Jungle Bob

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Tiger Salamanders: Fierce Subterranean Amphibians

Tigers are one of the planet’s most ferocious predators. The largest of all the big cats, these animals are at the top of the food chain in their domain, which once spread across Asia and India.

Unfortunately, human population growth caused a loss of habitat and now these felines are on the verge of extinction. But another tiger lurks here on Long Island: a predator that rules its domain making a meal of anything that can fit into its powerful jaws lined with sharp teeth that snap down on its unsuspecting prey with incredible speed and ferocity.

That predator is the tiger salamander. It’s an amphibian, related to newts, not big furry cats. It is a monster though, growing to lengths of eight inches. It got its name from both its striped coloration and its attitude.

Big cats are known for the ability to hunt using stealth, camouflage, strength and quickness to overpower unsuspecting prey. Tiger salamanders do the same but from a different angle in the stealth and camouflage categories.

They are seldom seen, rarely venturing above the ground. These tigers spend 50 weeks a year underground. They are in a family of amphibians known as mole salamanders, which live like the moles in your yard. Although they are seen occasionally on warm rainy nights in the summer, they usually emerge in early February.

Often there is snow on the ground, but that does not deter these cold-blooded animals. Driven by the urge to pass on their genetics, they amass on the edges of ponds looking for suitable mates, romantically just in time for Valentine’s Day. Once mating is accomplished, they make a hasty retreat underground where they hunt all kinds of prey from earthworms and insects to small rodents, reptiles and other amphibians.

Sadly, tiger salamanders on LI are suffering the same fate as the big Asian cats. Many building projects that were undertaken here never gave a second thought to what lives under the soil. This suburban sprawl not only ruined their habitat, it entombed the mole salamander under parking lots, amusement parks and malls.

Tiger salamanders are still found in small pockets, mostly on the East End, the last stand for this amazing creature in our area. Environmentalists have given the tiger salamander a voice and many builders now have to understand that just because a deer is bounding across a field, doesn’t mean there isn’t wildlife present.

There are tigers in fact! Another amazing animal living a peaceful coexistence on this wild Long Island.  

Jungle Bob’s Reptile World is located at 984 Middle Country Rd. in Selden. It can be reached at junglebobsreptileworld.com 631-737-6474.

Axolotls: Fascinating But Endangered

Axolotls look like salamanders from outer space. (Shuttersto

AXO-WHAT-L?

Axolotls are bizarre: what they look like, how they exist, where they come from, and how and why they recently became so popular. Never heard of them? No worries, you will soon, as these strange amphibians have captured the hearts of pet owners because they are low maintenance, easy to keep, and fascinating to look at.

Axolotls are actually members of the salamander family, and like all amphibians, are born in the water and go through a metamorphosis. Starting as eggs, on to gilled tadpoles/larval stages, then to air-breathing adults. But not the axolotl!

These animals that are native to only two small lakes in the Valley of Mexico take a shortcut. Their metamorphosis takes an abrupt stop at the larval stage; they keep their dangling external gills and spend the rest of their adult days in the water, taking their oxygen from the water like a fish rather than forming lungs and living on land like salamanders. 

These appendages are what attracts axolotl keepers as axolotls look like they are from another planet. But wait, there’s more!

Axolotls are carnivores, and although they have small teeth and can bite, they literally suck their prey down their throats like a vacuum. They are such aggressive eaters that they sometimes nip off their siblings’ feet, legs, or worse.

But no worries, again! The axolotl has unworldly regenerative powers and can quickly grow back feet, limbs and tails, making them highly prized by scientists and in the medical community.

Sadly, overpopulation in Mexico City has led to the depletion of the water levels in these lakes and axolotls have virtually disappeared from the wild. Now considered critically endangered, there are few reports of living wild specimens in recent years.

Thankfully, our fascination with them has kept the species from extinction. Axolotls can bear young at an early age, live up to 20 years and have hundreds of babies at a time. The pet industry is steadily increasing their numbers and hopefully the species will continue in captivity where it can be studied further.

It remains to be seen what can be learned from this amazing animal!

Jungle Bob’s Reptile World is located at 984 Middle Country Road in Selden. It can be reached at junglebobsreptileworld.com 631-737-6474.

Bald Eagles Soar Over Long Island Once Again

Bald eagles soar over LI once more. (Shutterstock)

Growing up on Long Island in the 1960s, I had the pleasure of seeing many wide-open spaces with abundant wildlife. Yearning for more, I devoured animal books and dreamed of seeing lions, hippos, polar bears, and perhaps a raptor.

Their name stems from the Latin rapere, meaning to seize or take by force. Raptors are birds of prey such as hawks, falcons, owls and eagles. With keen eyesight and razor-sharp talons, raptors rule the skies and fascinated me at an early age — although it was unlikely that I would see one from my suburban perch. Once abundant, raptors were tragically decimated when the pesticide DDT weakened their egg shells, which broke or failed to hatch in their nests.

“Using DDT to control mosquitoes was like torpedoing the QE2 to get rid of the rats on board,” said Dennis Puleston, a local environmentalist.

His persistence and the efforts of Silent Spring author Rachel Carson prompted a nationwide DDT ban. The ban worked and slowly raptors’ numbers grew. Red-tailed hawks were the first I spied and they are now commonly seen perched on parkway light poles.

Ospreys, aka fish hawks or sea eagles, are now routinely found along our shores in summer. Birdlovers erect poles with platforms for ospreys to build their magnificent nests. This bird is found on every continent but Antartica and migrates great distances, returning to LI each spring to raise their young.

