¡Que Vivan las Serpientes Muertas!

Part of the Young Naturalist Awards Curriculum Collection.

by Nathan, Grade 12, Ohio - 2004 YNA Winner

The original idea that started this expedition was "What can I do for a decent science fair project?" This project began its life as a simple science fair project for my freshman year in high school. It has now grown and grown until the science fair is the least of my worries. I have expanded it as a 4-H project; as a presentation for the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium; as a poster presentation for the Ohio Academy of Science; and, most importantly, as a research project for the Division of Wildlife at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). It is now about to become a published paper. This project was not required by my school. I had always been interested in reptiles, and wished to conduct a research project on them.

My father met Doug Wynn, a teacher in another school district and a contract herpetologist with Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), through his work. I contacted Doug Wynn and discussed possible ideas for a science fair project with him. He suggested that I conduct a road mortality survey of snakes in the Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area (KPWA) to see if new locations for endangered snakes could be found. He got me in contact with Carolyn Caldwell, also with the ODNR. I have now developed an interest in the factors that determine the number of snakes I am finding on the road. This question has inspired me to continue my research and make it bigger and better. While this question was researched for all four years of the project, many other questions arose from the data as my research progressed. I have been told by many scientists that answers only beget more questions, and I have definitely found this to be true.

This research was done in the Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area, which is just north of Marion in Wyandot County, Ohio. Two state-listed endangered snakes are found in this wildlife area: the eastern plains garter (Thamnophis radix radix), which in Ohio is only found in the KPWA, and the eastern massasauga (Sisturus catenatus catenatus) (Ohio Endangered Species List, 2002). Other scientists, such as Dalrymple and Reichenbach (1984), have done snake research in the wildlife area, and many have found dead snakes on the road, but before my 2000 road survey, a systematic road survey had not been done in the KPWA. The purpose of this study was to provide information to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to help them make management decisions about endangered snakes. The objective was to find causes for migrations of snakes in temperate regions.

Serious concerns exist regarding the decline in numbers of threatened and endangered snakes in the KPWA. Snakes in the KPWA include the eastern garter (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis), the eastern plains garter (Thamnophis radix radix), the brown snake (Storeria dekayi), the eastern massasauga (Sisturus catenatus catenatus), Kirtland's snake (Clonophis kirtiandii), the smooth green snake (Liochorophis vernalis), the eastern milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum), the northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon), the redbelly snake (Storeria occipitomaculata), and the black rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta).

Snakes living in temperate climates must hibernate to survive the winters, so many migrate from where they hunt to hibernating places called hibernacula. Snakes in temperate zones eat and reproduce in the summer, migrate to hibernacula in the fall, hibernate in the winter, and migrate to feeding grounds in the spring. Often they are killed by vehicles if their spring and fall migrations cause them to cross roads.

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KPWA sign.

To conduct my research, I drove 33 miles of roads in the KPWA twice a week, from August to November in 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003, and from March to June in 2001 and 2002, each season having about 20 collection dates. I carried a permit issued by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Wildlife at all times. Time of arrival, odometer, and weather conditions were recorded. If a snake was found, a picture was taken of it next to a ruler; the species and its latitude and longitude, determined by the global positioning system (GPS), were recorded. If a dead endangered snake was found, it would be placed in a plastic bag and the bag numbered to keep track of the snake. If the dead snake was not endangered, it would be taken off the road to prevent recounting. If a live snake was found, the snake would be helped off the road. In the beginning, all dead snakes were collected and preserved to check species and were added to a collection at Ohio State University. Dead endangered snakes were transferred to Doug Wynn. Wynn verified my identifications and checked for Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags that would show whether the snakes had been collected previously. This entire process, from beginning to end, came to be known around my house as "snaking."

In my first year of "snaking," the fall of 2000, I collected each dead snake for identification purposes; they were put in jars with formalin, which is a chemical similar to formaldehyde. This procedure was fine until I found 60 snakes in one day, which was way too many to put in jars right away. I placed the snakes in bags, in a downstairs, out-of-the-way freezer that no one would have to know about. A few days later that freezer died, so the snakes had to be transferred to the upstairs kitchen freezer. For about three months, I had close to 80 dead snakes in the freezer. I'm glad my parents are supportive of my science project. After that year, I only had to collect the dead endangered snakes I found, so since then the total number of snakes in my freezer has not exceeded seven. It is now safe to come to dinner at the Yaussy household.

