SNAKES, TURTLES, SALAMANDERS, AND INSECTS
Many types of animals are found in our area. Most are obscure, rarely observed. Insects are an exception to this. They are, however, difficult to identify on sound. Of course, only experts are really good at identifying them by any means. Don’t let it, er, bug you. Just identify what you can.
First, let’s begin by saying that there are no poisonous snakes in this part of Maine. In fact, only rare reports of timber rattler come from the extreme southwestern part of the state, a couple hundred miles from here. It is possible that someone could bring one here and drop it off, but so far people have refrained from doing so. Still, unless you know what you are doing, it is not a good idea to handle snakes. Even if not poisonous, bites can hurt.
Snakes are reptiles that are well known to be long and skinny, somewhere between arm-shaped and spaghetti-shaped. They are generally warm and dry to the touch, though most have no internal temperature regulation mechanism like that of mammals and birds. They warm theselves by lying in the sun. Of course, some humans do the same. There are some 2000 species world-wide and are found in most areas of the world from the arctic to the tropics. Of these 2000, only five are found in our area.
All these critters are obscure and hard to detect. We’ll give you just a brief description of the few found in our area so that your understanding of the fauna will be more complete. Also, if anybody asks you, you can impress the dickens out of them by giving an identification from their description. Of course, that assumes the description is good enough. If somebody describes to you what sounds like a python, take it with a grain of salt – a big grain.
- Red-bellied snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) is 8 to 10 inches in length, brown on top, red underneath. Occasionally found in upland areas.
- Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis). 18 to 26 inches, stripped like an old fashioned men’s sock garter. Rest of pattern variable. Found in a wide variety of habitats.
- Northern ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsi) is a 10 to 15 inch dark slender snake with a golden collar. Found in woodlands and cutover areas with abundant hiding places.
- Smooth green snake (Opheodrys vernalis) is 14 to 20 inches in length. Guess what color it is? Right. Found in upland areas.
- Eastern milk snake (Lamphropeltis triangulum triangulum) is 24 to 36 inches, slender and blotched in brown or reddish brown and black. Some people swear that this snake milks cows. Of course, some people also swear that the earth is flat. No evidence supports either belief. Found in a wide variety of habitats.
Turtles are reptiles with shells. The upper shell is called the carapace. The lower is called the plastron. In most species these are joined. Turtles are widespread and found in a wide variety of habitats from desert to open ocean. Of the 200 or so species worldwide, three occur in our area. Two are almost entirely aquatic, the other is primarily terrestrial. Even aquatic species come ashore to lay their eggs.
- Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). 8 to 12 inches long with large head and long saw-toothed tail. Carapace rough and keeled, plastron small. Very bad tempered. Lives in ponds – here found only in the beaver pond. Eats invertebrates, fish, reptiles, birds, mammals, carrion, and some vegetable matter. Usually innoffensive in the water, if approached on land will accept donations of a finger. Generally found only when it comes ashore to lay eggs because it rarely basks on rocks or logs.
- Wood turtle (Clemmys insculpta) is 5 and one half to 7 and one half inches long. Rough shell, orange on neck and limbs in adults. Most terrestrial species in our area. Often found crossing roads, not always successfully.
- Painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) is 4 and one half to 6 inches long. Light bands on carapace, bright yellow spots on head. Plastron yellow with spots or blotches. Most colorful shell of any of our turtles.
Salamanders are as slimy as people mistakenly think snakes to be. Newts, though closely related, are not as slippery. They are four-legged and tailed amphibians that look something like lizards. But we won’t confuse them with lizards here because there are no lizards in our area.
These creatures breed in water where the larvae remain until they change to adult form. Some adults also remain in the water. Even terrestrial species are found only in moist areas. One group, represented in our area by the red-backed salamander, breaks this rule by laying eggs in moist logs or moss, and full development takes place inside the egg.
According to the Peterson Field Guide, there are more species of this group in the Americas than in the rest of the world combined. Of this abundance, six are found in our area. They will be described very briefly. Measurements in descriptions do not include tails.
- Blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale) is 4 to 5 inches long light and earth-tone spots on blue back.
- Red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens). Land stage is red eft, 1 and a half to three and a half inches long, usually orange red. Adults return to water and become yellowish or greenish brown with red spots and increase in size by about one quarter.
- Northern dusky salamander (Desmognathus fuscus fuscus) 2 and a half to four and a half inches, gray or brown with slightly darker markings. Belly somewhat lighter and mottled.
- Red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus cinereus). 2 and a quarter to 3 and a half inches long. Red or gray backed with black and white (or yellow) salt-and-pepper speckled belly.
- Four-toed salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum) is 2 to 3 and one half inches long. White belly with large black spots, darker on top, marked constriction at base of tail.
