Reptile Recovery: New captive breeding program at UN to help endangered plains snakes

A sudden turnaround occurred this summer when Katheryn Krynak, Ph.D., professor of biology at Ohio Northern University, took a road trip on one of her few days off. The reason: Momma Snake was in labor.

Granted, a snake in labor is usually not the cause of such a sudden change in human plans, but in this case the snake in question is a member of a species that is listed as endangered in the Ohio since 1974. In fact, the only colonies of Plains Gartersnakes that live in the wild in Buckeye State are located at the Kildeer Plains Wildlife Sanctuary (KPWA) in Wyandot and Marion counties. .

Part of breeding programs aimed at increasing the population, Ohio’s captive plains garter snakes reside at the Columbus Zoo, where the first captive breeding program for the species began in 1999; at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo; and now at Ohio Northern University.

With licensing and coordination with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and with funding from the Getty College Opportunity Grant and Endowed Chair dollars, the UN Thamnophis radix captive breeding program was created in May with three male snakes and a large female, which Krynak hoped was already pregnant (hence the weight) but wasn’t sure until she got the phone call.

Momma Snake, on the younger side by height, had a total of 10 babies. This species is ovoviporous, Krynak says, meaning the females carry and hatch fertilized eggs inside their bodies.

The little ones, along with Momma Snake and the three men, are housed in a campus with restricted access. Babies enjoy their own nylon-covered containers, where they are snuggled up in moss and other natural habitat materials. For the youngest snakes’ first meals, Krynak and some of his summer biology students gave them earthworms and other treats. “We can rub tadpole slime” on these treats to entice babies to eat, Krynak said right after they were born.

When conditions are favorable, Krynak will release the babies to KPWA in coordination with the zoos and herpetologist Doug Wynn. Wynn, a world renowned snake researcher, has monitored snakes at KPWA since the late 1970s and the population will continue to be monitored and studied. Captured adult Eastern Plains Garters are given a number, tagged with a device the size of a grain of rice placed under the skin, and released or retained for breeding. Babies are also tagged with a metal tag and released.

snake charmers

“They’re doing well here so far,” Krynak said while holding a lively male snake, his species distinguished by physical characteristics such as a bright orange stripe along his back. “Here in Ohio, the species has a more orange stripe, and it is different from other garters, with the placement of yellow stripes on the sides. They also have vertical black bars on their lip scales,” a- She explained, “The stripes along the back and sides help them avoid predators by creating an optical illusion when moving quickly, which disrupts the depth perception of the predator. They think they have the snake within reach when in reality they don’t.

Krynak also notes that in his experience, the Plains Gartersnake is generally docile and shy. “She’ll run instead of hold on if she’s scared,” Krynak says. In captivity, with familiar owners, it becomes clear that “they all have their own personality,” she says.

Their charm, however, did not protect them. According to Krynak, two main culprits are to blame for the decimated numbers of garter snakes in Ohio: habitat loss and, more recently, a fungal pathogen. These snakes inhabit wet grasslands, many of which have long been turned into farmland. Additionally, fungal pathogens are a global concern for a wide variety of species such as amphibians, bats and snakes, and climate change may exacerbate the problem.

Some other factors that have negatively impacted the species include particular land management strategies such as controlled burning and mowing, practices that have been modified at KPWA.

As a molecular ecologist, Krynak will test snakes as part of the UN breeding project for the fungus and also help participating zoos test their animals. The test results will help in making decisions about quarantine and possibly medical treatment.

Student research

This fall, Krynak is aided in her snake rescue work by three enthusiastic students majoring in environmental and field biology: Senior Haley Goehring, Senior Greg Brown and second-year Joseph Lepard.

Goehring, of Cambridge, Ohio, is responsible for snake care and parasite scouting. “Examining any parasites the snakes may have helps ensure that we keep them healthy for release,” she says, adding that she believes this work will make her a more competitive candidate for graduate school. and future jobs; his interest is in wildlife work and research, particularly amphibians and reptiles.

Goehring’s enthusiasm for his snake work is evident. “I have developed a passion for herpetology in recent years and I particularly like snakes!” she says. “Garter snakes have so much personality while still being relatively docile snakes, so I think they’re a great introduction to the world of snake research.”

The importance of nature conservation is also a priority for Goehring. “With so many species going extinct, it is crucial to preserve our native plants and animals for themselves and for the good of the environment as a whole,” she says. “The environment relies on the complex and incredibly intertwined interactions between all organisms to function properly, so preserving our native biodiversity is extremely important.”

Lepard, of Grove City, Ohio, is conducting molecular research for the Fungal Pathogen Investigation Project. “I’m interested in snakes and curious to learn molecular techniques” which he hopes will help the plains snake population recover.

Lepard’s hands-on experience with this work will hopefully lead to a career in biology and/or environmental consulting one day.

Brown, of Woodville, Ohio, does not work directly with snakes in the captive breeding program, but studies snakes at the UN’s Tidd-Oakes Farm for fungal disease of snakes, the same that affects the species endangered in question. He gained experience working with snakes through outdoor labs and during a summer internship where he worked with a group of biologists conducting snake surveys in New Mexico.

For the captive breeding program, Brown will also help write a grant proposal to acquire equipment to quantify fungal abundance in snakes, and is working with the team to develop short video segments to share research. of the UN team with the public.

“I am always delighted to work with snakes! says Brown, who hopes to become a wildlife biologist working with reptiles and amphibians. And, this particular program has benefits beyond species conservation. “Humans depend on healthy ecosystems with a diversity of organisms. By conserving this endangered species, we are preserving organisms and ecosystems that we rely on,” he points out.