Reptiles fill ecological niches

IMAGES BY GARRY BRANDENBURG — Reptiles come in many varieties and forms. A snapping turtle and a red-sided garter snake were recent observations near the Marietta Sand Prairie. One might expect these types of wildlife critters to be present in a tallgrass prairie environment, but being fortunate enough to see them and photograph them was an unexpected gift during a recent foray into the prairie. Snapping turtles are the largest of the freshwater turtles in the U.S. The redside garter snake is very common in Iowa.

Wildlife observation adventures for this scribe are more often than not the result of just being observant whenever I am out and about in some natural setting. I have hiked into the easy and not-so-easy corners of many of the Marshall County Conservation Board land areas during the past five decades.

I have looked, found and photographed all kinds of plants, sunrises/sunset, or wild critters and am always pleased to see whatever Mother Nature was offering that day. I have never been disappointed in finding things of interest. Making excellent images is my goal, but I don’t always achieve it if light and the critter’s elusive nature avoid me.

I always hike with a small backpack with camera gear, water, binoculars, and, if need be, mosquito repellent. Being prepared is worth the extra weight, and one essential part of the gear I carry is of course a quality camera and lens or two.

That way, if an opportunity presents itself, I can attempt to make images that record an instant of time and place. One long lens allows me to get close to a critter, photographically, without getting close to the critter. This is a preferred way of not disturbing or interfering with the behavior of that animal.

For a hike into a wetland complex, or near an area with ponded water, a snapping turtle is not going to run away like a deer might do. It will hold its ground and let you know that it means business if you should get too close. This turtle has the capability of making very quick extensions of its neck and head with wide opening powerful jaws that can ‘snap’ shut in an instant.

Because this species cannot run away, it relies on the protection of its armor-like shell, sharp claws and tough muscles to protect it from harm. For a turtle that holds its ground, a long lens allows me to get close without getting close, an ideal situation.

A snapping turtle can weigh up to 40 pounds with its carapace (top shell) being about 14 inches long. The bottom shell is called a plastron, which is small and narrow. There is ample room for muscular leg movement as needed or room to retract those appendages inward.

Unlike some other turtle shells, a snapper cannot completely seal itself off from potential predators. At the tip of each leg are several long claw-like toenails. The business end of a snapper is its head and beak, and both the bottom and top jaw come together to create a holding and cutting action.

A true story I recall was a visit many years ago with a fisherman at Green Castle Lake. He was after fish this time, but did relate a previous fishing expedition years prior when he thought his lure had become snagged in a brush pile.

He was able to pull the “snag” a little at a time until a snapping turtle revealed itself at the end of his line. As this fisherman appraised his situation, he thought he would reach down and release his fish hook from the beaked head of the turtle.

Then the fisherman showed me his right hand with only four and one half fingers. A quick bite by the snapper took off a portion of his finger! Ouch! Lesson learned, and this fisherman told me it was not the fault of the turtle.vIt was his failure to think he could accomplish the release without a long handled set of pliers.


As for the redside garter snake, they do not run away, but they can be fast if an escape route is their plan. To get close to this common serpent, I was just at the right combination of right place, right time, to see the animal from a respectable distance and then carefully use my camera gear to find the correct angles to observe this reptile. I made many images, some good, some okay. A few were excellent.

Snakes live their lives close to the ground as they move among grass bases, shrubs or rocky structures looking for food sources. On the menu are insects, worms, other smaller reptiles sometimes, amphibians, birds or bird eggs, or small rodents.

Foods may begin with earthworms, insect larvae and then over time graduate to frogs, salamanders, small fish and mice. The ecological niche that snakes fill is an important one in the natural regulation of predator/prey. Snakes must try to remain hidden from the sharp eyes of hawks, or the jaws of a coyote, or the jaws of a snapping turtle.

Garter snakes give birth to live young, and thus a label biologists use for live birth of snakes as viviparous. There are other means of reproduction by snakes, some of which develop eggs inside the female’s body and she retains those eggs internally.

Those young snakes are born live without a placental attachment. The biological term for this is ovoviviparous. There is one more type of snake reproduction, called oviparous, where the female lays fertilized eggs outside of her body. Those eggs must rely on sunlight and warm ground or leaf litter conditions to hatch.

If these little facts are way more than you ever wanted to know about snakes, that is fine. If, however, you are curious about and want to learn all you can about every aspect of the natural world and its inhabitants, wild or domestic, then allow your curiosity to blossom.

Read all you can about an area of interest. Go exploring to the places where your subject critters live, and take along a backpack filled with a few essential survival items, guide books, and camera gear. Then let your observations dominate the day. Camera gear can record those moments, so you can recall those Mother Nature inspired memories.


Trees are fully leafed out for the 2022 season of growth. Across the northern hemisphere, summertime temperatures and full sunlight are setting about to do their magic to scoop up carbon dioxide and release oxygen.

Trees help create life, sustain life, hold and filter water and air. Trees provide building materials. New trees planted help replace what we humans take out, or what Mother Nature may reduce via storms. Trees are living organisms that live and die just like all other living things.

During their life they provide seeds and fruits, shady cool places for wild critters or for us humans. Trees can and are used to decorate the landscape. Forest trees are part of a wide range of species growing on hillsides, deep ravines, or along creek and river floodplains.

Did you know that in North America, there are at least 568 species of trees? All are important cogs in the wheel of life, specifically plant life. North America has a broad ecological zoning of six zones that plant taxonomists use to help classify rowing sites.

Each zone is different in its soils, air temperature, elevation and latitude. Those six zones go by the names of tropical, southern forests, central hardwood, northern, Rocky Mountain, and Pacific Coast. When traveling from one area of North America to another, one may become adept at noticing tree type changes different from what you may be familiar with back home.

Trees are survivors. They have adapted to earth’s naturally changing climates over great spans of geologic time. Trees we are familiar with did not always grow here during long past geologic epochs.

Glacial systems have come and gone repeatedly more than 33 times in the last 2.6 million years for the northern hemisphere. Each glacial maximum wiped clean the landscape under the ice. Every time a new interglacial warming time regained dominance, plant life, and eventually including trees, slowly followed ice margins northward to help re-vegetate barren lands. Pollen grains and buried tree trunks attest to those ancient times.

Trees record short and long term weather events. Remember that weather is the very short term classification used for day-to-day existence. Very long periods of time of thousands to tens of thousands of years sets the stage for a broad definition for climate.

Trees are time machines, recording good times and not so good times. Growing conditions that changed allowed new trees to fill the gaps left by other tree species that were not adapted. If conditions were too dry, grasses may have taken over to dominate, relegating trees to more isolated locations along stream side or river channels.

So, in the end, Earth’s dynamic system of plant growth is an amazing miracle of ecological opportunities. Trees are just one aspect of that dynamic.


“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.” — Robert Frost


Garry Brandenburg is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. He is a graduate of Iowa State University with a BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology.

Contact him at:

P.O. Box 96

Albion, IA 50005


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