Critter Corner No 19

Critter Corner No. 19

The Fox Squirrel


George Sly

(By Judy Gallagher –

Discussing the Fox Squirrel as a member of the GPFWA fauna may seem a bit surprising. After all, we normally associate the property with wetland and prairie habitats primarily. These are hardly the sorts of places one would expect to find an arboreal (tree dwelling) mammal. But with the DNR’s acquisition of 800 acres of wooded, post-mined property known as “1000 Islands” (which lies just north of GPFWA’s Main Pool West) we now have such squirrel-friendly habitat Goose Pond.

            The Fox Squirrel is large as tree squirrels go. In fact, it is the largest tree squirrel in the eastern United States with a total length of nearly two feet and an average weight of around one and a half pounds. In this area, people often call this species by the common moniker of “red squirrel”. Indeed, the fox squirrels we encounter in SW Indiana do tend to be quite reddish in color. However, in NE Indiana there lives another species of arboreal squirrel which is more properly known as the Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). This little squirrel is only about half the size of the Fox Squirrel on average.

The Fox Squirrel is highly variable in coloration throughout its range which, east of the Mississippi, extends through most of the country save for a swath from North Carolina up through the New England states. The scientific name of this species – Scirurus niger – hints at this variability. The genus name refers to the habit of the squirrel of sitting with its tail used as a sunshade. “Skia” is from the Greek meaning shadow and “oura” means tail. The Greek skiouros became the Latin sciurus, meaning squirrel in both cases. The specific name “niger” is Latin for black. In the southern United States, Fox Squirrels may be black in color and the so-called type specimen for this species was a southern animal of black coloration. In southern Alabama, I used to encounter Fox Squirrels which were locally called “monkey-faced squirrels”. These animals were much lighter in color than our local fox squirrels, more light-brownish, and had a black mask which reminded me of a raccoon. The reasons for the extreme variability of coloration in fox squirrels is not completely understood but may be related to camouflaging coloration adapted for a particular locale.

Fox squirrels prefer more open forests and forest edges compared to our Gray Squirrel which thrives in large stands of timber with a closed canopy. However, both are adaptable and may be found in towns, upon golf courses, and in city parks. Fox Squirrel distribution is closely tied to food availability of course. Their diet includes a variety of tree nuts including acorns, hickory nuts, and beech nuts. Because of their habit of caching nuts in the ground, fox squirrels are important in distributing the seeds of their food trees. These buried stores are later found, by smell it is thought, and constitute the squirrel’s primary food supply during fall, winter, and early spring. As spring progresses, there is greater abundance of food and the Fox Squirrel will then feed on maple samaras, elm seeds, flower buds, and fruits such as mulberry. Fox squirrels will also prey upon caterpillars, beetles, bird eggs, and young birds. One of their more interesting food sources is a soil fungus of the genus Endogone. Dr. J.O. Whitaker, Jr., emeritus professor of life sciences at Indiana State U., has done much to elucidate the role of this fungus as a food source for many species of small mammals. Endogone is a mycorrhizal fungus which means that it forms symbiotic relationships with forest tree roots. This association is mutualistic in that it increases the absorptive surface area of the tree roots and in return the fungus is provided a place to live and a source of carbohydrates for energy.

Fox squirrels are typically about a year old when they begin to reproduce. Mating occurs in December and January. Living as I do on the edge of a stand of deciduous forest, I am each year reminded that the squirrel’s mating season is approaching. As I glance out the window, I will notice that the squirrels are beginning to engage in almost nonstop prenuptial chases which are an important part of the ritual leading up to actual mating. These are often accompanied by much barking, “churring”, and attempts at approach by the males. The gestation period of the Fox Squirrel is about a month and a half. One to six young may be born, most often in a tree cavity; two to four offspring is typical. The emergence of the youngsters after a period of three months or so is another source of entertainment for me (or maybe I am just easily entertained). At first the young squirrels tend to stay in the vicinity of their nest cavity. Soon they become bolder and start to venture higher into the trees. I often see them seemingly at rest, on the trunk or limb of a tree, when suddenly they roar off along the limb or into the tree top as if suddenly touched with a cattle prod. I suppose this is how they develop their marvelous skill at climbing, leaping, and maintaining a foothold while avoiding a precipitous fall.

