10 Gentle ‘Herp’ Rules
To observe around any kind of amphibian & reptile
“Amphibians face unprecedented threats from habitat loss, climate change, disease, and populations worldwide are disappearing. The fate of turtles, snakes, and the like (i.e., reptiles) is not much better…” How about we start noticing and caring?
‘Herping’ (*) is increasingly popular as a means of enjoying the wildlife of ponds, pools, and puddles, but we have to remember the impact this may have on their inhabitants. Respecting wildlife and habitats is the top priority for all those engaged in field herping and photography of reptiles and amphibians. Encounters with wildlife can be exhilarating but we must remember to behave mindfully. Here, we are presenting details, considerations, and requirements for when you’re out there exploring forests, ponds, and pools. Keep in mind that the general EwA Wildness Etiquette also applies to Herping.
Knowing is Caring: Learn before you go. Observe wetlands species well prepared so as to minimize your impact, to maximize both your safety and the welfare of the wildlife, as well as for the pleasure of everyone. Enjoy!
There are more than 7,650 species of amphibians currently known, and many more species are described each year. The vast majority of amphibians are frogs and toads (~6750 species), followed by salamanders (~710 species) and caecilians (~205 species). However, amphibians face unprecedented threats from habitat loss, climate change, disease, and populations worldwide are disappearing.
Around 30% are threatened with extinction, which is more than birds (13%) and mammals (21%). However, this is likely an underestimation of the true number, as the majority of amphibians described since 2004 have not been assessed by the IUCN Red List. At least 42% of all known amphibian species are declining, and as many as 159 amphibian species may already be extinct.
Read More » EDGE Amphibians | EDGE stands for Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered.
As for reptiles, according to a 2013 study from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in conjunction with experts from the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC), 19% of the world’s reptiles are estimated to be threatened with extinction. Out of the 19% that are endangered, 12% are classified as Critically Endangered, 41% Endangered and 47% Vulnerable.
Extinction risk is not evenly spread throughout this highly diverse group: freshwater turtles are at particularly high risk, mirroring greater levels of threat in freshwater biodiversity around the world. Overall, the study estimated 30% of freshwater reptiles to be close to extinction, a percentage that rises to 50% when considering freshwater turtles alone, as they are also affected by national and international trade.
Read More » Almost One in Five Reptiles Struggling to Survive (IUCN publication 2013)
1 | 👮🏽♀️ Preparation rule: Know the regulations in place — Know the critters ⎆
Explore lovingly, respectfully – Know what to do and not do (by heart)!
More than a third of all amphibians and nearly a fifth of all reptiles are endangered. The major causes of their rapid disappearance include habitat loss and disturbance, human-triggered diseases, and illegal trafficking.
▸ State/country wildlife regulations. Before you go, check what are the regulations in place with the park authority, and/or your state or country wildlife organizations. Rules vary from state to state, from country to country, and are important to acknowledge.
▸ Know and respect the species, and the habitats you’re exploring. Do a little bit of research before your visit so as to gain basic knowledge about the species you might encounter, their behavior, and ecology. Approach wildlife in a way that minimizes stress (i.e. avoiding interference and disturbance), so as to maximize the species’ chances of surviving a widespread decline in their numbers or extinction. Knowing and respecting what they are is what makes the difference. And when we don’t know what to do, then the best is to not intrude—to let them be.
▸ Do not collect. Collecting, in this context, refers to removing a living specimen from its habitat (for an extended period of time or permanently). Under no circumstances, should we collect any specimen and contribute to illegal collecting (unless you are collecting data authorized by proper science and wildlife management institutions).
▸ About dead specimen. If you find a dead herp take a photo to show to a local wildlife organization. It’s good for them to be aware of any deaths and the possible causes. Check with your local wildlife organization what is the reporting process beforehand, and observe it scrupulously.
» Check Also: The EwA Wetlands Rules
2 | 🛁 Health rule: Clean your gear getting in and out ⎆
Sparkly clean from head to toe for us, and in and out for our tools…
▸ Help to minimize the risk of spreading invasive species and harmful pathogens. Know that equipment such as wetsuits, waders, footwear, nets, buckets, vehicles, and surgical equipment may act as carriers of disease, particularly if used in multiple sites.
Invasive species harm the integrality of habitats. They are the 2nd biggest threat to biodiversity and are listed as a cause of 48% of endangered species. Invasive species are not originally from the habitat, and compete with or predate on the native species which are not equipped to withstand the attack. They come in many forms (e.g., plants, animals, algae, fungi) and are not necessarily visible to the naked eyes. A few spores of a fungus can bring total chaos on species or habitats as in the case with the mayhem that occurs in various amphibian populations (e.g., Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, also known as Bd or the amphibian chytrid fungus, is a fungus that causes the disease chytridiomycosis in amphibians).
