Herpeto-Treasure Hunting: Adventures from the Field of Coverboard Monitoring

By Bruce de Terra, California Naturalist & Pepperwood Volunteer

Winter 2023 and Spring 2024, I had the good fortune of participating in an ongoing Pepperwood research project as part of my California Naturalist certification training program that Pepperwood hosted. Helping out with research at the preserve was one of the options for doing a “project” as part of our training program. I selected coverboards as my research project. I viewed helping out with coverboards as being sort of a giant treasure hunt where we would search for rarely seen critters that live hidden throughout the preserve. It sounded fun, and it would get me out on the preserve to areas that I’d never otherwise visit. 

What an incredible world I “discovered”! Previously, while walking on trails and fire roads at the preserve, looking at all the big charismatic stuff like trees, birds, flowers, mushrooms, and impressive landforms – I was oblivious to the world I discovered underneath the coverboards. Beneath the two-foot by two-foot sheets of plywood positioned to lie flat on the ground and laid out in sets of nine at various locations around the preserve, I found arachnids (spiders and scorpions), insects (mostly beetles and ants), amphibians (newts, salamanders and one frog), reptiles (ring neck snake, alligator lizards, western fence lizards, blue-tailed skinks), mollusks (banana slugs and snails), centipedes and millipedes, mammals (a very startled mouse and lots of burrows and nesting materials) and worms, though not many. I suspect that worms do not do well when hiding out with amphibians as they’re on the menu for many.

Coverboarding (yes, it can be a verb) entails carefully lifting up one edge of the previously described sheet of plywood, and looking to see who’s living or hiding underneath it. Coverboard monitoring helps us get a representative sampling of the wide range of herpetofauna living in micro-habitats that help support plant communities such as grassland, oak woodland, conifer forest, chaparral, and mixed evergreen forest. Each location has a different moisture and temperature regime and supports different animal communities, big and small. Each set of nine coverboards is organized around a central point that has a trail camera and a small weather station. When we check the cover boards, generally twice each month, we also check the battery status of the camera and document the number of captured images. At each individual coverboard we also take a soil moisture reading using a probe that we push into the ground adjacent to the board. We have forms where we document what we find and protocols we follow. 

It’s all very research-y and proper, and it needs to be to ensure good quality, accurate useable data! But the secret is that it’s actually rather fun too, even exhilarating at times, especially when there’s lots of soil moisture and lots of critters. I wouldn’t have expected to feel so happy about finding three scorpions under a single board, or to giggle at being startled by a mouse scurrying away, or to have a moment of panic as thousands of large red ants scramble up the board I’m holding that suddenly uncovered their cache of eggs. And in the dryer, rockier areas there’s always the nervousness of tipping up the board and looking down on a coiled rattlesnake, and then the disappointment of not actually finding a rattlesnake. The data gathering doesn’t capture this part of the fieldwork, but it’s this part that sticks with me. Even the poison oak goes away but the feeling of WOW, that sticks.

In stepping back from the particular joy at seeing this incredible diversity of life and thinking instead about the broader value of this activity, it’s apparent that by conducting the coverboard monitoring in a consistent well-documented manner, those of us in the field are providing a bounty of longitudinal data across a large number of sites for researchers to investigate all sorts of questions related to micro-climate habitats, pre- and post-fire population resilience and recovery, seasonal changes, soil moisture and community variability as climate change progresses, inter-species dynamics (who is comfortable hiding with whom), broad regional population trends across the span of years, and other questions yet to be pondered.

I am honored to have worked under the leadership of Pepperwood Research Specialist, Makayla Freed and in field partnership with Kevin Brady over the past several months.

View the Photo Gallery from Coverboard Monitoring 2024

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