The Importance of Descriptive Locale

With today’s technology that can drop a pinpoint within of few meters of an observation (e.g., cell phones, handheld GPS units, and online maps), you may wonder: “Why is a written description of the locality of an observation important?” Written locality descriptions serve as quality control for the PARS team when reviewing the data. Even with the accuracies of today’s technology, errors can and do happen. For example, a cellphone’s GPS may report the location of the closest cell tower if the signal is poor, handheld GPS units may not be connected to enough satellites to provide a precise locality, or the user may manually type a coordinate incorrectly (e.g. 40.890 vs 41.890). If errors go unnoticed by the submitter, the record will convey incorrect information, and if too many errors are discovered by a reviewer, the validity of all the submitters’ records may be called into question.

While double-checking the accuracy of the recorded GPS coordinates on a map is always a good practice, an important way for the PARS team to validate the accuracy of the submitted coordinates is for the submitter to additionally provide a written description of the locality. Although contacting through email is quick and easy to check on a record that is in question, this task is a bit more time to consume and difficult when you consider the quantity of records PARS receives. Additionally, errors may not be noticed immediately, and this can lead to questions weeks, months, or even years after a record is submitted. Therefore providing good locale information when submitting the record will lead to higher quality data.

When writing locality descriptions avoid ambiguity and are descriptive as possible. A well-written description will lead 10 people to about the same locality with high precision. For example, “1 mile ENE of Harrisburg” is much more precise than “near Harrisburg” or even “E of Harrisburg.” Follow the suggestions below when providing locality in PARS or other distributional data.

Some examples of precise locale notes:

Try to avoid using terms like: near, the center of, or between when writing of geographic locations.

Using nearest known point with miles and direction:
“Vernal Pool complex 1 mile southeast of Lopez, Sullivan Co., PA.”

Using specific names and locations that are mapped:
“West side of Meadow Grounds Lake, State Game Lands 53, Ayr Township, PA”.

Nearest intersection:
“Trent Road, 1 mile south of the intersection with Hwy 31. Somerset Borough, Somerset Co., PA”

Using two locations:
“1 mile South of Jones Mill, PA and 0.5 miles East of Champion, PA.”

Some examples of ambiguous locale notes:

Unspecific named areas:
e.g. Park, SGL, Woods, Woods near Pittsburgh, My house (unless you also provide an address). Be specific in the names of known areas.
e.g. “SGL 151, 5 miles South of Grove City. Mercer Co. PA“ or “Pine Park, Butler, PA, Butler Co.”

Long roads or large areas:
e.g. “I-79”, “Allegheny National Forest”. Generally, long roads should include a closest intersection and direction, large areas should include other locality descriptors (e.g. “Red Bridge Campground in Allegheny Nat. For.”, or “East shoulder of I-79, 1 mile N of I-80 intersection”)

Local Names:
(e.g. “Brick Pond”, “Blue Hole”) Many local names for locations are not on maps. Finding information about these areas can be difficult, and often local names refer to several places throughout the state that have the same or similar names. Add a nearby city and include the miles and direction from the city. “Brick Pond, 5 Miles SW of Greensburg, PA”. Even better, tell us a little more about the site: “East side of Brick Pond, 100 yards north of the dam, 5 miles SW of Greensburg, Westmoreland County, PA.”

Temporary locations:
These are areas such as store names and buildings. While the structure may remain,names can change frequently.

Vocal Vouchers

So you hear a Spring Peeper calling from a grassy tussock at the edge of a marsh. You can tell where it is, because the sound is coming right from that tussock. It can’t be that hard to see it; it’s right there in the tussock. So you come in for a closer look. The frog stops calling. “No problem,” you think, “I’ll wait until he starts calling again, then I’ll look and see him, his vocal sac expanding with each peep.” He starts up again, and you think; “Now I’ve got you!’ But you still can’t see the little bugger. This goes on for twenty minutes, and you start to think you’re suffering from auditory hallucinations. You never do find that peeper.

