What can herping tell us about the nature of Texas?


I have a hobby that I reckon comes off as strange to a lot of people: I delight in searching for and finding reptiles and amphibians. Among the public, I do not doubt that an overwhelming majority of people would say it is a downright weird hobby to have. Now, this may seem reasonable to many of our naturalist readers (heck, most naturalist types have some sort of narrow interest among the many offered by nature), but not all naturalistic pursuits are created equal. I’d even argue that, among naturalist types, a person like me—eager to pick up a snake or to stop and listen to the chorusing of frogs—is a little bit “out there.”

Romey Swanson photographing a Roundtail Horned Lizard

Romey Swanson photographing a Roundtail Horned Lizard

Scientists refer to reptiles and amphibians together as herptiles, or herps for short. Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way so we can move on: herptiles and the similar-sounding virus both share a Greek root which translates to creep or crawl. One creeps on the skin (herpes) while the other creeps along the ground (herptiles). This creeping habit, combined with scaly or slimy skin and a few well-known, sometimes-dangerous snakes, contributes to herps being one of the most poorly understood and maligned groups of animals in the world. My goal is to change that.

Texas has a well-deserved reputation for being a place of vast spaces, iconic landscapes, and stunning beauty. Our central position within the continent combines with an incredible spectrum of rainfall, elevation, and underlying geology to create a wellspring of biological diversity. With around 220 species of herps, Texas supports more herp diversity than any other state—it isn’t even close. We even have around a dozen species that are endemic, meaning they occur nowhere else in the world except Texas.

Photograph by Romey Swanson of a Harmless Diamondback Water Snake (close up) from Hershey Ranch in Gillespie County

Photograph by Romey Swanson of a Harmless Diamondback Water Snake (close up) from Hershey Ranch in Gillespie County

Working farms, ranches, and forests support this richness in herp diversity. But not every tract of land offers that special sauce necessary for every species to thrive. Combine this concept with the fact that Texas has lost over 2.2 million acres of these working lands during the past 20 years—a figure that leads the nation—and it’ll come as no surprise that around 65 species, or nearly 30%, of herps are considered at risk within the 2016 Texas Conservation Action Plan. This means that the principles of land stewardship—an ethical relationship with the land—and thoughtful consideration of the needs of wildlife are critical to the continued viability of these declining animals. The good news is that stellar examples of balance exist all around us. Many landowners across Texas take the voluntary concept of stewardship seriously while toiling to keep their operations viable.

We must continue to recognize and support the work of Texas landowners—particularly those who voluntarily bear the responsibility of managing our declining wildlife species. And we must continue to develop and cultivate relevant tools that bring value to and limit liabilities on these landowners. Organizations like Hill Country Conservancy are doing this work every day. However, we all have a role to play. Whether landowner, nature enthusiast, outdoor volunteer, or newsletter subscriber, we must all recognize that Texas supports an amazing abundance of unique and interesting wildlife, and it is our responsibility to ensure that it continues this way today and into the future. We must appreciate that the growth and development that support our communities and economies are resulting in significant challenges to land and wildlife. We, as supporters of Hill Country Conservancy, are contributing to conservation success through our support. Whether through our donations, volunteering, reading and sharing of conservation updates, or through advocacy, we all have a path to make meaningful contributions.

Spot-tailed Earless Lizard from a ranch in Kimble County photographed by Romey Swanson

Spot-tailed Earless Lizard from a ranch in Kimble County photographed by Romey Swanson

At the beginning of this note I mentioned my herp-related hobby. I’ve taken this hobby and turned it into a passion project—endeavoring to observe and photograph as many different species as possible during this calendar year. With this Herping Texas 2021 effort, I aim to celebrate this incredible wildlife diversity by observing and photographing as many herp species as possible. At nearly 170 species so far, I have enjoyed observing the winter migrations of East Texas salamanders, all-female tribes of lizard, and foul-smelling turtles known from only a single creek basin of the Chihuahuan Desert. Here in the Hill Country, I have become more familiar with the relationship between our aquifers and the tiny spring salamanders that depend on them, while also celebrating the reintroduction of Texas horned lizards after a decades-long absence. No matter your interest, nature is full of surprises and wonder, if only we wonder with open eyes and open mind.

If you’d like to learn more about Texas’ herps and other wildlife, visit my blog at www.moderntexasnaturalist.com or follow me on Instagram @romeyswanson.wildlife. If you have any questions or want to connect more directly, feel free to write to ModernTexasNaturalist@gmail.com