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Snake research crucial to protecting a vulnerable endangered species

Jul 11. 11

She strains to hear electronic pings popping from a radio receiver in her hand. As she swings a portable antenna around in an arc, the pings rise and fade in strength, pointing the way toward her subject.
Gosling is a TRU master's student in the school's natural resources science program.

This summer she is completing a two-year study looking at movement and migration patterns of the western rattlesnake found in Interior grasslands from Osoyoos to Kamloops.

Locally, Gosling captured three rattlesnakes in the Lac Du Bois grasslands as they emerged from their dens in May, surgically implanting small radio transmitters into their bodies.

The radios will send a signal through the summer, allowing her and an assistant to find them every couple of weeks, note their physical health and their location.

Crucial to her study, she also collects temperature readings from air and ground in the area immediately adjacent to the snake's location. Her study examines how habitat temperature influences rattlesnake movement.

Her work was sparked by a study by a previous TRU student about five years ago. Lita Gomez studied rattlesnake movement as well and discovered that Interior rattlesnakes often travel much farther than scientists expected.

Previous understanding suggested snakes don't travel from their den site more than 1 1/2 kilometres in a season. Gomez's study - as well as Gosling's ongoing work - has found snakes often travel up to four kilometres in a season, and then back again.

One snake was tracked through its season as it changed climatic zones, rising from the grasslands to higher elevation forests.

"It went up one side of a mountain and down the other side," she said.

The studies are important because they reveal that rattlesnakes - an endangered species in B.C. - are more vulnerable than previously thought. Efforts to protect snakes have mostly focused on saving den sites, but Gosling said these studies show efforts are also needed to protect habitats across wider travel corridors.

People remain the snakes' No. 1 enemy, she said. Human encroachment has wiped out many traditional dens, sites used by rattlesnakes for eons, and increasing numbers of backcountry roads and vehicles take out individual snakes.

Gosling said she hopes to establish firm links between temperature and snake movements in order to help scientists better plan models to protect populations into the future.

It's tough work, following rattlesnakes. The snakes are secretive and elusive by nature and seek out rocky outcroppings well beyond the usual reach of human travellers.

And of course, there is the risk associated with working with a venomous animal.

For the most part, rattlesnakes want nothing to do with people, she said, and will do everything they can to avoid contact.

Even when grabbed by special tongs, the snakes seek to escape. Only when they realize they will not get away do they set their tails buzzing, she said.

Rarely will they strike out.

Despite that, she shows respect and takes precautions, using standard research tools to eliminate the potential for harm to both snakes and researchers. Her goal is always to return the snakes to their environments unharmed, and to leave the scene without puncture wounds.

Snake researchers say the third year of their work is when they will most likely be bit, however. The theory is after two or more years of close contact, some researchers get too comfortable and an accident happens.

Gosling's study will conclude in the fall, when she will recapture her snakes and remove transmitters from their bodies. Then the work of analysing data will begin and she'll prepare her final paper.

"People think I'm strange because I love to work with rattlesnakes, but I don't care," she said. "This is important work. The snakes have everything else playing against them."

View original story in Kamloops Daily News



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