Whenever you take a walk through the woods, you might see lots of reptiles and amphibians enjoying a sunbath. Turtles usually gather on top of a log, all lined up neatly one behind the other. Sometimes, they decide to take in the sun just off the side of a creek or river. Snakes and lizards usually like to receive the sun’s heat just off the side of a trail or on top of a log or surface. Amphibians, likewise, exhibit similar behavior.
But, have you ever wondered why these particular animals do this? What reptiles and amphibians are doing is called basking. Basking is the action of receiving warmth directly from a heat source, such as the sun or a heat lamp, by simply standing or sitting under it. Both reptiles and amphibians are ectotherms, which means that they are not able to regulate their own body temperature in the same way that other vertebrates, such as mammals or birds, can. Sometimes, this is also referred to as being “cold-blooded.” Their body temperature basically depends on their environment. Basking allows these animals to be able to obtain the energy that they need in order to move about, find food, mate, and all the other things that they need to do. This is the reason why, if a reptile or amphibian gets cold, it starts acting in a very sluggish manner.
Next time you visit River Legacy Living Science Center, take a close look at our pond. In it, you will find a small island in the middle that is a very popular spot for basking turtles. You can also search for basking lizards on any surface where the sun is hitting.
Box turtles are small turtles in the genus Terrapene. They have a dome-like shell that has a hinge at the bottom, allowing the turtle to close its shell completely in order to escape predators. Males are characterized by having usually red or orange eyes while females have brown eyes. River Legacy Park and the woods adjacent to River Legacy Living Science Center are home to two species of box turtles: the three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis) and the western ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornate ornata).
The three-toed box turtle is a subspecies of the common box turtle (Terrapene carolina). As the name indicates, this turtle has three toes on its back feet. These turtles can be found walking through the forest looking for food including vegetation, small insects, mushrooms, fruits, earthworms, and snails. The males of this turtle can sometimes exhibit orange or red spots on its throat and head. Three-toed box turtles will bury themselves underneath the leaf litter during the dry season to try to conserve moisture.
The other River Legacy box turtle, the western ornate box turtle, is a subspecies of the ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata). It is characterized by ornate patterns on its shell, which are usually bright yellow. In contrast, the three-toed box turtle does not have these patterns. Males of this species tend to be a bit smaller than the females and also tend to have a thicker tail. Ornate box turtles tend to prefer grassland or prairie habitats rather than dense forest though they will also venture into the woods.
Box turtles can live up to their 30’s, which is fairly long for a small animal. As you walk through the trails of River Legacy, keep your eyes open and you might spot a box turtle walking through the woods. In addition, do not forget to visit River Legacy Living Science Center to see a three-toed box turtle in our exhibit hall!
As you walk the trails at River Legacy, you probably have already noticed large orange-looking fruits on the ground. They are typically green in color.
These fruits belong to the Osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera). It is a relatively small tree (reaching about 30 to 50 feet tall) that is native to this area of the state. Despite its appearance and name, this plant is not related to oranges at all. In fact, it is a member of the mulberry family, the Moraceae. It is named after the Osage Native American tribe of Missouri.
Nowadays, it has been spread by people to 39 states in the United States and parts of Canada but its natural range only included the Red River drainage in Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas. River Legacy sits right in the heart of this tree’s natural range. There is evidence that in prehistoric times, its range included a much larger area in the central part of the North American continent. In fact, some scientists have proposed that it once relied on megafauna animals that lived hundreds of thousands of years ago such as giant ground sloths (genus Megatherium) and perhaps even Columbian mammoths (Mammuthus columbi) to disperse its seeds. The large animals would eat the fruits and disperse the seeds via their droppings.
Next time you take a walk at River Legacy and see Osage oranges on the ground or squirrels feeding on them, just think to what the park might have looked many hundreds of thousands of years ago with giant ground sloths and/or mammoths feasting on them. In fact, fall is a great time to come and see Osage oranges on the ground. As you walk from the parking lot to the inside of River Legacy Living Science Center, there are a couple of Osage orange trees that you can appreciate!
