Western Carolina University researchers are using geographic information systems technology and radio transmitters to track timber rattlesnakes this fall to determine whether new mountain subdivisions and road-building are pushing an animal listed as a “species of special concern” toward the endangered list.
Ron Davis, WCU assistant professor of natural resources management, is spearheading the pilot project in which timber rattlers are implanted with special radio transmitter chips by a veterinarian. After their recovery, the snakes are released back into the wild and then monitored to study their habitat and their range.
“The timber rattler is probably the most misunderstood animal in Western North Carolina,” said Davis, who is working with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “Because people fear them, they want to kill them. Between the destruction of dens by development, wanton killing of the snakes, accidental road kills and illegal poaching, the population of these animals is declining dramatically.”
So what, some might argue about fewer venomous reptiles slithering through the WNC woodlands. Jenn Slagle, a senior from Shelby who is working with Davis on the project, said the timber rattlesnake is an important part of a larger ecosystem and helps control the rodent population. “This species was in the mountains long before we were living here,” said Slagle, who is majoring in natural resources management and political science.
As part of the project, Slagle developed a computer model using GIS software to determine probable locations of timber rattlesnake dens. WCU researchers are using radio telemetry throughout the summer and fall to find released snakes that were implanted with the radio transmitters, until the reptiles return to their dens for winter hibernation.
“When we track them, it’s like a giant game of hot or cold,” Slagle said. “When we point the antenna in the direction of the snake, the signal gets stronger – ‘you’re getting hotter.’ When we point it away from the snake, the signal gets weaker – ‘you’re getting colder.’”
Before beginning the project earlier this year, Davis obtained a permit from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to work with a species of special concern, and he plans to seek grant funding to expand his studies. Among the properties where he is actively tracking timber rattlers is Balsam Mountain Preserve, a gated development between Sylva, N.C., and Waynesville, N.C.
“I don’t want to divulge other places we are working because of the threat of poachers trespassing onto this property and destroying the dens,” he said. “The goals of our project are conservation and education. When we build homes on the mountainsides, we are encroaching upon their territory. When people and rattlesnakes share the same space, the snakes usually lose.”
A major problem in snake-human interactions is that the snakes cannot simply be relocated, Davis said. “Moving a snake out of its home range is basically a death sentence for the snake,” he said. “Our work at places like Balsam will allow us to examine the effects of development and hopefully develop some ways in which people and snakes can co-exist.”
The ultimate goal of the project is to help preserve the snakes, in part by educating people that they are not vicious, aggressive animals, Davis said. Although serious, rattlesnake bites are very rare, and usually occur when someone is trying to handle or kill a snake.
“The snakes are defensive. The rattle is a defense mechanism, not an attack signal, and their survival depends upon not being seen. Given the chance, they will head for cover,” he said. “It can be frightening for some people when they see a rattlesnake, but this remarkable animal really deserves our respect rather than our fear. The best thing to do is to simply leave them alone.”
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