“Do you think you could survive on your own in the Everglades if you had to?”
The question rang in my mind as I thought about the implications, logistics and hardship that would be involved. I’m an ecologist specializing in Reptiles and Amphibians – which basically means I spend a ton of time up to my waist in swamp water, catching snakes, alligators and other creeping things all the while being assailed by endless hoards of mosquitoes and deer flies. One tends to learn a few things under these conditions, about these animals and about survival where they live.
Now what on earth does trudging through swamps in search of Reptiles and Amphibians have to do with survival when things go awry? Being prepared for any circumstance is most certainly beneficial, but what happens when disaster strikes away from home – Perhaps at a friend’s house, on vacation, or on the road? Not everyone can be completely prepared with sufficient food, water and armed to the teeth during such times, and sometimes even preparations can fail – Those prepared to hunt big game and fish may find heavy competition from others similarly hoping for a meal. Even in your own homestead corn, grains and other crops can be plagued by the same forces that have assailed them for millennia: drought, disease, plague and theft. When every other source of food is depleted, look to the ground: look to the things that creep.
Reptiles and Amphibians are collectively called “herpetofauna,” or “herps” for short – meaning “creeping things.” These animals are actually extremely abundant in many areas and can provide a ready and stable food source especially if you’re forced to remain perpetually on the move (or on the run, for that matter.) In fact, a given habitat can actually support a lot more biomass herpetofauna than it could mammals or birds (the stuff most of us think of when hunting.) Herps, you see, are cold-blooded (or a better word is ectothermic,) meaning they do not generate their own heat but receive it from the environment. Why does that matter? Well, as many of us are aware heating and cooling houses can be extremely costly in terms of energy; and the same is true of animal life as well: Deer, dogs, humans, ducks and all the other furred and feathered animals spend a lot of their food/energy on maintaining their body heat. Reptiles and Amphibians don’t do this, which means more energy to go around; which means more Reptiles and Amphibians. This is part of the reason why we can have millions of alligators and tens of thousands of pythons in my home state of Florida, but far fewer Panthers, Black Bear, etc.
Before we delve into the “how to” of it, it should be important to note that some species and some areas are protected, and one shouldn’t resort to reptiles and amphibians as a food source unless it is necessary for your survival. Practice, of course, is essential with any survival skill so recreationally looking for herps (or “herping”) without the killing/eating angle is suggested this side of TEOTWAWKI . It’s an enjoyable pastime with vital applications. This is, however, not a guide on herping but on survival with herps as the vessel.
Your first objective when faced with the need for food is to find a body of water: ponds, wetlands or any other standing or slow moving water will do. Such bodies of water, even if they are temporary and completely lacking in fish, are a permanent fount of sustenance. This is because, on the whole, aquatic environments are much more productive than terrestrial (land) habitats. More productivity translates to more wildlife, which translates to more food available – And unlike deer, hogs or many other game species this wildlife can be readily apprehended with a little skill and no equipment (though a flashlight can’t hurt.)
Flashlights, of course, should be a part of any sane person’s bag o’ tricks: if you don’t carry one on your person, it is advisable to at least keep one in each vehicle you own. My own preference is for a flashlight that takes a large number of readily available batteries (AAs are the best), and has extremely dim (for extended use) and extremely bright (for tactical and hunting use) settings. My suggestion is for the Fenix TK45  or Fenix TK41 , which both run on 8 AA cells and can last for months of sparse nightly use on low, and can make the sun envious on their highest setting.
The most abundant food source you’ll find in and around most bodies of water are frogs. Of course it is no secret, especially in the southeast, that frogs can be a delicacy – the best way to find them is to walk around the margins of your selected body water and be ready to pounce. Most frogs will quickly jump into the water before you see them, but this does not make them impossible to catch: a little practice will go a long way. There are also many species, such as tree frogs, that will remain perched among lakeside vegetation and motionless – relying on camouflage rather than speed.
Without doubt, if a flashlight is available or on nights with bright full moons, warm evenings can be the best time to find frogs out and active. In the absence of flashlights, many frogs are also visible during the daytime. Either way, move slow and keep your eyes peeled. Perhaps it is counterintuitive, but when the rain starts falling this is often the best time to get out and get looking, resisting the urge to hunker down and wait for inclement weather to pass. Rain, even on a chilly night, is often a cue for all sorts of frogs and toads to wake up and start calling and breeding, and breeding frogs can prove for easy targets, as they are understandably distracted. Learn the calls of the biggest, meatiest frogs in your area (In much of the country that will be the “jug-o-rum” call of the Bullfrog) and target them on such rainy nights.
