Authored by Sara Rodgers
Few animals fascinate quite like snakes do. Historically viewed with equal parts fear and awe, the venomous rattlesnake fascinates more than most. I have always loved snakes (all reptiles and amphibians in general, really), and ever since I was a kid, I would regularly bring home new “friends” I had found on my adventures around the neighborhood: frogs, turtles, lizards and, of course, snakes. The nonvenomous ones anyway—even as a child I knew which snakes were dangerous and therefore off limits to handling. So if I ever stumbled across a venomous snake in the wild, I would content myself with simply watching it from a distance until the mysterious creature went on about its business. As an adult snakes continue to fascinate me, and I was more than delighted when Orianne Chief Executive Officer Chris Jenkins approached me about helping out with some snake-related field work this summer.
I have spent the past couple of months volunteering with The Orianne Society monitoring the presence of Timber Rattlesnakes in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia and North Carolina. The rocky outcroppings we visit are perfect lures for two particular facets of the rattlesnake community: shedding individuals and gravid females. These snakes need extra energy to complete the biological processes they are undergoing, and like all snakes, they are ectothermic (“cold blooded”) animals that rely on external sources of energy to heat their bodies. Slabs of exposed rock tucked into the forests of remote mountainsides function just like an asphalt road on a hot day—with the added benefits of privacy and security where snakes with precarious circumstances can congregate in groups. So, predictably, the shedding snakes and gravid females gather together in these rocky basking sites, and Chris and I hike out to find them.
We look for two main things when we go out to monitor these sites: population density and the presence of Snake Fungal Disease (SFD). The general population data is easy enough to collect: go to a location we know rattlesnakes frequent, and count how many we see. From there, we try to determine how many of the snakes in an area are gravid versus the snakes that are simply there to shed. At the end of the season, we will return to count how many babies each gravid female had. Even as a lifelong snake enthusiast, I did not know that after giving birth, the females and their offspring stay together in little family groups until the baby snakes shed their skins for the first time. It’s very convenient for us, and if we time it just right, we can get accurate data on litter sizes before they all scatter. All of this helps give us an idea of how prevalent Timber Rattlesnakes are in the area, and it gives us more information on their reproduction.
Determining the presence of SFD (a fungal infection that can potentially lead to the death of the snake) is a bit trickier. Chris and I work as a team using snake hooks to nudge a rattlesnake headfirst into a plastic tube, quickly grab the tube and snake together as one piece, and slowly edge the animal’s head out just past the other end of the tube. One of us holds the animal (the tube prevents the snake from striking) while the other carefully swabs the snake’s face to collect a biological sample that is then sent to a lab to test for the presence of SFD in that individual. The causes and consequences of the spread of SFD are still largely unknown, but it has been observed in Timber Rattlesnake populations (and other species) in the eastern United States. The data we collected will be used to further researchers’ understanding of SFD’s effects on Timber Rattlesnake populations in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
It’s been an eventful summer. All of the snakes we’ve seen and sampled will help expand what we know about SFD, and with so many sightings of gravid females this year, we are expecting a bumper crop of baby Timber Rattlesnakes by the end of August. For me, I have had a chance to handle an animal that many people never will, an animal that has captivated me my whole life. Sometimes when working I take a mental step back from the situation and think about what we are really doing in that moment: catching and holding a wild, venomous snake. We use the proper equipment and safety precautions of course, but it’s still quite an adrenaline rush out there in the wilderness. Although, for all their fearsome reputation, the rattlesnakes are pretty calm in our presence. They generally don’t display any signs of aggression until we try to catch them for sampling, and afterwards when we let them go, they just slide back under a rock and bzzz their tails at us until will leave. Then it’s off to the next sampling location.