Clemson researchers leading multistate effort to unlock mysteries of elusive snake species
HABERSHAM COUNTY, Georgia — After nine years of what he called “two geeky nerds spending a lot of time and money looking for a snake,” Bryan Hudson watched the reptile named Russell slither off into the northeast Georgia landscape barely a week after it was captured.
Hudson admitted he was unlikely to lay eyes on the five-foot-long snake again for a full year. But for the Clemson University doctoral student, his collaborators and a slew of stakeholders on hand for the July 12 release, that’s when the real research on Russell began.
“In 2010 was the first time I really came to this area — the Habersham/Stephens County area — with the exact intention of looking for pine snakes,” Hudson told the gathered group. “It’s now 2019, and in that nine-year span, the snake that was discovered last week is the first live pine snake I’ve been able to get my hands on in nine years of looking in the area.”
Russell was released back into the eponymous Lake Russell Wildlife Management Area where he was found the previous week by Georgia Department of Natural Resources wildlife technician Trent Blalock.
After being surgically implanted with a radio transmitter at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, the large adult snake is being tracked through radio telemetry to learn its behaviors and habitat use. The technology will allow Hudson and his collaborators to pinpoint the snake’s location to within a square foot — remarkable considering pine snakes spend much of their lives below ground.
Russell’s release was part of a project dubbed Project Pine Snake that began in earnest in 2012 with Hudson and colleague Zach Felix at Reinhardt University scouring state and regional databases, museum specimens and other records for information on the species.
The researchers then partnered with Georgia Department of Natural Resources to understand northern pine snake occupancy and movement research across north Georgia, including assessing wild populations on private and public lands through trapping and radio telemetry. While the research team has located “quite a few individuals” in north central Georgia and “a couple” in the state’s northwest region, Russell was the first live specimen encountered in the northeast Georgia region since the project began.
Pine snakes are highly evolved for life below ground, with cone-shaped skulls conducive to digging. While they are nonvenomous, they have some of the most pronounced ridges — or keeled scales — among nonvenomous snakes, making them rough to the touch.
Of the four pine snake species/subspecies found in the eastern United States, northern pine snakes, sometimes called bull snakes by locals, may be the least understood, but states within its range are making efforts to better understand their status and habitat requirements.
“The non-coastal pine snake is one of our last big-bodied, characteristic and charismatic vertebrate animals that we don’t know anything about,” Hudson said.
Hudson said the scientists are not even exactly sure how or why Russell ended up in the specific location where he was found.
“How do we stand here in 2019, have a vertebrate animal that ranges along the East Coast of the United States and not even know its true status as a species as well as its status in the wild as a conservation animal?” Hudson asked.
While scientists know the non-coastal pine snake ranges on the East Coast from northern Alabama to northern Mississippi, across the state of Tennessee and into Upstate South Carolina and from north Georgia through western North Carolina, with disjunct populations in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, verifying those populations has been a laborious process.
Hudson said his database includes only three vouchered records of the snake being spotted in Upstate South Carolina since the late 1940s, a handful of records exist from the state of Alabama, while the research team had only 11 “good, vouchered records” from Georgia since the 1960s at the start of Project Pine Snake. All told, the Project Pine Snake database now includes more than 90 specimens from north Georgia.
While Russell’s release took place in Georgia, the scope of the project includes working with state and federal partners in Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina.
Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Conservation Section biologist Thomas Floyd, a herpetologist, said the presence of the northern pine snake in northeast Georgia, and specifically on Lake Russell WMA, is an indicator the habitat there is suitable to its needs, allowing scientists to emulate those conditions and create them in other locations.
“Our ability to radio track this individual is going to help us better understand habitat utilization and habitat for the species and, in particular, for this portion of the state — a prairie-type habitat,” Floyd said. “Clemson is the lynchpin here that allows multiple agencies to work together across political boundaries. Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina are all working together, and the research will have a broader impact because of Clemson.”
Floyd said that while understanding the snake’s preferred habitat is a major part of the study, it would also provide greater knowledge about the species in general.
“The other part is to put the pieces together and understand how this snake fits in the grander scheme of things genetically,” Floyd said. “How is it related to other subspecies? How is it related to other northern pine snakes in the state? We don’t really have an idea; hopefully, other snakes that will be encountered in the research will help us put those pieces together.”
But while the rarity of the species makes it noteworthy on its own merit, it is also a high-priority species in Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy for conserving native wildlife, rare plants and natural habitats.
U.S. Forest Service biologist David Vinson said his organization and Georgia DNR, through prescribed burning and herbicide application to eradicate non-native invasive plant species, have been working to reclaim the specific area where the snake was released into a native prairie, or early successional habitat.
Early successional habitat — examples of which include grasslands, old fields or pastures, shrub thickets and young forest — is habitat with vigorously growing grasses, shrubs and trees that provide excellent food and cover for wildlife but need disturbance, such as regular sweeps of fire, which once occurred naturally, to be maintained. Information gleaned from Project Pine Snake will help state and federal agencies evaluate the success of their habitat restoration efforts.
“If you look at our forests as a whole, less than 1 percent of our forests are early successional habitats. … This is a habitat type that our forest plan allows us to work toward and that we’re really trying to mimic more across the landscape,” Vinson said. “It’s a big push and we’re going to continue to work toward reaching that goal. If we continue to see the research pay off — and this is just another step towards that — you’re going to see that this will continue to expand elsewhere throughout the forest.”
The pine snake research also has implications for understanding the ecological value of rare plant species, such as smooth purple coneflowers, a federally endangered species located not far from where the snake was released.
State Botanical Garden of Georgia conservation coordinator Jennifer Ceska said the goal of botanists is to see plants thriving in the wild and “opening doors for the animals” through plant diversity.
“That is a milestone for our botanical part as well,” Ceska said. “As partners in the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, we are annually propagating these endangered plants and putting them back with our partners at the Forest Service and Department of Natural Resources and are going to keep doing it … trying to get more prairie on the land. The more prairies the better for woodlands. That entire habitat type is basically erased from our collective memories. Most of our prairies were lost before the Civil War. This is a big day for the animal people, and this is a big day for the plant people.”
Pine snakes are yellow, tan or white in color with dark blotches on their back third, a checkered pattern in the middle and a darker, or mottled, pattern at the head. They will also blow loudly when scared. Anyone who sees one of these snakes is asked to snap a photo and contact Hudson at 404-556-1863 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Felix at email@example.com. More information can be found on Project Pine Snake’s Facebook page: Facebook.com/ProjectPineSnake.