The Vermont Herp Atlas 1994 to the present

Before 1995, we suspect that many people had assumed that the distributions of the reptiles and amphibians of Vermont were already well known. A look at our 1995 maps of even the more common species made it clear that they were not. The Vermont portions of the distribution maps that you may have seen in regional and national field guides were primarily based on educated guesses. Generating those maps was an exercise not unlike connecting the dots. The dots were the original locations of a limited number of museum specimens or records that had been described in the scientific literature. The lack of records outside of that drawn boundary in many cases was simply because no one had ever looked in the right habitat at the right time of year and under the right weather conditions to locate that species. Even if a species had been located and identified by people living in a given area, most often this information did not get to the people making the maps. This atlas project serves as a conduit for that information. New national and regional field guides continue to update their maps with our ever-improving information.

The direct ancestor of the website that you are now visiting was the Preliminary Atlas of the Reptiles and Amphibians of Vermont, published in April of 1995. The evolution of that original effort is explained below by Mark DesMeules in his introduction to that document. The Preliminary Atlas was designed to display the data already collected and serve as motivation for the gathering of new records. The data were needed to provide reliable information on which to base the conservation status of Vermont’s reptiles and amphibians and to provide a baseline of known distribution at the turn of the century. Those goals have since been expanded to include the education of Vermonters about the identification, natural history, and conservation of Vermont’s herpetofauna and the gathering of new natural history data on all aspects of herptile life in Vermont.

To produce both the Preliminary Atlas and more recent Atlases, data had to be gathered, evaluated for its reliability, entered into a database, and maps and accompanying documents created. Hardcopies had to be organized, filed, maintained, and updated, and funds generated to sustain it all. (We would like to thank our financial contributors for their support.) This task was originally contracted to Jim Andrews and overseen by the Reptile and Amphibian Scientific Advisory Group. Since the publication of the Preliminary Atlas, the process has continued under the supervision of Jim Andrews. The database and hard copies reside at the office of the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas in Salisbury, Vermont. Annual updates are transferred to the Vermont Natural Heritage Inventory (VNHI) of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department in Montpelier.

Concurrent with these efforts are scores of slide-shows, field trips, workshops, interviews, and newspaper and magazine articles designed to educate Vermont residents about Vermont reptiles and amphibians and motivate them to help. In 1998 updated maps were produced primarily for in-house use. These maps helped direct field efforts to those species and towns most in need. During the fall of 2000, a new set of maps were created and made available on this website, together with many of the supporting documents now found here. This was repeated in 2005, 2013, and 2019, with new pages added each time.

Thanks to increased survey effort, the Vermont reptile and amphibian database has grown to over 100,000 records and has proven to be a valuable source of Vermont herpetological data. As of December 2017 we have had over 7,000 contributors. Contributors range in age from elementary school students to retirees and in experience from novices to professional herpetologists. Some individuals have put in hundreds of hours and others a few minutes. The maps for many of the common species are quickly being filled in. For example, between 1995 and 2001, we added 106 new town records for Green Frogs and 93 new town records for Eastern Red-backed Salamanders. However, all records eventually become historic and newer sightings need to be added to our database. In addition, since many more people now carry cameras regularly, we are trying to get photo-documentation of all species from all towns. So, your help is still needed to fill in the remaining gaps, provide photos, and update records for all Vermont reptiles and amphibians and continue the progress that has already been made.

Currently, the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas is an independent program, working in partnership with many organizations and individuals. We are pleased to be working with Vermont Family Forests as our fiscal agent. Vermont Family Forests is a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization with shared conservation goals. All our funds come from outside grants, contributions, and the sale of posters and atlases.

The History and Purpose of the 1995 Preliminary Atlas

Mark P. DesMeules
Former Chair, Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Scientific Advisory Group*

The idea for the Preliminary Atlas can be traced back nearly 143 years to the publication of Zadock Thompson’s Natural History of Vermont in 1853. Included in this natural history treatise was the first list of reptiles and amphibians for Vermont. This information became the baseline to which future inventory work was compared. Beginning with this point in Vermont’s natural history, I will share with you the historical perspective describing key events which bring us to where we are today. Today, we finally have Vermont’s first species-by-species state-wide distribution maps for all reptiles and amphibians known to occur in Vermont.

