Interest waning in Manitoba reptile, amphibian project, biologist says

A provincewide reptile and amphibian survey that depends on the efforts of nature-lovers seems to be losing steam, which has the project director calling on Manitobans to get out into the field and help this spring and summer.

Manitoba Herps Atlas counts on citizen scientists to count frogs, snakes, turtles, salamanders

A provincewide reptile and amphibian survey that depends on the efforts of nature-lovers seems to be losing steam, which has the project director calling on Manitobans to get out into the field and help this spring and summer.

"We have a hardcore group of people who are serious herpers and submit stuff every year, but like anything, interest drops off," said biologist Doug Collicutt, director of the Manitoba Herps Atlas.

"You get people who are seriously interested in herps and all kinds of critters…. Even if we weren't doing this project, they'd be out there looking for stuff."

"Herpers" are the frog, turtle, snake, salamander and lizard-loving equivalent to birders. The somewhat unfortunate word is derived from the branch of biology known as herpetology, which is focused on amphibians and reptiles.
One of the best places to see garter snakes in Manitoba is at the Narcisse Snake Dens, about 100 kilometres north of Winnipeg. (CBC)

Collicutt launched the atlas in 2011, around the same time as a similar citizen science project in the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas.

There are 24 species of "herps" in the province, including four frog species, four tree frog species, four toad species, four salamander species, five snake species, two turtle species and one lonely species of lizard in the Prairie skink.

Every spring, when those slimy, warty, slithery things thaw out and wake up from their long winter naps, Collicutt and a small, diffuse group of volunteers head out into the wetlands, woodlands, fields and forests of Manitoba to check up on them. Whatever they observe gets recorded and logged into the atlas database and plotted out on an interactive map that shows the species' presence and distribution across the province.

The map is neat in and of itself, but the data-collecting efforts of casual herp-hobbyists that make it possible has also advanced the local wildlife community's knowledge in a number of ways.

Counting critters

For instance, people associated with the project have helped determine that the range of the mink frog in southeastern Manitoba is significantly more expansive than previously thought (50 to 100 kilometres greater).

There have been a few similar boundary-expanding reports of blue-spotted salamanders outside their northernmost range, too.

Meanwhile, the green frog appears to be increasingly isolated to a specific pocket of land in the southeast corner of the province — again, something borne out from the observations of volunteers.
The blue spotted salamander has been spotted past its northernmost range, thanks to volunteers with the atlas project. (Manitoba Herps Atlas)

And although it could just be an anomaly, Collicutt said there have been a few credible sightings of a species of soft-shell turtle on the Pembina River near Morden, Man., and in Birds Hill Provincial Park in recent years.

"It's a very unique looking critter," he said. "Little tube-like nose, quite a distinct body, shape, manner of moving and attitude compared to the snapping and painted turtles we've got."

Citizen science increasingly important

After a brief surge in interest five years ago, at the outset of the atlas, the number of committed herpers has waned.

And it's a shame, Collicutt says, because government funding cuts to science make the efforts of ordinary people all the more critical to conserving and monitoring species.
The mink frog's range in southeast Manitoba is larger than previously expected. Observations from the Manitoba Herps Atlas confirmed the species ranges about 50 to 100 kilometres north of where biologists thought it was typically found. (Manitoba Herps Atlas)

"It's getting to the point where wildlife is just getting a passing notice," he said. "Budgets for the wildlife branch are just disappearing and our wildlife is disappearing along with it."

Another thing contributing to the decline is that volunteers tend to want to explore new habitats, so they quit returning to the spots they visited years prior. That leads to gaps in the data that start to grow over time.

"They think that repeating the same entries every year doesn't add much to it," Collicutt said, adding that he has tried to convince naturalists involved with the project out of that mindset.

Go Wild Manitoba app

Collicutt was hopeful the Go Wild Manitoba app created by iNaturalist and Manitoba Conservation last year would help the atlas tap into a new market of naturalists. The app is free and available on iOS and Android smartphones and was released last summer.

It allows users to record observations of any plant or wildlife species they come across, but it didn't gain much traction last year among flora and fauna nerds, he said.
The wood frog is one of eight species of frog found in Manitoba. (Manitoba Herp Atlas)

"I was really interested to see if that would take off," he said. "It just kind of fizzled."

The height of herping season is spring and early summer, so Collicutt is hopeful more Manitobans will play around with the app this time around.

Gone herpin'

While some of Manitoba's amphibian and reptile species are tucked away in hard-to-reach habitats or wet, mucky marshes that aren't super-fun to walk through, many others are hopping and slithering right around us.

"It's amazing where they are. A semi-permanent pond that [is] going to last six to eight weeks [is] going to have frogs in it," he said.

"The critters are all around. You just learn a little bit about how to find them and where to find them, what time of year and the conditions, and it's not hard."

Snapping turtles and painted turtles live in Manitoba. There have been a few tentative reports of a species of soft-shell turtle in parts of southern Manitoba in recent years, too, Manitoba Herps Atlas director Doug Collicutt said. (Manitoba Herps Atlas)

Fort Whyte in Winnipeg is crawling with frogs in the spring. Leopard frogs and Canadian toads are commonly found on the property. In the middle of April, a cacophony of calls burped out from hundreds of boreal chorus frogs and wood frogs fills the air.

It's a harsh, hiccupy sound that acts as great background music for watching the bison inelegantly bump around the paddock on site.

Oak Hammock Marsh is another convenient location close to the city.

It's worth taking some time this spring to get to know the frog next door and be a part of an important citizen science project in Manitoba, Collicutt said.

"If we had 20 dedicated people all across the province just sending in records, hey, that's all we'd need."
The boreal chorus frog, shown here, is found at Fort Whyte in Winnipeg. Its call is similar to the sound of running a finger across the teeth of a comb. (Manitoba Herps Atlas)


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