KOKOMO, Ind. —As Michael Finkler’s class used net poles to push aside tall grass leading down to the still waters of Lake Sheryl, suddenly, something slithered by, slipping down into the water.
Without hesitation, Finkler dove sideways, arms outstretched, scrabbling through the grass, trying to capture the elusive copper bellied water snake, with no luck.
That’s all part of herping — searching for amphibians and reptiles.
Each week during the summer session, Finkler leads a Biology of Amphibians and Reptiles class to a new location, seeking specific species they’ve discussed in online lectures.
“I get to expose students to this whole hidden natural world,” said FInkler, professor of physiology. “The scope of the natural world around us is so much vaster than most people appreciate. There are enormous conservation concerns with many of these species, and people aren’t aware of them because they are out of sight, out of mind.”
On this particular day, students slogged through the wetlands at the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, near Seymour. Armed with nets on long poles, they dipped into the water, looking to see what turned up, and used the pole ends to poke into the grass. They also peered under flat rocks in a creek bed and along a reservoir, hoping to find the endangered copper bellied water snake that was the focus of their day, as sightings have been reported there.
And while they might have only caught a fleeting glimpse of it, they saw plenty of other wildlife — including two midland water snakes, dozens of tiny juvenile five-lined skinks, tadpoles, and possibly northern leopard frogs.
Senior Grace Lefler was most excited about the skinks because she was the first person to be able to catch one.
“I started flipping over the rocks, so there wasn’t anywhere to hide,” she said, adding that it wasn’t easy to catch the skink, because it is fast.
“I enjoy finding and identifying these animals,” she said. “Previously, I hadn’t paid any attention to them. I hadn’t seen any reptiles in the wild. Now I know what to look for, and how to look for them. We’re living among so many creatures, but we get caught up in our own lives and we don’t stop and appreciate the beauty of what’s living around us.”
Minda Douglas, who is studying biology, said the weekly field trips have been the highlight of the class. She especially enjoyed capturing and releasing green frogs at Asherwood Preserve, near Wabash.
“By discovering new species, and seeing them firsthand, you really remember them, and understand them,” she said. “It’s a unique experience to go with a professor on a field trip, who can tell you exactly what you are seeing, and who can identify them on the spot.”
Ayla Vandergriff, a psychology major, said the class pushed her out of her comfort zone. She enjoyed the hands-on work with her classmates.
“It’s really amazing to work with other people to try to catch frogs and snakes,” she said. “You really get to know your peers when you are working together.”
Finkler said they’ve also visited Kankakee Sands, a Nature Conservancy property near the Illinois border, and Mississinewa Lake, with additional trips planned. His goal is for the students to become more aware of what lives around them and have a greater desire to protect it.
“I don’t expect any of them to go into careers in this field, but I hope I’ve instilled a lifelong interest in these animals,” he said. “I want them to understand you can appreciate true natural beauty without having to go a long distance away. Indiana has many different natural environments, from tall grass prairies to the Great Lakes to the wetlands of the north and the forested regions of the south.
“We have a lot of wonderful habitats in our state, and as a result, we have rich biological diversity.”