FORT RILEY, Kan. -- With knees bent, fingers gripping the warming surface and a labored gasp, a large rock is flipped over. Beetles and ants quickly scurry to the neighboring grass for cover as the cool damp air hidden beneath the rock rises. A hand reaches down and scoops up the cold, slow moving ring-necked snake resting below for a brief examination before returning it to its den and gently placing the rock back into position.

From morning through afternoon teams of biologists and volunteers scoured Fort Riley to flip over rocks and other debris for the 16th annual herpetological survey May 5. Biologists from the Directorate of Public Works Environmental Division led the survey with volunteers from all over, including Kansas State University, Kansas Herpetological members, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Herpetology is the study of amphibians, such as toads and salamanders, and reptiles like snakes and lizards. During the herpetological survey, teams spread out across the installation to count the number of reptiles and amphibians they encounter, identify the species and take photos of lesser seen species.

"It gives us a baseline structure of what species -- amphibians and reptiles -- we have on the installation and those data sets are great to have as some of these species are in decline, so if they ever were to be listed as a threatened or endangered species, we would have some science, statistical numbers to show how the installation is doing and, a lot of times, on the installation we have great habitat for the species to thrive," said Shawn Stratton, supervisory biologist with DPW - Environmental Division.

More than 35 volunteers ranging in ages from childhood to adult were separated into teams with at least one DPW biologist leading them. The primary mission was to locate and document rarer species on the installation, like the diamond-back water snake or the plains hog-nose snake. However, documenting common species was also important to the success of the survey, Stratton said.

"We split the groups up so everybody is with a biologist from the installation," he said. "Somebody that knows where they're going and knows the species. It keeps everybody safe and in the right place."

Rocks and debris are not the only locations the teams examined. Water lines also provide homes to turtles, salamanders, frogs, toads and some snakes, among other animals, Stratton said, so as volunteers flipped over rocks to see what was under them, they also waded through mud to see who was hiding in it or the neighboring water source.

"We also like to look around the water because some of the species like to be around the water more," he said. "We try to look at all the available habitat."

The herpetological survey is always conducted in the spring because the animals are emerging after the winter, but the cool mornings keep them slow and docile, making them easier to find and identify. However, as the day progresses and warms, they become more active, Stratton said.

Chelsea Sink, student from Kansas State University and member of the Wildlife Society, has participated in the Fort Riley herpetological survey for three years. She said she first began doing them because she was interested in seeing what a Department of Defense biologist does, but has since continued because of her fondness for reptiles.
She said the surveys provide an idea of population levels, which is especially important for endangered or threatened species while also giving biologists an idea of the habitat available on post.

"It's a really big area and I think because they have a lot of places that, even though it's a military base and they have a lot of operations that they run, there's still a lot of untouched places," Sink said. "Places like this can serve as a model for other places because they have really good habitat here."

Biologists from DPW conduct wildlife surveys for other species on the installation as well like elk and prairie chickens. For their surveys, volunteers play an important role by providing extra eyes and hands to get the job done, Stratton said.

"The more people there are, the better chance we have of seeing the rarer species and getting a better survey done," he said.