Nature Boost Podcast
Dr. Ben Jellen: People a lot of times ask, "What good are snakes, particularly venomous snakes? Why do we have them? Why don't we just get rid of them all? Wouldn't the world be better?" Then I will just always remind them of what Alda Leopold said - the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.
[Nature sounds and intro music.]
Jill Pritchard: Hey there, and welcome back to Nature Boost. I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation. You'll recall from our snake episode that Missouri is home to just over 40 species of snakes. Out of that number, there are five that are venomous: the timber rattlesnake; pigmy rattlesnake; cottonmouth; massasauga snakes; and the eastern copperhead. The copperhead is the most common venomous snake in Missouri, being found nearly statewide. But there's still so much we don't know about them.
To better understand copperheads and to lessen negative associations with snakes, Dr. Ben Jellen from the St. Louis College of Pharmacy heads up a research project at MDC's Powder Valley Nature Center in Kirkwood.
Dr. Jellen: The project has a couple of main components. One is the overall ecology of the snakes, where they hibernate, where they move to, how many there are if we could figure that out, any movement paths, what kind of habitat they're in, does the habitat shift, those types of things. Then there's also a really big, because of all the visitors, a wonderful hidden gem - or not so hidden gem - that Powder Valley is and St. Louis suburbia, a public education component because there are venomous snakes out here.
Jill Pritchard: The study involves fitting small tracking devices into captured copperheads and then releasing the snakes back into the wild to track their movements. Dr. Jellen explained that this technology was actually first implemented nearly 50 years ago.
Dr. Jellen: When they first did this technology in the early '70s, they wanted to get data on snakes because, again, the only way to get growth data or movement data is to find a snake at one point in time, and then find that snake again at a second point in time and see how far it moved, or see how much it grew. But with snakes being so cryptic and having relatively large home ranges, and kind of all looking alike, at least to us any way of the same species, it's really difficult to get that iterative data that you would need.
So, like, well if we could make a device that would send out a signal and somehow affix it to the snake, then that would be wonderful. So, if you think of radio collars for bears and coyotes and wolves, well snakes don't have shoulders or pectoral girdles. They will just crawl right out of it. So they can't do that. So, the first study was to open up the snake's mouth and force-feed the transmitter to the snake.
Jill Pritchard: Oh, that would have gone over well.
Dr. Jellen: And it didn't go over well, exactly. So, what the snake thought was it had a meal in its stomach. And what do reptiles do when they want to increase their metabolism? They want to go in the sun where it's warm and lay around and speed everything up. But this was undigestible. So, all they found was snakes laid in the sun. Well like, well this clearly isn't telling us anything realistic of what they're doing in nature. So, then they started a different procedure, and I think Howard Reinert was the one who really pioneered where to put the transmitter in the snake and go from there. So since then, that's the type of surgery that's done.
Jill Pritchard: Since the tracking system has been refined over the years, researchers are now able to learn more about the ecology of snakes and their population. But what exactly does the process of implanting a transmitter into a venomous snake look like? That's where the St. Louis Zoo comes in.
Dr. Jellen: The zoo has been an amazing partner. I go back and count, and the first time that I worked with the St. Louis Zoo was in 2000. So, this is literally the 20th year of a partnership with them being so kind as to implant radio transmitters. There's any type of care that's needed, they're always happy to help. They do it just out of the kindness of their hearts. So, every once in a while, I buy a case of beer and leave it for them. And somehow we call that even, and everybody wins. But we'll schedule an appointment at the animal hospital at the zoo that works with their schedule and our schedule, and the snake will go in. And when you see this, you walk away from the experience thinking wow, this is almost as good of care as a person would get in a hospital. The snake gets anesthetized, so they knock the snake out first. And they check for a righting reflex. So, for a lot of animals, if you flip them on their back, it's a reflex for them to flip right back over onto their stomach, or on four limbs, right? Or for fish, it will lose their righting reflex in water, you know that they're no longer conscious. So, they'll check for righting reflex by pinching the tail and everything else.
Once the snake is completely sedated, then they go through and they make an incision about two-thirds the length down the body on the lateral side of the snake. Uh, and the transmitter will get inserted into the peritoneal cavity, meaning the cavity where your stomach and intestines and liver and pancreas, all those organs are, your abdominal pelvic cavity. They'll insert the transmitter into that cavity, but not into the intestines or not into the stomach itself. Just kind of squish everything a little bit off to the side and stick the transmitter in.
