Researchers track snakes to study populations, behavior
A researcher for Washington University in St. Louis and colleagues at the Saint Louis Zoo and Saint Louis University are tracking timber rattlesnakes in west St. Louis County and neighboring Jefferson County to see how close to civilization the snakes are getting as humans developing subdivisions invade the snakes’ turf.
The researchers are studying timber rattlesnakes and also copperheads in their Pitviper Research Project. They hope their efforts will educate the public and convince people that they can live with the species without destroying them. Wayne Drda is the Washington University researcher. Jeff Ettling, reptile curator at the Saint Louis Zoo, is another member of the research team. Third member is Ryan Turnquist, a biology major at Saint Louis University, Friends of the three and the Missouri Department of Conservation also assist in the study.
Most people detest snakes, so the first instinct is to eliminate them, said Drda, who researches at Washington University’s Tyson Research Center and who recently assisted Corey Anderson, former Washington University biology graduate student, in his doctoral thesis. Anderson, a student of Alan Templeton, Ph.D., Washington University professor of biology, now is a postdoctoral researcher in biology at Arizona State University.
“You can live with the knowledge that timber rattlesnakes and copperheads are in your area, and if you have a problem, you need to go to herpetologists, who can figure out a plan or help remove the snakes,” he said. “We don’t want to see people become nature vigilantes.”
The researchers take captured snakes and implant a small radio transmitter to follow the snakes’ movement and migration patterns and to study habitat use.
“I am the field manager, organizer, and I oversee the equipment,” Drda said. “Jeff will be doing the DNA analysis work, and Ryan helps with the field work and is our GPS"GIS computer whiz.”
The researchers have found things about timber rattlesnakes that are counterintuitive. Their breeding time is late summer and early fall and not the spring. While males can wander as much as a couple of miles a week, the females, after giving birth, stay with newborns until the young shed about seven to 10 days later. The females generally stay closer to home, but the males are more active and consequently have longer home ranges.
Most adults are ‘homies’ – returning to the same area year after year after leaving their den sites – others seek out new turf, especially during their rapid growth years.
Timber rattlesnakes have rattles that are rarely used because with camouflage there is no sense in giving away your location, Drda added.
The quintessential suburban lawn is not the preferred habitat of timber rattlesnakes. But occasionally a suburbanite in the colleagues’ research areas sees one passing through. The team has trained people in the area to contact them so that they can capture and release.
“Our goals are to understand the ways of these species and to educate suburbanites and rural people about them, so that we can keep a proper balance in the face of development,” Drda said.
Washington University in St. Louis. June 2007.
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