Most species of snakes breed in the spring and summer, which is why most people see them during these two seasons. But, snakes can also be a common sight in the fall. With fall upon us, it is important to know what to do if you encounter a snake in the wild.
But first, it is worth knowing why snake sightings are a common fall occurrence as well. There are a few reasons for this. One, baby snakes usually are born in the summer. Fall is the perfect time for those that survived to start looking for their first meal before winter comes.
In addition, both adult and baby snakes start to search for safe places to hide where they will spend most of the winter in brumination, which is a term for the slowing down of their metabolism.
Lastly, some species of snakes also breed in the fall. A couple of examples include the rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus) and the copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix).
If you encounter a snake along a trail, be sure to observe from a distance. Most snakes will move quickly off the path while others might stay as still as possible. If you can, walk around the snake, giving it a wide berth.
The best course of action is to leave it alone and observe or take pictures from a distance. Most snake bites occur when people try to pick up, move or kill a snake, all of which are unnecessary. Another way to avoid snake bites is to always be mindful of where you are stepping or placing your hands while hiking a trail that is either paved or off-the-beaten path. Be sure to look where you are walking and never reach down to grab something unless you have complete visibility.
Be sure to learn more about snakes at River Legacy Living Science Center!
Most of our encounters with nature occur during the day, whether it’s hiking, or walking in a park and seeing plants and animals all around us. But, did you know that nature is just as active, if not more active, at night?
There are several species of animals that are strictly nocturnal. In August, we talked about why certain animals have evolved nocturnal behaviors. After Dark In The Park is coming up here at River Legacy Oct. 6th-8th. So, we think this is a good time to revisit the topic of nocturnality a bit more in depth with a couple of examples.
When you are out in nature at night, you may be able to spot some species of nocturnal animals. Bats (Order Chiroptera) are well adapted to night life. Some bats have evolved echolocation to find their prey, which includes flying insects such as moths and mosquitoes. Echolocation just means that bats emit sound waves and are able to detect when they bounce off their prey to determine where it is. Some common species of bats in this area include the Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis), the Eastern red bat (Lasiurus borealis), and the hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus). When you are attending After Dark In The Park with us, take a few seconds to look up, especially near light posts, and see if you can spot any bats!
Other nocturnal animals that you might see or hear while being outdoors at night are owls, raccoons, and opossums.
Be sure to come out to After Dark In The Park and do not miss the fun, which obviously includes experiencing the forest at night. For more information about the event, please visit www.riverlegacy.org.
Spiders (Class Arachnida) are animals that, often times, get a bad reputation. Some people find them creepy, dangerous, menacing, etc. While there are some species that do present a danger to humans due to their venom (black widow, brown recluse), most spiders are beneficial and a crucial part of the ecosystem.
Spiders are carnivores whose prey includes many species of insects, thus keeping their populations in check. This is especially important for agricultural crops. Simply put, without spiders, swarms of vegetable-devouring insects would overwhelm much of the world food supply. In addition, they also eat mosquitoes and flies, which can carry diseases. On top of that, many of the things that spiders produce such as venom and silk are being used in innovative ways in the medical and engineering fields, respectively.
Here at River Legacy, there are dozens upon dozens of spider species. As you walk around our trails, take a close look at the dozens of spider webs that can be seen throughout the forest. If you see a web that looks like a funnel and it is very close to the ground, it likely was made by a grass spider (Genus Agelenopsis). Orb weavers (Family Araneidae), including the yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia) (pictured), and wolf spiders (Family Lycosidae) are also very common.
In addition to the incredible number of animals that make River Legacy their home, several equally incredible species of plants are also found in the park.
One of those plants is the Turkscap or wax mallow (Malvaviscus arboreus). This plant is a member of the Malvaceae family, a large family that includes okra, cotton, and hibiscus, among many others.
