Herps of Arkansas
Herps are reptiles and amphibians. The word derives from the Greek herpeton for "reptile" and herpein "to crawl". These lower life forms, the ectothermic tetrapods, were historically grouped into a single field of study: herpetology. In regard to physical appearance, amphibians typically have slimy, scaleless skin while reptiles have dry, scaly skin. However, greater disparity is observed in their respective standard life cycles. Amphibians live a "double life": gelatinous eggs are laid in water, larva are simple and aquatic before undergoing metamorphosis, with adults living terrestrially. Reptiles lay a complex, shelled, amniotic egg on land, with young hatching as miniatures of the adults.
Arkansas is a state rich in natural habitats
and the 115 total reptile and amphibian species are a reflection of that diversity. While many species, such as the commonplace American Bullfrog
, Three-toed Box Turtle
, and Texas Ratsnake
, occur in suitable habitats state-wide, others are confined to specific geographic regions. In the Ozark Plateaus, for example, one might catch a glimpse of the bright orange Cave Salamander
at the mouth of a limestone cave. In the Ouachita Mountains, one might cross the impressive, though rarely seen, Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake
in rocky and rugged terrain, or perhaps turn a log at higher elevation to find a true Arkansas endemic: the Fourche Mountain Salamander
. In the West Gulf Coastal Plain, one might find the diminutive Dwarf Salamander
within damp leaf litter. In the Mississippi River Alluvial Plain, heavy spring rains will bring out the plump and boisterous Eastern Spadefoot
. The geologically isolated Crowley's Ridge is still home to the Midwestern Wormsnake
, although the Spotted Dusky Salamander
is likely now extirpated
from the same region due to habitat alterations. A few prairie-adapted species of the Southwest, such as the Great Plains Skink
, just edge into the state. Two exotic/introduced species, the Mediterranean Gecko
and Seal Salamander
, and known to have established breeding populations in the state.
Arkansas's largest reptile is the American Alligator
. While its ancient, 40-foot long relatives from over 100 million years ago were literally dinosaur-eaters, today's relatives come in well short of this on size, but perhaps matched in reputation. In reality, Alligators are extremely leery of humans and direct confrontations (at least those initiated by Alligators) are almost unheard of; an exception being made for females who will guard their nests quite fiercely against any
perceived threat. By the early 1970's, the truly fearsome (us humans!) had nearly turned the tables so that the population of Alligators in the state had dropped to a mere couple thousand. A conservation effort was initiated to bolster the numbers and reestablish their range with stock from Louisiana. The species responded, so that today it is relatively common in suitable swampy habitats in the southern half of the state. Even as it retains federal protection, a heavily-regulated hunting season was initiated in 2007.
The 12 species of Arkansas lizards
, although few in number, represent several disparate families. Along with the snakes, they comprise a biological group called the squamates (which modern phylogenies recognize as the only true
reptiles). There is the legless and snake-like Western Slender Glass Lizard
. On open glades of the Ozark Plateaus and Ouachita Mountains one might spot a colorful male Eastern Collared Lizard
(shown right) perched atop a lookout rock where it will bask and chase away competitors. The well-camouflaged, rough-scaled Prairie Lizard
is a rather typical, though successful, lizard species that ranges across half of the continental United States. For a change, one might consider the "American Chameleon" (more properly called a Northern Green Anole
), which has an amazing ability to match backgrounds of brown, gray, or green. Several smooth-scaled species of skink, including the common Five-lined Skink
, may scurry through the leaf litter and are well-known for their easily detachable tails which wiggle independently as a distraction for would-be predators. Then there is the speedster, the Prairie Racerunner
, that even carries racing stripes
The most maligned and least understood are the snakes
. While many, out of fear, consider the only good snake as a dead snake, others value their uniqueness, beauty, and rightful place in the natural world. Of the 37 total species that occur in the state, only 6 are venomous
. The venomous
pitvipers, such as the moccasins (Southern Copperhead
and Western Cottonmouth
) and rattle-bearing rattlesnakes (Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake
, Timber Rattlesnake
, and Western Pygmy Rattlesnake
), have heat-sensing pits and long foldable fangs through which they inject venom
to subdue their prey. The rare and mesmerizing Texas Coralsnake
(shown left) is a timid and secretive venomous
, front-fixed-fanged snake of the extreme southwestern part of the state. The super-group colubrids include such diverse species as the lightning-fast North American Racer
, to the arboreal
and insect-eating Northern Rough Greensnake
, and even the smallest species in the state, the Flat-headed Snake
. While gardening, one might turn up the smallish, collared Ring-necked Snake
with its belly of bright yellows, oranges, and reds. Along the waterways, one is likely to encounter one of several species of nonvenomous, fish-eating water snakes, such as the common and dull-colored Plain-bellied Watersnake
. Even in town, one will occasionally spot a striped Eastern Gartersnake
darting through the grass.