It should be noted though that some species of frog possess toxins in their skin – but most are harmless to humans. As with toxic plants, sampling a little bit of any frog species before partaking of a full meal is suggested, watching out for symptoms such as upset stomach. Oftentimes a simple lick after extended handling will result in a foul taste, revealing a given frog’s toxicity. Once again, Bullfrogs are the most widespread and largest of frogs likely to be encountered in the U.S., these are not in the least toxic. In all but the most desperate of situations, it is advisable to eat only the limbs off any frog, more for palatability concerns rather than health concerns. Frogs can make for easy preservation as well, their porous skin making drying a small task on a sunny day.
The meatiest of reptilian meals, however, are certainly turtles. Turtles can be found in every state in the continental United States and are easy to catch if found in wetlands or shallow ponds. During the midday sun, they can be found scooting through the shallows. Many creeks across the northeastern U.S. also have them, and one large snapping turtle can easily cure hunger pangs for a few days. Turtles are largely harmless – and this includes even the “dreaded” snapping turtle, which is completely unable to bite if handled properly with one hand on the shell behind the neck and one at the base of the tail; but realistically for eating purposes one would not be handling a live one. Springtime will also bring turtles to nearby high ground for nesting. Nests can be easily found by looking in such areas around wetlands and finding areas of recently disturbed ground, excavating and finding the tasty morsels – hopefully before the raccoons do.
Then, of course, there are the snakes. First, it’s worth to say that if you’re afraid of snakes you needn’t be. I know; such fears are often primal and difficult to overcome – I find however, that knowledge of a subject (or faunal group, in this case) typically dispels any fear of it. Snakes are beneficial as pest control as well as food for a variety of animals: maybe even you someday. You may laugh at such a thought, but there was once a detestable invertebrate that was abundant and so loathed that it was fed to prisoners in New England: nowadays it costs in the double-digits per pound. I’m speaking of the Maine Lobster of course. All this to say that stranger things have happened, regardless, in the interest of your own survival researching the snakes in your area and their preferred habitats is an indispensable tool.
Venomous snakes are, of course, a concern. The venomous snakes should be the first snakes in your area to learn: it is often best to do this by finding them in the field under the watchful eye of an experienced snake hunter (believe it or not there are a lot of them) until you develop “the eye” for differentiating snake species. Even venomous snakes will not try to attack you under normal circumstances. I purposely seek out snakes on a near-daily basis and have only been pursued by one of the thousands of snakes I’ve come across. Most will attempt to escape, or they will be defensive. By defensive I mean they will bite if harassed, but will not pursue if you keep a safe distance. In a survival situation any venomous snake can be safely dispatched from a distance by any number of primitive tools: sticks, thrown rocks, machetes, et cetera. I should state once again that I am strongly against killing snakes except in a survival situation: many species of snake are in danger of extinction because of needless killing by humans.
There are a few ways I typically go about finding snakes. The first method, called road cruising, will be largely impractical should gasoline be in short supply, so I’ll skip over this method in favor of the latter two. Snakes and other tasty morsels will often take cover under discarded tin and boards in the woods, in fields and other areas with good habitat. “Flipping,” as it’s called, is best suited for cool times of year (55-75 degrees is ideal) and can be extremely productive especially in the Midwest, western U.S. and parts of the southeast, where the remnants of an abandoned building can potentially yield many individuals. I find that the longer a specific piece of debris (often called “A/C” or Artificial Cover) remains in an area, the more productive it becomes and vegetation underneath dies and food sources such as mice and rats move in. Also of interest for locating snakes would be to simply mimic the methods described for frogs and hike around wetlands for them in the evening; as many aquatic snakes can be seen while hunting fish or frogs this way. [JWR Adds: Based upon my amateur field herpetology experience in my teenage years, I can vouch: You can easily make artificial covers with scrap plywood, OSB, composition house siding, or roofing sheet metal, to form a “trap line”, of sorts. You simply attach (with screws or nails) some random length scrap 2x4s to the bottom of the sheeting scraps (of any shape from roughly 2 feet to 4 feet square.) In open fileds they should be positioned about 200 feet apart. The scrap 2x4s elevate the board just enough to be inviting to large snakes. Just be very careful of poisonous snakes or arachnids when you do your flipping!]
Hopefully, when things go south fast we’ll all be tucked away in our homes, compounds or bunkers, rifle firmly in hand with a year’s worth of food at our back – but the future is without doubt unpredictable and our own situations are often impacted by the choices (poor or otherwise) of others. Put simply: none of us are God and any of us could potentially get caught with our pants down. The best route is to have confidence and to have the varied skill set to back up that confidence. When building this skill set, be sure not to forget the things that creep.