In regards to its relationship with humans, the Fox Squirrel has long-standing significance as a small game mammal. Hoosier hunters take, on average, some 300,000 Fox and Gray Squirrels each year. I must say that the periods I spent as a young adult pursuing these agile, wily, little animals are among my fondest memories. And these remembrances involve far more than shooting at quarry. I must admit however that my recollections also entail a wonderful meal of fried squirrel, biscuits and gravy dotingly prepared by my grandmother.

But, as I grew older, the taking became far less important than the engaging. This was particularly true of the instances during which my stalking skills were tested against a mammal whose eyesight and senses of smell and hearing bettered mine by far. Even more fondly remembered are the hours spent simply sitting at the base of a shagbark hickory in an early -morning woods. Recalled is the light of breaking dawn playing upon forest leaves of every imaginable shade of green; the pleasurable songs and calls of phoebe, wood thrush, and great-crested flycatcher; the occasional, rustling walk of an unaware white-tailed deer passing within feet of me. These, as well as the deep sense of peace and detachment from worldly concerns, are the things that most remain from my days as a dedicated pursuer of squirrels.

Should you be inclined to try squirrel hunting yourself, the Dept. of Natural Resources offers these reminders. The season for both Fox and Gray Squirrels runs from August 15th, 2017 through January 31st, 2018. Hunters must meet fluorescent orange clothing requirements while hunting squirrels from the first Friday in November after Nov. 3 through the end of the season. The daily bag limit is five. Good luck on your hunt! But don’t forget to spend some of your time sitting under that hickory tree, looking, listening, and letting your mind work the while.


WildFlower Walk – 2 Hour Field Trip Focusing On Prairie Wildflowers

Please join Friends members Ron and De Ronk for a two hour field trip focusing upon prairie wildflowers. We will meet at the GPFWA Visitor Center at 9:00AM on Saturday, July 1st. After signing in, we will hear from the Ronk’s about the prairie plantings near the VC. We will also have a chance to meet members of the Miner Monarchs. These Linton students are devoted to habitat improvements which will provide for the needs of the Monarch Butterfly which has recently undergone drastic reduction in their population. Attendees will then move to Bee Hunter Unit 1 to observe the plantings done there by the students. This is a great chance to get outside, learn to identify prairie wildflowers, enjoy some great photo opportunities, and offer encouragement to this dedicated group of young people. If you would like to join us, please let us know at Enter “wildflower walk” in the subject line please. Hope to see you July 1st.

Critter Corner No. 18

Critter Corner No. 18
 The Red-eared Slider
 George Sly
Sherman Minton’s authoritative Amphibians & Reptiles of Indiana (1) notes that this turtle emerges, in southern Indiana, from its period of winter inactivity in early April. But, this book was published in 2001. In our rapidly warming world, Mother Nature seems to be re-writing the rules. By mid-February 2017, large numbers of Pond Sliders were to be seen basking in the afternoon sun in nearly every pond, marsh, and stripper pit in the area. Of course Mother Nature can still throw a wicked curve ball and our recent reminder that it is still officially winter had the turtles heading for cover again.

  Lying upon a favorite log or snag as pond sliders do is an example of what is known as thermoregulatory behavior. Since turtles, like other reptiles, are ectotherms they do not have the internal physiological mechanisms by which they might maintain a high, stable body temperature as we do. Since the rate at which metabolic activities (neuromuscular activity, digestion, assimilation, etc.) is related directly to temperature, it behooves the turtles to raise their body temperature above that of the surrounding air and water. The basking in which we see them engaged allows them to be much more efficient in searching for food, escaping predators, and performing other daily activities .Although ectothermic, reptiles can by means of a repertoire of behaviors (basking, shade-seeking, water immersion) maintain a relatively high, static body temperature in relationship to the highly variable ambient temperature around them. Consistent, extremely low temperatures are their main bugaboo. Thus, as we move from the equator to the poles, we see a graded decline in the number of species of reptiles endemic to a given latitude.

  Red-eared Sliders bear the scientific moniker of Trachemys scripta elegans. Their genus name (Trachemys) comes from Greek words meaning “rough” and “freshwater tortoise”(2). Nowadays we reserve the term tortoise for a particular group of land turtles but you get the idea – a water, dwelling turtle with a rough carapace. The species name scripta (script) refers to the markings upon the carapace. By placing a third name after the scientific name taxonomists are noting that elegans (fine or elegant) is a subspecies. Biologists typically recognize three subspecies of Pond Slider, the red-eared found in our area as well as the Yellow-bellied (SE U.S.) and the Cumberland Slider (ENE TN & SW VA).

