2023 Science Initiative Highlights


2023 Science Initiative Highlight, Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnake from southern Georgia.
An Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnake from southern Georgia. – Houston Chandler

This month I wanted to write about something a little bit different and highlight some of the research projects and accomplishments made by Orianne’s Science Initiative during 2023. In addition to past work, we are also poised to begin or continue work on several exciting projects, and I end this post by previewing some of the research that you will see featured over the coming year and beyond.

The biggest change that occurred during 2023 was that I finished my PhD at Virginia Tech, graduating after the spring semester. I have balanced working towards a PhD with overseeing Orianne’s research projects for the last three and half years, and I am very happy to be shifting back to my Director of Science role full time. After graduating, the rest of 2023 felt like trying to play catch up on a bunch of things that had gotten pushed to the side. That is mostly behind me now, and I am excited to focus on the research projects that we are currently conducting.

Houston and advisor Dr. Carola Haas after a long and hot graduation ceremony. – Ray Chandler

Conducting important and timely research projects is always the main focus of the Science Initiative. Last year, we worked on a variety of projects and species across the southeastern United States. Some of the highlights included:

  • As part of my dissertation, I spent considerable time working to understand how climate change may impact the phenology and population viability of the few remaining Reticulated Flatwoods Salamander (Ambystoma bishopi) populations. This project is mostly finished with only a couple of manuscripts left to publish during 2024.
  • I also worked on projects focusing on understanding the relationship between wetland hydrology and flatwoods salamander breeding success and breeding habitat. I began working on hydrologic issues all the way back in 2012 during my MS research, and it is exciting to see it continue through my dissertation research. There is even some additional hydrology research planned for 2024.
  • Also as part of my dissertation, I continued to work with Dr. Javan Bauder to use long-term datasets to inform ongoing Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi) conservation efforts. This included an assessment of indigo snake growth in captive and wild populations, creating the first estimates of abundance for wild indigo snake populations, and building a population model for indigo snakes. Similar to the flatwoods salamander work, a major goal for 2024 is to push the last of this work across the finish line and into published manuscripts.
  • We continued our annual monitoring of indigo snake populations at sites across southern Georgia, while also maintaining a large database of indigo snake observations. This project is one of the few contemporary efforts to monitor indigo snake populations, providing data critical to periodic status assessments.
  • Towards the end of 2023, we initiated a new project examining the efficacy of using environmental DNA to document indigo snakes in the wild. We have begun collecting soil samples from select sites in combination with visual surveys and camera traps to compare the different sampling techniques. Fieldwork for this project will continue through the end of the indigo season in spring 2024.
  • During 2023, we continued our work with Eastern Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus) by building a range-wide database of snake observations. We also conducted surveys for this species at select sites in southern Georgia, including increasing mark-recapture efforts on Orianne’s Longleaf Stewardship Center. This work will culminate in 2024 with the creation of a range-wide habitat suitability model for eastern diamondbacks.
  • While busy with these other projects, 2023 was a relatively slow year for our Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) research. We did continue long-term monitoring at two sites in Georgia but otherwise focused on finishing publications from previous years Spotted Turtle data collection. The amount of Spotted Turtle research will increase significantly in 2024.
2023 Science Initiative Highlight, Reticulated Flatwoods Salamander making its way out of a breeding pond.
A Reticulated Flatwoods Salamander making its way out of a breeding wetland. – Houston Chandler

One of the important parts of completing these research projects is sharing the results with partners, other scientists, and the general public through a variety of mechanisms. During 2023, we gave presentations at both the annual Southeastern Partners for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (SEPARC) meeting and the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. These meetings always present a great opportunity to hear about the exciting conservation work being conducted throughout the U.S. In what was our most successful year to date and reflecting the amount of projects completed in recent years, we had 11 peer-reviewed papers published during 2023. The papers covered topics ranging from the effects of land use on turtle communities to management practices in ephemeral wetlands and are all available on our publication page. Many of these projects were led by various partners, and they would not have been possible without the assistance of many individuals. Finally, while writing a blog post every month sometimes feels like actual work (as opposed to catching snakes which never feels like work), I enjoy the opportunity to present our research in a more broadly available format. This year’s Science of Scales posts highlighted some of our publications, ongoing projects, and some of the fascinating species found in the eastern U.S.

From left to right, Houston, seasonal technician Kevin Hutcheson, and Research Associate Ben Stegenga at the annual SEPARC meeting. – Bryce Wade

As part of our new Small Grant Program, we awarded small grants to four graduate students working on the conservation or management of herpetofauna in the southeast during 2023. This included projects on Bog Turtles (Glyptemys muhlenbergii), invasive lung parasites in snake populations, Gopher Frogs (Rana capito), and Weller’s Salamanders (Plethodon welleri). We also selected five new graduate student projects that will be supported during 2024. Expect to see these featured in the coming weeks.

With all of the above going on, it’s hard to believe we could pack more into 2023, but we were also successful at acquiring funding for some new projects that will start in 2024. The biggest and most exciting is a large, multi-state project focused on the conservation of Spotted Turtles in the southeastern U.S. This project will bring together partners from Florida to West Virginia and will be a major aspect of the Science Initiative in the coming years. We will also start working on a 2nd new Spotted Turtle project that focuses on how climate change could impact sex ratios in Spotted Turtle populations. Both of these projects are direct follow-ups to work completed by the Eastern Spotted Turtle Working group over the last five years. In 2024, we will expand our existing projects to work with a new species: Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina). This project will focus on movement ecology, and we will be deploying GPS tags on box turtles in southern Georgia. I will also be expanding into work outside of the southeast as I work with our Director of Conservation, Kiley Briggs, to publish some of Orianne’s existing Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) data. Finally, the new hydrology project that I mentioned about will likely see us travel to Florida to examine how wetland hydrology impacts the metapopulation dynamics of flatwoods salamanders.

Orianne staff processing an eastern diamondback captured on the Longleaf Stewardship Center.

Along with our ongoing eastern diamondback and indigo snake projects, these new projects promise to make 2024 a great year. We will provide periodic updates about projects along the way but always feel free to reach out if you have questions about any of our ongoing Science Initiative projects.