The Natural Georgia Series: Atlanta's Urban Wildlife
by Manny Rubio
As one approaches Atlanta, whether by interstate or air, the vista is impressive, almost surreal, with its array of massive spires poking skyward from a sprawling, verdant carpet. Atlanta is greenthe greenest major city in the United States. Many natives are jaded, but visitors are impressed. Those who immigrate here are enthralled by the trees, the other plants, and the flowers.
Atlanta sits in a physiographic province known as the Southern Piedmont, a region of rolling foothills lying at the base of a mountain range. Underlying Atlanta's surface is a bed of crystalline rock of very early origin. The loamy and clayey surface drains well, and it has regions of exposed rock, and a network of creeks, streams, and rivers that form valleys and minor floodplains. The Chattahoochee, Georgia's longest river, runs through Atlanta. The availability of so much permanent water has permitted the luxuriant growth of forests. Combine these features with its latitude and an elevation of approximately 2,000 feet, and you have one great place to livefor both man and wildlife.
No doubt, suburban sprawl has consumed thousands of acres of pristine woodland, but a patchwork of isolated forests remain relatively unscathed, for now. Many new homeowners love their trees and demand a natural environment. A few successful developers have learned the importance of leaving some natural environment. They build greenbelts and golf courses as important amenities, even though these are very poor attempts at replacing nature. Houses along streams and creeks demand high prices. Those in older sections of town hide, shrouded in shrubs and trees. The most coveted and desirable majestic homes in prestigious Buckhead, Ansley Park, and Emory, with their flowing, carefully manicured lawns, are secluded in aged stands of pine, oak, and magnolia. One has to look hard to spot houses tucked away in the lush greenery abounding in Brookhaven. It's not just the wealthy that appreciate green spaces; nearly every issue of Atlanta Magazine showcases the plethora of impressive gardens that proliferate in backyards throughout the city limits.
Within the last century, much of what is now urban Atlanta was a network of small farms. As the city grew these plots were abandoned, and within short order, they were reclaimed by natural succession. Hundreds of old foundations, cisterns, and wells can be found in overgrown vacant lots and wooded areas within flourishing, well-established neighborhoods. Many animals thrive in this type of environment, known as disturbed habitat.
In addition to beauty, there are serious environmental benefits derived from our love of trees, shrubs, and the like. Green plants convert harmful carbon dioxide into oxygen, and that helps clean up an amazing amount of Atlanta's air pollution. Perhaps most importantly, natural environments provide habitat for a myriad of wildlife that permanently live here, and provide stopping places for many birds during their migration. Generally, humans accept these animals, and, in many cases, earnest attempts are made to attract them. Birdfeeders and birdhouses are commonplace, and even bat houses are becoming popular. Though mostly unrecognized, ground clutter and rotting woodpiles are Mecca for an amazing array of small animals.
Unfortunately, certain animals are considered undesirable, so much so that they are killed. Amphibians and reptiles are one such group of animals. They are affectionately known as herps, a derivative of herpetologythe scientific study of amphibians and reptiles.
Many of the species discussed below are alien, introduced from other places. In the case of most native species, human encroachment and building have destroyed much of their habitat, killing off populations that had persisted for thousands of years. Periodically, a remnant wanders aimlessly in search of food, a place to hide, or others of its kind.
An Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) found traipsing through an urban backyard may be the sole survivor of its clan for a dozen years or more. These animals are known to live for as many as 75 years. Being omnivorous, they can exist by eating a variety of invertebrates (worms, slugs, insects, etc.), mushrooms, and green plants. They can be found in great numbers in suburban Atlanta.
A variety of aquatic turtle species lives in the numerous larger streams and rivers passing through the city. Some of these were introduced, having been purchased as pets and disposed of when they were no longer wanted. Several species can be seen basking on logs and embankments along Peachtree and Nancy creeks. Surely, the Chattahoochee has its supply as well.