  Incidentally, if one refers to Minton’s book, the scientific name will be followed by, in parentheses, the name Wied; in other references it may be Wied-Neuwied. This is an interesting example of history entwining itself with biology. The name refers to Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, a 19th Century German explorer, ethnologist, and naturalist (3). Wied-Neuwied was mentored by the renowned naturalist Alexander von Humboldt who, by the way, is the subject of the recent bestseller The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. Wied-Neuwied led two expeditions to the New World, one to Brazil and the other to the United States (4). During the latter trip he was accompanied by the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, now famous for his paintings of Native Americans done during this expedition. In October of 1832, en route to the west, the Prince arrived in New Harmony, Indiana. At that time, New Harmony was known as a center of education and scientific research. During his time there, he observed and named the Red-eared Slider as well as two frog species (5). This is why Wied’s name appears after the turtle’s scientific name in Minton.
  At Goose Pond FWA, the Red-eared Slider is one of the more common species. They can often be seen basking on the muskrat lodges which are abundant in standing waters of the property. During the 2010 Biodiversity Survey of the GPFWA, numerous turtle nests were found on the so-called “double-ditches” peninsula. Most of these were thought to contain T. scripta clutches. A very high percentage of them had been found by predators, most likely raccoons, and destroyed. An average clutch size for this species is around 10 eggs (6 to 30 may be laid). The incubation period is two months or a little more and, like many other turtles, the sex of the offspring is determined by incubation temperature. Warmer temperatures (>80F or so) produce females (6).  Mating occurs in late spring or early summer. Males and females may be distinguished from one another but the differences are subtle and include features such as claw length and overall size of the upper shell. The strong similarities of the two sexes may remind us of Ogden Nash’s poetic thoughts on turtle sexual dimorphism.

The turtle lives ‘twixt plated decks
 Which practically conceal its sex.
 I think it clever of the turtle
 In such a fix to be so fertile.

  Red-eared Sliders are omnivorous, that is both plant and animal material may be consumed by them. Plants such as duckweed and emergent pondweeds are eaten while animal prey includes snails, crayfish, aquatic insects, tadpoles, and fish.

  You may recall times past when it was exceedingly common to see young Red-eared Sliders for sale in various pet stores or “five & dimes”. Their attractive appearance and abundance made this species a prime candidate for exploitation. They are far and away the most popular turtle pet. This has created significant problems in many areas of the world. Baby sliders, most farm-raised, have been shipped to states, and countries, outside their native range. As you might guess, turtles that end up released into the wild cause ecological disturbances. Like other kinds of invasive animals, non-native sliders compete with native turtles for habitat, basking spots, and food to the detriment of the naturally occurring species. An additional problem associated with the Red-eared Slider trade is the transmission of Salmonella bacteria In 2013 the CDC reported a Salmonella outbreak that affected almost 400 people in over three dozen states. Although domestic sale of turtles less than four inches in length was banned in 1975, eighty-nine percent of those affected by been exposed to small turtles (7). Several states, as well as the European Union, have banned turtle sales. Still, Red-eared Sliders are raised for export and a quick Google search indicates they can still be purchased via the Internet. Unless one is prepared for a decades long commitment, such a purchase seems ethically and environmentally unwise.

  And so, on your next warm weather trip to GPFWA, keep an eye out for a large turtle with a greenish to olive-brown shell lounging about on a handy muskrat house. It is a scene far more pleasing than that of an aquarium-bound captive. Let your observation be a reminder that behind every animal one sees at GPFWA there likely lies a story of science, survival, or even history. Let it be a reminder that not only cranes and rails benefit from the Goose Pond restoration. There exist legions of other species equally at home and equally dependent upon the grand wetland which now graces southwestern Indiana.


