Breisch identifies the nature and worth of ‘herps’ in our midst
— Illustration by Matt Patterson in “The Snake and the Salamander”
The green frog actually has no green pigment in its skin, explains Alvin Breisch in his new book. The green color is the result of a mix of the specialized cells in the skin called chromatophores — the uppermost layer, the xanthophores, contains yellow pigment. Under that layer are the iridophores, which reflect light, giving the skin a blue appearance. When the two are combined, the frog appears to be green. When the yellow is missing, the frog’s skin appears blue. “The Green Frog’s distinctive call, like a plucked out-of-tune banjo, is a welcome sign of summer,” writes Breisch.
NEW SCOTLAND — When Al Breisch was a boy, he was fascinated with crawling creatures.
His father, a mechanical engineer who liked taking his kids on hikes, “didn’t object when I dragged home a garter snake or a box turtle,” said Breisch.
He explained his fascination with snakes and salamanders, turtles and frogs. “They’re just intriguing animals,” he said. “I didn’t think there was any way to make a living from them.”
He found a way.
For 26 years, until his retirement in 2009, Breisch was New York State’s amphibian and reptile specialist. He studied, catalogued, and worked to preserve the state’s herpetofauna — its amphibians and reptiles, known as “herps.”
This week, Breisch’s latest book is being released, by the Johns Hopkins University Press — “The Snake and the Salamander: Reptiles and Amphibians from Maine to Virginia.” The 222-page hardcover book is illustrated lavishly by Matt Patterson who does for amphibians and reptiles what Audubon did for birds: His original artwork depicts them accurately and artfully in their natural habitats.
Patterson, who had illustrated a book on fish of the Northeast, contacted Breisch about working together on the current volume.
While most field guides are organized by species, this book is more than a field guide; it places the animals in the context of their environment. The book is arranged in nine chapters, according to habitat: Northeastern Deciduous Forests; Dry Pine Woodlands; Northeastern Grasslands; Wicked Big Puddles, a playful name for vernal pools; Bogs; Headwaters; Small Waters; Big Wates; and The Coastal Plain.
“I wanted to group species that use a habitat,” said Breisch, “to show their relationship to the environment. So, if you’re protecting vernal pools, you’re not just protecting the endangered tiger salamander but a lot of other species using those pools like the gray tree frog or the spring peeper, and even the mammals that come to the pools. You’re protecting an entire ecosystem.
“People who are birders don’t envision holding them and getting a close look,” Breisch said, citing an advantage of studying amphibians and reptiles. He cautioned, however, “You don’t want to encourage people to bring them all home — but to stop and look and appreciate what they see.”
Breisch said of his book, “We wanted people just to read it and enjoy it.” Hence, it lacks the copious citations that typify scientific literature. Rather, the prose is straightforward and vivid, laced with personal anecdotes about encountering these creatures.
“I tried to use the species as lessons on biology with historic notes or conservation issues,” said Breisch.
Breisch took a peripatetic path to get where he is today.
After graduating from Penn State, where he studied botany, Breisch, who had grown up in Pennsylvania, came to the University at Albany for his master’s degree in plant ecology. “I wanted to be near the Adirondacks,” he said. “I was a rock climber and an ice climber.”
He helped Trudy Healy with research for her 1967 rock-climbing book, the first Adirondack guide to rock and slide climbing. And he worked as a hut boy, packing in supplies to John’s Brook Lodge to tend to the guests who stayed at the wilderness lodge, accessible only by a rugged hiking trail.
“I weighed 130, or 135 pounds then and carried a 95-pound pack,” said Breisch, who is now 72.
He not only enjoyed climbing in the Adirondacks, he studied them. In the mid-1960s, he looked at the vegetation on Whiteface, documenting how it changed from the valley floor to it the mountain’s peak, and how it was different on each face. The area was resurveyed in the 1980s, revealing a dramatic decline in red spruce, attributed to acid rain.
“From the top, you see a pattern of blown-down trees,” said Breisch. The “balsam waves,” he said, move about three feet a year as trees die and fall over and new growth comes in.
Breisch graduated with his master’s degree during the Vietnam War and was immediately drafted into the United States Army. Because of his expertise, he was assigned to the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, which studied how the environment affected soldiers’ performance in extreme heat, extreme cold, and extreme altitude.
Assigned to study effects at high altitude, Breisch was sent to Peru where some natives live at sea level and others live on mountains at 14,000 feet. “We investigated their physiology,” he said, and discovered higher red blood-cell levels at high altitudes. Breisch’s own hemoglobin level went up when he lived for a month at 14,000 feet.
