BY T. Travis Brown

Like most people you probably don’t often think about reptile and amphibian travel arrangements. But then one day you’re driving home from work you’ve just heard one of those Geico insurance commercials on the radio you’re stopped at the drawbridge you see a lizard sitting on your side view mirror and … bingo … it hits you: That’s how critters get to Wrightsville Beach. Your little green traveling companion was sunning himself on your car while you were at work hitched a ride when you drove off and decided to climb onto the mirror once you picked up speed. He hung out there tail flapping in the wind until you saw him and now when you get home he’ll end up in a tree in the backyard: a one-way trip to Wrightsville Beach.

Not all Wrightsville Beach wildlife get here this way of course. Some are moved during the transport of landscaping materials others arrive by intentional relocation by humans and still others by natural dispersal.

Reptiles are better suited for naturally dispersing across salty water than amphibians. Amphibians have thin moist skin that they use to absorb oxygen. Salt water causes their skin to lose moisture so frogs and salamanders are not likely to swim across brackish water. Reptiles have tough scales that prevent them from losing moisture through their skin. Therefore several species of snakes turtles and even alligators can be found in salty water. So who’s here and who’s on the way? The following critters have either been seen on Wrightsville Beach or are likely to show up on our island sooner or later.

Green Anole

Anoles are one of the most vibrant of North Carolina’s lizards and one of the most cryptic. Males put on a show during midsummer when they show off their dulops a flap of skin on their throat that appears bright red when inflated on a sunny day. This is a sign that they’re defending a breeding territory which leads to the hatching of little anoles during mid to late summer. Look for anoles sunning on your cars decks stair railings trees and shrubs. Green anoles are often sold at pet shops as chameleons because they are capable of turning a variety of shades of brown and green. This allows them to blend in with anything from a bright green leaf to the bark at the base of a shrub.

Squirrel Tree frog

Squirrel tree frogs (and many tree frogs for that matter) are as much chameleons as any anole. They are capable of turning a variety of shades of green and brown depending on temperature stress level and a variety of other factors. These small nondescript frogs are the most commonly found tree frogs in backyards of the southeastern U.S. Squirrel tree frogs also known as rain frogs often call out when rain is eminent. Their call is sometimes similar to a scolding squirrel but may also lead you under your house looking for what sounds like a muffled puppy.

Eastern Cottonmouth

Also known as the water moccasin this snake gives most people the willies. Cottonmouth bites cause necrosis (tissue damage) which can lead to finger and toe amputations; however cottonmouth bites are not likely to be fatal to a healthy adult. Fortunately cottonmouths spend much of their time out of the range of human activity. These snakes sometimes inhabit brackish water on the landward side of North Carolina’s islands. A large part of their diet consists of fish amphibians rodents and invertebrates. Cottonmouths are often bright shades of brown and orange as juveniles but can become almost black as adults. Cottonmouths can be differentiated from nonvenomous snakes by their diamond-shaped head and elliptical (rather than round) pupils.

Five-lined Skink

These glossy often blue-tailed lizards can be seen sunning on landscape timbers or rocks but will surely scurry under a ledge or up a tree if you get too close. There are two very similar species of five-lined skinks in North Carolina and they both subsist mainly on grubs and other invertebrates. Like many lizard species five-lined skinks lose their tails if roughly handled. Don’t feel sorry for them though. It’s one of their strategies for freeing themselves from predators that attack them from behind. Even more distracting is that fact that the disembodied tail continues to wiggle furiously after being detached occupying the predator (and creeping out children).

Ground Skink

Ground skinks are extremely common in brushy habitats. Often one glimpses only a small brown tail as it wriggles under leaves and debris. These tiny lizards are responsible for many “tiny snake” sightings while people are out weeding and mowing their yards. They can be slightly different shades of brown with a dark brown stripe down their side. Ground skinks spend most of their time searching for small invertebrates to eat and the rest of their time trying not to be eaten.

Carolina Diamondback Terrapin

Diamondback terrapins are the turtle species most closely linked to salt marsh habitat. Terrapins can often be seen sunning their diamond-patterned shells on the edge of canals or you may find them when searching for oysters in a marsh. They feed on crustaceans insects mollusks and fish. Terrapins were once highly prized for their flesh a fact that almost led to their extinction. Diamondback terrapins are still a species of concern in North Carolina but luckily turtle soup is not as popular as it once was so their numbers have increased.

Green Tree frog

Green tree frogs inhabit lowland swamps across the southeastern United States. In this area however these green jewels are quite common anywhere there’s a little fresh water and vegetation. They are bright green with a few yellow specks and they usually have a defined white stripe down each side of their body (racing stripes dude). Tree frogs can be found clinging to grass blades inside the trunk lid of your car or suction-cupped to your windows on a rainy night.

Common Snapping Turtle

Snapping turtles often enter salty water in search of fish amphibians invertebrates or any other critter that they can fit in their mouth (living or slightly decomposed). They can live to be 30 years old and reach weights of 75 pounds! Snappers have a nasty disposition and are quite capable of biting off your finger if you get too close. Their necks can stretch far enough to snap all the way to the back of their shells and they are capable of snapping even after their heads have been cut off. The moral: A headless snapping turtle is not necessarily a harmless snapping turtle.

Southern Toad

Toads are some of the hardiest amphibians out there. They have tougher wartier skin than frogs a fact which allows them to exist in much drier environments. They hide in shady moist spots (such as under logs or rocks) during the day and come out to forage on insects at night. On drizzling nights you may see a half-dozen southern toads foraging around tall vegetation next to a porch light. These toads can be highly variable in color from rusty red to white and green. They always have a set of glands behind their eyes that secrete a mildly poisonous substance that makes them distasteful to many predators.

Redbelly Water snake

There are several species of water snake living in North Carolina waters. Redbelly and banded water snakes are the species most often found in salty water and both can be quite beautiful. Nonvenomous redbelly water snakes reach their most impressive coloration in this area. In other parts of the country this same species is usually black with a yellow white or orange belly but here they are usually deep brown-burgundy with a bright orange-red belly. They live on fish amphibians and other water creatures and can be found quite far from water.

Want to see several of these reptiles and amphibians in person? Head down to the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher or the Cape Fear Serpentarium. Want to learn more about North Carolina species? Check out the Carolina Herp Atlas at www.carolinaherpatlas.org or the North Carolina Herpetological Society at www.ncherps.org. If you would like to identify an animal in your backyard there are a variety of field guides available including: The Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians and Amphibians and Reptiles of the Carolinas and Virginia.