Atlanta's largest, most impressive turtle (weighing as much as 35 pounds), the Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina), is a native. This living relic is common in swampy areas and ponds, where fishermen sometimes snag it. Often Snapping Turtles are seen lumbering across roads, moving from one pond to another. Powerful jaws and an aggressive "bad attitude" make a confrontation with one of these dark brown to black, often mud-covered, massive beasts a challenge that's best avoided. There are very few predators that will take on an adult Snapping Turtle.
The only potentially dangerous snake that is still quite common in Atlanta is the Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix). Those in the area are considered to be intergrades between two subspecies, the Northern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokason) and the Southern Copperhead (A. c. contortix). Copperhead venom is not considered to be lethal to adults, but it can be a serious threat to children, the elderly, and the sickly. Dogs and cats have been known to die from a Copperhead's bite, but it is a rare occurrence. The Copperhead's angular, spear-shaped head, pattern, coloration, and disposition make it readily recognizable from all but one snake in the region, the Midland Water Snake. The Copperhead is the only venomous snake known to live within the city limits today.
Copperheads found in and around Atlanta are easy to identify. They are short, fairly chunky, and patterned in shades of brown. They almost always have a plain brown, patternless top of the head. Their crossbands are a contrasting darker brown than the body color; they are hourglass shaped but may not be completely connected where the thin part of the hourglass would be, at the midline of the snake's dorsal surface (back). Usually a few dark spots are found along the midline and occasionally within the wide portion of the hourglass. Juveniles have a more vividly colored, distinct pattern and a bright yellow tip on their tails. When fully aroused, Copperheads may stand their ground, striking out at anything that gets too close. This is how most dogs and cats are bitten.
Although the chance of finding one is slim, Copperheads do turn up in older, established sections of Atlanta, particularly during the spring and fall when they move back and forth from suitable wintering sites. Like Copperheads found elsewhere, they appear to need to congregate at a specific den site (hibernaculum) for the winter: a rocky ledge, old foundation, abandoned well, or similar place offering deep fissures where they can escape freezing. Copperheads are most closely associated with moist, rocky, wooded areas, so there are several sizable populations known on the north side of town, where this type of habitat abounds. Several years ago I was amazed to find a dead one (run over by a car) at the foot of the steps to the Tulley Smith House in Buckhead. Since the Copperhead is secretive, fairly sedentary, able to be extremely well camouflaged (because of its coloration and pattern), and hungry for a variety of small animals (rodents, birds, frogs, and even insects), it adapts well to living close to man.
Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) have been found in Cherokee, Cobb, Paulding, Gwinnett, north Fulton, Forsyth, Walton, Douglas, Fayette, Henry, Rockdale, and Newton counties, but there are no recent records (within 30 to 40 years) of findings within Atlanta proper. There still may be an isolated colony living in an uninhabited area along the Chattahoochee and possibly near Stone and Arabia mountains or in the less-disturbed western edge of south Fulton County. The obvious characteristic of the Timber Rattlesnake, and all but two of the other 81 forms of rattlesnakes, is the rattle at the tip of the tail. Even newborns will have a stubby "button." Please understand that Timber Rattlesnakes can be very dangerous snakes, and they should be avoided.
The diminutive Carolina Pigmy Rattlesnake (Crotalus miliarius miliarius) has been found in small, extremely detached populations in Cherokee and Hall counties, and it probably occurs in Forsyth and extreme northern Gwinnett counties as well. Its small size, weak venom, and spotty distribution make a dangerous encounter with this snake highly improbable.
Another venomous snake that is often erroneously said to live close to Atlanta is the highly aquatic Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorous). There are no records of Cottonmouths being found within 20 miles of the city. The closest Cottonmouths are recorded from along the Flint River drainage to the south and the Coosa River drainage to the west, but these records are very isolated.
The larger, more visible species of herps are snakes. Sadly, these are seen as a great threat and are usually killed on sight. Five species attaining lengths of 3 feet or longer are seen, fairly frequently, roaming about in new housing developments outside Atlanta's I-285 perimeter, where they have been displaced by construction. But these species are rarely encountered inside I-285. They are the Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta), Corn Snake (Elaphe guttata), Black Racer (Coluber constrictor), Midland Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon pleuralis), and Eastern Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula). The young of the first four have a series of blotches on their backs, and they are often confused with Copperheads.
