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Tom Maigret homes in on radio-tagged timber rattlesnakes in UK's Robinson Forest for a study that may result in the development of optimal snake habitat during mine reclamation.



Friends, Not Foes

Snakes are important to the health of the environment and, increasingly, to human health as well. Is it time to shed our misconceptions?

By Carol L. Spence
Photography by Matt Barton


Tom Maigret spends a great deal of time on a quest that would make most people cringe.

“I try to reassure my parents by saying I’m much more likely to be killed by a coal truck on one of these roads than by a rattlesnake,” the second-year forestry master's degree student joked while searching URobK’s inson Forest for eastern timber rattlesnakes. “I don’t know if that was really reassuring.”

Maigret is working under UK Forestry professors John Cox and Christopher Barton on a project to study the ecology of timber rattlesnakes, one of Kentucky’s four types of venomous snakes. The reptiles have always intrigued Cox, even though he’s known professionally as being “more of a mammal and bird guy.”

“I’ve always been fascinated about the toxicity of certain animal species, whether that be black widow spiders or venomous snakes—knowing how potent that venom is, but also that it has medicinal uses,” said Cox, who spent his early career in medical research.

Those fangs look vicious, but when threatened, a timber rattler would prefer to escape or stay hidden, rather than strike out and waste its venom on something inedible.

Snakes, both venomous and nonvenomous, play a large role in controlling rodents, which are important vectors of many diseases, including hantavirus, a disease spread to humans through rodent droppings and urine, and many tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease. Steven Price, UK Forestry’s new herpetologist, said he knows farmers who toss rat snakes or kingsnakes into their barns to control mice.

“People always ask what good is it? What good is this plant, this mushroom, this snake?” Cox said. “I don’t think there’s any better example than some of these venomous snakes. They’re control agents, and now we’re finding out that some snakes have venom with potential pharmaceutical benefits, including dissolving blood clots for stroke victims or attacking cancer cells, while leaving healthy ones alone.”

Prior timber rattlesnake studies in the state have looked at small samples. Cox wants to take his research to a new level and focus on Kentucky-specific questions. His goal is to tag and track 50 to 100 rattlers to gain information on survival, density, dispersal, and population genetics in what he hopes will turn out to be the largest study that has been done in central Appalachia.

Robinson Forest is relatively roadless, making it one of the most intact forests in Kentucky. With its plethora of rocks and downed timber, it’s good habitat for timber rattlers. The surface mining surrounding the forest has essentially created an island that makes it a prime location to study rattlesnakes. Maigret spent several months in Robinson Forest tracking and capturing timber rattlesnakes late last summer. He said the job isn’t as dangerous as most people think, though he was still careful.

“Snakes aren’t very aggressive,” he said. “Most people think they are, but they’re pretty calm. They’re not going to waste venom if they don’t have to.” 

The hard part is actually finding the snakes. So far, Maigret has captured and tagged six.

“Both copperheads and rattlesnakes are so well camouflaged, that when the light comes through the canopy and dapples down on the leaf litter on the forest floor, it’s very hard to see them,” Cox said. 

Veterinarian Ashley Keith threads a radio antenna beneath the skin of a sedated timber rattlesnake.

Maigret looks for them in places they frequent, such as open areas on log piles. Using GPS, he notes where he found them, then gently captures them using a 48-inch set of snake tongs and transports them to Ashley Keith of Crossroads Veterinary Clinic in Versailles. Keith, who is the go-to veterinarian for the Kentucky Reptile Zoo in Slade, performs the minimally invasive 10-minute surgery needed to implant a radio transmitter and antenna into each animal. Radio collars aren’t suited for a creature with no neck, so the light, flexible antenna is threaded under the animal’s skin. A few days later, Maigret returns the reptiles to the exact spot he found them.

A timber rattlesnake is sedated before surgery to implant a radio transmitter under her skin.


 

“If we have a model of the forest—canopy cover, tree types, slopes, things like that—we can use the location of a snake each time we find it to build a model of where the snake might occur next. Integrating that with strip mines, we may be able to design optimal snake habitat during reclamation,” he said.

This is the kind of single-species information that’s important for larger types of research, for example Barton’s hydrological study in reforestation and timber harvesting methods.

(l-r) Steven Price, Chris Barton, and John Cox take a closer look at a rat snake, one of the most common snakes in Kentucky. It's an excellent climber and can grow to be 6 feet long.

 

“We harvested six watersheds, about 800 acres of forest, using different treatments to study how they each affect the water chemistry and the hydrology in that area. But that is just one aspect of it, because what we did technically affects the entire ecosystem,” Barton said. “We now have ongoing studies looking at how these treatments have affected aquatic insects, salamanders, and snakes that utilize these areas.”

This is just the start of an extended study, but the team of UKAg researchers is excited about the data they will be able to glean in the upcoming years.

“There are a lot of reasons we should keep timber rattlesnakes around,” Maigret said. “This study will help us protect them in this forest and the adjoining surface mine.”