1. Minton, Sherman A., Jr. Amphbians & Reptiles of Indiana. Ind. Acad. Sci. Indianapolis.

Critter Corner No. 17

The Praying Mantis
George Sly

Mantis 1

Past episodes of Critter Corner have dealt with some of the mammals, reptiles, and amphibians of GPFWA. One might claim that I have missed the boat by not acknowledging the presence, and importance, of members of the largest taxonomic group of animals on the planet – the insects. Fans of these creatures would have a good argument. With nearly one million described species, the insects make up around 80% of all the species in the animal kingdom. I would argue that they are also the most biologically successful fauna on the planet as well.

 We humans commonly measure success in terms of social status, income, political influence, or by our contributions to the common good. But, how do we measure biological success?

It could be said that simply avoiding extinction, existing as a living species, is the mark of biological success. But this definition of success is not as straightforward as it might seem. Consider a group such as the dinosaurs. Extinct today (unless one counts their saurischian descendants, the birds), they were the dominant class of vertebrates on earth for 180 million years. This long tenure and their remarkable variety make it a bit difficult to think of them as a biologically unsuccessful group.

Perhaps using a series of measures would give us a clearer picture of a group’s degree of biological success? So it is that biologists typically examine four parameters in measuring the biological success of a given taxon or a species. These factors are geologic distribution, geographic distribution, number of species, and number of individuals.

 The geologic distribution of insects as determined by the fossil record reaches far back into deep time. The oldest fossil insects are nearly 400 million years old. In comparison, the oldest whale fossils date back about 50 million years and the fossil hominid Australopithecus three million years. So, as a group, insects have been around for quite a spell. They are exceedingly successful by this standard.

In terms of geographic distribution, the insects are again phenomenally successful. They are found on every continent on earth as well as in every imaginable habitat. Granted, they are rare in Antarctica and are outnumbered in the oceans by the crustaceans. But visit any country on earth, any biome within that country, and you are likely to encounter insects in abundance.

I have already noted the tremendous species diversity found among the insects. There are 200 times more insect species than mammal species and they outnumber both the birds and the reptiles by a power of 100. This is again a highly positive manifestation of biological success.

I would venture to guess that many of you, watching a swarm of midges or a marching column of ants, have wondered just how many insects there are in the world. Of course it is only an estimate, but my quick search on the Internet ( yielded an estimate of 10 quintillion individual insects alive at any one time. That’s a 10 followed by eighteen zeros. Incidentally, if we could weigh all the insects alive on earth at any one time, their biomass would be greater than that of all the vertebrates – elephants and whales included. By the standard of number of individuals, insects are again a highly successful group indeed!

Of course Mantis 2there are many, many insects I could choose as the first Critter Corner representative of their kind and I do hope in future to include more. But let me begin with one of my favorites – the Praying Mantis. Perhaps mantises, or mantids, would be a better term since there are over 2000 species worldwide. Like most other animal taxa, the mantids have achieved their greatest species diversity in the tropics. At Goose Pond FWA, you are likely to encounter only a couple of species. These are the native Carolina Mantis and the introduced Chinese Mantis. 

 Perhaps, as an impressionable 11 year old, I shouldn’t have watched the 1957 sci fi classic The Deadly Mantid. (trailer at Henceforth, I was mesmerized by the frightening visage and voracious feeding habits of this animal. Even today, many decades later, I cannot encounter a Praying Mantis and resist the urge to stop, observe, and simply contemplate its exquisite adaptations for the lifestyle of a top predator. Recalling scenes from the movie, I can readily anthropomorphize the reaction of a hapless butterfly confronted by a ravenous mantis. They really do make a nightmarish science fiction “monster”. Mantises are stealthy, quick to strike, powerful, and rapacious; what a combination.

 And, before we go any further, what about that name? Doubtless you have seen these insects also referred to as a Preying Mantis. I have not been able to determine which is preferable or even most appropriate. The website What’s That Bug? (
suggests this is a classic example of why biologists prefer to use scientific names. A species will have only one scientific name no matter what language is being used in the discussion. Praying Mantis seems to me to be the more commonly used appellation. This is in reference to the oversized forelegs legs which are powerfully developed, and fearfully armed with spines in order to grasp their prey.  At rest, these legs are held in a position which reminds one of a prayerful posing of the arms and hands, thus the common moniker.

