Herpetology is the study of reptiles (turtles, snakes, lizards, alligators) and amphibians (salamanders, frogs, toads). Reptiles and amphibians are a lot harder to find than trees and birds, so we always suggest starting with nature that is easier for children to find and then progressing to more difficult nature study. Although you can easily study reptiles or amphibians through books, there is nothing like hearing the call of Spring Peepers and Chorus Frogs in the early spring or finding tadpoles in a mud puddle. And actually catching a snake is every boy’s dream.
If you live in the city, there will be fewer opportunities to study reptiles and amphibians in the wild, but you will be amazed at what you can find even in city parks. wherever there is water and moist ground you will find frogs and salamanders and wherever there is woodland you will find turtles and snakes.
Here are some suggestions for making herpetology interesting and safe:
Make a list of the reptiles and amphibians found in your area.
This list can be derived from field guides, but often your local wildlife agencies will have lists, literature, or even posters of the reptiles and amphibians you can expect to find. It is very important that you and your children can recognize the poisonous snakes in your area. Study pictures of them and make up mnemonic devices for remembering them such as “When red touches yellow, don’t touch the fellow!” (coral snake). Teach children to probe with a stick, not with hands, and to wear boots in snake infested terrain. Invest in a snake-bite kit, learn how to use it, and carry it with you whenever you are anywhere there might be snakes.
Try and find the real thing.
Reptiles and amphibians are much harder to spot than birds and insects, and this makes their firsthand study more challenging and more exciting.
Except for the breeding season, when salamanders search for mating sites and frogs and toads call to prospective mates, amphibians are rarely seen or heard. Many amphibians are nocturnal and can be found in numbers only during late winter or spring rains.
Frogs are best found on warm spring nights near water. Only male frogs call, and during early spring they may call both day and night. Once you hear calls coming from a puddle, pond, or even a neighbor’s swimming pool, you can usually approach carefully and capture both males and females.
Toads can also be found in moist areas around the foundations of buildings and in gardens. Caution!!! Toads do not cause warts, but they do secrete an irritating substance. Make children wash their hands thoroughly after handling toads.
Salamanders can be found in the daytime by overturning large rocks in creeks or streams or by carefully lifting wet leaf debris.
Reptiles will venture out later in the spring then do amphibians. Reptiles “bask” to raise their body temperature, so can be seen sunning themselves on spring and fall afternoons or in early morning or late afternoon in summer.
Water turtles can be found basking on logs or rocks near water; snakes also have favorite “sunning” rocks, and lizards can be found on the sunny sides of fence posts or buildings. Be sure to look under flat rocks, pieces of bark, logs, leaf litter, or in stump holes or tunnels. Piles of debris as well as abandoned farm buildings are ideal reptile hiding places.
Never try and catch a snake with your bare hands! Immobilize the snake’s head with a forked stick or by placing your booted foot over it, then grasp just behind the head so that the snake cannot turn and bite you! You can make a snake and lizard snare by attaching a fishing line noose to the end of a bamboo pole. This way you can hold the pole out (even if the lizard or snake is up in a tree) and slip the noose over the reptile’s head without there being any possibility of you being bitten.
Keep a pet in a jar.
Many reptiles and amphibians make good pets. Consult a field guide and the book Pets in a Jar: Collecting and Caring for Small Wild Animals (Puffin Science Books) as to which ones are better kept in captivity.
Resources for Studying Reptiles and Amphibians
National Audubon Society Pocket Guide to Familiar Reptiles and Amphibians (Audubon Pocket Guides)[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0394757939″ locale=”us” height=”76″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51Np%2BIkGVPL._SL110_.jpg” width=”110″].
Child-size version of the big Audubon field guides.
The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians[easyazon-image align=”right” asin=”0394508246″ locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/519235GEHBL._SL160_.jpg” width=”84″] This is the BIG, comprehensive guide for older children and adults.
[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”060618581X” locale=”us” height=”110″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/514CNYS6QVL._SL110_.jpg” width=”79″]National Audubon Society First Field Guides target the aged 9 – 12 reading level and are combination study guides/field guides with full color photos. A great investment.
[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0618307370″ locale=”us” height=”110″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51UWbAHDV5L._SL110_.jpg” width=”82″]Reptiles and Amphibians (Peterson Field Guide Color-In Books). The most common reptiles and amphibians to color, plus various habitats (swamp, mountains, etc.). Focus on individual reptiles or amphibians or let a child use the pictures to make a field journal.
REPTILE & AMPHIBIAN KIT[easyazon-image align=”right” asin=”B003YP79RA” locale=”us” height=”108″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51UodP3H5rL._SL160_.jpg” width=”160″]. This is really six kits in one. Build an anatomically accurate 8″ leopard frog, 10″ Alligator, 5″ box turtle, 5″ rattlesnake, 6″ chuckwalla, 2″ red eft. 65 detailed parts showing internal and external anatomy.