Herpetofauna (or “Herps”) is how scientists named the group that combines amphibians and reptiles. Herps are ectotherms—animals that depend on external sources to maintain a
constant body temperature. Instead of their metabolism, sweating or shivering, they use behavior and the environment to regulate body heat by lying in the sun to raise their body temperature, or choosing shade or water to cool down.
Amphibians and reptiles have many similarities, along with some big differences.
Amphibians include salamanders, frogs and toads. They usually eat insects and other small invertebrates, providing significant pest control. Amphibian skin is moist and permeable. This allows amphibians to breathe through their skin, although many amphibians use various ways of breathing at various stages of their lives.
Permeable skin also lets pollutants from the environment pass through the skin into the body. These pollutants can harm or even kill the animal. This is one reason amphibians are an indicator of environmental health. They cannot survive in polluted water, and are among the first to disappear when a habitat changes.
Amphibians have complex and varied lives. Frogs and some salamanders lay eggs in water, and their young hatch as aquatic larvae but live their adult lives on land or a combination of land and water. Some amphibians lay eggs on land in moist places. Amphibian eggs do not have shells, and, like adults, are vulnerable to pollutants.
Please observe amphibians from a distance. Sunscreen and bug spray on our hands can be absorbed through their skin and poison the amphibians.
There are nearly 20 species of frogs, toads and salamanders in Northern Virginia, including tree frogs, spring peepers, and the American Bullfrog – the largest frog in North America!
Check them out at:
Reptiles include snakes, lizards, turtles and crocodilians. Many reptiles spend their entire lives on land, and all use lungs to breathe. Unlike amphibians, reptiles have scaly, impermeable skin that does not need to stay moist. Reptilian diet varies and can include small vertebrates such as birds, mice and frogs; invertebrates such as insects and crustaceans; and plants. Most reptiles lay leathery-shelled eggs on dry land, while some snakes give birth to live young.
Herps play important roles in the ecosystem. Some are predators that help keep insects and rodents in check. Others are prey for fish, birds, mammals and reptiles. Herps are an indicator of environmental health. Throughout northern Virginia, herp populations are declining due to habitat loss and fragmentation, traffic and pollution.
Habitat is lost when a natural area is converted into a developed area that herps no longer can use. Filling in low-lying areas to level land eliminates pools they use to breed, hide or cool off.
Clearing forests removes shelter, food, nesting and hibernation sites. Habitats are fragmented when roads, neighborhoods, shopping centers or other developments divide them, exposing herps to predators, vehicles and the weather as they move between the smaller habitat patches. If development isolates a pond or stream from forest and other protective habitat, mortality rates for herps are especially high.
Turtles and snakes crossing a road and amphibians dispersing from their birth ponds are frequent victims of vehicles, particularly on roads near wetlands. Driving slowly where herps and other wildlife are likely to cross, and installing fences or amphibian tunnels can help protect and reroute the animals.
Sedimentation occurs when rain washes sediment such as exposed soil into streams and ponds. Rainwater runs quickly across impervious surfaces such as concrete, asphalt or buildings, carrying sediment and debris into nearby bodies of water. Sediment clouds the water.
Animals cannot get the oxygen and food they need from the muddy water, and the plants they eat cannot survive.
Rainwater also washes toxins, including pesticides, fertilizers and petroleum products, into waterways and wetlands. Toxins poison amphibians directly through their permeable skin or eggs; herps that eat contaminated prey become sick. Fertilizers can cause algae blooms that reduce oxygen in the water and kill the invertebrates that amphibians eat. Insecticides reduce herps’ food supply, as insects make up much of their prey.
Habitat at Willowsford can provide refuge for these fragile species. The Conservancy maintains ponds, streams, wetlands and riparian buffer areas where reptiles and amphibians can continue to thrive.
You can support amphibians and reptiles by planning for wildlife when you decide how to manage your lawn and garden. Many of the same practices that make your backyard attractive to herps also attract other wildlife such as birds and butterflies.