by Melissa Groleau
M.S., Department of Biological Sciences
University of South Carolina, Columbia
Department of Biological Sciences
University of South Carolina, Columbia
University of South Carolina students are promoting awareness for reptiles and amphibians through the creation of a new student organization: the Carolina Herpetology Society. Club founder and senior undergraduate student, Ethan Shealy, decided to take time away from his busy schedule to raise awareness of herpetology conservation on campus.
“Most modern biology students are interested in pursuing careers in the medical fields, whereas interest in the field of ecology and evolution is becoming more rare, especially for species that may not be as interesting at the surface level as something like primates or dolphins,” Ethan says. “This club is an important step in the right direction because these organisms are essential to our ecosystems, especially in the southeastern U.S. which has some of the richest reptile and amphibian diversity in the world for its latitude. Our incredible array of species is important to both the history and future of our local environment, and deserves to be appreciated and protected.”
So far, the club has explored various trails within Congaree National Park, while taking proper COVID precautions as the members learn safe herping practices (herping is a term used within the hobby to describe searching for reptile/amphibian species in the wild). Techniques include avoiding the use of bug spray when handling animals and always attempting to “leave no trace” when searching for critters. Matthew Duggan, a junior at USC, says, “Coming into the club, not knowing much about the reptiles that live in our area, Ethan has done an extraordinary job of bringing a valuable learning experience to the USC campus during COVID. Going out into the Congaree swamp with just a couple of ‘herp’ enthusiasts really opens another world to the slimy and scaled creatures that call this environment their home.”
“In our virtual meetings, we discuss topics such as how to responsibly care for reptiles and amphibians . . . supporting sustainable or ethical practices,” Ethan says. “Although COVID has posed some challenges, this first semester was a huge success. I originally foresaw only a few students being interested, but since putting this together we have gained more than twenty members and have had a good turnout to the meetings and expeditions. I have to thank Jake Zadik from the South Carolina branch of Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (SCPARC) for helping to provide resources to our members. Next semester we hope to arrange presentations from a variety of herpetology professionals so that they can talk to our members about their research and/or experience in the field. We have also worked with the on-campus Office of Sustainability to have our club’s events ‘Green Certified,’ pledging that we will do our best to limit the impacts that our gatherings have on the environment.”
In the future, the club hopes to spread the word about specific herping techniques to the public, especially private landowners, in an attempt to increase awareness and promote conservation efforts. Simple, flat cover laid on the ground provides areas for reptiles and amphibians to hide and regulate their body temperature, and checking underneath the material regularly can offer a glimpse into the wildlife that call the area home. The type of cover to be used depends on the target species: sheets of tin will warm up in the sun and be used by larger snakes, and thin wooden boards or even tar paper are often used by smaller burrowing animals such as salamanders. South Carolina landowners or those who are simply interested in native wildlife can contact the SCPARC to learn more about herping techniques or getting involved in other ways.
The state, largely driven by the hard work of SCDNR, has also made great strides in the world of herpetological conservation this past year. The South Carolina General Assembly recently passed Act 177 which provides much needed protection for reptiles and amphibians in South Carolina.
According to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, “Changes to state statutes recently signed into law by Gov. Henry McMaster, as well as corresponding state regulations developed by S.C. Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologists and effective as of October 19, 2020, bring wide-ranging protections to many of the state’s native reptile and amphibian populations that have, until now, been vulnerable to commercial exploitation and even ‘black-market’ trading. These new laws and regulations include penalties for illegal sale, trade, and in some cases possession, of these animals. They also include a provision to allow S.C. residents with existing turtle collections that exceed the new limits to legally register them with SCDNR.”
Our state has long been a hot-spot for abuse and exploitation of native species, but this new law is a promising step forward. Over-harvesting from wild populations drives species’ health and population numbers down to a point where they can end up on the road to extinction. The new law restricts the number of some species that can be possessed by an individual and prevents the sale and commercialization of certain species, most at risk of collection from the wild. The bill also allows the regulation of certain invasive species which have the potential to become established and harm local ecosystems, and makes the release of non-native species into the wild illegal, as many other states have already done.
The law provides significant protection for native turtles, as South Carolina is home to multiple sought-after species such as eastern box turtles and diamondback terrapins which are both in high demand in the pet trade around the world. The passing of this law was a considerable victory for reptiles and amphibians across the Southeast — because where there is a lack of regulation, poachers find ways to illegally collect these species and launder them in regions where protection is weak.
“In my opinion,” Ethan says, “these policies are a great compromise because they offer crucial protection for our iconic species, but do not completely prohibit keeping or interacting with the animals. I believe that it is important for responsible pet owners and educators to share with the public what makes reptiles and amphibians so incredible, and to remind everyone why we should protect them in the wild. Hopefully, through this legislation South Carolina will offer a stronger future for these native species, as well as foster the public’s appreciation of them.”
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.