 Most mantids are ambush hunters which lie in wait with their ferocious forelimbs held upright poised to snatch any unwary prey that comes within range. They most commonly feed on other insects such as flies, bees, butterflies, crickets, and grasshoppers. Mantids may be cannibalistic and some species are large enough to tackle small birds and lizards. Since Praying Mantises rely on sight to hunt they are most active in the daytime (diurnal). Their vision is well-developed and stereoscopic at close range. The peripheral units of their compound eyes are quite sensitive to motion. This helps them detect their prey and they can swivel their head to more closely focus on a potential food item. I think this ability to turn the head and look back at us is one of their most fascinating adaptations. It seems to me to give them an aura of intelligence that is normally missing when compared with the expressionless, unmoving eyes of a typical insect.

 Praying Mantis adults are killed by the onset of freezing weather and the next generation overwinters as eggs. These are protected within an egg case (oothecum) that very much reminds me of the foam insulation one can buy in a pressurized can. The frothy eggs case is secreted around the eggs as they are laid and soon hardens into a protective covering. You may find these by wondering about in old field or prairie habitat and looking for the brownish, foam-like case attached to a plant stem. These egg cases usually have the appearance of accordion folds on their surface. I have collected these in the spring, held them in a jar, and been rewarded with the amazing sight of hundreds of tiny, miniature Praying Mantises scrambling about upon emerging from the oothecum. Releasing these into one’s garden provides a natural deterrent against insect pests too.

 Praying Mantises have their enemies. Arthropods such as spiders and ants will attack them. Vertebrates including frogs, lizards, and birds will also eat mantises. Although mainly diurnal, mantises may sometimes fly at night. They are attracted to lights and males may travel nocturnally in search of females. At this time, bats may prey on them. Research has shown that some mantises have the ability to hear the echolocation sounds produced by bats. Upon detecting a foraging bat, such mantids will begin a series of descending, avoidance spirals toward the ground (

Praying Mantises commonly avoid predators through protective coloration or camouflage. The green of the Chinese Mantis for example enables it to seamlessly blend with the vegetation upon which it sits. Among other mantis species, mimicry may have evolved. Often these protective disguises are extreme with the mantis physically resembling a leaf or a flower. These masquerades remind us of the power of natural selection to shape earth’s fauna and flora in ways that enhance their owner’s chances of survival.

Though certainly not to be seen at GPFWA, I close with a striking example of mantis mimicry. One of my favorite Praying Mantis species is the Southeast Asian form known as the Malaysian Orchid Mantis. Although not obligated to perch upon orchids, the structure

  Mantis 3Chi’en Lee/Getty Images

and coloration of this species allows it to stealthily lie in wait upon a flower for the unwary approach of a potential meal. An insect may even mistake the mantis for a flower and glide with intention toward its demise. This species is a wonderful example of the stunning variety, delicate beauty, and mind-boggling adaptations we find among the insects we call Praying Mantises.

