Ethics of Atlasing

by David Mifsud

Finding and observing reptiles and amphibians in the wild -referred to as “herping” – is a way to get to know the animals you share your habitat with. Handling wild reptiles and amphibians for education, documentation, or identification can be done safely for the animal and the handler by following a few simple guidelines:


1. What is your goal in handling the animal?

Think of the acronym R.I.D.E. Relocation, Identification, Documentation, or Education. Animals should only be handled with purpose and intent – rather than trying to hold every animal you encounter for the entertainment or challenge of it. Observing herps without handling will minimize stress to the animal and ultimately keep it safer. It is okay to handle some animals for these purposes but try to:

  1. Limit the time you are handling the animal to keep stress to a minimum.
  2. Avoid catching every animal – like frogs – that you encounter. Once you have observed a particular species in an area it is not necessary to handle all the other specimens that you encounter.
  3. Be sure to put animals back where you found them, with the exception of animals found beneath logs or boards. In these cases, replace the log/board and then place these animals at the edge of the object; they will find their way back underneath and not be crushed.
  4. Threatened or endangered species should never be handled unless you have proper federal and/or state permits to do so. The exception is the need to move an animal off the road to prevent road mortality, and only using proper relocation techniques. In these instances, be sure to move the animal to the side of the road it was initially heading. Also submit this data to the Michigan Herp Atlas.

2. Amphibians – frogs, toads, newts, and salamanders – have absorbent skin.

This is a defining characteristic of amphibians and what makes them key indicators for ecosystem health. Salts, oils, and chemicals on your hands, like lotions, hand sanitizers, sunblock, and insect repellents, can all be absorbed by an amphibian’s skin and seriously harm them. If handling amphibians is necessary, be sure that your hands are clean and wet, or the use of Nitrile gloves is approved if the gloves have been rinsed and wet during handling. If you recently applied sunblock or insect repellent, handling of an amphibian could be fatal to that animal.

3. Clean your gear.

Your gear – such as boots, walking or snake sticks – can transport pathogens like Snake Fungal Disease (SFD), Chytrid, and Rana Virus from one habitat to another. You can prevent this by cleaning your gear between sites. Keeping a spray bottle of 10% bleach and water solution and applying this to the bottom of your shoes/boots for example can be very effective at mitigating the spread of pathogens. Washing and bleaching your gear also helps to reduce the spread of invasive plant species. It imperative we all do our part to minimize impact on our ecosystems.

4. Be respectful of the habitats you are enjoying.

Be mindful of where you are stepping and what you might be damaging (e.g., avoid stepping into sensitive vernal pools.) One way to find reptiles and amphibians is by flipping over logs, man-made cover objects like boards or tins, and rocks. Be careful to replace these objects once you are done inspecting to ensure that animals will still be able to use the cover. Take photos and notes if you like, but NEVER remove an animal from its habitat. Even if an animal is not threatened or endangered, it is a vital part of a functioning ecosystem and should never be taken to be kept as a pet, study specimen, or any form of captive animal. Observe the animal where it is meant to be in its natural habitat and think about all the roles it may play in its ecosystem. This includes eggs and egg masses; even if you find hundreds of Eastern American Toad egg masses, each of those eggs is important to ensure the future success of that population.

5. Stay discreet to save the species.

While individuals often want to share their observations with friends and family, on social media, and citizen science sites like Michigan Herp Atlas and broader reaching sites like iNaturalist it is important to stay discreet about your favorite herping locations. It is not advisable to disclose the exact location(s) of animals that you find, especially when that information can be found and accessed across large platforms (e.g., Facebook posts). Providing your discoveries at the county level or more generic level is a way to share your findings without putting locations or species at risk of collection, stress from too many observers/handlers, habitat damage from too many visitors, and even persecution/killing as in the case of many snake species. The Michigan Herp Atlas only provides data to the public to the county level to preserve the integrity of the observers’ submissions and the species found.