Adult Corn Snakes from this area are a shade of gray with distinctive chestnut or red blotches, and they are almost always assumed to be Copperheads. These attractive snakes can be immediately distinguished from Copperheads by the intricate pattern on the top of their pointy, slender heads and the bold, black-and-white checkerboard design on their bellies. They also have a long, fairly thin body, and they climb into shrubs, trees, and buildings.
Adult Black Rat Snakes grow to be 6 feet or longer and are highly arboreal. They are shiny black with indistinct white-edged blotches. They are known to climb trees and to explore the rafters of old barns and abandoned buildings where they hunt mice, rats, bats, and birds. Black Racers are not actually black; they are a dull, matte, dark gray. They are very fast and when cornered will defend themselves by viciously striking at the provoker. Then, at the slightest chance, they will turn quickly and speed away.
Midland Water Snakes are aquatic, living mostly along larger streams, creeks, and rivers. They are commonly seen along Peachtree and Nancy creeks, usually stretched out sunning on overhanging branches or on snags and logs. Their choice of habitat, size, irascible temperament, and general coloration make them primary Cottonmouth look alikes. Remember, Cottonmouths are not found in the city of Atlanta.
The last of the larger snakes is the Eastern Kingsnake, a fairly large, cylindrical, black or dark brown snake, with a dirty-white, chainlike pattern. Prone to live near wetter areas, it's the "garbage pail" of all local snakes. It eats any animal small enough to be consumed, including Copperheads and rattlesnakes. In fact, it appears to have immunity to their venom.
All these species, except the Midland Water Snake, are predominantly rodent eaters, consuming a sizable number of these animals yearly. If encountered, any of these harmless snakes should be left alone; they will move away of their own accord. These snakes sometimes find themselves in serious trouble because they vibrate their tails when they are aroused. In dry leaves, the rapid vibration sounds like a rattlesnake's rattle and frightens many people into killing the snake.
A few small snake species commonly turn up in Atlanta's backyards and gardens. They are all completely harmless and beneficial. Their numbers are rapidly declining due to the unrestrained use of pesticides and fertilizers. They may ingest these toxic substances by drinking contaminated water or by eating invertebrates containing high levels of these chemicals.
Hands down, the most commonly seen snake in the Atlanta area is the Midland Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi wrightorum). This innocuous little snake (10 to 18 inches) is incredibly abundant, turning up in gardens, backyards, vacant lots, and anywhere else that its main food item, the earthworm, is plentiful. Midland Brown Snakes are mostly found on the ground under objects that retain moisture, like leaves, cut grass, mulch, boards, or other debris. As many as a half dozen of various sized Midland Brown Snakes may be found within a few feet of each other. Many end up in houses during the fall and winter, having been secreted in potted plants that were kept outside for the summer. This snake is easily identified by its tan and brown coloration, pencil-thin body, and two rows of dark spots running down its back that are connected into a ladderlike pattern.
Although not as common as the Midland Brown Snake, four other small (8 to 14 inches), similar-looking snakes are found in Atlanta. The Ringneck Snake (Diadophis punctatus) is strikingly colored on its underside. Its belly is bright orange with a series of paired, half-moon-shaped black spots running its length. The black head is separated from the grayish back by a distinctive, bright yellow-orange ring. The Ringneck Snake can be found under rocks and other small objects in moist, almost-wet areas where it searches for small salamanders, frogs, and earthworms. It is fond of moist, rotting stumps and logs, and moist, rocky hillsides.
The tiny (7 to 18 inches) Eastern Smooth Earth Snake (Virginia valeriae valeriae) is uncommon, but it turns up periodically. Its scales are very small and extremely smooth, hence its common name. Tiny black dots run the length of its grayish-tan back. The similarly sized Eastern Worm Snake (Carphophis amoenus), a small, thin, small-headed snake with a pink belly, is often misidentified as an earthworm. The plain, brown to tan Redbelly Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) superficially looks like the previous two, but its obvious reddish-colored belly quickly identifies it. It can be found under objects on the ground and among leaf litter.
