Herptile Haven

>> Monday, January 31, 2011

No well-respected 'natural' home garden should be without a Herptile Haven. Don’t know what that is? Herptile is the term classifying both reptiles and amphibians which includes salamanders, toads, snakes, turtles, frogs, and lizards and they are some of the most important pest predators. Frogs are bug and critter devourers and will feast on many of the your problematic garden pests. Mosquito larvae, sowbugs and caterpillars are all common delicacies for the garden frog. They also love flies, slugs, beetles, voles, mice, and moles.

Amphibians and reptiles are also prey for other species of wildlife you might want to attract. Red-shouldered hawks, roadrunners, and herons are just a few of the birds that eagerly gobble frogs, lizards, and snakes. Herptiles are food for all sorts of mammals, too, including opossums, javelina, and foxes. The more varied your garden wildlife the more natural your garden is.

Herptiles act as the ‘canary in the coal mine’, they absorb gases and liquids through their sensitive skin, making them very susceptible to toxins. They cannot survive in polluted environments, so if you find them in your garden, you know it’s healthy for your family and pets, too.

Here’s how to attract these beneficial creatures to your garden:

Provide cover. To attract tree frogs and lizards, make sure you have plenty of dense vegetation—this provides hiding places and hunting grounds. Brush piles also offer hiding spaces for frogs, lizards, and turtles.

Provide warm rocks. To attract reptiles, build a rock wall or rock pile. In addition to providing hiding places for many types of benefical wildlife, rocks serve another important purpose for reptiles. Reptiles need to bask in the sun to absorb heat and metabolize their food, so they love to “lie out” on sun-warmed rocks.

Don’t use pesticides. Pesticides rob herptiles of their prey and often kill them outright. Amphibians, in particular, are very susceptible to pesticide poisoning.

Give them a drink. Provided that frogs can have access to pools of water, whether it be in a bucket or an unused bird bath, they will find your garden hospitable. In fact, the more moist your garden is the more chance frogs will start to inhabit your yard.

Build them a place to lay eggs. While you can’t build a house for herptiles to raise their young like you can for birds, you can create a pond where amphibians can lay eggs. Keep an area of sandy soil in a sunny spot for turtles, snakes, and lizards to build nests. Baby herptiles receive no parental care or protection, so dense vegetation and brush will give them places to hide from predators.

Reptile or Amphibian? 
People often confuse reptiles and amphibians. Both groups are ectothermic, which means they depend on the outside environment for temperature regulation. In places with cold winters, they hibernate at the bottom of ponds or underground. They often share the same habitat. But that’s where the similarities end. 

Reptiles (snakes, lizards, and turtles) are covered in dry, scaly skin. Most species lay eggs with leathery shells in nests excavated in the ground. Amphibians (frogs, toads, and salamanders) generally have moist, smooth skin. They lay their eggs underwater or in wet environments on land, such as under rotting logs. 

Here are some tips to identify the critters that show up in your garden: 
Snake or Lizard? Legless glass lizards are often confused for snakes. Here’s how to tell them apart: Lizards have eyelids and external ear openings, unlike snakes. All snakes are carnivores, while some lizards eat plants.

Frog or Toad? Toads are really just one type of frog. Toads tend to live in dryer environments than other frogs and have dryer, bumpier skin. They walk or hop on short legs, whereas frogs have long legs for swimming and leaping. Frogs have tiny teeth; toads don’t.

Lizard or Salamander? Lizards are reptiles with dry, scaly skin. They lay eggs with leathery shells. Salamanders are amphibians with moist skin, and they lay their eggs in wet environments. Many salamanders produce skin toxins as protection from predators.

Frogs or Toads
Frogs will just have to share the award. When the Association of Zoos and Aquariums declared 2008 the Year of the Frog (which they did in order to call attention to the global decline of frogs and other amphibians), they meant toads, too—because toads are a type of frog. And toads are actually more likely to show up in a typical garden, because they are more adapted than other kinds of frogs to terrestrial habitats (as opposed to aquatic ones).

What better way to celebrate than to roll out the red carpet for toads in your garden? They’re easy to attract and they make great garden inhabitants.

Learn to recognize toads. There are many species of toads, but they typically belong to the family Bufonidae. Toads generally have a stocky appearance, dry skin, and short, thick legs with little webbing between their toes. They move around by walking and taking short, quick hops rather than massive leaps or underwater dives. Many sport tan, gray, and brown patterns that camouflage them in dry leaves or rocky terrain. These adaptations allow them to range further from water for longer and survive in dryer ecosystems than other frogs.

Build a toad kitchen. To provide food for toads, select native plants for your garden. This isn’t because toads eat plants—like all amphibians, they are carnivorous, consuming any living thing they can capture with their sticky tongues and stuff down their throats. Some large species tackle mice, snakes, and even other frogs, but insects and other invertebrates are the most common prey. You have the best chance of attracting a healthy insect population—and thus, happy toads—with native plants.

Dial back your level of control. Garden designs that are not overly tidy provide good habitat for insects and shelter for toads. If you cringe at the thought of providing habitat for insects, remember that toads are voracious predators that will help keep pests in check. Toads are actually a far better method of pest control than toxic chemicals, which don’t kill just insects—they kill toads, too. Amphibians as a group are extremely sensitive to toxins, which they readily absorb through their skin. And speaking of toad skin and toxins, toads don’t have warts. The bumps on their skin are called parotid glands, and they produce toxins that make toads taste bad to predators. You cannot get warts by touching a toad.

Give tadpoles a pool. Although adult toads are terrestrial, they rely on standing water for their eggs and tadpoles. If you don’t have a lake or pond nearby, create a simple garden pond. Bigger is better, but even small, prefabricated plastic pools work, provided they have gradually sloping sides or plenty of vegetation and branches dipping into the water to allow the toads easy entry and exit. Toads will also attach their eggs, which they lay in long strings, to this plant material. Be careful about introducing fish, which will find toad eggs and tadpoles a tasty treat. If you have fish, provide plenty of aquatic vegetation and underwater branches near which tadpoles can hide.

It’s quite a sight to find dozens of toads mating in your pond in spring. The trilling calls of the males will be your first indicator, but toads are not shy and are easy to see floating on the surface. Even if you don’t attract a breeding population, just knowing that you’ve created a friendly habitat for these important little creatures will make you feel good.

Make a toad abode 
Provide shelter for toads and other small wildlife by making a “toad abode.” Start by finding an old clay flowerpot—perhaps one that has cracked and is no longer usable for plants. Using a hammer and chisel, chop out a half circle from the pot rim. This hole becomes an entrance when the pot is turned upside down and placed on the ground. Pick a shady spot for your toad abode. Stack some rocks around it and plant some ground covers or ferns nearby. Toads will seek out the dark, damp overturned pot as a place to escape the sun and predators, as well as a place to hunt for insects.


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