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Slither down to reptile expo

Saturday's show will detail how various reptile and amphibian species contribute to Florida's environment.

By LOGAN NEILL
Published October 6, 2006


BROOKSVILLE - If you live in Florida for any length of time, you're likely to have an encounter with a wild reptile or amphibian.

They are literally everywhere you look - from the stealthy lizards that keep watch for bugs on your windowsills, to the slimy green tree frogs that serenade you on rainy nights, to the lonesome gopher tortoises that daringly cross your path as you drive down the street.

But for many residents, these critters evoke as much contempt as they do fascination. Which may be why so many species of Florida reptiles and amphibians are threatened, says Florida environmental educator George Heinrich. A former biologist at St. Petersburg's Boyd Hill Nature Park, Heinrich believes the greatest threat to the survival of Florida's endangered reptiles and amphibians may be the public's misconception of them.

"Many people don't understand the value these animals have to our ecology and the role they play in keeping things balanced," Heinrich said. "There's so much focus on the animals that can be a danger to them that they forget the good that they do as well."

Heinrich will be among several experts on hand Saturday at the Chinsegut Nature Center's annual Reptile and Amphibian Expo Day. The event, which will feature nature displays and exhibits, plus discussions about alligators, snakes and other exotic creatures, is a favorite event for the biologist.

"I enjoy passing along what I know about animals to people who are willing to learn about them," said Heinrich. "One of the sadder things about our state is that people move here and suddenly find themselves thrust into an environment they know little about. No wonder they're afraid."

Heinrich points out that even humble critters play a valuable role in maintaining the ecology. For instance, pond frogs are voracious mosquito eaters. Common garden lizards and snakes devour unwanted bugs such as roaches, spiders and silverfish.

"The fact that they allow us to depend less on chemical pesticides should make them more than welcome," Heinrich said.

Heinrich is one of the state's leading experts on gopher tortoises and nonmarine turtles and is president of Heinrich Ecological Services, which specializes in environmental education and training. He has served twice as co-chairman of the Gopher Tortoise Council and is the founding president of the Florida Turtle Conservation Trust. He currently is involved with the University of North Florida in a conservation study of the diamondback terrapin.

For Saturday's program, Heinrich will lecture on native turtle species and will lead visitors on a gopher tortoise hike.

The Nature Coast, with its abundance of pine forests and sandy soil, is among the state's most habitable places for gopher tortoises. Though not rare, the species is considered threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which lists habitat destruction as the leading cause of recent population declines.

Heinrich believes that educating the public, especially new residents, about the need to preserve its habitat will help ensure the gopher tortoise's future.

Said Heinrich: "The more people become aware of how valuable these animals are, the more they will see how difficult it would be to live without them."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1435.

[Last modified October 6, 2006, 07:30:22]


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