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Georgia College & State University Delves Into the Secret Lives of Snakes

Georgia College & State University students use state-of-the-art technology to collect data on the secret behaviors of snakes.

Humans think a snake’s life is simple. They slink. They slither. They bask. They bite.

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But a Georgia College & State University vertebrate biologist says we don’t really know much at all about what snakes do and why.

Using the latest, state-of-the art technology, Dr. Dominic DeSantis and his students are keeping an eye on these coiling creatures—where they go, what they eat and how they interact—hoping to learn their serpentine secrets.

This is important, as snake populations decline nationwide.

“Rattlesnakes play a critical role maintaining interactions between species,” DeSantis said. “If we begin to lose them, I don’t think anybody knows what those ecosystems devolve into.”

During doctorate studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, DeSantis pioneered a technique to track snakes and monitor their behavior using accelerometers, a device that measures vibrations or changing motion.

Since the 1980s, radio telemetry was the only means of tracking snakes. Accelerometers collect other movement data like the number of times a snake eats, reproduces, constricts or strikes in self-defense.

DeSantis launched a series of case studies using this technology at Georgia College—putting its students at the frontier of new discoveries in snake behavior.

Eight graduate and undergraduate students track 22 snakes—19 rattlesnakes and three rat snakes—in Putnam County, Georgia. Each snake is implanted with small transmitters.

Students find and relocate snakes. They record observations, like whether a snake is resting or in retreat. They note habitat, body temperature and wind speed.

Their research shows how snakes confront roadways, strike and swallow prey, and spend their winters. They discovered rat snakes spend half their time in trees, and they’re studying the effects of fungal disease hurting snake populations in the Northeast and Midwest.

Now, the group is determining if snakes make decisions—like deliberately hibernating alone instead of groups when sick.

“Snakes act as an important linchpin pretty much everywhere in North America, but we don’t understand that role very well,” DeSantis said. “We know it’s important. We know they’re there. We know they’re really prominent in all these systems, sometimes in high numbers. So, clearly, they’ve got this crazy-important role to play. We just don’t know exactly what that role is yet.”

SOURCE Georgia College & State University


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