Sunday, April 8, 2012

Snake Escape

 The following article is a guest post by Michael P. Wines. Michael is a graduate student at Auburn University studying the Eastern Indigo Snake, Drymarchon couperi and the Red Hills Salamander,
 Phaeognathus hubrichti.  He was a zookeeper at the Memphis Zoo for several years after graduating from the University of Memphis.  When not being made a fool by study organisms (see below), he writes fiction. Michael recently had a short story published in a book, Summer Gothic- A Collection of Southern Hauntings and is a woodworker.

     I work with Eastern Indigo Snakes, Drymarchon couperi.  This non-venomous reptile is the largest native North American snake, capable of reaching over eight feet in length.  They are primarily snake-eaters and are often discovered eating rattlesnakes, Copperheads, Agkistrodon contortrix, and other venomous species. The huge reptiles were extirpated (driven to extinction in a certain area) in many places where they could once be found due to habitat loss and tortoise burrow gassing. In response, Auburn University, the Orianne Society, the States of Alabama and Georgia, and Zoo Atlanta are all working together to reestablish a population in southern Alabama.

The basic process is that snakes are hatched in captivity and raised for about two years. This is how long it takes for the snakes to grow to a size large enough to be fitted with radio-transmitters, which allow us to track how the snake is doing after it is released into the wild. These transmitters are surgically implanted a few weeks before we let them go. But, before they are completely released into the wild, the Indigos are put into three-meter wide tubs outfitted with an underground hibernacula (a refuge where a snake can spend the winter) and lots of hiding spots. The hope is that the snakes that are temporarily acclimated to the outdoors in these tubs will more easily adjust when they’re released into the forest.

We were going to release thirty Indigos two days from the time this story took place.  The snakes had been in the huge tubs for two weeks and everything was going according to plan.  This was the second year of releasing the snakes and lots of people had worked very hard for years to prepare for the coming day.

I went to take all the snakes out of the tubs because they needed to be examined by a veterinarian before being cleared for release. That’s when I realized that, somehow, one had escaped.  A buried drain-cover was messed up and the water from the spring storms pushed hard enough that it had popped off, leaving an escape route for the snake (completely my fault).  Luckily we had already surgically-implanted the snakes with transmitters, so there was still hope of finding it.

I picked up a transmitter receiver and went out to find said snake.  I got a beep after searching for only a few minutes.  I chased the beep for a little ways, maybe three hundred meters (1000 feet) down a hill, through a thick pine forest and to an armadillo hole on the side of a pond.  These snakes spend most of their time in Gopher Tortoise, Gopherus polyphemus, burrows, so finding the snake in a hole was not unexpected.  I set a wire funnel-trap at the opening of the hole and left to get some lab work done.

Later in the afternoon I went back to check the trap.  It was empty.  I tried the receiver again and got beeps from a different direction.  Crap.  The snake had left the hole and somehow missed my trap.  I followed the beeps for about ten-feet into the woods, then they got weak again.  So I turned in several directions to get a better reading.  It was the same.  I pointed the antenna at the ground, expecting it to be in another hole.  The beep got even weaker.  I scratched my head (with the hand holding the antenna).  The beep got stronger again.  What the heck?  I checked four directions and the ground again but only got the same results. 

I finally lifted the antenna higher, thinking it may be far off and I could get a better signal by reaching up.  It beeped louder.  After a few minutes of "fiddling" with the receiver I discovered the snake was about twenty feet (six meters) up a tree directly over my head.  These snakes rarely climb and when they do, they don't climb far.  I'd never heard of one being that high up before.

So, I decided to go up after it.  I really had no choice.  I had to get the snake back.  It was my fault it escaped and I was already feeling like an idiot.  I climbed about ten feet (three meters) up and used my monkey-like intellect to poke it with a long stick in an effort to coax it down.  I instead coaxed it across.  I managed to shimmy one tree closer and started again, still ten feet up.  This time it went down and across to a tall sapling.  I figured I could bend the tree down far enough to grab the snake.  I was right.  I started pulling the tree down, getting within three feet (one meter) of the frustrating, little punk.  The only thing I could do was put all my weight on the tree and ride it to the ground. 

It was effective except there was no ground.  I didn't consider the fact that I was almost over the pond again.  In a magnificent athletic leap, I grab the snake with one hand while still holding on to the weed of a tree with the other.  I dropped like one of Galileo's balls.  I landed on my back in the mud. 

I then, with my sudden adrenaline rush, jumped to my feet holding the snake up as if it were the baby lion king.  I yelled, "Who's the freaking biologist!?  I'm the freaking biologist!"  Then the snake simultaneously bit me and pooped all over me.

            I was so proud of myself that I thought I heard applause.  In fact, there was applause coming from the limnology (study of wetlands) class that showed up for some field work on the other side of the pond.  Who knew that a guy screaming how awesome he is after falling out of a tree into muddy water, then being bitten and covered in reptile feces, is entertaining?

            Two days later, the snake (along with twenty-nine others) was released into a suitable environment.  To this day, it is happily flustering the researchers charged with tracking the little Houdini through southern Alabama.  

Want to Learn More?

Breininger, D., Mazerolle, M., Bolt, M., Legare, M., Drese, J., & Hines, J. (2012). Habitat fragmentation effects on annual survival of the federally protected eastern indigo snake Animal Conservation DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-1795.2012.00524.x

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