“It enables you to absorb more oxygen and makes your blood thicker; your heart has to work harder to pump it,” he said. The research was of interest to the Army because, when the Chinese had attacked India, British soldiers could not handle combat at high altitudes.
After serving in the Army from 1969 to 1971, Breisch returned to upstate New York, studying vegetation at Lake George for a research center there. He also had a stint in Alberta, in the Canadian Rockies, working for the University of Alberta, inventorying vegetation at all the provincial and national parks.
When he returned to New York, Margaret Stewart, a UAlbany biology professor under whom he had studied, invited him to help her study frogs in Jamaica for her sabbatical. “We looked at the variation of color patterns within species,” he said.
The colorful frogs inspired his life’s work with amphibians and reptiles.
After these varying scientific pursuits, which also included a summer helping a friend study vegetation in Yellowstone, Breisch settled down with the woman he had met as a student at UAlbany, Sharon Breisch.
“Right after we married, Sharon and I bought land in Chester. We cut the trees ourselves and built a cabin from the logs,” he said.
“We got a chainsaw for a wedding present,” his wife chimed in.
“My grandmother gave us splitting wedges,” he added.
“Once I was married with kids, I had to find a job,” said Breisch. He was hired by the DEC as a wildlife biologist. He then became the amphibian and reptile specialist with the Endangered Species Unit.
The Breisches settled off of Picard Road in New Scotland at the base of the Helderbergs. Across the street from their home is the Vly Creek Swamp, a wetlands with a history for scientists. Sherman Bishop, a salamander and spider expert, conducted detailed studies of salamanders there in the 1920s and 1930s.
The amphibian diversity in the area is among the highest in the state, Breisch said, with 12 species of salamanders and eight species of frogs and toads.
“Sherman Bishop did early research on salamander distribution in New York,” said Breisch. “He used the Vly Creek Swamp as one of his study sites.”
So, too, has Breisch. Even on a recent March day with temperatures well below freezing, he said the spring “seeps” — water from a subsurface area that doesn’t freeze, coming off the Helderberg escarpment — allow him to find salamanders in the swamp.
The Breisches have two daughters, Ariana and Kirstin. “We started taking the kids to camp before they were a month old,” he said of the log cabin in Chester. “There was no television, no internet. They had to go outdoors to play...We had a terrarium and I’d say, ‘You can each have three red efts’ and there’d be 18,” he recalled.
Breisch dedicated his book to his two now-grown daughters, “who have been my field companions since before they could walk.”
Each has followed in her father’s footsteps. Ariana, the elder, lives in a house next door to her parents. She got her undergraduate degree in wildlife and her master’s degree studying turtles, and worked for State Parks on Long Island. Kristin, with a degree in horticulture, had an internship with the Pine Bush Discovery Center, surveying the Karner blue butterfly and now lives in Malone and has studied the effects of wind farms on bats and birds.
Breisch writes in the preface to his book, “This book would not have been possible without the support of my wife, Sharon, who allowed me the flexibility to disappear at weird hours or sometimes for days at a time to pursue amphibians and reptiles. She also allowed my preteen daughters to accompany me on rainy, cold school nights to check which salamanders and frogs were crossing the roads near our house.”
Reptiles and amphibians were often treated as “second-class citizens,” said Breisch of when he began his career with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation in the 1980s. “The wildlife departments were geared to game species like deer, turkey, and trout,” he said. “They looked at you like it was a little bit suspect.”
He explained that department funding came through hunting and fishing licenses. “Hunters and fishermen pushed Congress for funding, which was used only on game fish, birds, and mammals,” he said.
Breisch recalled attending a local wildlife society meeting in the mid-1980s where the keynote speaker said, “I’m going to call it the Old White Man’s Society.”
“There were no women and no minorities in the room,” said Breisch. Once it became more inclusive, “that changed the whole tone of the organizations.”
Breisch was with the Endangered Species Unit and decided to use the same thought process for endangered reptiles and amphibians as the department used with game animals, setting bag limits.
For example, there were no regulations for the diamond-backed terrapin on Long Island, the only turtle that lives in brackish water. “They were considered good eating; there were no regulations,” recalled Breisch. He said that 10,000 to 20,000 were sold each year in New York City’s Fulton Fish Market.
“We drafted regulations to limit harvest to have a self-sustaining population,” said Breisch. “It worked for years.”
