July 25, 2014 by Imani Dorsey
Drexel University biologists are collaborating in an effort to save northern pine snakes from extinction using military technology. Researchers have implanted transmitters into the snakes to track their hibernation habits and have found that snakes take twice as long to cross concrete than sand.
“The ultimate goal of this project is to examine how large the New Jersey population of northern pine snakes is and how individuals use the available landscape. I am also evaluating how roads and urbanization impact the population (negatively in most cases) and what implications roads and urbanization have on the population genetics of the species,” Dane Ward, an environmental science doctoral candidate at Drexel, wrote in an email.
Ward is a state board-certified snake surgeon. He and another researcher physically implanted the radio transmitters, which emit a signal that tells the researchers the exact location of the snake.
“Each year the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the Drexel Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee review our protocols and working conditions to ensure we are operating above par,” Ward wrote.
This project began in 2010 after a 2009 petition from the New Jersey Builders Association attempted to remove the northern pine snake from the New Jersey threatened species list.
The presence of the northern pine snakes’ habitat has halted multimillion dollar construction projects in New Jersey. The Builders Association argued that the snake should be removed from the threatened species list because there is no scientific reason they should be protected — they are, allegedly, abundant in the state.
“There really isn’t quantitate [sic] data to support that the listing needs to be maintained,” Elizabeth George-Cheniara, the association’s lawyer, said to New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger.
The builder petition was reviewed and denied Jan. 8, 2010, by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The northern pine snake is still considered a threatened species.
Established in 1978, the Pinelands National Reserve in New Jersey was the United States’ first national reserve. Researchers have said the reserve is similar in rarity to the Amazon rain forest.
The northern pine snakes call the rare ecosystem of the Pine Barrens home. The Atlantic City Expressway and Garden State Parkway run through the Pine Barrens, often causing the pine snakes to become roadkill, especially during this time of the year, when the female snakes leave the forest and cross the road in search of sand to nest their eggs. Drexel researchers found that it can take up to four minutes for the snakes to cross a highway like New Jersey Route 72, and in that time, 77 vehicles can travel down the same road.
The New Jersey Air National Guard’s Warren Grove Gunnery Range is also contained within the Pine Barrens. The guard occupies the range and has worked with the Drexel Laboratory of Pinelands Research for the past 10 years to preserve the habitat.
A study published by Drexel researchers Aug. 5, 2013, titled “Estimating population densities from radio-telemetry data for the northern pine snake in New Jersey,” reported that in 1986 there were 16,476 pine snakes in New Jersey and by 2007 that number had decreased by more than a thousand. The number continues to fall due to road and habitat changes.
Drexel students, faculty and volunteers are assisting with field research to understand the biology of the species in order to generate effective conservation management practices. They recently helped the laboratory build fences to divert the snakes to culverts installed under the road. The experiment was an attempt to provide an alternative route for the snakes.
Ward speculates that without research and conservation efforts the snakes could likely disappear from the region. The closest population is in North Carolina.
“If this population in New Jersey were to become extirpated, we would likely see many changes throughout the Pine Barrens ecosystem. The northern pine snake is the only snake in the world to dig its own nest; many other snakes will then use these burrows and nests created by pine snakes for shelter and nesting sites. The pine snake is also a large-bodied snake, reaching about six feet in length. These snakes eat large numbers of rodents and small birds, which [keeps] pest problems down near the urban-forest interface,” Ward wrote.
Ward hopes that the laboratories’ research will promote more discourse about conservation and policies. “The most important piece of science is communicating those findings with the public,” he wrote.