A dazzling green, as vibrant as the newest leaves in spring, with a whitish-yellow belly, the Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus) is the most cryptically colored, and arguably the most beautiful, snake in Atlanta. Attracted by its movement, I once took a full five minutes to discern a Rough Green Snake's shape, even though I was staring directly at it, as it remained completely motionless. Its 2.5-foot, pencil-thin body was stretched out, blending flawlessly with the tangled vines overhanging a small tributary of Peachtree Creek. The Rough Green Snake's diet is unique; it eats crickets, grasshoppers, and caterpillars almost exclusively.
The Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) is found very commonly in the moist, wet areas in Atlanta. Its closest relative, the Eastern Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus) is rarely if ever encountered in Atlanta, which is surprising because its habitat, which is very similar to that of the Eastern Garter Snake, abounds. Both snakes eat frogs, toads, tadpoles, and fish, and the Garter Snake adds earthworms, slugs, and (on occasion) almost any animal small enough for it to consume. Garter snakes are highly adaptable, with one variant or another found in every state except Hawaii and Alaska.
The best way to avoid attracting snakes to your property is to eliminate their prey. Any kind of cover, such as woodpiles, stacks of old lumber, metal sheathing, plywood, old tarps, and other ground clutter provide shelter and attract mice, rats, and a variety of other food animals. This in turn attracts snakes. One snake attractor that is often overlooked is a birdfeeder. Seed spread on the ground by scratching birds supplies food for nocturnal rodents. Combine this food with available nearby cover, and an attractive habitat has been provided. Keep your property trash-free and you should not have an overabundance of snakes.
If you see a snake, stop, relax, and look carefully for distinguishing characteristics. Snakes don't attack; first they freeze, and then they try to get away.
Remember: Copperheads are very easy to identify (refer to description above). If the snake you see is a Copperhead and is a threat, the smartest, safest thing to do is to carefully cover it with a large trash container, place an adequate weight on top (actually the bottom), and call animal control, a nature center, or someone knowledgeable about handling snakes. It's proven that most people are bitten while trying to kill, catch, or handle venomous snakes.
Since Atlanta's lizards eat insects, bugs, and other invertebrates, and they live near open (usually moist) areas, they are susceptible to pesticide and fertilizer poisoning. Some have adapted, but others are seriously declining.
If not for an occasional cat bringing in the remains, few Atlantans would ever notice the nondescript, chocolate brown Ground Skink (Scincella lateralis). Abundant in some places, this tiny (4 inches), long-tailed, short-legged, cylindrical-shaped, smooth-skinned, shiny-scaled lizard goes about its daily life frenetically, but silently, foraging in moist ground litter for any invertebrates small enough to eat.
Another larger, more obvious skink, the Five-lined Skink (Eumeces fasciatus) can be seen basking on woodpiles, rocks, fences, and walls almost anywhere in Atlanta. For several years, I have seen immature specimens sunning on the brick wall of my business in Midtown. This is a good indicator that it is a viable population. Juveniles are truly beautiful animals. Five orange stripes start on their heads, turn white the length of the body, and disappear into their long, bright, royal blue tails. Adults lose most of the color and have brick red heads. Even though skinks have short legs, they are very quick, wary, and difficult to catch. Attempts are usually futile, and the would-be captor is left with little more than a wiggling, broken tail. The expendable tail is a very successful defense mechanism to thwart predators. It will grow back eventually.
Few people notice the Southern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) even when it is standing in full view on the bark of a tree. Pressing its scaly body against the bark, it relies on its mottled gray, white, and black skin to hide from predators. If its camouflage fails, it quickly runs out of reach, up and around the other side of the tree. These expert bug catchers are becoming less and less common in the city, probably succumbing to air pollution and pesticides. A pair lived on a huge Black Oak (Quercus velutina) in my Midtown backyard for two summers. When they disappeared, I wondered if they died of natural causes or were a quick meal for one of the neighborhood's feral cats.
The Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis) has yet another adaptation device that allows it to "disappear." It can change its color from green to brown. Baby Boomers will remember Green Anoles as "Chameleons" sold on little leashes at carnivals and circuses during the '40s, '50s, and early '60s. Without a doubt, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands suffered this fate as a child's trinket. Anole populations are also rapidly diminishing within the city proper, but they have rallied slightly in the suburbs. Anoles and Fence Lizards seem to thrive around and on houses covered with rough-finished siding on wooded lots.
