Tracking Tiny Twisters - Exel: Drexel University's Research Magazine
 
 

_NATURE ENVIRONMENT Herpetology

_Tracking Tiny Twisters

GPS tracking and radio transmitters give researchers a peek inside the world of newborn pine snakes.

_Walter Bien

Bien is a research professor in the Department of Biodiversity, Earth & Environmental Science and director of the Laboratory of Pinelands Research.

The northern pine snake is a charismatic ambassador for the Pinelands National Reserve, an ecologically important region in New Jersey.

Drexel students working with Walt Bien’s Laboratory of Pinelands Research in the New Jersey Pinelands have conducted a number of studies of the docile, nonvenomous creatures.

One project, led by graduate student Kevin P.W. Smith, is some of the first work ever done to study the behavior of newborn, or neonate, pine snakes — an area about which scientists know relatively little.

“Smith learned that young pine snakes begin feeding on adult mammals — small ones, such as mice — within the first two months of life and they shed their skin multiple times within their first season.”

To find the neonates, the team tracked adult female snakes to their nesting sites and marked the spot with GPS. In the Pinelands, female pine snakes dig out their own burrows over the course of several days — so it’s not too hard for a careful observer to spot females preparing to lay eggs. Two months later, the newborn snakes emerge from the marked burrows into small fenced-in areas rigged by the researchers to capture them. The team then surgically implanted the captured pine snakes with radio transmitters.

Dig This Pine Snake

DIG_THIS

Female pine snakes dig out their nesting burrows over several days using a specialized scale on their noses to scoop out sand.

Smith was able to make important observations about the neonate snakes’ natural behavior. For example, he learned that young pine snakes begin feeding on adult mammals — small ones, such as mice — within the first two months of life and they shed their skin multiple times within their first season.

He has also worked with neonate pine snakes in a variety of behavioral experiments, including simple maze tests to track migration and dispersal responses to different snakes’ scents. In another experiment, he counts the neonates’ tongue flicks to gauge their interest in the scents of various potential prey items.

He presented his findings at the Ecological Society of America annual meeting in August.