Critter Corner No. 16

Critter Corner No. 16
The Prairie Kingsnake
George Sly
Photo Courtesy of Missouri Dept. of Conservation
My earliest recollection of meeting a snake, one which I can identify to species, happened when I was just a youngster. Engaged in a lively outdoor game of hide and seek, I leaped over a roadside culvert and took shelter in the ditch below. As I lie in hiding, I casually glanced down and there, practically at my shoulder, peering up at me was a Prairie Kingsnake.  Even after these many years, I can recall that I had no feelings of alarm or upwelling of ophidiophobia . We gazed at each other with studied interest, perhaps each of us considering just how this close juxtaposition had so suddenly occurred. The stealthy, quiet presence of the serpent intrigued me. The lovely grayish-brown background color liberally marked by dark brown blotches rimmed with black glistened as only a newly shed snake can. Overall I was struck by its subtle beauty and mysterious manner. Now, as an adult, I look back on this encounter as the seminal event which not only revealed my innate lack of fear of snakes but initiated a life-long fascination with these animals. Although usually described as a comparatively mild mannered snake, my next notable childhood encounter with Lampropeltis calligaster* did not validate this. Perhaps the little fellow I met had gotten up on the wrong side of the kingsnake bed. It didn’t take kindly to my reaching to pick it up and I received two or three rapid bites to the hand. I got the message and held no grudge. Sometimes I’m a little cranky in the morning too. Nevertheless, whenever I happen upon a Prairie Kingsnake, these two childhood encounters always come to mind.
 At first thought, you might think that Goose Pond FWA with its vast wetlands would be an unlikely place to find a snake with “prairie” as its first name. But GPFWA, recently expanded to nearly 9000 acres, has considerable variety in regards to the habitat types it offers its wild inhabitants. Nearly 1400 acres of the property have been planted to prairie grasses and forbs. In late summer, this acreage presents a grand show as the blossoming Big Bluestem, Side-oats Grama,  Little Bluestem, and Indian grasses are joined by the vibrant flowers of Compass Plant, Rosinweed, Purple Coneflower, Black-eyed Susan, and Partridge Pea. So, it is true that the habitat that gives the Prairie Kingsnake its name, and was its original home, does exist at GPFWA. The geographic range of this snake in Indiana is restricted to the western one third of the state. Logically enough, this was the portion of the state which originally contained eastward extensions of the prairie biome.
Nowadays, the species isn’t so particular and can be found in oldfield habitat too. Such fields are typically abandoned agricultural fields grown to a mixture of herbaceous plants such as Goldenrod, Boneset, Ironweed, and Marestail. There may be Blackberry and even a few shrubs such as Multiflora Rose and Sumac in the mix. One might even find the Prairie Kingsnake in fields along the edge of woodlands, pastures, orchards, railroad rights-of-way, and grassy fields. Other good places to look for this species are under old boards, metal siding or roofing, and refuse near buildings. They are all favorite places to take refuge for this snake.
 Like all members of its kind, the Prairie Kingsnake is a predator and serves an important ecological role in helping to control rodent populations. Voles of the genus Microtus are often eaten. The Prairie Vole is perhaps the most common mammal at GPFWA so there is certainly a good prey supply for the snakes. In addition to mice, birds, their eggs, and frogs may be taken. Of course, kingsnakes have their enemies too. Among the predators which will take them are red-tailed hawks, raccoons, striped skunks, and opossums. The latter three are especially likely to focus on eggs and young of the snake. In at least one case , a ground squirrel had preyed upon a Prairie Kingsnake.
 Our state’s preeminent herpetologist, the late Sherman Minton Jr., thought Prairie Kingsnakes to be at their activity peak on the mild, sunny days of spring. Spring is a prime time for this, and other snake species, to lie on roads in order to bask. This behavior is obviously quite dangerous for the snake as many drivers make little attempt to avoid basking serpents. Later in the summer Minton found that Prairie Kingsnakes often used rodent burrows during the day and became more active in the morning and evening twilights. Animals active at these times of day are said to be crepuscular. Like many other reptiles, Prairie Kingsnakes are oviparous meaning that they reproduce by laying shelled eggs. The shell of snake eggs tends to be rather leathery unlike the brittle, fragile egg shell of birds. Ten or 11 eggs are typically laid with hatching occurring in late summer after a month and a half of development.
 In their wonderful little book on Indiana snakes, MacGowan and Kingsbury remind us that snake species in general are on the decline in Indiana. As is the case with many other declining plants and animals, habitat loss is the main culprit. They also cite other factors such as collecting by hobbyists, and pesticide usage. In Indiana, laws have been put into place regulating the collection of wild reptiles and amphibians. In most cases, if you are an adult taking any kind of herpetofauna from the wild, you must have a hunting or a fishing license. There are also possession limits. For more information refer to the DNR’s website at:

I realize that not everyone is in their comfort zone when that space is being shared by a snake. However, I will argue that some rational thought is in order should you encounter a snake at GPFWA, or anywhere else for that matter. In all my years of experience with snakes, I have never been bitten unless I was handling the animal. Snakes do not seek out humans for intentional bites. This behavior is purely defensive. If you leave them alone and don’t try to touch, my experience has been that they will do the same for you.
Of the 32 species of serpents which inhabit Indiana, only four are venomous. These – the Copperhead, Massasauga Rattlesnake, Timber Rattlesnake, and Water Moccasin – are all pit-vipers. The latter three are rare snakes and your chances of meeting one exceedingly slim. Remember that many snakes vibrate their tail as a threat display and, under the right circumstances, might be mistaken for a “rattler”. Also note that non-poisonous water snakes, such as the Northern Water Snake found at GPFWA, are very commonly referred to in our area as “water moccasins”. They are not.
Regardless of your emotional feelings about snakes, they are perfect examples of the amazing power of natural selection to fashion predators of incredible stealth, marvelous camouflage, and precise functionality of form. As such they deserve our tolerance if not our admiration. Snakes play a major role within their ecosystems. As agents of population control, they help prevent the over-abundance of their prey. As prey items themselves, they supply needed sustenance to the species which perch above them on the food chain. Eliminating such vital links within the web of life can have unforeseen, and injurious, consequences. Perhaps, as human encroachment upon the natural world increases steadily, the serpents serve as a perfect reminder of the sage advice given by the great conservationist Aldo Leopold who said:
“The first law of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.”