There are many species of frogs and toads in and around Atlanta. Many have been able to adapt to the changes we have forced upon them. Decorative, man-made ponds, watercourses altered by building golf courses, and water-filled or flooded ditches caused by road building have provided new habitat. The long-term success of frogs and toads, however, relies on reducing the influx of contamination.
In late winter, stimulated by the first warming rains, the gentle, nocturnal, peep, peep, peep call is the only way most people know the tan or pinkish, peanut-sized Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) exists. Most permanent or semipermanent wet areas harbor populations of this harbinger of spring. As the weather warms so does the fervor of its call, frequently continuing into the daylight hours. Soon, there is a chorus, sometimes made up of scores of males, each attempting to attract a mate. Within a few days eggs are laid and fertilized, and the peeping stops. The participants head high into surrounding trees to feed and survive, rarely to be seen or heard again until very early next spring.
Spring Peepers belong to a group of frogs known collectively as treefrogs. All the members of this group have suction cup-like toepads that permit them to cling and climb on almost any surface. They lead an arboreal life, clinging to grasses or shrub and tree branches, where they catch insects and other small invertebrates. Occasionally, they leap acrobatically and grab a mouthful of flying insect in midair.
Another small, early spring-breeding treefrog can be heard calling from temporary flooded ditches in wooded regions. The Upland Chorus Frog's (Pseudacris triseriata feriarum) call is best described as a repetitious creeek or a preeep. It takes careful stalking and concerted effort to find the little striped frog as it calls from grasses at the water's edge. It too "disappears" until the next spring, but it hides in wet grasses and leaves.
The melodious trill of a Gray Treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis) carries long distances among the trees along permanent, swampy areas throughout suburban Atlanta. Within Atlanta, habitat destruction and pollution have silenced most populations of this delicate frog.
Air pollution and water pollution produce toxins. Because amphibians absorb a great amount of water through their skins, they obtain toxins directly from their aquatic environment (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, etc.), from moisture in the ground and on plant surfaces, and from acid or otherwise contaminated rain.
Several research projects have indicated that a thinning of the ozone layer is causing some of the drastic decline in amphibian populations worldwide. Dangerous amounts of ultraviolet-B (UVB) radiation (from sunlight) pass more freely through the thinner ozone layer, causing genetic damage to developing amphibian eggs. Many frogs, toads, and salamanders lay their eggs (imbedded in jellylike masses) in open, shallow water, which leaves them very susceptible to UVB irradiation. Some adult amphibians are also likely affected by the intense exposure. It is important to note that a combination of UVB and a variety of pollutants is likely involved in their demise.
The Gray Treefrog is extremely interesting to biologists because it is actually two, almost identical looking frogs. The only external difference is the rate and pitch of their calls. The call of Hyla chrysoscelis is faster and higher pitched. Otherwise, the two species can only be told apart by the makeup of their genes. Their white to gray mottled patterns and their ability to lighten or darken their skins serves them well; they are barely distinguishable from the bark of the trees they live on. Their calling continues sporadically after breeding, stimulated by nocturnal summer rains and thunder.
The giant of Atlanta's frogs is the Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana). Easily reaching 6 inches (but it does grow larger), this green monster eats any animal it can stuff into its mouth. Its size and voracious appetite have made it a high-level predator, and may make it responsible for eliminating great numbers of other, smaller species. The famous deep jug-o-rum call can be heard from permanent ponds throughout the hottest summer months. Bullfrogs are fairly common in ponds and flooded areas along the Chattahoochee.
The Bronze Frog (Rana clamitans) is often confused with the Bullfrog, but it is easily half the Bullfrog's size, and has two prominent ridges along its back. The quonking call sounds amazingly like the plucked string of a banjo. It is found throughout the metro area wherever there is clean, permanent water. The Bronze Frog is particularly common in golf course water hazards.