Then they'll suture the transmitter, which I brought one here. This is one that came out of a snake that we found that was eaten this past spring. As you can see, the antenna wire is all chewed up. It was probably a raccoon or a coyote. But the transmitter itself goes in the peritoneal cavity. Then they run this antenna wire up just beneath the skin. That way, it's a little bit closer to the surface so it gives a better signal as opposed to more interference being in the body cavity itself. And the antenna wire is kind of long. You have to cut through the peritoneal cavity to get it, you know, to go more cranial. So, they just run it beneath the length of the skin, suture everybody up, give them some fluids, some antibiotics, usually a little bit of pain killer, and then we hang on to them for 24 to 48 hours. Then we release them exactly in the same spot where we found them unless they were found with another snake during the mating season. And a lot of times I will release them back with that snake as opposed to being a homewrecker.
Jill Pritchard: You can't break the couple up.
Dr. Jellen: No, you want love. Snake love is a good thing.
Jill Pritchard: After the break, we'll talk more about the copperhead study and how Dr. Jellen's team tracks these elusive reptiles.
Male: You really want to go there?
[Ducks quacking, woodpeckers pecking.]
Female: If you want more outdoors where you can go deep, climb high, or take aim, there's an app for that. The MO Outdoors App has lots of places to hike, fish, hunt, and more. Search by location or favorite activity, download maps, check out new areas, and mark your favorites. Just download the MO outdoors app and go there. Discover more at missouriconservation.org.
Female: Welcome to the team!
Jill Pritchard: And welcome back to Nature Boost where we're discovering how a team of researchers is learning about copperhead snakes that live around Powder Valley Nature Center outside of St. Louis. Dr. Ben Jellen, from the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, leads the research that involves tracking copperheads that are fitted with GPS transmitters. Dr. Jellen is helped by masters student and St. Louis Zoo instructor Brittaney Mayer.
Brittaney Mayer: So this is the telemetry unit. So what this is going to be doing is it's going to be picking up the range of our snake. And it's like when you have your radio and you dial into different channels. So you'll be dialing into different numbers. Now, this isn't specific to just our copperheads. So any telemetry, any animals that have telemetry units that are out here in this area, if we have their numbers, we can track them.
So we're going to be tracking one right now. [Small beeps.] Usually, this takes me maybe about an hour, depending on how far they move. But uh, the other day, I think I was out here two hours because most of the time, people are just, "Hey! What are you doing? Can you tell me about this?" Children are asking me questions, adults are asking me questions, and it's such a great opportunity to see science in action and to have those moments. I had one mom ask, "Can I take a photo of you? My daughter is doing a scrapbook." So somewhere in Missouri, there's snake telemetry in a scrapbook.
And you'll notice that the beeps will get louder. Something that I get asked often, will it get faster? It's more like hot and cold. So, the cadence itself is going to be very similar. And you're just going to be trying to pick up when the intensity is. So, as you get in the hot/cold game, it's hot, it's a little bit louder, more intense as you get near. And then you'll be dialing down the gain. So, think about it almost like a bubble, like where is the snake in this large bubble? As you go down further and further, it fine-tunes where the location is.
[Beeps continue. Sound of walking through brush.]
He's right here. If you want to come closer, get a good visual on him so you are in a safe range. Here you'll see his head's up, his body is slightly coiled.
Jill Pritchard: Oh, I see him! Wow!
Brittany Mayer: And thank goodness we have telemetry devices with them, or units with them because it is so difficult to find them. Their camouflage is at an expert level that sometimes even when I do have the devices all the way up, I'm as close as I can get with the signal, I still struggle, STILL struggle!
Jill Pritchard: And he's probably right in front of your face, too.
Brittany Mayer: There have been times they have been very close to my feet. And I'm like, thankfully they rely on camouflage. They are not aggressive snakes, unlike what most people think of venomous snakes. Venom itself can help defend an animal. If they have to use it, they will. They don't want to. It's expensive energetically to create. Also, it puts them at risk as well. So, with copperheads, if you see one, I always tell people is the luckiest thing is, almost better - almost better than winning the lottery. Almost. But it's very special to see them.
Jill Pritchard: To gather more data and generate more solid conclusions, Dr. Jellen hopes the study can continue for three or four more years. The timeline is especially beneficial because as Brittany was explaining earlier, copperhead snakes are just difficult to find.