I don’t know about you, but this has happened to me many times. Often we can hear a frog calling but can’t see it, and therefore can’t get a photo voucher. Even when we can see it, it may be too far away for an identifiable photo. Luckily, however, PARS accepts audio vouchers, so if you have a sound recording device in your field kit, you can get that voucher without ever seeing the animal or getting close enough for a photo.

The word ‘cryptic’ means ‘hidden,’ and while the word applies to those animals whose presence is obscured by vegetation or distance, it also applies to what is known as ‘cryptic species.’ These are species that can’t be told apart by visual examination. Good examples for Pennsylvania frogs are the two species of Gray Treefrog. The Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor) and the Cope’s Gray Treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis) are morphologically indistinguishable. Their calls, however, are distinct (although superficially similar). Cope’s Gray Treefrog was not counted among Pennsylvania’s herpetofauna until acoustic records were obtained. Other species that may be difficult or impossible to identify from photos, but are easily distinguished by voice, include American Toad and Fowler’s Toad, Leopard Frog and Pickerel Frog, and the chorus frog species. Audio records of these species are especially valuable because they can provide verifiable vouchers, whereas a photo voucher may not provide definitive proof of an animal’s identity. Some PARS volunteer may even be the first to document the newly described Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog (Lithobates kauffeldi) in Pennsylvania since it is distinguishable only by voice and DNA

The Gray Treefrog, Hyla versicolor, and Cope’s Gray Treefrog, Hyla chrysoscelis, are virtually indistinguishable by sight but have distinctively different vocalizations. A Gray Treefrog is shown here (photo: Brandon Ruhe).

Like photography, audio recording can be as complex and expensive as you want to make it. Acceptable recordings can be made with the voice recorder function on a smart phone, or on a stand-alone voice recorder. These devices have fairly limited recording capabilities, but they can provide very good verifiable voucher recordings. Sound recorders with greater fidelity and features for making higher quality recordings can be purchased at a fairly reasonable cost. Some excellent handheld recorders can be bought for $100-$200. The quality and versatility of recordings can be enhanced with the addition of an external microphone. The serious bioacoustician can go all out and spend thousands on high quality equipment, like parabolic microphones! If you want to edit your recordings, a sound-editing program called Audacity is available online for free ( and is relatively easy to use.

Whatever equipment you use, there are some useful tips for making recordings of frog calls. Extraneous noise is the biggest problem. The closer you can get to a calling frog, the better your recording will be. For example, a Wood Frog’s call is quieter than that of the Spring Peepers, which usually overwhelm it in volume; so if you want to get a good recording of one, you may need to get close enough to isolate its voice from that of the surrounding peepers. Other sounds, like traffic, can really obscure a recording as well, so you want to eliminate these sounds from your recording as best you can. Wind is probably the most difficult factor to deal with, since even a light breeze can create unacceptable levels of noise (increasing the difficulty is that frog calling is more subdued when there is wind). Shield your microphone from wind as much as possible. Acoustic foam windscreens can be purchased for a couple bucks at a music store or online.

Another good idea for making recordings of natural sounds is to record yourself at the beginning or end of a recording, reciting pertinent data such as the date and location where the recording is being made. This eliminates any ambiguity about the essential observation data. Recordings submitted to PARS should be fairly short in length, say 10 to 20 seconds. That’s usually enough for a proper identification. Ideally, a combination of a photo and a sound recording of a frog is submitted. Recording frog calls adds an enjoyable dimension to the herping experience, and submitting audio vouchers to PARS may be the only way to document some of our shy, but vocal herps.

Where Spring Peepers, (Psuedacris crucifer) and Pennsylvania’s other chorus frogs overlap, the loud and often large peeper choruses can make it
difficult to hear the softer voices of the other species. However the other chorus frogs often begin calling earlier than peepers, so survey timing can be critical in detecting them. A New Jersey Chorus Frog, P. kalmi., is shown on the top, a Spring Peeper to the bottom.

