Georgia Gives Day is November 17, 2016, so we want to share some of our accomplishments for reptiles, amphibians and their habitats in Georgia from this year. From our stream restorations in North Georgia to our field surveys and land restoration activities in South Georgia, we have been working diligently to conserve reptiles, amphibians and their critical habitats that benefit all wildlife in our focal ecosystems:
From the Appalachian Mountains in North Georgia to the Coastal Plain in South Georgia, we work to conserve several focal snake species and their habitats.
In North Georgia, our focal snake for our conservation efforts is the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)—we have worked with this magnificent animal since 2010 in the Appalachian Mountain ecosystem. This region has some of the highest acreage of wild-protected land and some of the greatest remaining populations of Timber Rattlesnakes. This year was our third season of inventorying 30 gestation/shedding sites along the Georgia-North Carolina border. From these, we selected a series of gestation sites that we surveyed three times each over the summer. We had high reproductive output in 2016, with over 70 percent of gestation rocks being used by gravid females as compared to 2015 when only approximately five percent of gestation rocks were used. These surveys document the presence and abundance of gravid females and shedding snakes, and they allow us to calculate occupancy rates across the region and to monitor how those rates change over time. We also monitor hard mast such as acorns. If there is a low mast year, it will likely be followed by low rodent numbers and ultimately affect the timing of Timber Rattlesnakes giving birth.
The future of rattlesnake conservation in the Appalachians and beyond rests heavily on the shoulders of people. Timber Rattlesnakes are heavily feared and persecuted, but they are top predators in the area and are vital to maintaining a healthy, balanced ecosystem. The best way for us to conserve this species is through education, and this is why we have developed a rattlesnake education series in the Southern Appalachians to teach and inspire local communities. Everyone can play a part in rattlesnake conservation by talking about the importance of these species to our ecosystems at every opportunity you have.
Given our discovery of Snake Fungal Disease (SFD, caused by the fungal organism Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola) on Timber Rattlesnakes at two sites in Georgia in 2015, we inventoried snakes for SFD this season, keeping an eye on the impacts it is having and thinking about strategies for dealing with the disease. Following established protocols, we have sampled (by swabbing) a total of 16 individual snakes of seven species in South Georgia: Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus), Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus), Timber Rattlesnake, Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos), Southern Hognose Snake (Heterodon simus), Eastern Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) and Cornsnake (Pantherophis guttatus). We will continue our SFD sampling into 2017-2018, with a special focus on four different regions of the Georgia Coastal Plain. Little is still known about SFD, which species it is affecting and in what ways, and how it is spread. SFD has caused severe population declines in some northern snake populations, and through early monitoring, we hope that this can be avoided in Georgia. By sampling the snakes we encounter, we can not only learn more about this disease but also the ways we can combat its spread among snake populations.
As far as our snake surveys in South Georgia go, we continue to monitor Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi) and Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake population trends. For the last nine years we have conducted surveys throughout the Altamaha River drainage for these species, capturing and marking over 175 Indigos. This field season we are adding survey sites for a total of 60 sandhill sites to search for Eastern Indigo Snakes and Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes in the Alapaha, Altamaha and Satilla River drainages of southern Georgia. We survey approximately 20 sites per year, with each survey site visited three times per field season. These surveys allow us to estimate the percentage of sandhills in South Georgia that still support Indigo Snake populations, while at the same time providing important information about individual snake sizes and longevity. Data from these surveys will help direct management actions to sites where improved habitat would benefit populations of these two declining snake species.
In 2016 we completed an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake habitat model for the state of Florida, analyzing over 1,000 location records to create the model. This model predicts where Eastern Diamondbacks have suitable habitat in the state of Florida and will be used by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to inform conservation decisions in the state. Moving forward we will use this model and other data to develop a range-wide conservation action plan for the species that can be used among multiple state and federal agencies. We also provided over 125 locality records (for Georgia) for this species, the largest rattlesnake on the globe, to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources from 2015 to 2016.
In 2016, we conducted 21 road-cruising surveys in South Georgia for the Southern Hognose Snake, finding a total of two Southern Hognose Snakes. The widespread and still-common Eastern Hognose Snake was found seven times. Because Southern Hognose Snakes are difficult to find, road-cruising surveys through suitable habitat are often one of the most effective methods for sampling this species. These and other recent locality records for this elusive species will help us validate a species distribution model for Southern Hognose Snakes in Georgia that we produced in 2015. This model will allow us to target further searches in areas of high-quality habitat. You can read more about our hognose surveys in Searching for Southern Hognose Snakes: One of Georgia’s Most Elusive Species.