Dr. Jellen: Really, it's been tough sledding getting snakes on the air, meaning putting radios in them, and keeping them on the air. We've had two snakes that have been eaten, one snake that drowned in a flash flood, and one whose transmitter battery died way before the scheduled time, and she can't continue in the study unless we happenstance run into her at some point in time. So the simple size is a little bit low. So it's tough to generate any broad conclusions from, you know, only five or six individuals.
Jill Pritchard: As you were saying earlier, copperheads are really hard to find. So I'm curious, how does this process work as far as you going out into the field and searching for them? How many hours do you put in to find the snakes?
We logged this, and we keep track at another study site in Monroe County, Illinois. We had spent over 100 person-hours search and found zero copperheads.
Jill Pritchard: That's really kind of sad.
Dr. Jellen: It's a little disheartening. In other studies, you'd go out and you'd find 10 snakes in a day for watersnakes that I've studied, or in certain places, for massasaugas. But copperheads are extremely difficult to find. So, the best way to find copperheads is to get lucky and have a transmitter in a snake, and we may not know where the snakes are, but they know where each other is. So, if you get a transmitter in a snake, oftentimes that one snake can lead you to other snakes, which has been the case. Our first snake that we found, Brittany and I together worked on a wonderful name for him. We decided that we wanted to do something symbolic because it was at Powder Valley, so we're thinking powder, and like this was all dynamite, is how it gets its name, so we were trying to think of something like that. But we settled on it being in Kirkwood, so we called him Kirk, and then thought Captain Kirk would be even cooler. So, he's known affectionately as Captain Kirk. And he's led us to three other snakes so far in the past two years. So, he's been our biggest snake finder. [Star Trek music playing in the background.]
We've spent hours and hours looking, but they know where they are. So if you can just let them do all the work, that would be fantastic.
Jill Pritchard: An important part of the Copperhead Project is the education component. Snakes are one of the most common phobias, right up there with flying, needles, and public speaking. To lessen the negative association, both Dr. Jellen and Mayer are working hard to turn that fear of snakes into respect by offering the public to see snakes firsthand.
Brittany Mayer: Another aspect of the project is community perception because as we know, this area is wonderful. It's a great resource, not only for animals but also for community members to share. And there is potential for those, like interactions where an animal might be sunning themselves on a path, or using, like there's a turkey around that makes sounds often. And I've seen plenty of deer, which is an amazing place to observe animals, but also if you have maybe perceptions that are negative, you might be fearful. Offering some programs that were about inquiry and going outdoors and being a citizen scientist, like what that can look like, but also emphasizing that we have such a wide diversity of species, and focusing a little bit on snakes.
Now the program itself didn't advertise, "Hey, this is a snake program! Hey, you're going to meet a snake!" because I wanted to make sure that participants that joined, they could have positive or negative aversions to meeting a snake. And I always try to make everyone feel very comfortable. So, by providing an opportunity for a hands-on experience where someone could touch if they wanted to, just look, or to say this is enough space. So, it allows somebody to have control over that situation, I find to be very helpful. So,I have some data. It's not a ton. Essentially, it's providing those experiences and those opportunities for others can be really beneficial.
If you're curious about something, even if you're concerned about something, ask questions. There are so many amazing staff and volunteers here at Powder Valley Nature Center. Like if you have any questions or concerns about any animals you see, I highly, highly recommend asking them. If you see me or Ben out tracking and you're like, "What is that giant tong thing? What are they doing? They're off-trail," never be afraid to just ask, "Hey, what's going on?" We've had somebody stop us thinking that we were up to no good and shout a little bit. That's okay because we want to treat this area with respect as well.
Jill Pritchard: And the best and probably most important snake advice, just leave them be.
Dr. Jellen: Everybody's always heard stories about snakes and snakebite. But a lot of those have been glorified. And I can tell you that the majority of venomous snakebites occur to a person's hands and fingers, meaning they're picking up the snake and doing something that they shouldn't be doing. And also, of the people that go to the hospital, approximately half of them have alcohol in their system. So, it may inhibit your better judgment, or somebody may think I have to go conquer this and pick it up. But the best thing to do is just leave it be, and just walk around and everybody will come out okay.
Jill Pritchard: To learn more about the copperhead study, contact MDC staff at Powder Valley Nature Center, or learn more about copperheads in Missouri at mssouriconservation.org.
Thank you again to Dr. Ben Jellen and Brittany Mayer for speaking with me, and thank you for tuning into another episode of Nature Boost. I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation urging you to get your daily dose of the outdoors.
[Nature sounds fade out.]
[End of recording.]