March–April 2021


Frogs and Toads and Snakes, Oh My!

DNR herpetologist Carol Hall reflects on a career dedicated to the cold and slithery.

For DNR herpetologist Carol Hall, it all began with a lizard whose tail popped off. Growing up on the banks of the Mississippi River, Hall often encountered wildlife. But it’s when she picked up a skink and it eluded her grasp by shedding its still-wriggling tail and scurrying away that Hall began her fascination with all things cold and slithery. “It just captured me,” she recalls. “Nature has a way of doing that to you.” Since 1991, as a member of the Minnesota Biological Survey program of the DNR, she has spent much of her time capturing, counting, identifying, and protecting more than 50 species of native herps—frogs, turtles, snakes, salamanders, and lizards. Hall is coauthor with John Moriarty of Amphibians and Reptiles in Minnesota (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), the definitive guide to these creatures.

Q | How did you get your start with the DNR?

I earned my master’s degree at the University of Minnesota, studying Blanding’s turtles. That made me appreciate the greater world of reptiles and learn techniques needed to capture them. This led to a position as a herpetologist with MBS in 1991, working to identify Minnesota’s biological diversity.

Q | I’m sure there’s no such thing as a typical day for you. But if there were, what would it look like?

I get out in the field a fair amount. Turtle surveys could involve wading into muddy wetlands to set hoop nets or scanning for basking turtles along sandy riverbanks. To survey salamanders, we go into wetlands with traps or dip nets to capture adult or larval forms, or simply search for egg masses. It requires knowing all life stages of individual species and the most opportune times and techniques to capture or document what is present. Sometimes it involves searching grasslands or bluff prairies for snakes or skinks. We measure whatever we capture, collect biological data such as length and weight, male or female, adult or juvenile. We occasionally collect DNA, so I might also take a little tissue sample. We’ve also been doing more monitoring—which could involve marking individuals and putting transmitters on them to track their habitat use and movements.

Q | Any particularly memorable moments?

One of the highlights for anyone in MBS is finding new records, particularly new state records. For me, a highlight was in 1994 during a collaborative project with the U.S. Forest Service, we documented the first four- toed salamander in Minnesota. It was a huge surprise and was pretty exciting—we haven’t found too many vertebrates new to the state.

Q | What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Just finding these animals is challenging! Knowing their life history and the best time and techniques to use to capture them. I’m jealous of my colleagues who work with birds. They don’t need to carry around a whole bunch of equipment. They just walk around with binoculars and a clipboard and watch and listen. Of course, they do need to be able to identify over 200 species of birds by sight and sound.

Q | Why do you do what you do?

I find it rewarding. The citizens of Minnesota have a strong interest in our natural world. Even folks who don’t like snakes appreciate know- ing that the populations are secure and part of a healthy, functioning ecosystem. Also, I really enjoy working with folks, both within and outside the DNR, who are dedicated to protecting our natural diversity.

Q | What’s next for you?

We’re looking at returning to certain areas that have been surveyed before but need another look, and also turning to monitoring selected populations. Efforts previously were giving us a snap- shot during the time we were there. Monitoring is really what’s needed to determine if populations are declining. We’re also pursuing eDNA— taking a sample of water and having it analyzed for environmental DNA [to identify what animals are in the vicinity]. We’re hoping to pursue that within the next year.

Q | What can Minnesotans do to help protect amphibians and reptiles?

Don’t bring them home. Appreciate or admire them where they are. If you have animals in captivity, don’t release them. Provide habitat in your yard—put out landscaping rocks or have a water feature, and just learn about them. Donate to the Nongame Wildlife Program or other conservation organizations. Watch out for herps on the road. Check your window wells. Get out and become more acquainted with nature, with amphibians and reptiles. Appreciate the diversity of habitats in Minnesota and the species that depend on them to survive.