* Etymology of the scientific name courtesy of the Virginia Herpetological Society. Lampropeltis is derived from the Greek words lampros which means “radiant” and pelta meaning “small shields”. Species: calligaster is derived from the Greek words kallimos which means “beautiful” and gaster meaning “stomach”.
Those interested in snakes, or reptiles and amphibians in general, might find the following books useful.
Behler, John L. and F. Wayne King.
The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American
Reptiles and Amphibians.  
Alfred A. Knopf. New York.

Conant, Roger and Joseph T. Collins.    
A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians Eastern and
Central North America.   
Houghton Mifflin Co. New York.

Greene, Harry W. Snakes.
The Evolution of Mystery in Nature.
Univ. of California Press. Berkeley.

MacGowan, Brian and Bruce Kingsbury.
Snakes of Indiana.    
available at: or

Minton, Sherman A., Jr.
Amphibians & Reptiles of Indiana.  
Indiana Academy of Sciences. Indianapolis.

Parker, H.W. and A.G.C. Grandison.   
Snakes – a natural history.
Cornell Univ. Press. Ithaca, NY


Critter Corner No. 15

Critter Corner No. 15
the Eastern Mole
George Sly

Most of the mammals which make Goose Pond FWA their home are secretive and seldom seen. The subject of this edition of Critter Corner is no exception. In fact, the Eastern Mole is made even more elusive by the nature of its fossorial (burrowing) behavior. Certainly we see the mounded earth and raised tunnels of this mammal but the maker of these telltale trails is itself seldom seen.

 I must admit that I am intrigued by moles. Their subterranean existence, so strange and difficult for us creatures of the light to imagine, fascinates me. What must it be like to spend life in nearly perpetual darkness? How do they find food? How is it possible to burrow through solid ground? Why does their fur always seem so clean? What do they do in the winter when the ground is frozen? Yes, moles stimulate a lot of questions for me.

 Moles are found throughout much of the world and their clan consists of around 40 species. Here in the eastern United States we have three species but only the Eastern Mole is found at Goose Pond FWA. The Star-nosed Mole lives in NE Indiana while the Hairy-tailed Mole exists in eastern Ohio and Kentucky and on up into New England. Moles are closely related to shrews. That “baby mole” your cat brings to the doorstep, and then abandons, is likely not a mole but a Short-tailed Shrew.

 Our Eastern Mole bears the scientific moniker of Scalopus aquaticus. The genus name is derived from the Greek words for digging and foot and refers to the mole’s enormous forefeet. The specific name is apparently a bit of a misnomer. Various sources report that the specimen that Carolus Linnaeus (the “father of modern taxonomy”) used in naming the species was found dead in water. Although moles can swim they are not aquatic.  
 Of course any animal that has a highly specific lifestyle such as that of the Eastern Mole will likely have major adaptations for that mode of existence. Notable among these, as illustrated in the image below, are the somewhat flattened, wedge-shaped skull and the powerfully enlarged bones of the forelimbs. The muscles that power the front legs are tremendously developed. They give the animal the appearance of having heavily trained for some body-building competition; think Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime. The relatively smaller hind legs are used for bracing during digging and to shuttle loose soil rearward and have less need for powerful development.

The tail is somewhat long with external hairs which give it tactile ability useful when backing up in a tunnel. The silky body fur is adapted for shedding soil thus keeping the coat relatively clean.

 Moles do have eyes but they are reduced in size and the eyelids are fused shut over them. Thus they are barely functional and serve to detect light and darkness. Unlike most mammals moles have no external ears (pinnae). These would not be a good idea when burrowing through narrow tunnels and loose soil. They can hear and are also quite sensitive to vibrations in the ground. The sense of smell is well-developed and their nose is also exquisitely sensitive to touch. In fact, research has shown that moles have highly specialized nerve tissues forming what are called Eimer’s organs in the epithelium of their nose. These reach their highest degree of development in species such as the Star-nosed Mole shown here.