▸ Always wash thoroughly the equipment that you intend to dip in the water and use for observing critters, etc. Don’t forget to clean your boots, and any cloth, or hiking gear that may come in contact with soil, mud, and water.
To avoid transporting and introducing amphibian diseases we recommend that you take simple disinfection measures when moving between vernal pools. Always check if your area has a mandated protocol. (See the ‘Protocols’ section of this etiquette’s References list for more details and examples of accepted disinfection region-specific protocols).
If your gear (e.g. sampling equipment, clothing, footwear) enters the wetland, these steps are recommended:
- Between vernal pools: remove mud, aquatic vegetation, algae, and other debris from your gear. A long-handled brush can be helpful.
- Place your gear in, or generously spray with a decontamination solution. Current guidance is to expose your gear for 5 minutes to 4% bleach. Disinfect your gear away from the wetland as bleach is toxic to aquatic organisms. Bleach may lose its potency, so only dilute what you will need.
- At the end of the day disinfect your gear and let it air dry.
▸ Wear rubber-soled boots or waders instead of felt-soled ones. The felt soles can trap and hold mud, vegetation, and moisture, as well as invasive seeds and spores. This is a good practice to prevent the spread of other potentially invasive species from one location to another.
» Check Also: Forget Perfume (& Chemicals)
3 | 📐 Distance rule: Keep your distance, don’t chase, move slowly ⎆
Be mindful of your position in relation to wildlife. Avoid disturbance and contact.
Although keeping our distance to wildlife seems like common sense, when we’re excited we forget basic approach rules. Herpers are no exception! Too often we see explorers touching critters more than necessary (if it was even needed in the first place). We’ve all made that mistake. And, it’s worth reminding ourselves of some reasons why we should stay at bay:
▸ We are stronger than we think. Handling wildlife can damage the intricate and fragile constitution of delicate animals such as frogs, salamanders, and reptiles.
▸ Avoid stress. Move slowly, don’t chase wildlife. And don’t think that a shell is a free pass to handling. Often we hear that it is ok to handle a turtle as they have a shell and therefore can’t be hurt by us. A shell might be an armor, but it does not change the fact that being handled induces stress. Letting the turtle be and not interfering with its movement is the respectful thing to do. The same is true for any other vertebrate or invertebrate.
▸ For your safety. Some creatures carry venom or toxin as a defense mechanism (tropical snakes and amphibians in particular). Some may carry pathogens that can be harmful to humans. Then the best way to stay safe is to refrain from touching. For instance, it is known that Snail-borne parasitic diseases (SBPDs) are major parasitic diseases that remain important public health issues worldwide, particularly in some countries [LX18]. There’s no need to panic really, it’s very easy to remain safe: just don’t touch (and always clean and disinfect properly after any herping activity).
» Check Also: The Greater the Distance, the Better for All!
4 | 👐🏽 Hands Off rule: Protect them by not touching them ⎆
No touchy-feely – Show your love by not touching or handling them!
We usually discourage the ethical watcher to indulge in any kind of direct contact handling unless you have a spotless herping equipment, have good reasons to sample (and know how to do it), or when there is no doubt that we need to move the creature out of harm’s way.
▸ Follow a no capture – no handling or minimum sampling principle.
Why would we deny ourselves this indulgence of capturing them? Because it is detrimental to wildlife. Our actions should rather be to respect the freedom of movement of the animal and reduce the stress that we would cause when restraining its movement and freedom, and eliminate the possibility to spread harmful pathogens onto the delicate skin of both amphibians and reptiles.
Of the 6,260 amphibian species assessed by the international IUCN organization, nearly one-third of species (32.4 %) are globally threatened or extinct, representing some 2,030 species. More recent estimates put this number at 40%, and their disappearance is accelerating. Some frog and salamander species are at risk of extinction due to pathogenic fungi. And it is even suspected that the amphibian chytrid fungus was passed unintentionally by researchers (which led to new protocols to help reduce the possibility of disease transmission by field researchers [VIN]). The least we can do is to marvel at them protectively from a distance.
▸ Amphibian egg masses are often found at the water surface or attached to vegetation or fallen logs below the surface. You can use a hand-lens to have a better view of the egg masses, but do not remove the egg masses from their attachment sites!
▸ As for taking selfies with handled frogs and pool creatures: Truly, no selfie is worth bringing harm to a wild animal‘s health or wellbeing. With the increase of the number of us -humans- wanting to touch anything that falls in arm’s distance, it becomes very hard to control its consequences: undeniable stress and deaths of handled wild animals. So we strongly recommend that you don’t indulge in that habit, and rather lead by example. We also remind you of a few very good articles explaining why selfies with wildlife are unethical: Is That Selfie Really Worth it? Why Face Time With Wild Animals is a Bad Idea and Even Scientists Take Selfies with Wild Animals. Here’s Why They Shouldn’t.