Two very colorful, similar looking frogs may be found in the few wet meadows that remain within I-285. The Southern Leopard Frog (Rana sphenocephala), with its bright green body, round dark blotches, a pair of white stripes along its back, and a distinct white spot in the center of each tympanum (ear drum), is easily the most widespread species. In the right habitat, Southern Leopard Frogs are regularly seen bounding across roads, with long expansive leaps, during warm rains.
It is likely that Pickerel Frogs (Rana palustris) have not survived in Atlanta proper. Historically, they were found in North Atlanta along the Chattahoochee, but none have been seen in recent years. Their dark, squarish blotches and bright orange or yellow patches on the concealed surfaces of their thighs differentiate this beautiful tan and gold frog from the Southern Leopard Frog. Pickerel Frogs' skin secretions are very distasteful so they are rarely preyed upon.
Two very easy to confuse toads are found in Atlanta. The problem is compounded because they are known to hybridize. The American Toad (Bufo americanus) is larger, redder, has very prominent ridges on its head between its eyes, and has one or two "warts" (tubercles) in the dark spots on its back. It seems to prefer loamy soil and rocky areas, and it is more common on the north side of Atlanta and in the woods near Sope Creek and along the Chattahoochee drainage in Cobb and north Fulton counties. During the summer, it visits gardens, gorging itself with a variety of pest insects. While the American Toad sits perfectly still, blending well into its surroundings, it snares an approaching bug with a flick of its sticky tongue and then uses its front legs to stuff the hapless insect into its huge mouth. Most frogs and toads use a variation of this technique, enabling them to eat prey much larger than would be expected.
The Fowler's Toad (Bufo fowleri) is found in open, sandier soil and is common along Peachtree Creek and its tributaries and throughout southwest Atlanta. Smaller than the American Toad, it is mostly gray with greenish blotches that have three or more "warts" within them. Its tenacity is evident, as it has managed to hang on in some unexpected places. A small, isolated colony survives in Homepark and breeds in flooded ditches in the railroad yard behind Atlantic Steel.
Atlanta's network of rivers, streams, creeks, springs, and seeps provides ideal conditions for salamanders. Secluded and remote springs and seeps, mostly on private property north of I-20, afford protection for many small, secretive salamanders. Additional clean waterways and wet areas spread throughout metro Atlanta support lingering but tenuous populations. Water pollution is a serious, growing problem that must be addressed for the survival of many sensitive, fragile animals, and salamanders in particular.
The largest terrestrial salamander in the area is the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), growing to nearly 8 inches. Pairs of bright yellow-orange spots running down its back easily distinguish this beautiful, deep brown salamander. Great numbers can be seen crossing roads during warm, late winter rains, as they migrate from their woodland haunts to semipermanent ponds to breed. Losses of suitable habitat and clean ponds have eliminated them in many areas; however, strong populations survive in the rural suburbs.
The Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum) is a chubby inhabitant of moist woodlands. Its glossy black body is marked with white or silvery crossbands that resemble hourglasses. A female may be uncovered in early fall, under boards or similar objects in fields or meadows adjacent to temporary ponds, encircling a clump of spherical eggs. She remains with the eggs until inundating rains wash the eggs into the water. As you can see, a fairly specific habitat is required to facilitate this unusual reproductive cycle.
Another large, but almost colorless, salamander is found among leaf litter and in rotten logs. Its dark brown to black skin is flecked with silver and gold, which increases and changes to white on its sides. If picked up it secretes a sticky, almost gluelike, fluid from which it takes its common name, Northern Slimy Salamander (Plethodon glutinosus). It is annoyingly difficult to remove the goo from your hands, so you can imagine being a predator and receiving a mouthful. An inquisitive pet dog or cat will not soon forget the experience.
The small, usually very attractive Southern Redback Salamander (Plethodon serratus) turns up sporadically in moist mulch and leaf litter in shaded gardens, usually during the cooler months. The bright red or orange (sometimes serrated) middorsal stripe is so vivid that this small, elongated salamander looks as though it has been painted. Other populations are almost monochromatic, lacking color in their hard to discern stripes.