In the Eastern Mole these organs are less developed and are covered by thicker epidermis. This is thought to be because of the differences in burrowing substrate of the two species; the Star-nosed being more often found in wetter, softer soil.

 The Eastern Mole is often blamed for damaging garden plants but is in fact more often a voracious predator. Its primary prey is earthworms. These creatures are sensitive to the movements of moles and I have actually seen them flee above ground and rapidly (for an earthworm) crawl away from a burrowing mole. I once ran across an interesting paper in an online journal in which author Kenneth Catania described how folks in the southern United States practice “worm grunting”. By vibrating a wooden stake driven into the ground they are able to force worms to the surface where they are collected for fishing bait. Catania concludes that the vibrating stake mimics the pulsations caused by burrowing moles thereby eliciting the earthworm’s escape behavior. Interestingly he also notes previous studies that suggest Wood Turtles and Herring Gulls “vibrate the ground to elicit earthworm escapes.”

 Other animals eaten by moles include scarab beetle grubs (including Japanese beetles), ground beetles, slugs, and centipedes. Some vegetation may be eaten particularly grass seeds.

 Eastern Moles can burrow 10 to 15 feet per hour and their surface runs are made as they search for food. Deeper burrows (10-18 in.) and chambers are used for rearing young and resting. In the winter, burrows are made below the frost line.

 Animals which have relative few predators often have lower rates of reproduction. Eastern Moles are an example and typically have one litter per year. The babies are born in the spring and usually number three to five. At least one study has indicated that moles may live more than five years. While predation is limited due to their burrowing habit, they do have their enemies. Among these are domestic dogs and cats. Owls also take moles and it is thought that they do so on those rare occasions when the former come to the surface.

Of course, when moles invade lawns, humans become a major threat to them as well. Their tunneling certainly complicates mowing the yard. Their underground burrows may also be used by voles which may then attack the root system of garden plants. The other side of this coin is the mole’s ability to destroy insect pests, slugs, and snails. In addition, their burrowing activity tills and aerates the soil and allows water penetration into deeper soil layers. In light of this, perhaps a little more tolerance for this highly interesting mammal is called for. Rolling their surface runs before mowing pretty much eliminates the issue of “skinned” lawns. It is certainly less expensive than buying traps or calling an exterminator and definitely more environmentally friendly that sowing poisonous baits. All it takes is a little more time and patience on our part coupled with a dose of willingness to share the earth with another of natural selection’s decidedly fascinating creations.  

Catania, Kenneth C. 2008. Worm Grunting, Fiddling, and Charming—Humans Unknowingly Mimic a Predator to Harvest Bait.  PLoS ONE. 2008; 3(10): e3472.


The FRIENDS OF GOOSE POND BOARD recently voted to commission and pay for 30 new tern decoys. The decoys will assist the DFW Nongame Bird Biologists and their nesting island project for Federally Endangered Interior LEAST TERNS in Goose Pond FWA Main Pool West. Photos: a recently hatched Least Tern chick on the island, July 2015, courtesy of DFW Nongame Assistant Bird Biologist Amy Kerns. An adult Least Tern that fortuitously landed on a mudflat 100s of yards away from the island, August 2015, photo by Peter Scott using Lee Sterrenburg’s camera. Friends of Goose Pond is proud support the Nongame Wildlife Science’s LETE recovery project.

The 2014 DFW Wildlife Science Annual Report includes an overview explainig how the Indiana LETE nesting project operates:

Management of least terns, a federal- and state-endangered species, is challenging. It consists of maintaining nesting sites free of dense vegetation, using fencing and manipulating water levels to deter ground predators and employing least tern decoys to attract birds to suitable sites. These efforts have resulted in more than adequate production in eight out of the last nine years and a steadily increasing number of least terns in Indiana since their discovery in 1986.

–Lee Sterrenburg DNR bird monitoring volunteer Goose Pond

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Goose Pond Bioblitz

Goose Pond Bioblitz

These were some documentary shots taken of Goose Pond’s second Bioblitz on 6/18/16. Thank you Dave Fox for the wonderful photos.
Thanks to everyone for their hard work.

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