During the past four years, Bernardo Serna has often driven to the main Gates Pass parking lot, then ridden his bike or hiked along a westside trail. The Pima Community College accounting student always carries his camera to record his frequent encounters with reptiles and amphibians in the Tucson Mountains.
Thanks to digital photography, Serna is contributing to increasing knowledge of herpetology. When he returns home, he uploads his images to Arizona HerpCount at www.herpcount.org.
This web-based interface allows everyday-citizens to submit photos of amphibians and reptiles for review and approval by professional herpetologists. The database contains valuable information that costs only a fraction of what it would take to send groups of scientists into the desert to record and track the animals.
“I love nature,” Serna said. “It’s a great hobby to get my mind off numbers for a second, and just relax and enjoy my backyard.”
Four herpetologists teamed up to launch Arizona HerpCount, including webmaster Dave Parizek, University of Arizona scientist Phil Rosen, UA adjunct professor Kevin Bonine, and Julia Fonseca, an environmental planning manager for the Pima County Office of Sustainability and Conservation.
Parizek plans to develop a mobile application that will expand the database’s reach so more people can contribute. In the not-too-distant future, anyone with a mobile phone will be able to shoot photos and upload them to the database. If approved by an herpetologist, the images become photo vouchers, identifying where that species occurs. In its first two years, Arizona HerpCount cleared about 200 submissions for posting on the website as photo vouchers.
The database also helps the Pima County Office of Sustainability and Conservation obtain information about where herps are found on private property. “We were especially interested in encounters near the city, where private ownership makes obtaining access more problematic,” Fonseca said. “HerpCount facilitated getting observations of a specific species of desert tortoise by land owners and other members of the public.”
For decades, the public has participated in bird counts around the country. Amateur birders are good at identifying birds by sight and call, so the information they record is generally reliable. It’s trickier, however, for volunteers to identify amphibians and reptiles.
The Davidson College Herpetology Laboratory turned to the Internet to help citizen scientists identify reptiles and amphibians. An interactive website provides maps, charts, tables, photos and drop-down menus to ensure high-quality submissions. The lab created an online atlas to store data submitted by citizens. Between 2007 and 2009, they documented 147 of the 168 known herp species in the Carolinas.
As time passes, the Arizona Herp Count database will also become an even more important source for documenting the distribution of amphibians and reptiles.
“The long-term data will provide valuable information on such things as the effects of climate change, human development, introduced species to the area and even disease,” said Cecil Schwalbe, a herpetologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Arizona HerpCount could also tip off scientists and wildlife managers to the presence of non-native reptiles and amphibians in the desert.
“It has the potential to serve as an early warning system of species invasions,” Fonseca said.
As the public becomes aware of Arizona HerpCount, more people like Serna will be observing the desert landscape for snakes, lizards, tortoises, toads and other herps. By posting photos, these citizen scientists will contribute to the conservation of amphibians and reptiles in a growing city.
(Editor’s Note: Jose Serrano is a journalism student at the University of Arizona.)