by Whit Gibbons

April 13, 2008

The note on the bottle in my room said the drinking water "comes directly from our deep water wells and is as clean . . .[or] cleaner than bottled water." Guests were encouraged to take a bottle to "help you continue your conservation practices at home." The note and bottle were from the "LSSI Family and Staff."

LSSI is the abbreviation for Little St. Simons Island, one of the Golden Isles of the Georgia coast. The islands in an idyllic setting rise above the ocean and the miles of swaying salt marsh grasses immortalized by Sidney Lanier's poem "The Marshes of Glynn." But nowadays, among the islands amid the marshes of Glynn County, only privately owned Little St. Simons looks anything like what Sidney Lanier wrote about in 1878. The others are heavily developed commercially. Only LSSI has a conservation outlook that extends to the entire island.

The 10,000 acres of LSSI salt marsh, sand dunes, and maritime forests have five guest cottages built almost a century ago, but no tawdry hotels of concrete, steel, and glass. No asphalt, golf courses, or malls. In fact, the effort to keep LSSI as natural as possible extends to an island policy that no more than 30 guests are ever allowed on the island at one time.

Some of us from the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Lab spent a couple of days on LSSI last week to conduct animal surveys. Island naturalists are trained to give bird-watching and other nature tours for guests. Scott Coleman, ecological manager, invited us to visit and provide a general accounting of what reptiles and amphibians were on the island. Among our greatest treats was seeing a type of reptile none of us had ever before seen alive.

Our daytime surveys turned up the expected snakes--eastern diamondback rattlers and black racers--and several kinds of lizards, including green anoles and skinks. We found alligators in virtually every freshwater pond on the island, living side by side with enormous slider turtles. In fact, the largest slider turtles in North America have come from sea island freshwater ponds where large alligators live.

At night we waded into wetlands in an extensive forest of ancient oak trees and magnolias. Here we listened for, and heard, the frog species we expected to find on a barrier island. Nearly all coastal islands have toads, leopard frogs, and treefrogs, whereas few have bullfrogs or spring peepers. We also saw several alligators, which we were able to walk up to in shallow water without their being startled, presumably because they rarely see humans and did not feel threatened.

Our most dramatic herpetological find was in a coastal dune grass habitat where we caught a truly rare species--the island glass lizard, a magnificent creature with a pale yellow body and an eye-catching black stripe down each side. Glass lizards are legless with a long tail, and they look superficially like a snake. This one's body measured seven inches, but its tail was almost two feet long! The tails of island glass lizards seldom break the way those of the more common glass lizards do. We were able to handle and photograph this particular individual without its even trying to escape. John Jensen of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources who had joined us for the survey noted that the specimen was the first island glass lizard found in Georgia in more than a decade and the largest one he had ever seen. I felt good when we returned this extraordinary looking lizard to its home and let it crawl away.

The last two lines of Sidney Lanier's famous poem pertain to the natural mysteries of the region: "And I would I could know what swimmeth below when the tide comes in / On the length and the breadth of the marvellous marshes of Glynn."

We were more interested in what crawleth on land above the tide and alongside those marvelous marshes rather than on what swimmeth below. But on Little St. Simons, both habitats offer much of interest for an ecologist or a poet.

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