Starting in late March-early April, you may notice a lot of nature centers or wildlife organizations start talking about “Herps”…. What?! Herps are the collective term for Reptiles + Amphibians. While they each have their own distinguishing characteristics, they are similar enough so that many scientists lump them together while studying or talking about them. The study of reptiles and amphibians is called herpetology, so that often just gets shortened to “herps”.
Reptiles and amphibians are both ectotherms (they get their internal body temperature from outside sources), may live in similar environments, and lay eggs. A primary difference is the presence of scales in reptiles.
The reason that we often talk about them in the spring (in eastern North America) is because they are starting to wake back up from their brumation period and are looking for breeding grounds or areas to lay their eggs. Herps will leave their small home ranges and travel great distances (some turtles will walk up to two miles) to find nesting sites. Starting in April, continuing through June, here in Pennsylvania, we see more herps crossing the road, especially at night. This often leads to human-wildlife conflicts, mostly in the form of roadkill. In fact, one study found that over the span of one month, 20,000 herps died as a result of vehicle traffic (93% amphibians and 7% reptiles)! This is tragic, but fortunately there are some ways to prevent that high mortality rate.
Many of the herp deaths come from roads that fragment their habitat. These roads are necessary for humans to travel, so this can be a difficult challenge to overcome! Connecting the fragmented habitats through tunnels under the roads, wildlife bridges overtop of roads, and wildlife fences along busy areas can all be great to reduce wildlife deaths, however that’s not something that individuals can just set up or create, and then there are concerns with the fact that many herps return to the same spot every year to lay their eggs. What would happen if they were suddenly cut off via wildlife fences?
Fortunately, there are ways that individuals can make a difference on herp populations during their breeding season. First, we can slow down and be conscientious of their movements, especially when driving at night. If you find an animal trying to cross, slow down to allow it to pass, or in the case of turtles, pull over if it’s safe and gently move them across the road (always to the side that they are heading towards). We can also put up little signs in hotspot or high herp traffic areas along roadways to increase other driver’s awareness. By planting native and increasing habitat in our own yards and communities, we can also reduce the distance that these species have to travel to find suitable nesting sites!
Interested in helping, but can’t plant natives or are interested in other ways? Give to organizations such as the International Reptile Conservation Foundation, Southeast Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (SEPARC), or the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (SSAR) to help fund their work. Or – shop reptile and amphibian merch through The Art of Ecology! A portion of the proceeds directly benefits wildlife conservation and habitat preservation efforts.