By: Mark Lethaby

Obtaining a Proper Voucher Photo

To verify an amphibian or reptile observation, it is critical to submit a voucher, either in the form of a clear photograph or series of photos; a recording, in the case of calling frogs; or an actual collected specimen. For the vast majority of observations, a voucher photograph will be the most practical. When taking voucher photographs to submit to the PARS website, it is important to remember that these photos will need to be viewed by other people to verify the species identification. The PARS Verification Committee must review each and every record. To make their job easier, and to ensure your hard-earned observations are not rejected, it is important that your photographs are as clear as possible and capture key characteristics for identification. Remember, these vouchers will be used for determining the ranges of species, and will potentially have conservation and regulatory implications. Records may remain unconfirmed because of blurry photos, or if photos do not capture sufficient identifying characteristics of an animal.

While the identity of a specimen may seem obvious in the field, keep in mind that there may be other species with which it can be confused if certain features are not recorded. A simple example could be Eastern Ratsnake vs. Northern Black Racer. The adult phase of both species is normally black with a white chin, and this will often be evident in a photograph taken from a distance, or even in a blurry photo. However, a key feature in differentiating between these species is the type of scales; ratsnakes have keeled scales (keels are ridges down the center of the scales), while racers have smooth scales. A photograph clearly showing this feature leaves no doubt about the identity of the species.


Northern Black Racer scales are smooth.
Eastern Ratsnake scales are keeled.


Another good snake example is Eastern Gartersnake vs. Eastern Ribbonsnake. Eastern Gartersnakes are notoriously variable in color and pattern, and sometimes resemble Ribbonsnakes. However, Ribbonsnakes have a white preocular scale (the facial scale immediately anterior to the eye) on each side of the head. A clear photograph of the face will ensure that this diagnostic feature is visible. Without a clear headshot, these two species can still be differentiated with a clear photo of the snake’s side. Both species have lateral stripes, but these stripes occur only on scale rows 3 & 4 (start counting with the row of scales adjacent to the ventral scales) on Ribbonsnakes, and are confined to rows 2 & 3 on Gartersnakes.


Notice the bright white preocular scale on the Ribbonsnake. Preocular Scale = The scale directly in front of the eye.


Because of their excellent senses, basking turtles are often difficult to approach to get a close-up photo. When photographing aquatic turtles a good rule of thumb is to start snapping photos as soon as you spy them, and try to get shots from different angles. The glare from sunlight on a wet specimen can obscure key features, so whenever possible, approach baskers from a direction that minimizes glare. A photograph that captures the shell bridge (where top and bottom sections meet) can make a big difference in identifying distant basking turtles. If you are fortunate enough to get close to a basking turtle, try to capture a good head-on shot; the shape and color of the beak are important keys in species identification. With Softshells, it is important to be able to see the leading edge of the carapace in order to differentiate a Spiny Softshell from a Midland Softshell. Always photograph the carapace (top of shell) and plastron (bottom) of any hand-captured turtle.


Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle; note the spines on the leading edge of the carapace for which this species is named. It is critical to be able to clearly see this part of the shell to distinguish a Spiny Softeshell from a Midland Softshell, which lacks these spines. Fortunately it is usually not necessary to get this close of a shot to be able to see these spines.


Lizards are always challenging to photograph and skinks are particularly tricky because a good facial close-up can be critical in distinguishing a Broadhead Skink from a Common Five-lined Skink. These two species are variable in pattern, and often resemble each other, particularly young specimens. Being able to clearly view and count labial scales (scales on the upper lip), and post-labial scales (scale immediately anterior to the ear opening), if present, is sometimes the only way to differentiate these two species. To make matters more complicated, both sides of the face should be photographed whenever possible. Broadhead Skinks are supposed to have five labial scales on each side of the face, but sometimes will have only four on one side, and occasionally have four on both sides. Five-lined Skinks normally have only four on each side. Five-lined Skinks also have two small post labial scales, which are typically absent in Broadheads. Always photograph the dorsum of any lizard.


