Some have a high ewww factor. Others produce fear.
But Minnesota’s “other’’ wildlife — turtles, snakes, frogs, toads, lizards and salamanders — more often inspire awe from those who know them.
These critters that slither, hop or swim often are overshadowed by high-profile species like deer, wolves or bald eagles, but they are an integral and fascinating part of the ecosystem and, for many people, provide an early introduction to wildlife.
They did for John Moriarty and Carol Hall.
“I kept turtles and snakes when I was a little kid, and I never grew out of it,’’ Moriarty said the other day as a captive bullsnake wrapped itself around his arm.
Hall grew up on the Mississippi River in Brooklyn Center.
“I remember vividly picking up a prairie skink, and I ended up with just its tail in my hand, still wiggling,’’ she said. The skink’s tail detaches as a defense against predators, and they grow another.
Both Hall and Moriarty pursued wildlife careers. Moriarty is senior wildlife manager at Three Rivers Park District and Hall is a field biologist for the state Department of Natural Resources. They’ve co-authored a book that celebrates the critters that make some folks squeamish.
“Amphibians and Reptiles in Minnesota’’ is a full-color guide to the state’s 22 species of frogs, toads and salamanders, 17 species of snakes, 11 species of turtles and three lizards — including those skinks that can sacrifice their tails to save their lives.
“We hope the book gets people excited about these animals,’’ said Hall, 57, of Marine on St. Croix. “They are unique, and part of Minnesota’s natural heritage.’’
Said Moriarty, 56, of Shoreview: “Lots of people don’t like snakes, but everyone likes turtles and most people like frogs. They are entry level animals that get kids interested in wildlife. Kids might see a deer run through the woods, but a child can hold a toad in their hand.’’
And adults can find them fascinating, too. Consider:
Frogs: brought back to life
“Wood frogs, tree frogs and spring peepers go into leaf litter and freeze in the winter,’’ Moriarity said. Solid.
“They develop a type of glucose in their blood that keeps ice crystals from forming and rupturing blood cells. Leopard frogs go into lakes at the end of October and sit at the bottom in the winter. Their heartbeat goes way down and they transpire across mucus membranes to get oxygen from the water.’’
Bullsnakes are the state’s largest, and can exceed 6 feet. They are constrictors, meaning they squeeze their victims — usually pocket gophers and ground squirrels — to death. “Most snakes eat things that we consider to be pests,’’ Moriarty said. So they are beneficial. Bullsnakes can be found in about 30 counties, including Anoka and Washington in the Twin Cities metro area.
Bullsnakes, and foxsnakes, will vibrate their tails if threatened. “It sounds like a rattle in dry leaves, and a number of bull and foxsnakes will be killed by people thinking they are rattlesnakes,’’ said Moriarity.
Rattlers provoke fear
Timber rattlesnakes reside in southeastern Minnesota, and are venomous. But fear of them is overblown, Moriarty said.
“The way you get bitten is by messing with them … if you leave them alone, you’ll be fine,’’ he said.
People used to kill them indiscriminately, and their populations have declined. They now are a threatened species protected by law.
“I tell people hiking in the southeast that they have a higher risk of falling from a bluff or twisting an ankle than seeing a rattlesnake,’’ Moriarty said.
They eat small mammals, including mice, shrews, moles, rats, chipmunks and squirrels. The snake’s venom is intended to paralyze victims, not as a defense. After striking a mouse, a snake follows the scent trail until they locate the disabled victim, then swallows it whole.
Still, you don’t want to be bitten by a rattler. “All hospitals in areas with snakes have anti-venom,’’ he said. “It will be a painful, unpleasant experience. But there have been no deaths in Minnesota to rattlesnake bites in recent history.’’
When people think of turtles, most think of painted turtles or snappers, both very common here and both with rock-solid shells. But Minnesota has two species of softshell turtles, the smooth softshell and the spiny softshell. Hall was on the Minnesota River this week, studying the smooth softshell, which has a leathery shell and is fairly rare.
“They are relatively flat, some call them pancake turtles, and they live in large rivers (including Minnesota, Mississippi and St. Croix) and like to bask on sandbars,’’ Hall said. “They are very wary, and if they see people approaching, they dart into the water.’’ They can absorb oxygen through membranes, allowing them to stay submerged for long periods. They eat fish, frogs, tadpoles and other critters.
Like other wildlife, many of Minnesota’s amphibians and reptiles are facing population declines because of loss of habitat — including wetlands — and habitat fragmentation.
Snakes, turtles and other small critters are particularly susceptible trying to cross roads.
“We have more and more roads, some with concrete barriers that they can’t cross at all,’’ Moriarty said. Washington County recently installed a ‘‘turtle tunnel’’ beneath one highway where turtles, snakes and salamanders frequently have been killed in hopes of reducing mortality.
An increase in predators also has hurt turtle populations.
“Raccoons can take 80 to 100 percent of turtle nests,’’ Moriarty said. “You talk to old farmers or trappers, and if they found a raccoon in the old days, they’d call a neighbor because it was so uncommon. We’ve allowed populations to get really high.’’
So why should we care about salamanders, toads, frogs, snakes and turtles?
The are a key part of the ecosystem. They feed on critters and other animals feed on them.
“The reason reptiles and amphibians should be in the ecosystem is the same reason that butterflies, bees, songbirds, game birds and mammals should be: They are part of the system,’’ Moriarty said.
Said Hall: “As Aldo Leopold said, the first part of tinkering is to save all the pieces. Amphibians are like the canary in the coal mine: when we see a population decline, it’s a clue we’re doing something wrong.’’
And besides, they’re cool.
“It makes going for a walk in the woods or prairie more interesting,’’ said Moriarty.