When Breisch took over as head of the amphibians and reptiles, he said, there was “a basic list of endangered species.” When he was in the field, he had a hard time finding some species.
“I discovered very few species in New York had been surveyed,” he said. “I started an atlas project. I recruited volunteers and came up with a format on how to conduct surveys.”
Over the course of 10 years, working with over 4,000 volunteers, he amassed over 60,000 records.
“I got an understanding of their distribution,” he said, noting he hopes to publish the atlas.
At the same time, Breisch is working with a group of scientists on a Timber Rattlesnake Conservation Action Plan, documenting the current and historic range of the snake from Quebec to Texas and Florida and as far west as Minnesota. The area covers two Canadian provinces and 30-odd states. Breisch is a co-author for the New York State portion and editor for the entire work.
“We saw inconsistent ways states were managing the snakes,” he said of the reason for undertaking the project.
He gave an example that he termed “indescribably awful”: “Texas has rattlesnake roundups, so-called celebrations, where people collect live snakes, and use them for side-show type things, like hand-milking snakes or holding bagging contests.”
This involves contestants entering a pit full of snakes and throwing them into bags. “It’s not good for the snakes and it’s not good for the people,” he said. “People get bitten and die. Most of the snakes die.”
There are no timber rattlesnakes left in Canada, Breisch said, and Ontario is looking to see if the snakes might be reintroduced.
Asked what the reason for re-introducing poisonous snakes would be, Breisch said, “It’s a movement among virtually all naturalists — we’d like to see a complete suite of different animals...We’re looking for high biodiversity.”
He went on, “The health of the environment is better if you have a significant number of native species.”
Returning to the timber rattlesnake, as an example, he explained that they eat small rodents. “Rodents do crop damage and tree damage; they carry black-legged ticks that carry Lyme disease.”
Does Breisch have a favorite species? “I put a lot of effort into the bog turtle, which is endangered in New York and a federally threatened species,” he responded.
“It’s the smallest turtle in North America, with a maximum shell length of four inches. It lives in shallow wetlands.”
Next week, weather permitting, Breisch will visit a bog turtle hibernation site in southern New York State.
In 1974, Breisch and a friend marked turtles there — using a system to file harmless notches in their shells. The turtles return to the same hibernation site year after year.
“We want to see if we can find older turtles still hibernating,” said Breisch. “The oldest bog turtle on record was 51 years old.” He added that a box turtle on Long Island reached the century mark.
Part of the reason Breisch wrote “The Snake and the Salamander” is to “show people there is such diversity in these animals,” he said. “Lots of people think frogs are green and snakes are brown.”
Breisch describes and Patterson illustrates a spring green snake (named, of course, the smooth greensnake); an eastern long-tailed salamander with its bright orange back and black spots; a multi-colored common rainbow snake with stripes that live up to its name; and a northern red-bellied cooter with a yellowish plastron that looks washed in red. Even with the familiar box turtle, Breisch explains in his book, the sexes can be distinguished by the color of their eyes — brown for females, red for males.
The book details 83 species, roughly half of all the reptile and amphibian species found in the Northeast.
“The colors are fantastic. The lifestyles are so interesting; it seems to violate what we learned in high school biology class.”
Breish explains that the word “amphibian” means the animal has both an aquatic and a terrestrial life but, for example, the hellbender remains entirely aquatic. In his book, Breisch notes that people often describe the hellbender as “ugly,” but he sees the animal more as “primitive.”
He describes his first look at a hellbender — his professor quick to scold if rocks were not replaced to give them shelter — “they were nearly two feet long and as big around as my forearm.” He also writes that a full-grown hellbender “is possibly older than you are.”
“At the other end,” said Breisch, “the red-backed salamander is entirely terrestrial.”
It is the most abundant vertebrate in the Northeast, estimated at 14 billion in New York State alone, he said.
“If you pile them altogether, they are more abundant by weight than all the woodland birds put together and about equal to that of all the small mammals,” he said.
Although each salamander is no more than four inches long and many people have never seen one or heard of one, Breisch said, “They are a driving force for the entire food chain. It eats many small invertebrates and is eaten by snakes and robins and turkeys.
Breisch’s book cites studies showing that, without the red-backed salamander to eat decomposers like earthworms, much of the leaf litter on the forest floor would be gone, causing drying and erosion and potentially changing the character of the forest.
“So,” he writes, “the next time you take a hike on a woodland trail, thank a Red-Backed Salamander.”