Biodiversity In Your Backyard: Reptiles

Guest post by Emma Dawson

The Southeastern United States is home to a variety of reptile species, some of which you’ve probably seen in real life! In fact, in 2016 the area was named the world’s 36th biodiversity hotspot. Reptiles are an important part of this biodiversity. Lizards, turtles, snakes, and crocodiles are scaly animals that fall into this category. The region is home to over 450 reptilian species and subspecies. About a third of them are endemic – that means they aren’t found anywhere else in the world!

a heat map showing high biodiversity of reptiles in the US South

Sadly some of these critters are losing their homes. Habitat destruction has caused some reptile populations to fall to low levels. Let’s take a closer look at some of these vulnerable species.

Bog Turtle

Blink and you might miss them: bog turtles are the smallest turtles in North America. They’re usually only 4.5 inches long! You can recognize them by the orange patches they have on both sides of their head. They live in mountain bogs and wetlands in the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia as well as North and South Carolina. They like to live in areas with wet soil, thick moss, and deep layers of mud, but they also need open, sunny areas for basking and nesting.

a bog turtle rests on a leaf

Only 4,000 to 6,000 individual bog turtles currently live across 100 sites. Habitat loss is a big threat to these little ones with only 10% of mountain bog habitat remaining in Southern Appalachia. These areas are often drained and developed. That limits the ability of turtles to travel through wetland environments. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is an organization that maintains a database of the status of species around the world. The IUCN lists bog turtles as critically endangered. That means that they’re threatened with global extinction. The US Fish and Wildlife Service placed bog turtles on the Endangered Species List in 1997, so these turtles and their habitat are protected by the federal government.

Southern Hognose Snake

As its name suggests, you can recognize the Southern hognose snake by its upturned snout and wide neck. They’re easy to confuse with diamondback rattlesnakes. But, unlike its slithering look-a-like, Southern hognose snakes rarely bite. Instead, they may hiss, fake striking, and eventually play dead. This has earned them a variety of nicknames, including hissing adder, blow viper, and several others. These snakes dwell in longleaf pine forests, living in dry, sandy soil where they can burrow underground.

a hognose snake rests in pine needles

The IUCN has listed Southern hognose snakes as vulnerable. While this is not as bad as the critically endangered bog turtles, it still means that these snakes are threatened with global extinction.  In fact, they may be the “rarest and most threatened snakes in North America”. Like bog turtles, Southern hognose snakes suffer from habitat loss with the decline of their longleaf pine habitat. Road mortalities are also common because they sometimes use the hot asphalt to warm themselves. Southern hognose snakes used to live in many states throughout the Southeast, but we haven’t been able to find them in Alabama or Mississippi, their old stomping grounds, since the 1970s. How can we change that? The best things to do are protect pine forest homes and educate folx about how harmless these snakes are.

Florida Sand Skink

At first glance, this gliding critter looks like an ordinary snake. Look again! Florida sand skinks are actually lizards with four small legs that are basically non-functional. This slender reptile is usually grey or brown. They have shiny scales and are only four to five inches long. The coolest thing about these skinks is that they can “sand-swim” a few inches below ground, leaving wave-like patterns at the surface. They’re usually found in sandy areas with shrubby vegetation and bare patches of sand, and they are endemic in central Florida.

The IUCN lists the Florida sand skink as vulnerable, and it is classified as federally threatened. This means that this species might become endangered soon, and the government has given it extra protection. The sandy areas they live in are disappearing. Up to 90% of their scrub ecosystem has been lost to development and agriculture. That’s not ok! We need to protect them! To do that, we’ve got to protect and expand the habitats where they make their homes.

Gopher Tortoise

Like the Florida sand skink, the gopher tortoise enjoys spending time underground. In fact, up to 80% of its life is spent in burrows. These tortoises have stumpy hind feet and flattened shovel-like forelimbs covered with thick scales, which help with digging. Gopher tortoises may only be nine to eleven inches in length, but they play a very big role in their ecosystems. Their burrows serve as shelter to all kinds of other animals, including burrowing owls, mice, snakes, and rabbits. Gopher tortoises share their homes across the South in Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama.

The IUCN lists the gopher tortoise as vulnerable. They’re classified as threatened in their western range of Mississippi and Alabama. Their biggest threat is loss of their home habitats of longleaf pine sandhills, scrub, and coastal dunes. Us humans also like to build our houses on the same high, dry land that gopher tortoises inhabit. Phosphate, limestone, and sand mining are also a problem for them in central Florida. When we try to relocate these tortoises to safety, they usually try to make their way back home. These homeward journeys can be very dangerous and lead to road mortalities. The good news is that a plan is already in place to protect these critters! The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has plans to restore gopher tortoise habitat and increase their numbers in areas where they’ve declined.

How can you help?

You don’t have to be a scientist to help protect these reptiles! Here are some ways you can help out:

You can become a citizen scientist! What does that mean? Citizen science is a way that scientists work with the public to collect data. You can help scientists get the information they need to better understand critters and their homes. HerpMapper is a website that lets you submit your own pictures of reptiles and amphibians that you see in nature. This data is then used for research and can help scientists know where reptiles are living.

You can help to fight climate change! Reptiles are sensitive to changes in our climate. The warming earth can also hurt their habitats. You can help change this by supporting good climate policy and voting for officials who are fighting climate change. You can also reduce your own carbon footprint by using climate-friendly transportation, eating locally grown food, and reducing your electricity use.

And… Action!

Did you enjoy learning about these cool reptiles? If so, why not show us?

Share your favorite reptile photos or videos and tag us on InstagramFacebook, or Twitter!

Want to do more?

Become a Forest Defender today! Your monthly gift will protect turtles, snakes, and all the biodiversity of the South.

Check out the other blogs in our Backyard Biodiversity series!


emma dawsonEmma Dawson is a rising third year at the University of Virginia and summer intern at Dogwood Alliance. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Science, which she hopes to apply to research opportunities in graduate school and beyond. Emma loves watching and playing soccer, cooking, and spending time outdoors with friends and family.

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