Many years ago (it feels like at this point) I ventured over to Missouri in May. I got a lot of ticks and even more lifers. (When out naturalizing, always keep the lifer species/ticks ratio above 2:1, or you should get out of there as quickly as possible.) Given a chance to go to Missouri just before finals week, my friends and I, as part of the Southern Illinois University Herpetology Club, decided to go back to the same areas and look for reptiles, amphibians, and whatever we could find.
… or none of the above because it was cool and rainy much of the weekend. Furthermore, I failed to pack a sleeping bag, and decided to sleep in my car instead with a spare blanket I’d packed . This proved to be a brilliant idea when thunderstorms struck up at 3 AM. We eventually drove over to a nearby state park, Johnson’s Shut In’s State Park *cue my friend Kyle saying “what a weird name for a state park!”* and waited for the rain to pass a bit before venturing out into the trail system.
Johnson’s Shut Ins State Park lies in the St. Francois Mountains of the Ozark Plateau. These low mountains have deep, carved valleys through hard igneous rock, and in some spots the rock has decided not to erode entirely, forming unique formations that “shut” the rivers “in” to narrow channels between large masses of stone:
As it was still quite damp post-rain, we quickly found… nothing, as with the damp was cool, cloudy weather. We did eventually find a Central Newt under a log, near where I found the Fire Pink flower above. Central Newts live in water as tadpoles and fully-grown adults, but in between they are terrestrial and live as efts, shown below. They’re basically the determined young adult who moves out of the dull, boring Midwest off to “somewhere else” before deciding they have to come back here for a job and family, and reluctantly settle down anyway.
This time away from the newt homeland is a brief period of rebellion during which the newt is quite toxic to anyone in contact with it (well, I wouldn’t rub newt skin on a cut or put it in my mouth, at any life stage.) The newt advertises its toxins by having orange skin with brighter orange spots as a warning. If you want to be really scientific, that’s aposematic coloration… I’m toxic, don’t touch me. Some people would do well to have aposematic coloration, for the benefit of those around them. Moving on.
On the nearby oak trees we found strange inflated ball-like structures attached to the leaves. Splitting one open revealed a bizarre urchin-like structure hiding within, fusing around a central core.
These unique galls are the result of a wasp, the Spongy Oak-Apple Gall Wasp, which forms these unique “oak-apples” as some people call them. Inside the center is the larval wasp, feeding on plant tissues until it grows to be an adult. While not exactly beneficial to the tree, these growths rarely become a serious harm, either.
Walking further along the trail, we came to rocky openings in the woods, known as glades. This is a rhyolite glade, if I recall correctly. Glades are formed due to thin soils on rocky hillsides, and they support unique animals and plants from all over the Midwest, both endemic and otherwise.
They are often full of herps hiding under the rocks, and we got lucky with this coiled-up Yellow-bellied Racer hiding peacefully under a rock. Yellow-bellied Racers are a subspecies of North American Racers, including the Southern Black Racers and Blue Racers I’ve seen previously.
Another new form/species/genetic variation of a species I’ve seen already is this Western Slimy Salamander. Western Slimy Salamanders are close relations to the Northern Slimy Salamanders I’m used to finding in Southern Illinois, potentially even the same species although they were recently split thanks to genetics.
In similar fashion, the Prairie Lizard above is split off from the Eastern Fence Lizard over genetics and range. There’s a lot of this sort of thing when it comes to reptile and amphibian taxonomy in the last two decades, and I wonder how much of it will remain intact in the next two decades.
Skinks scuttled about as the sun rose and cleared away the clouds. We came down to a blue pool of the Black River and rested by it.
From there it was a haul back to the beginning, where we stopped at an overlook and spotted an overlooked turtle.
This is a River Cooter, one of our most-wanted to see turtles and a reptile of clean water systems in the Southeast. It was a pleasant surprise as we left.
Oh, but the blogpost doesn’t end here… I know. We next went to a beautiful glade on a nearby mountaintop, from which the St. Francois Mountains were visible as low ridges, typically miles long and only a thousand or so feet high. Look, the term mountains is generous, I know.
On the thin glade soils prairie plants bloomed, such as these Birdsfoot Violets with their two-toned petals. We looked about for lizards and snakes with limited success in terms of lizards and no success in terms of snakes.
Just as we were about to leave, Shawn found this Three-toed Box Turtle male in full Darth Maul colors. The shells of Three-toed Box Turtles are far plainer than those of Eastern Box Turtles, but the head stands out like a burning coal. It was an excellent find to wrap up our first full day in Missouri, and we pulled off a few ticks and wandered back to the campsite.