Braodhead Skink
The presence of five labial scales on at least one side of the face, and lack of large post-labial scales confirms a Broadhead Skink


The three species of Desmognathus (Dusky) Salamanders found in Pennsylvania are highly variable and can be difficult to properly key out, particularly where ranges overlap. It is always a good idea to try to make sure at least one photograph clearly shows the dorsum and side of the head of any salamander, to at least arrive at the correct genus. All dusky salamanders have nasolabial grooves and prominent jaw muscles, and there is often a faint line that runs from the corner of the eye to the jaw. These features are usually enough to denote a Desmognathid, but nice clear views of the dorsum, venter, side, and the tail are often necessary to key out the species. Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamanders have a tail that is round, while the tail of the Northern Dusky and Seal Salamander is laterally compressed for approximately half of the length. The dorsal pattern of the two latter species can be very similar, but the venter of the Northern Dusky Salamander is usually mottled, and there is often no clear demarcation between the dorsum (top) and venter (underside). Seal Salamanders usually have pale, un-patterned venters, and a clear side view will reveal a obvious separation of dorsal and ventral coloration.


Differentiating Eastern American Toads from Fowler’s Toads in photographs can be particularly challenging without close-ups taken from multiple angles, including the venter of the animal. Both species are highly variable, and we won’t even go into the fact that they sometimes hybridize. In the classic scenario, Fowler’s Toads have more than three ‘warts’ within any dark spots on the body, while American Toads have no more than two or three. In reality however, this is not always the case, and other features need to be considered. Fowler’s Toads usually have an immaculate venter with one spot in the chest, while the venter of an American Toad will usually have some bold markings. There is normally a clear separation between the cranial ridges and the parotid glands (the large swelling behind each eye) on American Toads, whereas these two feature touch on Fowler’s Toads. This is the most dependable feature for differentiating these two species, so photographs should highlight it. Finally, the warts on American Toads are often ‘spiny’, particularly on the face and legs, while most warts are normally not spiny on Fowler’s Toads.


American Toad
Notice the pointed ‘warts’ on this Eastern American Toad
Fowlers Toad
compared to the smoother warts on the Fowler’s Toad
Ventral of Toads
The photo on the left highlights the difference in the venter; that of the Fowler’s Toad (right) is usually clear, except for possibly one spot in the middle of the chest.


There are numerous other examples that can be given but by now the message is probably clear; whenever possible, try to get clear photographs from as close to your subject as possible, and try to get images from as many different angles as possible. For animals that are hard to capture, start snapping photos as soon as you see them, and keep clicking as you approach. One of the great things about digital photography is that there is no need to worry about wasting film, as some of us old-timers used to do.

Special Note:

While encouraging close-up photographs of specimens, the PARS project does NOT encourage the handling of, or closely approaching venomous . If you cannot identify the snake in front of you, do not attempt to closely approach or handle it.


PARS volunteers are encouraged to decontaminate their field equipment before and after entering sensitive habitats such as wetlands or areas that may harbor snake dens. There are some nasty pathogens around which can have devastating effects of our herpetofauna. Good decontamination practices will help prevent the spread of these diseases*. All equipment which comes in contact with water or the ground should be treated (boot soles, hip-waders, nets, snake hooks, walking sticks, etc.).

We are currently recommending scrubbing down with a 2% chlorohexadine solution. A second choice would be a 2% bleach solution*, although this is not as effective on certain pathogens, and bleach can deteriorate equipment. You cannot be overly-cautious! Decontaminate immediately before and after each survey. Equipment should be soaked, or otherwise in contact with the solution for at least ten minutes (1-2 minutes is adequate when using chlorohexadine). Dirty equipment should be thoroughly scrubbed with solution. Make sure all surfaces come in contact with the solution. After treatment, rinse with clean water.
Always remove boots and waders, etc. before treating to avoid skin contact. Avoid using felt-soled waders and boots; felt has a much greater potential for retaining pathogens.

*Always carefully follow instructions on the label of any decontamination product.

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