Northern Pine Snakes Being Studied In New Jersey
August 3, 2013

Drexel Program Works To Save The New Jersey Northern Pine Snake

Susan Bowen for - Your Universe Online

For some graduate students at Drexel University, it's all about snakes: the Northern Pine Snake to be exact. This snake is threatened in New Jersey, where the team's research is taking place. The pine snakes are large, non-venomous and docile, which makes them good test subjects. Protecting these snakes in densely populated New Jersey should go a long way towards protecting their entire ecosystem. The goal of protecting the species and their biosphere is the impetus for the students' research. They will be presenting their work at the Ecological Society of America's annual meeting.

Graduate student Dane Ward is an expert at surgically implanting radio transmitters into the snakes through a tiny, one-inch incision. Internally placed transmitters have to be used because an externally placed transmitter would interfere with the snake's ability to move and capture food. More than two dozen pine snakes have been followed with radio telemetry during recent seasons with the goal of determining their population and range as well as understanding their behavior.

Another researcher, Catherine D'Amelio, is studying the impact that climate change could have on the snakes' behavior. She determined that, at the highest temperatures, their activity levels dropped off. This observation points to the possibility that the timing of their seasonal activities may shift, which could impact their interrelationships with other species. They may also be more susceptible to freezing to death if patterns of early-spring warming followed by cold periods, such as observed in 2012, become more common.

Kevin P.W. Smith has been studying neonate pine snakes, about which little was previously known. He and his team looked for adult female snakes that were digging burrows in which to lay eggs. After the eggs were laid, the team constructed a fence around them so that they could capture the newborns as they emerged. Outfitting these baby snakes with transmitters allowed the researchers to observe that the snakes begin feeding on small adult animals, such as mice, within their first two months of life. They also shed their skin several times over the course of their first year. Smith has also been conducting behavioral experiments in the lab with the neonates. He used a maze to measure their response to the scent of different snakes and counted tongue flicks to gauge their interest in various forms of prey.

Two undergraduates, Jacquelyn Garcia and Rafaella Marano have been studying the problem of snake roadkill. The traffic through the Pinelands on the way to the Jersey Shore is often deadly for snakes. The students determined that it takes pine snakes about two minutes to cross a two-lane highway, meaning that on some roads they might encounter three or four cars during their crossing, and as many as 30 cars along the busiest stretches. They also determined that snakes move faster on sand than on asphalt or concrete. The inability to cross the highway safely divides their habitat and can prevent snakes from interbreeding with snakes on the other side, possibly decreasing their genetic diversity. Continuing investigations may determine whether the snakes could cross in plastic culverts under the road or whether there is a different surface material that might allow them to cross faster.

The students' research is being conducted in the Pinelands National Reserve in New Jersey, which is an ecologically important region that was designated as a United Biosphere Reserve by Congress in 1978 and as a world Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1988. It covers over one million acres in seven counties in the southern part of the state.

The students are part of a project, directed by Dr. Walt Bien, called the Laboratory of Pinelands Research. The research program is a cooperative effort between Drexel and the Warren Grove Gunnery Range (WGGR) operated by the New Jersey Air National Guard. The Sikes Act of 1960 "mandates that environmentally and ecological sensitive federal lands are properly managed to preserve the integrity of the land and the protection of rare and endangered species." This partnership carries out that mandate at the WGGR.

For the students it is a great opportunity. "It's a great place to work, a pristine habitat," Bien said. He noted that his students have researched 32 species listed as endangered or threatened by national or state conservation agencies. "The students are fantastic. People love what we do here."

The military benefits from the arrangement as well as the students. "We can spend a lot of money hiring contractors or work with a professor," said a military spokesman. "It's a great relationship. We get more bang for our buck. From the military standpoint, it's good PR."

Still, the gunnery range is a dangerous place where Air Force pilots learn gunnery, bombing and other drills. The students use walkie-talkies to make sure they stay out of harm's way, and the number one rule is that if they see any object that they didn't bring in with them, they don't pick it up.

According to the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation Office of Pinelands Research, the Pinelands Reserve "contains one of the largest continuous areas of pine barren ecosystems in the world. Pine Barren habitats are characterized by well drained, sandy, nutrient-poor soils, with a high frequency of fire that results in a unique plant community of fire adapted species." The New Jersey Pinelands feature upland, wetland and aquatic environments.

The Pinelands area is part of a regional management system made up a multiple jurisdictions. The goal of the management system is "to direct growth and land cover change in a manner consistent with environmental objectives." The program has already shown that it is able to preserve natural areas from conversion to other uses.

The students are part of a program directed by Dr. Walt Bien and called the Laboratory of Pinelands Research. The research program is a cooperative effort between Drexel and the Warren Grove Gunnery Range (WGGR) operated by the New Jersey Air National Guard.