sioux the First

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Rattlesnake Hill

Now that my lizard habit has been quelled for the time being, I am focusing my efforts into finding another group of organism: Lizards. But not just any lizards. Snakes. But not just any snakes. Rattlesnakes. Technically speaking, all snakes are lizards, for the same reasons that birds are actually reptiles. And we are fish. If you don't understand, you can go get a degree in biology and learn what a paraphyletic group is. Alternatively you can figure it out from the below diagram or Wikipedia. Either way, you'll be a hit at your next dinner party.

Note the position of birds and snakes.
Taken from Suh et al. 2014; A Semantically Correct Vertebrate Tree of Life.

Unfortunately, my new lizard quest was off to a rocky start. Not only was the mountain I was trying to get to presumably full of minerals and ores, I got lost driving there. Eventually a combination of cursing the country backroads and Google maps led me to my destination. Finally, I could hike up to the trail named "Rattlesnake Hill" which I hoped was named for its abundance of rattlesnakes. Or maybe it's a hill that's shaped like a rattlesnake. I wouldn't know because I got lost again and ended up at a reservoir instead of this mystical landmark. But the trouble didn't end there.

Right before I walked towards the body of water to sulk I crossed paths with a rampant dog. This was a relatively harmless dog, besides the fact that it was a dog, and I left unscathed. But this was only the beginning. I sat down by the lake, angry at the lack of rattlesnakes on my hike, when suddenly I was surrounded by a pack of five dogs. Five wet dogs who decided to shake off their dank fur right next to me while trying to steal my sandwich. Of course, the two owners of this vile horde just said "Oh, they're just so friendly!" and that instantly excuses these vermin to do whatever they want.

Needless to say, I was pretty discouraged at this point. If you don't know me, I should explain. Not that I'm biased or anything, but I don't have much love for mammals, especially untrained, overly-affectionate canines. Anyway, while recovering from that traumatic event I noticed this thing in the water:

An ewt
I wonder if he knew he would end up on the internet.

An eastern newt! I mean, Notophthalmus viridiscens. They're basically water lizards. They were extremely abundant too, flitting around beneath the surface and resting on rocks. I even watched the pictured male try to mate with another newt. Males develop enlarged hindlimbs, visible above, which they use to lovingly strangle the female newt. Newts sure like it rough. There have been way too many boring facts in this post so I'll end with pictures of hatchling painted turtles that were also in the reservoir.

Awwwww v2.0
So cute!

While my current obsession is with lizards, I still firmly believe that there is nothing cuter than a baby turtle. And there is nothing cuter than a whole swarm of five of them going about their day between the shallow water pond vegetation.

Basking Babby
Still cute!

All in all a good day. But I'll be back for the rattlesnakes. Remind me to wear dog repellent.