Thursday, 18 June 2015

Snakes alive! And well in New Jersey Pinelands - via Herp Digest

The female snake was named Hermione by two girls who found her tangled up in a ditch with a male they named Ron.
"They're the couple from the Harry Potter books," said their father, Emile DeVito.
Because DeVito is the manager of science and stewardship at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, the girls knew what they were looking at: two northern pine snakes, which are on New Jersey's threatened species list, trying to propagate their numbers.
Since that moment two years, Hermione and Ron have done more to help their species survive rather than simply reproduce.
Hermione's name is the female derivative of Hermes, the Greek god known as the "earthly messenger," who moved freely between the mortal world and Olympus.

And this has been the snake couple's role since the day DeVito and his daughters found them copulating in the Franklin Parker Preserve in the Pinelands.
For 10 years, snakes such as Ron and Hermione have carried surgically implanted transmitters that allow scientists like DeVito to track their movement and study their behavior.
The research can aid developers and traffic engineers from encroaching on their territory around the Pinelands National Reserve, the only place where the snakes are found north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
"There is still a lot of development around the core of the Pinelands (reserve)," DeVito said. "We can give people information to make good choices about protecting wildlife."
The program began with timber rattlers, but in 2008, researchers from Drexel University expanded it to northern pines. Since then, about 30 snakes have led humans to the places where they feed, hibernate, mate and lay eggs in the underbrush of the pine forest. 
"The more we know about them, the more we protect them," DeVito said.
Transmission signals have revealed the snakes' hiding places in the dense understory of pitch pine and scrub oaks, as they dig and slither -- stealth-like -- through woody shrubs of lowbush blueberry and black huckleberry.
Without the signals, the snakes are almost impossible to find. In one of those amazing details of evolution, the northern pine snake has developed a camouflaged skin that mimics burned pine cones and pine needles.
"The pitch pine, scrub oak forest is a globally unique forest formed by fire," DeVito said.
"The snake has adapted to avoid predators. You can be right on top of them and not see them."
The signals have led researchers to rotten tree stumps in which the snakes burrow deep for earth's warmth -- well below the frost line – during the dark, cold months of winter.
Scientists also have been able to track them to the soft, sandy, windblown dunes where the snakes nest, and the shade of bracken ferns where they escape the unforgiving summer sun in a dwarf-pine forest that offers no shade canopy.
The snakes also reveal their proximity to their most feared predator: the car.
"They have a home range of about six square miles," DeVito said, "but we see they have dens and nesting sites sometimes within a quarter mile of a highway."
The snakes live in the 1.1 million acres of the Pinelands National Reserve. That sounds like a lot of room, but it is traversed by two state highways (Route 70 and 72), three inter-county roads (532, 539 and 563) and hundreds of local streets.
"The roads essentially create islands," DeVito said. "The roads don't allow the populations to connect."
Sticking with the island theme, the New Jersey branch of the northern pine snake is like a satellite outpost of their main habitat. Despite its name, the snake in most prevalent in South Carolina and extends into parts of five neighboring states. But from North Carolina to New Jersey, there are virtually none.
This is one reason they are on New Jersey's threatened species list.
A few weeks ago, Ron and Hermione were tracked down by their signals, which had grown weaker as the transmitter batteries began to wane. They were recaptured and brought to the office of a conservation consulting group called Herpetological Associates, Inc., in Pemberton.
Kevin Smith, one of the Drexel researchers, came from Philadelphia to remove the old transmitters and implant new ones. He did surgery on Ron two weeks ago and Hermione last week.
It's an elaborate procedure and Smith has done it about 15 times. With hands steady as, well, a surgeon, he gently anesthetized Hermione by placing her head in a tube of isoflurane vapors.
He then gingerly cut her open on an existing scar and pressed the old transmitter out toward the surface. Scar tissue was clipped away as minimally as possible, and a new
transmitter, dipped in paraffin and wax to dull the edges, was tucked under her ribs.
He ran an antennae through a catheter under her skin and five sutures later, she was removed from the vapor tube. She was measured and weighed before she woke up, then put in a bag for her trip back into the woods to continue her work as an earthbound messenger.

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