The fairly common Southern Two-lined Salamander (Eurycea cirrigera) is always found in permanent water, in adjacent moist leaf litter, or under nearby logs and rocks. Two black stripes run down the sides of its otherwise yellow body and onto the tail, which is nearly 2.7 times the length of the body. Although there are a few hypotheses, there is no known function for the small projections (below each nostril on the upper lip of males) that lengthen and become much more prominent during the mating season. They are called cirri, and they are the reason for this salamander's specific scientific name.
The Spotted Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus conanti) chooses clean, clear, permanent streams. It rarely moves far from the water, preferring to live under streamside debris and rocks. When exposed, it rapidly goes into deeper water, swimming to the bottom and hiding in detritus. Coloration varies from brown to tan with six to eight pairs of distinct, dark-ringed spots interspersed with gold flecks. When viewed in bright light, some examples are exquisite.
The Red-spotted Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) has two distinct phases, one aquatic and one terrestrial. Born in clear, unpolluted ponds and deep ditches, they spend some time as larvae, breathing with gills. They metamorphose into air-breathing, bright orange land stages (with a series of as many as 20 pairs of black-ringed red spots) and are called Red Efts. As Red Efts, they spend a year or two searching for food in leaves and other forest litter. Sometimes, during summer rains, dozens can be seen walking along the forest floor. They return to the ponds and change into an olive green color, retaining the spots. Breeding occurs in this stage, and they spend the rest of their lives in the water, coming to the surface to gulp air. Their skin is covered with miniscule, knobby protrusions; it is not slippery and slimy like most salamanders. They have milky skin secretions that are mildly poisonous and highly repugnant to predators.
There are several other amphibians and reptiles that live in the environs of Atlanta, but they are rarely if ever seen within the metropolitan area. Surely, many of them were present before we invaded and altered the habitat. The worldwide decline of amphibians is an indication that something is perilously wrong. Although there are no amphibian and reptile population statistics for Atlanta, it is apparent that their numbers are rapidly declining. Ozone depletion, air and water pollution, including acid rain, and the overuse and misuse of chemicals are all factors.
The indigenous Raccoon (Procyon lotor) and Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) populations are burgeoning with urbanization. The heavily disturbed habitat, trash, and waste food associated with it are highly beneficial to these animals' rapidly evolving, opportunistic lifestyles. However, their fecundity has increased their numbers so greatly that they frequently must return to natural food sources, which include amphibians and reptiles.
A typical golf course uses tons of chemicals to fertilize and eliminate a variety of pests. The hundreds of thousands of gallons of water used on the courses carry these toxins into streams, ponds, and other watercourses, essentially poisoning all animals, particularly the aquatic ones that drink the water and feed on the contaminated plant life. Again, the amphibians and reptiles are impacted.
Fish, placed in ponds and lakes, prey extensively on amphibian eggs and larvae, seriously reducing or eliminating otherwise sustainable frog and toad populations. The ubiquitous Bullfrog appears to have a greater tolerance for many pollutants and has a voracious appetite for any animal small enough for it to eat, including all other local amphibians. Many wading birds, attracted to the fish, are quick to gobble up tadpoles and adult frogs and toads when the opportunity provides itself.
Unimpeded construction of houses, roads, and never-ending strip malls, office parks, and industrial areas eliminates and destroys natural habitat. Throughout every level of schooling, we learn about the precarious interrelationship of all plants and animals, how removing any portion of the food chain (including predator/prey relationships) disrupts the overall natural balance. In most cases, it endangers the existence of an incredible number of plants and animals. Amphibians and reptiles are an important element in the web of life, otherwise they would not be so diversified, numerous, and widely distributed. What is the answer? Or, perhaps more appropriately, is there an answer?
The Chattahoochee National Forest is preserved forever and Fernbank (Emory) Forest appears to be, but what about the rest? As the suburban periphery of Atlanta stretches, consuming more and more mature forest, the pressures on our wildlife increase dramatically. According to the worst-case scenario, air and water pollution will sap the life from our natural world, the green will brown, and eventually there will be concrete as far as the eye can see. Will it happen? One thing is very clear, whatever happens will be not only at the hand of man, but because of man.
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