can trace their lineage back 220 million years! The basic body plan, with its protective bony shell (but at the expense of greater speed), has obviously proven to be a successful design. Arkansas has 16 representative species, most of which are semiaquatic
. The large and powerful snapping turtles, including the monstrous Alligator Snapping Turtle
, are formidable predators and one is well-advised to steer clear of their strong bite! Several species of water turtles, such as the Ouachita Map Turtle
, are renowned baskers that will plop off logs into the water at the slightest of provocations. In this group is also the commonplace Red-eared Slider
, infamous for the Salmonella-spreading babies sold in the pet trade of the 1970's. The two species of box turtles, such as the uncommon, prairie-dwelling Ornate Box Turtle
, are the only true terrestrial
turtles found in the state. Digging through the muck at the bottom of lakes and ponds, one will find the mud and musk turtles, including a state favorite: the Razor-backed Musk Turte
. For a true spin on the turtle design, the highly aquatic
and swift-swimming softshells, such as the Spiny Softshell
(shown right), have flat, rubbery shells of mostly cartilage.
As you may have now heard or read, frogs
are in desperate peril! A highly-infectious chytrid fungus has spread worldwide and has decimated frog populations without mercy wherever it goes. (Sadly, it has already played a part in the extinction
of over 160 species in recent years!) Yet, while frogs are faced with this ominous, real-life silent spring
, the 22 species found in Arkansas have thus far avoided any obvious calls for alarm. There should, however, continue to be monitoring and concern, as it would be a true shame to lose our vocal little friends: the harbingers of spring and melodic soundtracks for warm summer nights. One need not go far during the warmer months to enjoy their presence by sight or sound. Many who keep a porch-light lit have a resident toad or two, such as the Fowler's Toad
, who eagerly slurp up insects attracted to the light and in the morning leave little pelleted-presents
on the sidewalk. Difficult to see as they climb through the foliage with sticky toe-pads, but commonly heard are the arboreal
treefrogs, such as the Green Treefrog
(shown left). Below one's feet are the highly fossorial
, ant-eating narrow-mouthed toads, such as the Eastern Narrow-mouthed Toad
. Numerous species of aquatic true
frogs, including the Southern Leopard Frog
, splish-splash into the water as one walks along the shoreline of a pond. Finally, there are the burrowing spadefoots, such as the Hurter's Spadefoot
, that emerge only during heavy rains to breed and feed in explosive fashion, and then disappear
for another year.
The group with the greatest diversity, but perhaps least appreciated, are the salamanders
. A total of 27 species occur in Arkansas. The plump, aptly-named mole salamanders are represented, among others, by a fall breeder of the Ozarks Plateaus: the Ringed Salamander
(shown right). Truly eel-like in appearance and fully aquatic
(although not closely related) are the Three-toed Amphiuma
and Western Lesser Siren
. Another grotesquely-beautiful aquatic
species of cold, pristine rivers in northeastern Arkansas is the Ozark Hellbender
which has experienced alarming declines in recent times and is, in fact, in serious danger of extinction
. It should, however, not be confused with the more common, though similar-looking, Red River Mudpuppy
. A large, diverse group of plethodontid lungless salamanders include the likes of the ghostly, cave-dwelling Grotto Salamander
, the aptly-named Four-toed Salamander
(for front and
back feet), and the glue
-extruding Western Slimy Salamander
. A final representative would be the granular-skinned Central Newt
, which has a unique, terrestrial teenage
) life cycle stage before returning to the water full-time in adulthood.
Herps of Arkansas
The mission of this website is to distribute and share knowledge regarding the naturally occurring reptiles and amphibians of Arkansas. Efforts will be made to dispel misconceptions and fears. Information will be presented in a healthy, environmentally-conscious manner to promote the beauty, fascination, and value of these spectacular animals!
This website is targeted toward:
- Anyone who has a general interest in our natural world and herptiles in particular.
- Anyone who has a question about snakes (or other herptiles) and is wanting it answered by people who really know.
- Students who are looking for information to include in book reports, presentations, etc.
- Professionals, semi-professionals, and knowledgeable amateurs who wish to share and distribute knowledge.
This website has been developed around the concept of community. The Forum provides a place for people to make announcements, ask questions, start discussions, offer feedback, and share knowledge. New visitors are encouraged to register on the Forum so they can introduce themselves and get started. Most site pages are editable by forum members through the use of a Wiki interface. Members are encouraged to contribute their own additions, corrections, and improvements to the site content. Members are also encouraged to submit their relevant photographs to the site's Flickr Group for inclusion in the species picture galleries.
Arkansas Herpetological Societies
Photographs and other materials presented on this website are used by permission of individual copyright holders. Requests to use photographs (or other materials) for purposes outside of this venue should be directed to the individual copyright holders. Contact the webmaster for assistance should you need help contacting a copyright holder.
This website is intended for educational and entertainment purposes only. It makes no guarantees as to the accuracy, usefulness, or completeness of information. Animal handling techniques as presented in pictures and/or text should not be considered an adequate substitute for proper training and experience, nor should one assume these always represent best practices. If you choose to handle--or come into close proximity to--reptiles or amphibians you do so at your own risk.