The raptor species list is long, but the granddaddy of them all, the bald eagle, soars across LI skies once again. Designated our national symbol in 1782, bald eagles once blanketed America with hundreds of thousands of nesting pairs.

Their collapse began when farmers and fishermen shot bald eagles to “protect their livelihoods.”  

Standing three feet tall with six-foot wingspans, they require large trees to nest; habitat loss further reduced their numbers. DDT nearly delivered the final blow when fewer than 500 nesting pairs remained nationwide in the ’60s.   

I saw a bald eagle in the skies over my Islip home recently. I’ve seen a lot of wildlife in dozens of countries, but this sighting choked me up. Seeing its wings spread, talons dangling, that magnificent white head of feathers, eyes piercing, was like a dream come true for me. I understood why our forefathers selected it to represent America.

We live in politically polarizing times, but we should stop, look up and be thankful for who we are, what we have, and what this bird represents: strength, dignity, and tenacity.

Jungle Bob’s Reptile World is located at 984 Middle Country Rd. in Selden. It can be reached at junglebobsreptileworld.com 631-737-6474.

Horseshoe Crabs: Beachy Ancient Miracles

Anyone who has spent time on our beaches has probably seen a hideous-looking creature called the horseshoe crab. This bizarre-looking animal is one of the most successful, important and spectacular species of our marine life.

I was taught to respect my elders, but respecting horseshoes takes this sentiment to another level. Long before dinosaurs roamed the earth, before the first plants blossomed, horseshoes thrived in the primordial soup of the Devonian period 420 million years ago. Elders indeed! But they don’t get much respect from humans who don’t understand them.

For starters, they aren’t crabs. They are classified as chelicerates and are more closely related to spiders than crabs. Second, they are harmless. Although they have a menacing-looking long, tapered, hard tail, it is not a stinger and they don’t raise it in shallow water hoping you will step on it. It is used as a rudder when swimming and as a lever to right themselves. If turned upside down by a wave they may perish from the heat or be killed by predators who make an easy meal of their soft underbelly.

Their populations have suffered terribly in the last 100 years. They arrive on our shores in great numbers in the late spring to mate and spawn, making them easily caught.

In Long Island’s early farming days, millions were mercilessly scooped up, trucked and deposited in fields as fertilizer.

Fishermen used crabs as conch bait (aka scungilli ) and decimated the population. The overharvesting caused a ripple effect in the environment, as the hundreds of millions of eggs deposited annually sustain fish, sea turtles and shorebirds.   

Recently, scientists have wondered how they survived so long. Crabs are true “blue bloods”: Their copper-rich blood turns blue when oxidized, not red. Their blood has amoebocytes that attack any foreign bacteria, fungi or virus that enters the crabs’ blood stream. Armed with this, horseshoes never fall ill to infections.

Their blue blood is now harvested sustainably from the crabs for testing human vaccines. If foreign bodies are present, the blood quickly reveals them, ensuring vaccines are pure and free of toxins. The pharmaceutical community is studying the blood’s properties for a myriad of potential uses and it is currently valued at $15,000 a quart.

So let’s look at horseshoes differently. These creatures deserve respect for how long they have lived, an apology for our misguided actions, and a heartfelt thanks for their contributions to science.

Jungle Bob’s Reptile World is located at 984 Middle Country Rd. in Selden. It can be reached at junglebobsreptileworld.com 631-737-6474.

Long Island’s Toad-ally Misunderstood Amphibians

Fowler’s toads aplenty are found on Fire Island.

We Long Islanders have many options on how to spend our leisure time, with a staggering amount of concerts, museums, exhibits and attractions close by. There are so many that sometimes the natural beauty surrounding us takes a back seat.

Not for me, though. I go out of my way to find these natural places and one of my favorites is Fire Island, a small wisp of land with unique habitats including dunes, marshes and sunken forests. Wildlife abounds here, but there is one small misunderstood inhabitant: the toad.

This remarkable amphibian is often mistaken for a frog, which is a close cousin, but they are completely different animals. Toads are found across America but on Fire Island there is only one species: Fowler’s toad. As nocturnal animals, they are seen less often than shorebirds or white-tailed deer, but they are here in greater numbers.

Toads, like frogs, start life in pools of fresh water. In the spring, massive amounts of eggs are deposited in ponds, lakes and any standing pool of water. There toads undergo remarkable metamorphosis, transforming from egg to tadpole and on to adulthood in one summer.

Amphibians need moisture to survive as summer temperatures would simply dry them up. Their frog cousins stay in or near the body of water they were born in, but toads get out of the heat of day by digging themselves into the earth where it is cooler and moist. At night they emerge hungry to dine on insects, making them welcome neighbors on our buggy barrier island.

In spite of their ability to terrify grown men and women, toads can’t harm people. Their skin is dry and warty but contrary to old wives’ tales, they do not spread warts to humans. Unlike their frog cousins, toads have no teeth so they can’t bite. And although they are often included in a “witches’ brew,” toads have no magical powers.

So although I do feel bad that I inadvertently cleared out a picnic table of adults one night by placing three little toads in between the wine glasses, I swear I was only trying to raise awareness of this marvelous little animal.

My suggestion: On the next warm rainy evening this summer, put down the remote and take the kids outside. You may be toadally surprised at the nightlife right in your own neighborhood.

Jungle Bob’s Reptile World is located at 984 Middle Country Rd. in Selden. They can be reached at junglebobsreptileworld.com or 631-737-6474.