Snakes in Suburbia

  • The timber rattlesnake has been wiped out in several states in the East and Northeast and is not doing well in the Midwest. (Photo by David Larson, Saint Louis Zoo)

Scientists are worried that
snakes living in sprawling areas could be affected.
In one region, researchers have implanted dozens of
snakes with radio transmitters. Julie Bierach reports, it’s part of an effort to prevent a
decline in the snake population and educate people
that they can live with them:

Transcript

Scientists are worried that
snakes living in sprawling areas could be affected.
In one region, researchers have implanted dozens of
snakes with radio transmitters. Julie Bierach reports, it’s part of an effort to prevent a
decline in the snake population and educate people
that they can live with them:


Wayne Drda loves snakes:


“I think they’re really neat animals.”


In this wilderness area, Drda and his team are studying the basic movement patterns and habitat use of
Timber rattlesnakes and Osage copperheads:


“A lot of the wildlife areas, are being surrounded by subdivisions and homes, and some are
completely surrounded. And so the animals tend to wander out of the wildlife areas into
backyards and many of them don’t survive that.”



The timber rattlesnake already has been wiped out in several states in the East and Northeast. And the
timber rattler is not doing very well in many states in the Midwest. Drda says snakes in general get a
bad rap. A lot of people don’t like them, so otherwise peaceful people can turn into what he calls “nature
vigilantes,” and they kill snakes on sight:


“Well, I guess the most common way is with a shovel. That’s always the common joke, the
shovel. (Laughs)”


Drda wants to prevent that from happening as often in his area. He’s the field manager for the Pitviper
Research Project at Washington University’s Tyson Research Center near the suburbs of St. Louis,
Missouri. He’s trying to help suburbanites understand that the Timber rattler is a much less aggressive
species of rattlesnakes.


Drda and his team have implanted 26 snakes with the radio transmitters, and track them daily using a
GPS system. Ryan Turnquist is one of the students tracking the snakes:


“And basically we use that to map it on an area photo and determine how far the snake moved,
where the snake moved, what kind of habitat they used, home range size.”


On this day, they’ve already tracked 8 snakes. And now, they’re on their way to find another. Turnquist
turns on the GPS system. And we begin to plow through the woods. Each snake has been named and assigned its own frequency on the transmitter.
The 4-foot-long male rattlesnake we’re tracking has been named Aron.


As we get closer, the signal gets stronger. Turnquist leads the way pointing the big steel antenna in
several directions. And then, we see him. Aron is lying in the sun, half coiled, near a log . He blends in
with the pile of leaves that surround him. He doesn’t rattle, but instead is still, hoping we don’t see him.
Wayne Drda has been studying snakes for 40 years. He knows what Aron is up to:


“This snake is probably in the most conspicuous situation you can find him in, except being out in
the road. He’s not going to give away his position by doing anything until he feels like he’s
really threatened. I mean he knows we’re here, but he’s probably not going to rattle.”


That happens a lot more often than you expect. Drda says they’ve already tracked some snakes that
have made their way to backyards of homes in the area. And the homeowners don’t even know it:


“We’ve been trackin’ this one snake, her name is Hortence. She’s basically been in somebody’s
backyard now for three weeks I guess.”


So far, the team has learned that the male timber rattlers have a larger home range. They breed in late
summer, or early fall, and they never breed with females from the same den where the males hibernate.


Jeff Ettling is with the St. Louis Zoo. He’s conducting a DNA analysis to determine which areas need to
be kept open so the snakes can travel back and forth without running into someone with a shovel:


“If we can get enough samples within a given area, we should be able to tell what the relatedness is
and which males are moving between dens. That’s what we’re hoping to find out. I mean, we have a good
idea by tracking them where they go. But which females are they breeding with from different
dens we really don’t have any idea right now.”


The research team is finding new scientific information about the snakes. But, they say the ultimate
goal is to explain to the people who live in the area that you can live with the rattlesnakes. They don’t
have to kill them. Drda wants people who find a timber rattler in their backyard to call a herpetologist,
instead of running for the shovel.


For the Environment Report, I’m Julie Bierach.

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Lessons Learned From Wetland Rescue?