- Northern two-lined salamander (Eurycea bislineata bislineata) is 2 and one half to 4 inches in length. Yellow with two darker lines on either side of back.
Insects belong to the phylum Arthropoda, the Arthropods. The name means that the members of this vast group all have jointed legs. Some of the earliest land animals probably belonged to this phylum. Millipedes, centipedes, crabs, shrimp, barnacles, lobsters, horseshoe crabs, mites and ticks, and spiders are also classed as Arthropods. We will not try to give even an overview here; the numbers are too vast. Estimates of the number of species, even of insects to say nothing of the other groups included, run into the millions. Here we will include only a few of the most noticeable examples.
- Mites and ticks (Class Arachnida, Order Ararina). Fortunately ticks are rare in our area. Various types of ticks can carry diseases such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme disease. I have found about 3 ticks in the last 18 years in central Maine, but they are present. The best way to protect yourself from ticks – and many other noxious invertebrates – is to use a repellent, hopefully one that doesn’t produce worse effects than it prevents.
- Spiders (Class Arachnida, Order Araneia) are most easily detected by their webs which are often spread across trails and on bushes and trees – and, of course, in houses. The web is home and hunting ground for the spider which eats flies and other small creatures that get caught in it. The spider then immobilizes the prey with a poisonous bite. Only a few kinds of spider are especially dangerous to humans and none of these are native to central Maine. The very few (brown recluse, black widow) that have been found here have been traced to out-of-state visitors.
- Lobsters and crabs (Order crustacea). We include these animals, not because you will find them at the Penquis Virtual Nature Center (unless you bring them for lunch), but because they are Maine specialties. Considered a delecacy by most, lobsters are the basis for an important industry along the Maine coast. They are usually found on plates in restaurants or tanks in markets.
We will just take a quick look at the more noticeable of these animals.
- Grasshoppers, katydids, crickets (Order Orthoptera). These common creatures ‘sing’ by rubbing one part of the body another. It is usually the males that do this. The song serves the same purpose as does bird song and frog song; it attracts members of the opposite sex. Each species produces its own song. The sounds are various buzzes, trills, chirps, ticks, and so forth. The katydid reportedly says it’s own name at night. Crickets of some species vary their calling speed by temperature in such a regular manner that you can even use them for a thermometer.
- Cicadas (Order Homoptera). Arboreal so the loud buzz is usually heard overhead, primarily in July and August. The life cycle lasts 2 to 5 years, but there is overlap so some adults are present every year. Periodic cicadas have cycles of 13 or 17 years and so are not present except at intervals. Breeding groups are generally made up of several species.
- Moths and butterflies (Order Lepidoptera) are generally noticed when they fly into a person’s face. It is almost entirely nocturnal moths that do this as they fly wildly around lights. The largest moths include Cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia), Luna moth (Actias luna) and Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus). Most common here is the luna moth which is green and has a long tail on each wing. The caterpiller, pupa, adult life cycle of moths and butterflies is well known. Some butterflies migrate long distances, strangely, a journey that may take more than one generation.
- Mosquitoes (Order Diptera) are best known for biting. The insistant whine of their flight may be almost as annoying. It is only the females that bite. Unfortunately, they may carry several diseases. There seems to be little problem with that in this area, though. Mosquitos breed in still water.
- Black flies (Order Diptera) bite. Again, it is the females. They are generally the first biting insect to appear in spring, usually with warm days in mud season. Larvae live in streams.
- Horse and deer flies (Order Diptera) are an unpleasantly noticeable part of the central Maine ecosystem during the warmest part of summer. Deer flies are fast, direct, fliers, and persistent biters and blood suckers. Still again it is the females. They drive mammals, including inadequately protected humans, frantic. It is only rumor that they enjoy the taste of insect repellent. Breed in swamps.
- Fleas (Order Siphonaptera) are familiar to anyone who has a cat or dog. They drive the poor critter crazy and when infestations are heavy, can attack the humans attached to the dog or cat. They are recognized by the bite which itches like crazy. Commercial salves and creams are sometimes helpful with these and other insect bites. Herbalists also offer remedies. Aloe seems to have some soothing effect.
Bees, wasps, ants (Hymenoptera)
Bees sting and ants bite. The stings can be more or less serious depending on whether the victim is alergic. If doubt exists, get medical attention quickly. If you are alergic, get your doctor to recommend medication to carry with you outdoors. And carry it.
Bees and wasps are a very large group of insects ranging from the tiny to things you’d swear couldn’t possibly get off the ground. Many feed off nectar and pollen from flowers and in foraging fertilize plants. Thus they are vital parts of the ecosystem. Most are not aggressive and do not seek out humans to sting, but still respect the familiar buzzing sound. The drowsy hum of bees at work amongst the flowering plants is one of the most evocative of sounds, conjuring up images of warmth and summer and relaxation.