During the 143 years between Zadock Thompson’s publication and this mapping effort, dozens of amateur and professional herpetologists have been active in Vermont. They traveled to sites throughout the State and much of what they found is reflected in this publication. Some of their work indicates an interest in a specific species as exemplified by the multiple Winooski River records of the Spiny Softshell collected by Lewis H. Babbitt. Others, in contrast, reflect more of a general interest in recording the presence of whatever species were encountered. Vermont never attracted the degree of interest among herpetologists that other more southern states did. This is reflected in the limited number of collection records prior to 1965. During the late 1960’s and 1970’s there was almost no collection due in part to the lack of emphasis placed on traditional natural history pursuits such as inventory and taxonomy.

There was no attempt to consolidate Vermont herp knowledge in printed form until Charles Johnson published his book entitled The Nature of Vermont in 1980. This followed Zadock Thompson’s publication by 127 years and marked the first of a series of events leading up to and ultimately resulting in this publication. The Nature of Vermont includes a compilation of our knowledge of reptile and amphibian distributions in Vermont. This book also helped to galvanize a great deal of interest among many of us who have had our own field experience with reptiles and amphibians in the State.

Vermont adopted its first endangered species list for plants in 1935. In 1975, for the very first time in this century, a group of zoologists, botanists, and ecologists gathered to discuss species rarity for the purpose of developing Vermont’s first comprehensive list of rare, threatened and endangered species. This action marked another step towards improving our knowledge of all Vermont flora and fauna, including reptiles and amphibians.

While State endangered species were being considered, the Nature Conservancy was beginning to develop a process, based on rare species presence, for selecting land conservation projects. This local effort began in 1980 and later became part of the regional Natural Heritage Program. The Conservancy’s basic list of rare plants, animals and natural communities was established by compiling state-wide information using historic records, interviews with knowledgeable individuals, and conducting original field inventories. All of this work led to a better understanding of the distributions of both rare and common occurrences of plants, animals and natural communities.

The Nature Conservancy’s Heritage Program methodology was introduced in Vermont and throughout New England in 1983. This program marked a turning point for inventory of not just reptiles and amphibians but for all flora, fauna and natural communities in the state. The Biological Conservation Database, an integral component of the heritage inventory, provides a central location for housing records which were generated by countless hours of work searching the literature, private collections, museum collections, field notes, and an active inventory to fill in the information gaps.

In 1983, public and professional interest spurred the creation of the Vermont Endangered Species Committee. This Committee recognized the value of establishing advisory groups to focus on the status of various taxa in Vermont. The Endangered Species Subcommittee for Reptiles and Amphibians was established in 1983. It was this group, subsequently called the Reptile and Amphibian Advisory Group that recommended the listing of the following species: the Chorus frog (Pseudacris triseriata in the 1995 edition, currently classified as Pseudacris maculata), Timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) and the Five-lined skink (Eumeces fasciatus in the 1995 edition; currently classified as Plestiodon fasciatus), listed as Endangered; the Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera) and the Spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) listed as Threatened. This Advisory Group also identified the need for a state-wide snapshot in time of reptile and amphibian distributions leading to the decision to compile and publish the Preliminary Atlas of the Reptiles and Amphibians of Vermont.

This publication, for the very first time in the history of Vermont herpetology, provides an important reference for current and future professional and amateur herpetologists in Vermont. It brings together the records of scores of individuals some long since gone, others still living and still roaming the fields and forests, streams and bogs of the Green Mountain state. It is meant to present what we know today about the state-wide distribution of individual species and identify gaps in this knowledge. Beyond this, we hope it will encourage others to step forward and fill in some of the gaps so evident in many of the maps, either through work of their own or through knowledge of collection records which may have been missed during our research. We also hope that it will stimulate research to learn more about even our most common reptiles and amphibians. We wish all of you “good luck in the field.”

* Mark DesMeules was chair of the Reptile and Amphibian Scientific Advisory Group at the time the idea for an atlas was conceived.