  • Spotted salamanders - adult and baby. Volunteers collected 14 species of reptiles and amphibians from a half-acre wetland in Ann Arbor, MI. (Photo by David Mifsud)

A lot of new shopping centers and subdivisions have wetlands
at their edges. Sometimes those wetlands are as new as the buildings next to them. Developers often build new ponds when they drain and fill existing wetlands. But experts point out that many man-made wetlands can’t match up to the ecosystems that evolved over hundreds or thousands of years. One group of people is trying something it hopes will be more successful: they’re moving a wetland, piece by little tiny piece. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams has the story:

Transcript

A lot of new shopping centers and subdivisions have wetlands at their edges.
Sometimes those wetlands are as new as the buildings next to them.
Developers often build new ponds when they drain and fill existing wetlands.
But experts point out that many man-made wetlands can’t match up to the
ecosystems that evolved over hundreds or thousands of years. One group of
people is trying something it hopes will be more successful: they’re moving
a wetland, piece by little tiny piece. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Rebecca Williams has the story:


Making a new wetland might not seem that hard. You need certain things – a
big hole in the ground, water, plants, some frogs, some snakes. But wetland
ecologists will tell you that it’s hard to get a man-made wetland to be a
replica of a natural one.


But this group of people is giving it a try. Volunteers are leaping after
baby frogs and snakes at the edge of a wetland in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


“He’s fast, look at him go!”


They’re scooping the animals up and putting them in buckets to move them to
a new manmade wetland. The original wetland is small – just half an acre –
but it’s teeming with life. It’s also sitting right where a new high
school is going to be built.


Saving the frogs and snakes and newts is turning out to be a lot of work.
The group’s caught about five thousand adults and babies in all during the last five
months.


Dave Mifsud is a herpetologist; he studies amphibians and reptiles. He’s
in charge of the rescue. Mifsud surveyed the site last year and was
impressed that such a small wetland could hold so many species. He asked
the school district to let him lead a rescue.


“When I first proposed the idea, I was hesitant because whenever I’ve
suggested it in the past, it’s been received with laughs or a blatant no.”


Mifsud says in most construction projects, time means money. He says it’s
hard to get anyone to agree to wait while animals are moved. So, he was
surprised when school officials agreed to the rescue. Mifsud says the
school’s also trying to make the new wetland as much like the original as
possible. They’re moving water, soil, and plants from the old wetland to the
new one.


Randy Trent directs the school district’s environmental services. He says
instead of seeing Mifsud’s proposal as a headache, the school thinks of it
as a way to balance development and conservation.


“It gives us an opportunity to let our students have the history that’s
going on at this site as something to learn from.”


But critics are asking just what the school district is teaching by building
over an irreplaceable site. Ann Arbor resident Alan Pagliere is a vocal
critic of the district.


“There’s going to be a legacy left, there’s going to be a lesson taught, and what are those? You
certainly can’t teach a lesson about the environment by destroying wetlands, but clear-cutting landmark trees. These are decisions that are going to be with us for decades and the people
who are making the decisions will be gone when their terms are over.”


Pagliere says the school should preserve the existing wetland as a living
classroom instead of spending taxpayer money to destroy it and build a new
one.


The animal rescue has its skeptics too. Jim Harding is a wildlife biologist
with Michigan State University. He says moving amphibians and reptiles is
risky.


“An adult frog or adult salamander already has its idea of where home ought
to be; we have anecdotal reports of building new ponds for salamanders
and having them return in the spring to the old site which is now a parking
lot.”


(sound in, back with frogcatchers)


“Oh, I think that was mud.”


“It’s mud, it’s okay… if you’ve got the tadpoles, you can actually just dump them right on the edge.”


But herpetologist Dave Mifsud says he’s giving the frogs and toads a
fighting chance. He says the tadpoles he’s released will think of the new
pond as home. He’s also put up fences around the woods near the new pond. He
hopes they’ll direct the adults back to the new pond in the spring.


“Let’s start releasing the frogs along the edges…”


The frog-catchers’ buckets are loaded with baby frogs. Dave Mifsud’s taking
the cover off his bucket and coaxing frogs out into their new environment.


(Sound of tapping on bucket)


“Come on guys. You’ve been trying to get out of the bucket this whole time. Ah, this is the best part for me! Come on! You’re lucky if…in all my years I’ve seen maybe a handful of spring peeper babies. The fact that we were able to save these guys is incredible.”


Mifsud says it’ll be an uphill fight to make large-scale amphibian rescues
more common, but he says he isn’t known for keeping his mouth shut when it
comes to watching out for anything that leaps or slithers.


For the GLRC, I’m Rebecca Williams.

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