February 2023
Reptiles and Amphibians Are Cool
Lots to Learn at Prescott’s Natural History Institute

Don’t kill the snakes, don’t lick the frogs, and the tiger salamanders found in our area are cool.

Jessie Rack makes it fun.

Those were a few of the messages from Jessie Rack, program director at the Natural History Institute, during her presentation “Venom, Scales and Sticky Toes: Adaptation of Reptiles and Amphibians in Arizona,” January 12 at NHI.

Rack, who likes to say she has a doctorate in salamanders, called the presentation a joyful romp through natural history, and this proved to be so as the audience stayed glued to the information. Her presentation was alive with bubbly, animated descriptions of amphibians and reptiles as she offered weird and fun facts about the critters.

She learned about amphibians and reptiles through research on them in the Sonoran desert around Tucson, but broadened the presentation to all of Arizona and specifically the Prescott region. She also volunteers with the Prescott National Forest surveying amphibian and reptile populations.

It was cool to learn that there are 13 species of rattlesnakes in Arizona, and that over many years there have been about 8,000 recorded rattlesnake bites and only between nine and 15 of them were fatal. “Rattlesnakes are not out to get you,” she assures us.

Western diamondback rattlesnake

As a hiker I’ve learned this firsthand as I’ve come across rattlesnakes here and in other parts of the state. Walk around them and you’ll be fine. Just watch where you put your hands and feet, because you don’t want to step on or inadvertently grab one. It helps to be especially careful when you go off trail, because rattlesnakes may hide in the undergrowth. Ours are not aggressive snakes, unlike some in South America or Africa that go after people.

Arizona coral snakes, which aren’t seen as much, are a bright red and black. Bites from Arizona coral snakes are not deadly, and they are so rare that there is no antivenin for them.

It was enlightening to learn that the Gila monster is the only venomous lizard in the US. It is slow and chubby, so one won’t likely bite you unless you pick it up. The bite from Gila monster is not deadly, but it attacks the nervous system, so it can be extremely painful. The audience laughed when Rack told them that the largest group of people bitten by Gila monsters are drunk men between the ages of 18 and 25.

As for licking toads, which some people do for a hallucinogenic affect, Rack warns against it, because all toads have some level of toxins that can make humans sick and sometimes kill. This would seem like common sense, but at the solar pond at Spur Cross Conservation Park in Cave Creek a few years back some folks were caught on the webcam stealing toads for just this reason.

Canyon tree frog

The audience was most interested in the tiger salamander found in Prescott. Rack said the tiger salamander is best found at night in breeding ponds like small cattle tanks. “Tiger salamanders are cool and complicated. They look like they’re smiling. They can smell predators and change their behavior,” she said.

It sounds like this would be an interesting outing to take the public on. Rack had a lot of fun facts to share with her audience.

Hikers should also be careful with horned toads, because they can accurately squirt blood out of their eyes, most often when frightened by dogs or foxes. I have photographed horned toads close up over the years, and none has shot blood at me yet. It’s unlikely to happen to people, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful.

Picking up desert tortoises is something else to avoid, because they store water and when threatened they expel it as urine. This is not only messy for the person handling the tortoise, but dangerous for the tortoise, because it could be some time before it can find its next water source.

Lizards drop their tails when threatened, then grow them back in six months to a year. “It’s like self-amputation,” Rack said.

Madrean alligator lizards

This sounds like something from a science-fiction story, but some cases seem even odder. In one case, a blue-throated keeling lizard grew three tails at once after it dropped its first. Gila monsters have chubby tails because they store water there. Tadpoles have tails that grow shorter as they age, and lose them completely as they mature into frogs.

Rack also spoke about Arizona being among the top states for ecological diversity. “This means we have a lot of different plants and animals, because they have so many places to be,” she said. Amen, and that’s why I like to hike all over the state. For example, the one-hour drive from the Sonoran desert to the top of the Catalina Mountains takes you through five distinct habitats.

Rack has a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Connecticut, and spent two years as a lecturer with the Princeton Writing Program. She works on environmental education outreach programs with K-12 classrooms. Her writing has appeared on National Public Radio’s science blog, “Goats & Soda.”

NHI is a great resource for the community, a place for learning about nature, science and the humanities. “We bring in amazing speakers and workshop leaders, and develop programs that teach folks the practice of natural history,” she said. “Our talks and webinars are always free.” NHI is nonprofit and depends largely on donations and volunteers. Learn more at naturalhistoryinstitute.org.

Field photos by Jessie Rack.

Journalist Stan Bindell also writes our regular hiking column.

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