There’s something really cool about reptiles and amphibians. There’s something a little creepy, too. They slither or scurry quickly. Or they move in unhumanlike ways, from the hop of a toad to a slow-motion stroll of a turtle.
If you’ve ever wondered: What is that thing in my yard? Where do all the frogs go after the rain stops? Or is that a rat snake, a garter snake or a rattlesnake? This is the guide for you. It’s just a taste of what’s around us, the most common reptiles and amphibians you might see, as well as a tarantula and scorpion, because even though they are arachnids, they just feel a bit creepier than a common spider.
If the thought of these creatures gives you the heebie-jeebies, know this: "Even though they look scary, a lot of them, if you let them have their space in your yard, they actually keep the insect populations in balance," says LaJuan Tucker, the environmental program coordinator at Austin Parks and Recreation Department.
Snakes also will eat small rodents that cause havoc on your house and garden. "I consider it lucky when I hear that someone has a snake in their yard," she says.
If you come to Tucker’s line of thinking and see a snake as a good thing, still be careful.
Most are not venomous, but they can bite, and that bite does hurt; it just won’t do permanent damage like a Western diamondback rattlesnake or a coral snake will. Per drop, the coral snake’s venom is more dangerous, but the two types of venom work in different ways. The coral snake’s goes to the nervous system. The rattlesnake breaks down tissue.
With both, you do have time to get to the emergency room to get treatment. The same is true with the other venomous snakes here. You do not need to bring the snake with you to the ER. Your description and your symptoms should alert the doctors what treatment to give you, says David Papke, park ranger supervisor at the city of Austin Parks and Recreation Department.
Tucker tries to always make noise when she’s in an area where there might be a snake so they don’t get startled. Anytime she’s going to lift something up like a rock, a log or a kayak, she lifts it up at an angle where the opening is facing away from her. That gives whatever is under that thing time to scurry away from her and not toward her.
Most of the time rattlesnakes will rattle to announce themselves to warn you to get away, but they don’t always.
If they are in your yard, they might just be passing through, they might be seeking a water source, they might be looking for whatever treats you might have that they’ll happily get rid of, or they might be displaced if there is a lot of construction around you.
A lot of snakes can look alike, and if they are shedding, it might be hard to tell them apart. In Central Texas, people confuse the Western diamondback rattlesnake (venomous) with the Western rat snake (nonvenomous). Rattlesnakes have a rattle, but a rat snake can rustle its tail to mimic the rattlesnake, which is a common behavior: mimicking a more dangerous animal to scare away other animals.
One really good clue is that rat snakes live in trees. They have scales that overlap to allow them to climb trees, houses and bridges. If you hear a bunch of birds squawking in a tree, there could be either a rat snake or an owl nearby.
A good rule of thumb for all of these snakes is to stay far enough away where when you hold up your thumb in front of your eye, it covers the animal’s body. Take a picture with your camera phone if you want to identify the creature.
"The danger is low if you give it its space," Papke says.
Never try to pick it up. People get bitten by snakes most often when they accidentally step on them or when they try to pick them up. Most of the time there’s no need to relocate snakes unless they’re in your house, because they will move on. If you do have it removed, try to make sure it isn’t being moved too far away, because snakes stay in the general area where they were born.
If you are looking for things like snakes, you’ll find them hidden under stones, brush, logs, bushes or human-made items like boats. Anywhere near a water source, you’ll also find snakes, as well as lizards, frogs and turtles.
Our local lizards are pretty cool because of the mating rituals they publicly do. The green anoles will change colors, and the male’s throat will turn red as it does push-ups to impress the female. The color changes on its body are so subtle that you can watch it change and not really realize that that once green lizard is now brown, Papke says.
Green anoles and Texas spiny lizards like to hang out on fences or trees to watch their territory below, says Travis LaDuc, the curator of herpetology at the University of Texas.
"They’re looking for food and potential mates and rivals," he says.
The Mediterranean house gecko also likes to be up high and chills on the walls of your house to find the best insects.
"They are like a wild animal on the wall," Papke says. "They’re to be enjoyed."
If you thought they were native to Texas, think again. They arrived in Texas ports in the 1950s by cargo ships and spread to Austin and beyond.
Trade brought a lot of critters here, like the Rio Grande chirping frog, which is a recent arrival that came in on nursery plants. You’ll hear them chirping in your yard as one of the now more common chirping frogs we have here. The other one is the cliff chirping frog, which we’ve had for years but people passed off as crickets or a bird, LaDuc says.
Each different kind of frog has a unique sound. The Blanchard cricket frog sounds like marbles knocked together. The American bullfrog announces itself with loud low tones.
Frogs are especially noisy after a rainstorm when they flock to water sources and the males call to the females. They also announce themselves to let predators like snakes know that there are a lot of them and make themselves seem more formidable.
Most frogs need to lay their eggs in water, which is why you’ll see more of them around water sources. When it isn’t raining, they’ll find some moist spot in the garden to wait until the next rainstorm.
Reptiles and amphibians care about what time of day or night it is. Some will come out at dusk and dawn and then go away during the heat of the day. Others really love the heat and like to bask on rocks and logs.
Night, though, brings a different set of animals, like tarantulas. Papke says one of the things families can do to explore the yard is to get an ultraviolet light and see what’s out there at night. You might see the scorpions scurrying across the yard. They become fluorescent under a black light. Frogs’ eyes will reflect back at you. You also might see yard trash, fungus or other things.
You also can set up a game camera to see who is coming to your yard at night, Papke says.
None of these creatures, including turtles, should be brought from the wild to become pets inside. In fact, some lizards, if you pick them up, will lose a limb or tail as protection from prey. You will be doing harm by touching them.
It’s better to sit out in your yard and watch them.
"How cool would it be to watch a snake eat a toad?" LaDuc says.
If you do see something cool, take a photo of it and upload it on iNaturalist.com. There, people can help you identify what it is you are looking at. INaturalist and other citizen science platforms help professional scientists and nature stewards take note of what people are finding and where they are finding them, and make decisions on how to manage the population.
INaturalist helped track the spread of the Rio Grande chirping frogs since 2013 when they first appeared in this area.
"They are here and here to stay," LaDuc says.