Authored by Ben Stegenga
On any given day I find myself tracking Spotted Turtles through a hardwood swamp, road cruising for Southern Hog-nosed Snakes or scouring Gopher Tortoise sandhills for Eastern Indigo Snakes and Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes. Getting to work with these magnificent species and contribute to their conservation has literally been a dream come true.
Like most biologists, my childhood was spent largely in the woods and streams near my house. Fortunately for me, my “backyard” growing up just happened to be Table Rock State Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of South Carolina. My father is the interpretive ranger at Table Rock, so we lived right there on the park, and I basically had free reign of the place. My parents fostered an appreciation of the natural world in me from a very early age. My father is an accomplished birder, and my mother has an affinity for plants and geology, but they are both fairly well-rounded naturalists. My childhood was never boring. When I wasn’t tagging along with my dad at work, I was fishing or bringing home jars of scorpions and black widow spiders. Even our family vacations were spent camping, birding and hiking.
While I always had an appreciation for reptiles and amphibians, I wasn’t bitten by the “herp bug” until the sixth grade when two fellow classmates brought their pet snakes to school. My dad kept a Corn Snake in the park nature center, and I had seen it a hundred times but never spent a lot of time handling it. Soon I asked to bring his snake to school to show my classmates, and from then on I was hooked. I proceeded to check out every reptile book I could find in the school and county libraries. And soon after that, my friend and I caught our first wild snake on a class field trip. It was a young Queen Snake that was basking over a tiny stream. Surprisingly, my teacher watched the whole thing unfold without intervening, and then she even allowed us to pass the gentle snake around to the other students!
Coincidentally, this was about the time a local television station began airing Steve Irwin and Jeff Corwin on Saturday mornings. It was a herpetological perfect storm. I had found my calling, and I just couldn’t get enough! Endless days were spent looking for salamanders and watersnakes in mountain streams, and nights were spent walking lakeshores spotlighting frogs, snakes and turtles. And I was almost always accompanied by my younger brothers, Jonathan and Nathan, who had become quite accomplished herpers, as well.
With my dad being the park interpretive ranger, I was fortunate to be involved with much of his work at the nature center and in the field. I also got to meet local scientists who collaborated with him for their research, and it wasn’t long before various state and university biologists were enlisting my help, as well. I was asked to help with a toad survey and to assist with documenting Green Salamanders, Eastern Milk Snakes and Bog Turtles in the Blue Ridge Mountain ecoregion. It was my first taste of real fieldwork, but little did I know that I was about to get the opportunity of a lifetime… an experience that would pave the way for my budding career.
In the summer of 2006, Jeff Mohr, a Clemson Ph.D. candidate at the time, met with my dad to see about doing a Timber Rattlesnake telemetry project at Table Rock. He had some other possible field sites, so it all boiled down to where he could find rattlesnakes first. Within a week’s time, my brothers and I had helped him find his first three study snakes, and in doing so, confirmed my backyard as his field site! Over the next five years Dr. Mohr was gracious enough to let me assist with all aspects of his fieldwork. He taught me the ins and outs of radio telemetry, mentored me on working safely with venomous snakes and greatly expanded my knowledge of herpetology. Since no one had ever studied Timber Rattlesnakes in detail in the mountains of South Carolina, his project focused mainly on their basic ecology (diet, reproduction, hibernacula, etc.). However, in the second year of the study, we captured several rattlesnakes that needed to be relocated due to being in high-use public areas in the park. So we decided to also look at translocation as a viable strategy for resolving rattlesnake-human conflicts in that region.
In the meantime I had enrolled at Southern Wesleyan University (SWU) to pursue a degree in biology, but during summers I would return to Table Rock to work at the park and do as much rattlesnake work as possible. During my junior year at SWU, Dr. Mohr graduated and turned the telemetry project over to my father and me. We still had three years of transmitter life left and several relocated snakes still out in the field, so we continued tracking and collecting data through 2014.
In January of 2012, I enrolled in a master’s program at Clemson University under Dr. Rob Baldwin where I looked at biological connectivity between ephemeral wetlands and permanent water bodies with an emphasis on amphibians. I set up drift fences with pitfall traps around known Wood Frog and Spotted Salamander breeding pools and documented every species that was found visiting or leaving the wetlands. In addition to that, I fitted Wood Frogs, Green Frogs and Southern Leopard Frogs with radio transmitters so I could track their post-breeding movement and habitat selection. It was during my time at Clemson that The Orianne Society first began to catch my attention. I had heard Chris Jenkins give talks at several herp conferences, and he had peaked my curiosity. So when I saw the announcement for the first Places You’ve Never Herped (PYNH) event, I quickly signed up. It would be the first of many Orianne field outings that I would go on, and it left me looking for more opportunities to get involved with the organization.
While at Clemson, I gradually acquired a sizeable captive herp collection, mainly for the purpose of education. I had come to realize how important outreach was for herp conservation, so my own personal “serpentarium” made frequent trips to local elementary and middle schools. It was a great way to give students a chance to see herps in a positive light and hopefully inspire a few to pursue a career in conservation. Seeing complete changes in the students’ attitudes towards reptiles really got me fired up about education, so when I graduated from Clemson and SWU offered me an adjunct professor position teaching herpetology during the 2015 spring semester, I jumped at the chance! It was refreshing to get to teach college students, and I made it a point to expose my students to as much active conservation as possible. This of course included The Orianne Society. Dirk Stevenson and Kevin Stohlgren agreed to host my class for a weekend field trip on the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve, and it ended up being the highlight of the semester for many of the students.
When summer rolled around, I was itching to get back into the field. By this time I was regularly checking in with Orianne staff about job openings. There was nothing at the time, so I accepted a job with the Great Basin Institute on yet another telemetry project. I was to live in the desert for several months to track Mojave Desert Tortoises at several sites in Nevada and Southern California as part of a long-term monitoring project. We would be tracking both translocated and resident tortoises, surveying for new tortoises and assisting with health assessments. It was my first experience in a desert environment, and it was an absolute blast! But it was a short-term position, and soon I was back in the Southeast—just in time for two more PYNH events. That’s when I got the news I had been hoping for: there was going to be an opening in the spring, and they were interested in hiring me! It was something I had been hoping for since my time at Clemson.
And that brings me back to now. As I pack up my gear in preparation for another week of Eastern Indigo Snake surveys, I think about how thankful I am for the chance to work with such magnificent creatures. Who knows just how long my time here is going to last, but for the time being, I am proud to be furthering herp conservation as a member of this extraordinary Orianne team.