▸ If you are a researcher having to handle amphibians and/or reptiles, please follow the handling rules (*) for your target species. Go beyond the safety rules & the hygiene protocol that your organization recommends, adding extra precautionary measures that may be adopted by other organizations.
» Check Also: Hands Off
5 | 🍃 Soft rule: As light as a feather - As delicate as a breeze ⎆
Vernal pool habitats and their inhabitants are fragile and deserve our utmost gentleness
A video is worth 10,000 words! Here is a sampling technique for amphibian larvae or macroinvertebrates. It is gentle and preferred by a herpetologist and friend. Note that there’s no dragging of the net! It is rather a delicate swipe. Be a stellar ‘herper’: spend the few minutes that it takes to watch this little snippet before you swipe that pool…
» Check Also: The Greater the Distance, the Better for All!
6 | 🧭 Geotagging Rule: Obscure to protect ⎆
▸ Locations of rare/poaching-prone species should not be revealed publicly. This means making sure that the geolocation is obscured (even manually) when an observation or a photo is shared on platforms such as iNaturalist.
7 | 🚨 Emergency rule: handling them to get them out of harm's way ⎆
Think before you move them to safety, and if you do, think safety first
▸ Do not move animals or vegetation – Moving animals or vegetation, from where they were found to a different location, can spread invasive species (e.g., moving firewood between counties has increased the rate of spread of emerald ash borer).
▸ Now, if you need to move them out of harm’s way, for instance when they cross a road with heavy traffic, make sure to do it delicately, and move them in the direction where they seem to be headed. Be careful if it is a snapping turtle or a potentially aggressive species (having a finger snapped by a snapping turtle is not fun). Make sure to not have chemicals on your hand, and to wet your hand and rub wet soil on your hands before moving a salamander or a frog… Note that a salamander out of a pond is not out of place: there are terrestrial salamanders, don’t move them in the water.
▸ I use gloves, am I all set? So, you are a researcher, or you have a reason for moving that frog, and on top of it all… you use gloves! Ok, it’s worth noting that delicate species such as frogs may be placed at greater risk when gloves are used because of a loss of tactile sensitivity by the handler. If frogs are handled using bare hands it is extremely important to ensure that the handler has not applied insect repellents, perfumes, lotions, or other potentially toxic substances that might be absorbed through the highly permeable skin of amphibians. [DEH]
There is evidence that wearing disposable gloves when handling amphibians will protect the animals’ skin from abrasion, chemicals, and the spread of infection. However, gloves containing talc should not be worn as they could irritate the amphibian’s skin. Gloves should be non-powdered and talc-free or rinsed in warm water prior to use. Vinyl and nitrile gloves are preferred, as latex has been shown to have toxicity towards frog embryos and tadpoles. When handling highly toxic amphibians, gloves should always be worn to protect the handler, and contact with bare skin or mucus membranes should be avoided. [DEH]
» Check Also: No Feeding Nor Baiting
8 | 🔬 Log & Cover rule: Understanding microhabitats ⎆
Imagine the roof of your house suddenly being lifted off, and here you are stunned (and maybe in shock), exposed to the elements.
Moving a log is a shock for the under-log Life. Moving logs around is also something that unavoidably herpers do. So, to reduce the ‘shock’ effect then… the trick is to make sure to do it very slowly.
▸ Always check what lies and lives underneath. Remember that there are other creatures than the one that you were looking for that deserve to survive the ordeal of having their cover being removed and moved back to place. We should make sure (1) to put that log back, and (2) to not crush whatever was underneath when we return the log to its original position.
Now, say you found a salamander under a log, and then say that you handled it for a legitimate reason (and followed a proper protocol when handling it), or that the salamander moved. Then rather than replacing the log above it directly and risk having the log harming it by its weight, here is a safer way to do it…
This is the technique that Matt uses when putting a log (or any other cover) back in place so that it does not crush the wildlife that lives underneath it. Note how Matt avoids touching and handling the salamander…
» Check Also: The EwA Wetlands Rules
9 | 🍔 Food rule: Don't bait, don't feed - Keep them wild ⎆
Don’t feed – Keep them healthy – Keep them wild.
Unfortunately, with the increase of wildlife watching and tourism, there is also an increase in negatively impactful behavior -such as luring animals with food, for inciting a reaction or for trying to get that animal closer for a selfie. Reptiles and amphibians are each adapted to a specific wild diet. Feeding them poses a direct risk to their health and the additional risk of habituating them to human feeding. It can even pose a danger to us!
▸ Protect the wetlands species by letting them be wild and on a wild diet.