Also in the first year, I had my first encounter with a live, wild, venomous snake. The eastern massasauga rattlesnake is one of the endangered snakes for which I was told to watch. I was not ready for it when it came. My dad and I came upon it cautiously, knowing from the car that this was a big snake. When it started rattling at us, there was no mistaking what it was, and seeing the head shaped specifically for holding venom glands aided in the identification. Only one rattlesnake lived in this area. We recorded the necessary data, but there was one problem: I also had to move any live snakes off the road to save them from cars. The ODNR had given me a snake hook, which I did not have with me. It would not have helped anyway; it was only four feet long; I needed the proverbial 10-foot pole. We stood there thinking, "Hmmmá" for quite some time, until Dad had the bright idea of throwing roadside litter toward the rattlesnake to coax it off the road. A few Gatorade bottles and beer cans later, the snake decided to give us one final glare and slink off the road.

In the first season of data collection, fall of 2000, I found a large number of snakes on one day of collection. I wondered about the cause. I ordered temperature data from the Marion Airport and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the National Climatic Data Center, and found that a temperature shift from 5°C to 20°C was associated with the large peak in the number of dead snakes on the road. I believe this is because when the temperature gets too cold for snakes to be active, and then quickly warms up, the snakes turn active again and return to their dens. I have found a few sources who offer a possible prompt for snake migrations. It was recorded by Bauchot (1997) that "Depending on the species, snakes are almost paralyzed when the temperature ranges from 34°F (1°C) to 48°F (9°C)." He also states that "They must absolutely avoid the lethal minimum temperature and must also hide from predators and possible floods." I did, in fact, find new locations for the endangered eastern plains garter snake, where entire populations were later found. The original question of a good science fair project was answered when I won first place at the school science fair and made my way to the district science fair. However, quite a few more questions came up. How did the amount of traffic affect the number of snakes found on the road? Was the temperature shift association just a fluke? What was the spring migration like?

pneumatic traffic counter used in a high school project studying snakes
A pneumatic traffic counter

The last of those questions was the first to be answered. The next spring I found a significantly smaller amount of snakes on the roads, only 39 in the same amount of time that I had found 199 in the previous fall. With such a small number, I was unable to draw any conclusions from that season of data collection. Would each spring season yield so few snakes?

An asphalt road with grass and shrubs alongside and a utility pole with a device attached to it.
Road with traffic counter.

The next fall, 2001, three pneumatic traffic counters, provided by the ODNR, were placed in the wildlife area. The traffic counters were not without their drawbacks. I would often come to the wildlife area and find one or more of them out of service due to dead batteries, being completely submerged in the ditch, or a hose being removed. Using a linear regression, I found no correlation between the amount of traffic and the number of snakes killed on the roads, so I was able to rule out traffic as a factor causing shifts in the number of dead snakes. I found that a sudden shift in temperature preceded a large peak in the number of snakes. However, the peak in both this season and in 2000 happened on the first week of October, so I was unable to determine if the peak was caused by the temperature shift or the change in photoperiod. I received another first place at the school science fair and received a superior at the state science fair. I also competed at the Ohio Junior Science and Humanities Symposium at the Ohio Academy of Science.

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Map of KPWA. (Click to enlarge)

By this time, I had begun to name various sections of the roads for easier identification. The "brown snake road" is a quarter-mile stretch of road in which most of the snakes are found. The "swan lake road," "chicken farm area," and "horse training place" were all named for places by the road having nothing to do with snakes. Then there was the "last road." When I turned onto that road, I knew that, in just a little bit, there was a stop sign that signified the end of the line for staring at the road.

I had also begun to determine that there was an ideal number of snakes, somewhere between six and 20. If there were any less than six, caffeine and loud music were necessities. Any more than 20, which could go up to 120, and caffeine was necessary just to keep going once there was another dang snake.

An eastern garter snake.

This is also when I began to learn how to drive, and I was able to complete many of the required hours for my driving permit in the wildlife area. Every snake had to be backed up to, as I could not stop once I first saw them, so I learned how to use reverse well in the KPWA.

In the third season, spring of 2002, I found half as many snakes as I had in the first spring season. However, during this collection period I was able to draw one conclusion: too few snakes are found in spring road-mortality surveys to warrant another collection in the spring. Doug Wynn had been conducting tile surveys, which involve placing metal roof tiles by the road and checking them for snakes. He found many more snakes in the spring than in the fall. I believe this to be because snakes coming out of hibernation in the spring will look for a place to warm up, which the tile offers, before filtering slowly across the roads. However, in the fall, snakes are only looking for their hibernation grounds, and will cross roads at once, without stopping for tiles. In discussing this with Carolyn Caldwell, it was decided that spring road surveys did not yield enough snakes to be worthwhile, and therefore they were discontinued.

