Snake Season

Back in the 1990s, some intensive research took place at Murphys Point Provincial Park. The aim was to track individual Gray Ratsnakes to determine what their habits and ranges were. Snakes were captured and a small radio transmitter device was surgically implanted under their skin. They were then released where they were found.

The transmitters emitted beeps (different frequencies for different snakes) so that biologists and other researchers could tune in and track individuals using a large antenna.  For years they kept journals of the movements of the snakes – where they travelled, basked, laid eggs, ate, shed skin and hibernated. The signal can also be used to determine the snake’s body temperature by matching the rapidity of the beeps to a temperature chart.

The result of this study was that researchers got a pretty good idea of the “ranges” of these snakes and found they are creatures of habit – returning to familiar spots to shed skin, mate and lay eggs, for example. They found each snake appeared to stay within a “home range,” and each range differed for individual snakes. Some preferred wet areas and others higher, drier places. Some liked to hang around in trees, while others liked hollow logs. They also learned the snakes can travel up to one kilometre a day and averaged 100 to 300 metres.

The snakes were also monitored in winter. Researchers would check on them periodically while they hibernated underground, noting locations and temperature with the receiver. Several seconds between each “beep” indicated the snake was cool, and researchers used the chart to determine the exact temperature based on the frequency of the beeps.

With the snakes showing preferences for some of the same places each year, it was determined further development of these areas could disrupt the snake’s habits and be detrimental. The research was particularly valuable for pinpointing locations of hibernacula – places where large groups of Gray Ratsnakes congregate to spend the winter underground. Because Gray Ratsnakes are threatened in the area that includes Murphys Point, knowing these locations helps park staff to protect those areas.

Now there is another new and valuable use for the research collected in the 1990s – education. The Friends of Murphys Point Park have developed this blog as a way to educate people about the Gray Ratsnake and the efforts that are out there to conserve it, but we’re also using social media – Facebook – as a way to describe the life of these snakes. Using the real data collected in the 1990s, we will be posting updates on Facebook to show how an individual snake moved throughout each season. Be sure to log onto Facebook and make friends with Diana Spiloides to follow her activities! Also on Facebook, park naturalist Mike Murphy will be describing the activities from the researchers’ point of view.

The snakes will be emerging from hibernation soon, so stay tuned for regular updates!

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