The Turkscap is native to the southeastern United States, including Texas, as well as Mexico, Central America, and South America. It is a shrub that grows to about 2-3 feet, though sometimes higher and has small red flowers that never fully open. Instead, the five petals overlap and form a small tubule, from which the stamen and pistils protrude. It flowers usually in the summer and the flowers resemble a Turkish turban, hence the name. Sometimes, hummingbirds, moths, caterpillars, spiders, butterflies, praying mantises, and other insects can be seen near or on the Turkscap!
Come check out the Turkscap shrubs growing just outside the western entrance in Mike’s Room of River Legacy Living Science Center!
River Legacy is home to a wide variety of animals. Though big mammals and such as armadillos, bobcats, raccoons and others are among the most iconic inhabitants of River Legacy, several equally-awesome amphibian species make this park their home.
But, first, what are amphibians? Amphibians are a class of vertebrates (animals with a backbone) that are cold-blooded, live semi-aquatic lifestyles, and have a moist and scale-less skin. There are three kinds of amphibians in the world: frogs and toads; salamanders; and caecilians.
Here, only two of those kinds can be found – frogs and toads and salamanders.
Frogs and Toads
Several frog species can be found in our forest. Frogs and toads will usually be found near or in a body of water or a moist area. Some can be seen hopping by the trails or in our pond. Here are some of the most common species: Gulf coast toads (Incilius valliceps) are native to Central America but they have become established in North-Central Texas, including River Legacy. Other common species include the southern leopard frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus) and the American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus). Additional species include the Texas toad (Anaxyrus specious), green tree frog (Hyla cinerea), gray tree frog
(Hyla versicolor), and the Blanchard’s cricket frog (Acris crepitant blanchardi).
Salamanders look like lizards but they are not covered in scales. They are less diverse and common than frogs and toads. One of the common species found in River Legacy is the barred tiger salamander (Ambystoma mavortium). River Legacy is part of the range of other species, but no records have been reported.
Visit River Legacy Living Science Center to see the amphibians in our animal exhibits!
As with most animal behavior, it comes down to survival. Whether it’s avoiding being eaten by another animal or being able to find food, nocturnal animals have plenty of good reasons to sleep during the day and hunt at night.
Many reptiles sleep during the day to avoid the hot afternoon temperatures. For example, Copperhead snakes spend much of the daytime sleeping under logs and leaf litter. Then they forage for cicadas and small rodents at night.
Animals such as mice are nocturnal because many of their predators are out during the day. While there are also predators at night, these small animals have a better chance of going unnoticed as they forage for food and water. During the day they can rest safe and sound within their burrows and at night they can search for food.
Some animals also come out at night because their prey comes out at night. For example, owls hunt for mice at night, which also happen to be nocturnal. Catching prey at night can be more difficult, but nocturnal predators are equipped with adaptations like great hearing and eyesight.
Animals are nocturnal because there is too much competition during the day. For example, bobcats might hunt during the daylight so coyotes hunt at night. This allows each species the chance to hunt for food without constantly fighting each other.
The coyote picture shown above is from one of our night trail cameras at the Science Center which captures still photographs. Trail cameras are predominately used to watch and track wildlife. They are perfect to place in a remote location and see what wildlife is in the area. It is surprising what you will see and how much wildlife is around us at night.
This beautiful bobcat was spotted earlier this week near River Legacy Living Science Center. We only got this quick glimpse before it sauntered back off into the woods.
If you should see a bobcat along the trails of River Legacy Park, this is what you should do:
Quietly watch or photograph the animal from a distance.
Make sure the bobcat has an “escape route” and do not try to corner it, approach it or throw anything at the animal.
Never approach a mother bobcat that has cubs. She will try to protect them if she feels you might be a threat.
Never feed bobcats or any wild animal. They have plenty of natural food sources (rodents, squirrels, birds) in River Legacy Park.
Enjoy the experience! Bobcats are solitary animals with a territory of up to 25 square miles. They are usually well camouflaged and avoid human contact so you are privileged to see this remarkable animal in the wild.
The bobcat’s most distinctive characteristics are a tuft of fur on each ear and a bobbed tail.