Our on-going monitoring and inventory surveys are important because they demonstrate the population trends for our many focal species. They allow us to determine which sites are rebounding and to identify other sites where we can shift our efforts, such as to areas with lower populations which may have less desirable or native habitat. This is where our land management efforts come into play to support the vast array of wildlife living in the Coastal Plain. We use prescribed burning, plant Longleaf Pine and restore native groundcover to enhance and create more of the natural Longleaf Pine ecosystem.
For instance, we completed invasive species treatment for Bermudagrass and Bahiagrass on a 20-acre site located on the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve (OISP). This site will be considered a donor site, which is an area of land used to plant native groundcover and collect seed to be used for understory restoration on the preserve and partner lands. We also completed site preparation for an additional 48 acres that will be restored to native understory.
The Gopher Tortoise is an integral part of the Longleaf Pine ecosystem because hundreds of species depend on their burrows for refuge in order to survive. But this keystone species is declining, so we place a significant focus on restoring habitat to be suitable for them and therefore many other declining species. In the Altamaha River Drainage of southern Georgia—a region which includes the OISP—tortoise populations are currently doing well and maintaining viable numbers, although this is not the case throughout their range. Managing tortoise habitats requires periodic fire and other measures that serve to foster the open-canopied, grassy environments favored by this species, and our land management program does an excellent job making this happen. In fact, we burned 19 sites and over 4,700 acres inhabited by Gopherus polyphemus in 2016, including 1,528 acres on public lands, 2,439 acres on private lands and 822 acres on the OISP. The Gopher Tortoise population on the OISP—estimated at 450 adults, plus a number of smaller turtles—exceeds the minimum viable population threshold of 250 adults.
We are also studying Spotted Turtles (Clemmys guttata) at two sites located in the Coastal Plain of southeastern Georgia. Spotted Turtles are not well-studied in the southerly most portions of the species range where population sizes at some sites may be perilously small, and very little is known about their current status and habitat requirements. We are especially excited about our on-going field studies and surveys of this species which, thus far, have contributed new information about this turtle’s status and distribution, population demography, home range and habitat use, and population genetics. In 2016, we captured turtles by hand and by deploying specialized aquatic traps made of crab-trap wire. We recorded 542 trap-nights for both sites combined, and we captured 34 turtles (14 males, 17 females and three juveniles). Overall, since initiating this study, we have captured and marked 82 Spotted Turtles (31 males, 45 females and 6 juveniles). From March to May, we attached radio transmitters and temperature loggers to 30 adult Spotted Turtles. We have tracked and located each turtle one to two times per week since the transmitters were attached, for a total of over 1,100 radio locations. We have observed late summer courtship and mating behavior at both sites, which is outside of the normal breeding season (spring). These on-going surveys will help us determine a baseline population status for Spotted Turtles so that we can continue to monitor them for any population declines into the future.
This year we completed a project started in 2013 in partnership with the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School (RGNS), the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division (GADNR), and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to improve water quality in the Little Tennessee watershed by focusing on decreasing sedimentation into Sutton Branch in northeast Georgia on property owned by RGNS. The partnership used its combined expertise to develop a plan funded by the USFWS and implemented by RGNS to minimize livestock’s direct use of the stream. This was done by erecting fencing limiting cattle access to Sutton Branch, reducing the width of existing cattle crossings by half; gating two existing crossings and eliminating another; creating hard-packed cattle ramps at the remaining crossings; and providing alternative water sources in surrounding fields so that cattle have little need to access the stream for water. The results of this project benefit many Georgia species, such as Eastern Hellbenders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) and native trout.
We also partnered with RGNS and GADNR to install nest boxes for Eastern Hellbender along the stream on RGNS property this summer. With the stream restoration project completed and the nest boxes installed, we will be able to assist the GADNR with monitoring the boxes to assess Hellbender populations, particularly for their role as dens and shelter to increasing reproduction and survival rates for juvenile Hellbenders.
Reptiles and amphibians are bellwethers of habitat health and play a vital role to the ecosystems they live in. By monitoring their populations, restoring the natural landscapes where they live and creating informed conservation action plans, we can make a larger, lasting impact on their survival in the world. Help us conserve these essential native Georgia wildlife by clicking here for Georgia Gives Day.