Columbia County Reptiles and Amphibians in Schools

This is a little page we’ve created to share with educators, parents, and other potential partners who wish to learn more about our community-based research project: Columbia County Reptiles and Amphibians.

Background on our project

Columbia County has been neglected by wildlife biologists, especially herpetologists. That’s probably because 94% of the county is private land and pristine habitats can be investigated more readily in neighboring regions. As a result, there has been almost no study of our reptiles and amphibians, not even basic information on which species are found here. We (Jon Hakim and Matt D’Agrosa) decided to rectify the gap and produce an all-encompassing survey of Columbia County’s reptiles and amphibians. These are the questions we’re attempting to answer:

  • Which species are found in the county?
  • For each species found here, do they occur all across the county or only in more limited areas?
  • Which habitats are supporting those more range-limited species?
Columbia County Reptiles and Amphibians herps local
12 of the ~25 species of “herps” found in Columbia County

Such a survey can shed light on many aspects of the life history of these creatures. For example:

What might they need? Certain species of reptiles and amphibians potentially prefer any one of many niche habitats including forest, old growth forest, forest clearings, meadows, meadows with rocky substrate, streams, rocky streams, muddy streams, fast streams, slow streams, particularly clean streams, streams in forest, streams near clearings, waterfalls, seeps, ponds, ponds near forest, ponds with sun access, and so on. And that’s before you get into questions of elevation, latitude, aspect, tree/plant communities, and soil type. Most species in our county have broad preferences, but a few are very specialized.

What might be hindering them? If a species prefers a specific habitat, how much of that habitat is available in Columbia County? If the preferred habitat is limited, has the species adjusted to other habitats or is it absent outside of those limited areas? Some habitats are limited naturally (Columbia County doesn’t have mountains and our latitude is too far north for some species) and other habitats have been limited by human interference (old growth has been cut down, camas meadows have been developed, streams have been altered). Other impacts include the introduction of bullfrogs that eat native species, the pollution of waterways, and the collection/killing of snakes.   

Our hope is that the project not only provides information about the state of Columbia County, but also advances our knowledge of these animals in general.

Progress of the project

Since 2019 we’ve been collecting data across the county such that we can produce reasonably good maps showing where each species is found. (For the sake of privacy for people and animals both, those maps are shaded into 100 blocks of ~20 sq. km each rather than showing exact locations.) Matt and I have already made about 1500 observations covering 21 different species. We’ve explored museum records and found 60 more data points, talked to our friends and family who have shared another 50+ observations with us, and started a project on iNaturalist that so far has produced over 300 records. We hope to collect data through the end of 2022. Getting more data points is an important goal, but getting a better spread of data is even more important.

Columbia County Reptiles and Amphibians surveys jon hakim matt d'agrosa
Surveys in progress, including one with 4H participants from Rainier and Clatskanie

Early project successes have included the first published records of Western Skinks and Columbia Torrent Salamanders in the county, in Herpetological Review, and a 3rd species recorded for the first time that we will publish later. There are 4-5 other species that “may” be found in Columbia County but which we have not yet observed. Finding these remaining species is a major goal, and indeed if any of your students were able to document one of them we would help them get it published in a scientific journal.  

The final goal of the project, and perhaps the most important, is to build more people’s passion for wildlife and natural spaces. The more people who are interested in local wildlife, the better they’ll treat it and the more interested they’ll be in conserving it.

So that’s basically the project. We’re trying to:

  1. Map the county so we can show which reptiles and amphibians are widespread across the county and which are more habitat-limited
  2. Prove basic occurrence records for those species which have not been officially recorded in the county
  3. Identify which habitats are most in danger and/or supporting the most rarely seen reptiles and amphibians
  4. Get people more interested in wildlife and conservation in the process

The potential role for you and your students

We would love for your students to go out into their yards, fields, ponds, streams, and any trails or forests they have access to and use the free iNaturalist app to document the frogs, salamanders, snakes, lizards, and turtles they find. Any data at all is wonderful. But we are specifically intrigued by the fact that students might be able to access land we would never get to ourselves – backyards, farms, private forest lots, private ponds, or simply out-of-the way nooks and crannies. Matt and I produce a lot of data in publicly accessible localities, but the students’ effort could improve the spread of our data. 

Columbia County Reptiles and Amphibians students
Some of our presentations and collaborative field surveys with students of all ages

In order to prepare the students, we would love to come to your school and share about our work and the project. Jon is an educator and herpetologist who spent 6 years in the classroom as a science teacher and now works for an international education foundation as a teacher trainer and program manager. Matt is a wildlife surveyor who has trained and supervised youth crews in Americorps and the BLM. We are both fully vaccinated and happy to follow all required protocol for a classroom visit. Topics we’d be excited to cover could include:

  • How we started working with wildlife and the qualifications necessary
  • Some interesting stories from our careers and surveys
  • Why we love working in the forest
  • Why we’re interested in the reptiles and amphibians of Columbia County
  • Background on local species of snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, and salamanders
  • Any herpetological topic, including adaptation, predation, physiology, etc.
  • Tips on successful surveying and how to actually find animals
  • How to survey ethically – minimally disturbing habitat, avoid harming the animals, and the importance of honest and accurate data
  • Instructions on how to create an iNaturalist account and enter their finds

We hope to inspire the students to produce at least some data for the project. The iNaturalist app makes it simple for anyone with a smartphone to enter data in the field, but students without smartphone access can also take pictures by other means and then upload the data to the inaturalist.org site using a home or school computer. We have several ideas for how a project could go forward but are open to anything you would want, from a short one-weekend homework assignment to an extended project that could last the entire term.

One simple option could be to have each student find and enter at least one reptile or amphibian. If that may be tough for some to do alone, a group effort is possible – say form the students into groups of 3, and each group can go out and survey together as many times as they need to find at least 1 frog, 1 salamander, and 1 snake. Or if there is a preference for effort-based goals rather than outcome-based goals, each group of three could spend 1 hour of survey effort in each of 3 different habitats. Perhaps they could survey one forest trail, one pond, and one stream. They could even use smartphone video to verify the beginning and the end of each survey and make any interesting observations in the process.

Of course, if you choose to engage in a longer project, the students could engage in much more field time, checking a number of different environments or the same environment in different weather and seasons.

If you like, we could join your class on a field trip to an area of your choosing and direct a group survey with on-site instruction on how to go about looking for things. Matt and I have already done this with a 4H group at Welter Cemetery and Trojan Park. We would prefer for such a trip to complement individual/small group surveys rather than replace them.

There is lots of flexibility in terms of what sort of product the students could produce from this. For our research project the only thing we care about is getting the iNaturalist records, no additional write-up is necessary. But for your classroom it could go in many different directions. Some things that come to mind:

  • Write a short reflection on their experience surveying in nature.
  • Collaborate on a group poster project that describes their survey sites including pictures of both the site and the animals found and perhaps some suggestion of what aspects of the site are helpful to support its wildlife.
  • Write a report on one of Columbia County’s local species of reptiles or amphibians, detailing its appearance, habitat, diet, interesting habits, and threats that it faces.
  • Produce a video where students document their search effort and finds.
  • Research one of the threats facing local reptiles and amphibians (development, agriculture, water pollution, invasive bullfrogs, people who kill snakes, etc.) and write up a report explaining the nature of the threat and suggesting ways that our own actions or the actions of others could reduce that threat going forward

Jon is happy to assist or even take the lead in any sort of project design or lesson planning accompanying the project, if that would be helpful at all.

That’s basically the extent of it! We tried to be thorough but there are always plenty of possible follow-up questions so feel free to ask away via email, or in the comments on this page. 

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