ATHENS, Ga. -- Kimberly Andrews is no ordinary student. When challenged by University of Georgia ecology professor Whit Gibbons to come up with a research project that would add to the scientific literature on herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians), she came up with a twist on the old riddle: "Why do snakes cross the road?"
Gibbons -- a noted herpetologist who's also a senior researcher at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (a research unit of UGA) -- was stumped. Andrews smiled; she had found her project.
The traditional wisdom on the topic is that snakes use the road to thermoregulate, according to Andrews. In other words, it has been thought that since roadways soak up heat, a snake will seek them out to increase its body's temperature.
"But you almost never see a snake coiled up on a roadway," says Andrews. "And when you do see one in the road, they are booking it."
So, why do snakes cross the road? To answer that question, Andrews has developed a unique study protocol. Using a dead-end road on the Savannah River Site, a U.S. Department of Energy facility in Aiken, S.C., she has marked concentric circles to map the directions of her study subjects. Here she releases individuals of different species, one at a time, using a bucket on a pulley to settle the snake down before release. She then observes from a specially constructed blind, raises the bucket and records the behavior of the snake. Andrews also notes the conditions at the time of release.
The research is expected to take a year and will involve several hundred snakes of all sizes and most species native to the Southeast, including venomous varieties. From her tests so far, Andrews has been able to determine that most snakes would rather not cross the road and when they do, they do so quickly with apparent fear when a vehicle approaches.
Habitat destruction and division may spur some snake travel, according to Andrews. Roadkill is often noticeably increased in areas where development occurs. Her work may provide wildlife managers with useful information in the future.
For more information on the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, visit http://www.uga.edu/srel.
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