▸ Don’t feed bread to turtles. Because turtles are often considered pets, then many think that the feeding rules don’t apply to them. Although turtles do show an interest in human food such as bread, an important question arises: is it actually okay to feed bread to turtles? The short answer is no. [Read More…]
▸ If you see someone feeding wildlife, please explain respectfully why we should not.
» Check Also: No Feeding Nor Baiting
10 | 💬 Engaging rule: Lead by example, challenge when possible, report when necessary ⎆
We only know what we know…. And it’s easy to forget the rules in the moment, while in awe. Let’s accept that, be humble and keep ourselves in check.
▸ When you witness ‘code-breaking’ by either visitors, guides, or experts, don’t remain silent. Assess the situation and if safe then ask why they’re behaving the way they do. Discuss the known consequences. Those consequences can result in harming amphibians, reptiles, and other wildlife. The problem with our silence is that the issue is then deepening, and possibly impacting directly that habitat and its residents.
▸ It is best to come prepared and discuss the rules with your party and your guide before getting on the site.
▸ In all cases, discuss respectfully with uninformed ‘herpers’, watchers, guides or experts. And if you feel you can’t (that is, if you feel unsafe or threatened), then report immediately to higher authorities as soon as you’re back to safety.
» Check Also: Listen, Help and Challenge Others
If you are planning to visit wetlands and the wildlife around, please take the time to also check our general EwA Wildness Etiquette and our habitat-focused EwA Wetlands Rules. Help the protection and conservation of the habitats and species that you enjoy. Thanks!
» Species Status
- [IUCNa] Amphibians on the IUCN Red List
- [IUCNb] Almost One in Five Reptiles Struggling To Survive
— Nineteen percent of the world’s reptiles are estimated to be threatened with extinction, states a paper published today by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in conjunction with experts from the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC).
» About Wetlands
- [EWA] The EwA Wetlands Rules
- [EPA] Methods for Evaluating Wetland Condition —Using Amphibians in Bioassessments of Wetlands (EPA publication 2002)
» Vernal Pool Conservation
- [CA08] Science and Conservation of Vernal Pools in Northeastern North America. Calhoun, A.J. and P.G. deMaynadier. (2008). CRC Press, New York, NY. 363 pp.
- [KL09] A Field Guide to the Animals of Vernal Pools by Kenny, L.P., and Burne, M.R. (2009). Vernal Pool Association, PO Box 2295, Peabody, MA and MA NHESP, Westboro, MA. (reprinted 2009)
- [MM16] Identifying and Documenting Vernal Pools (in New Hampshire) by Marchand, M. (3rd edition)
- [FWS] The Declining Amphibian Task Force Fieldwork Code of Practice
- [MWPARC] Field Herpetology Etiquette
- [CCAC] CCAC Species-specific Recommendations on Amphibians and Reptiles (Canadian Council on Animal Care)
- [CWHC] Decontamination Protocol for Field Work with Amphibians and Reptiles in Canada (2017)
- [EA12] Understanding of the Impact of Chemicals on Amphibians: a Meta-analytic Review by Egea-Serrano, A. & al. in Ecol Evol. 2012 Jul; 2(7): 1382–1397. doi: [10.1002/ece3.249]
- [RM18] High Mortality in Aquatic Predators of Mosquito Larvae Caused by Exposure to Insect Repellent by Rafael M. Almeida and al. (2018)
- [PA10] Minimising Exposure of Amphibians To Pathogens During Field Studies by Phillott, A.D. & al (2010)
- [DEH] Interim Hygiene Protocol For Handling Amphibians (Technical Manual Wildlife Management) from the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection ABN 46 640 294 485
— This technical manual aims to outline standard measures to be followed to prevent or reduce the spread of disease-causing pathogens being transferred within and between frog populations. These hygiene protocols can be applied in both a scientific and general public capacity.
- [VIN] Interim Hygiene Protocols for Amphibian Field Staff And Researchers in Standard Operating Procedures: Hygiene Protocols for Amphibian Fieldwork, 2008 (Vancouver Island University, British Colombia)
- [JB18] ‘Death By a Thousand Holes’: Scientists Race to Avert a Salamander Crisis by Jones, B. (2018)
— For more than three years, scientists have been preparing for the arrival of a killer fungus in North America. But that doesn’t mean they’re ready.
- [LX18] Snail-borne Parasitic Diseases: An Update on Global Epidemiological Distribution, Transmission Interruption and Control Methods by Lu, X-T, & al. (2018)
- [HB16] Can You Feed Bread To Wild Turtles? (Herpetology Blog Post 2016)
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◊ Note that this Etiquette is and will remain a work in progress. If there is anything else you would like to see added, please let us know and we’ll do our best to include it. Let’s be Earthwise Aware. Let’s enjoy and protect wildlife responsibly! Thanks for your support!