From the results of the penultimate fall collection season, 2002, I found that temperature shifts have a more immediate association with the number of snakes found on the roads than photoperiod, as a sudden temperature shift occurred much later in the season, followed by the only large peak of snakes in that season. I also attempted to find out if I could determine the habitat combinations in which different snakes lived. This would be important in order to find other places where endangered snakes might be living. However, the method I used was not as effective as I had hoped. In a computer program called ArcView, sections of the KPWA were classified into five distinct habitat types. The habitat types were water, agriculture, developed, grassland, and woodland. A 300-meter buffer was placed around each brown, northern water, and eastern garter snake, and the percentage of area of each habitat type for each species was found. To make sure the Marion Airport temperature data I had been using was accurate I placed temperature sensors in the KPWA and found the two sets of Buffer analysis data to be extremely similar.

Due to concern regarding declining numbers of plains garter snakes, a breeding program, in cooperation with Columbus and Cleveland zoos, was begun. Forty-seven neonates were released in July 2002 in the KPWA, near the pond on county roads 71 and 115. Many of the scientists wondered if they would become road kill and end up in my survey. However, no released plains garter neonates were found on the roads.

There was a large decline in the number of eastern garter snakes found in the fall of 2002. The reasons for this are speculative. The largest peak of garter snakes in the previous two falls occurred after the second large decline and then increase in temperature. This did not happen in the fall of 2002. Therefore, it is possible that a large number of garter snakes froze to death because there was not a certain temperature phenomenon.

Snakes compared to temperature. (Click to enlarge)

This year I competed at all of the aforementioned competitions, and at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. A problem that started in the beginning of my research had really begun to take its toll by this point: snaking time had to compete with marching band, cross country, the fall play, and other activities. Every once in a while I had to sacrifice some of those practices to go snaking for that week.

In December 2002, I was invited by the ODNR to a meeting on the endangered plains garter snake, which was included in my study. There I made new contacts, and it was a thrill to present my work to real scientists working with the same animals I was. There I also met a college student who invited me to collect endangered water snakes around Lake Erie with her professor and other students during the summer. When I was there, I found it odd that when they discussed going on collection runs, they talked of snaking. The entire time I only got bit once, but that's because I didn't know what I was doing. The others would pull these belligerent snakes from rocks, which would whip around and bite them all over their arms. The students would then catalog the snakes and release them.

I have not yet analyzed the data for the final fall collection season. I hope to use another habitat testing method, as well as determine whether a certain age range is more likely to be found on the road by analyzing the lengths of the snakes. I have found the greatest number of snakes, 469, in this collection period, and would like to try to find out why.

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A temperature sensor.

This experience has given me new insight into the world of science, and provided me with a head start in doing research. Through this project I have learned to write scientific papers and to give a presentation based on my research. This experience has added to my drive to fight for endangered species that are in no way cute, cuddly, or fuzzy. I have been told that I have enough data to do a master's thesis, just not enough time. Through this experience, I have gained contacts with many people in the field of wildlife research, and have been able to discuss my ideas with them. I have learned first-hand how tedious data collection can be. However, once I find something interesting, like a rare snake, I have learned that it can also be extremely rewarding. As I was unable to drive during my first two years of "snaking," this project gave me lots of great bonding time with my parents as they drove the 100 miles to, around, and from the wildlife area, allowing me to discuss anything from school to the meaning of life and sometimes even snakes. Nothing builds togetherness like driving 35 miles an hour looking for dead snakes, staying awake by discussing the emotional range of snakes or the symbolism in Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody with your dad.

¡Que vivan las serpientes muertas!" has become my battle cry for the science fairs, which I say to myself before each presentation. I would like to know the Latin translation of this phrase, but since I took Spanish, that's how I learned to say it. It means, "Long live the dead snakes!"



Bauchot, R. Snakes: A Natural History. New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 1997.

Conant, R. and J.T. Collins. A Field Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians: Eastern and Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife. (2002). Wildlife that are Considered to be Endangered, Threatened, Species of Concern, Special Interest, Extirpated, or Extinct in Ohio.

Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife. (2002). Ohio's Reptiles.

Parker, H.W. and Grandison, A.G.C. (1977). Snakes: A Natural History. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press (1977).

Rage, Jean-Claude. Origin and Evolution of Snakes: Snakes, a Natural History. New York: Sterling Publishing Inc. (1997).


Personal Interviews
Iverson, L. (2003). Personal Communication

Prasad, A. (2004). Personal Communication.

Wynn, D. (2000-2004). Personal Communication.


Journal Articles
 Daryrmple, G.H., and N.G. Richenbach. "Management of an Endangered Species of Snake in Ohio, USA." Biological Conservation 30: 195-200 (1984).

Web Sites

Huelsman, Margaret F., et al. The Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle (Harmonia Axyridis) as a Nuisance Pest in Households Throughout Ohio. 2001. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 16 February 2003. http://ipm.osu.edu/lady/icup.htm

Illinois Natural History Survey. www.inhs.uiuc.edu/cbd/herpdist/species/th_radix.html