The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Monday, 17 July 2023 11:50

Orianne Society shakes, rattles and rolls to preserve precious Southeastern snakes

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Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) - Black morph& Chris JenkinsNorthern GeorgiaUSAHABITAT & RANGE: Deciduous forests in rugged terrain and open, rocky ledges. Eastern USAChris Jenkins researches timber rattlesnakes like the one seen here.  Courtesy Orianne Society

New film highlights importance of rattlesnakes to the Southern Appalachian environment

Timber rattlesnakes have been demonized for centuries, perhaps to the extent humans are incapable of understanding the snake’s importance to the world. 

The Orianne Society determined the apex predator is of vital importance to the Appalachian region, yet the snake is facing tremendous challenges to its survival.

The film “Rattled: Conserving Rattlesnakes in Appalachia — A Conservation Documentary.” introduced those sentiments when it premiered in Atlanta and other locations in Georgia and North Carolina.

Researcher Dr. Chris Jenkins, CEO of the Orianne Society, is behind the story for the film.

Jenkins said timber rattlesnakes are declining across their range from Maine to Texas. Wildlife biologists attribute the decline to “low recruitment,” meaning reproductive rates that fail to replace their population.

A female rattlesnake may live 50 years, though most live only to 30 or 40. Maturity usually requires 10 years, and snakes may only produce young every other year. The broods are small and the mortality rate is high among young snakes. Rattlesnakes that encounter humans are often killed, leaving no successors.

Research and management indicate copperheads and timber rattlesnakes are the most common venomous snakes found at 2,500 feet. Copperheads mature more quickly and breed prolifically, though they are on the opposite end of the reproductive spectrum and more commonly encountered than timber rattlesnakes.

In research efforts modeling rattlesnake populations and inventories to locate summer habitats and hibernacula, Jenkins said groups of snakes sometimes hibernate together. Solo hibernation in rocky areas and seasonally dry streambeds are more common.

A part of managing the rattlesnake population is separating them from people. This includes advising homeowners how to make their properties less appealing to snakes by not putting rock or brush piles in places where people or dogs are likely to pass. 

Asked about snake fungal disease, Jenkins said it devastated a small, isolated population of timber rattlesnakes with limited genetic diversity. The effect on robust populations is yet to be determined, but snake fungal disease may cause cloudy eyes and difficulty shedding skin in timber rattlesnakes and other pit vipers. (Pit vipers are a big subfamily of snakes named — not as one might assume for inhabiting pits, but — for their infrared sensing organs that help them detect and hunt their prey.)

Jenkins works primarily in the Chattooga River region near the intersection of the Carolinas and Georgia, with some work in the Nantahala region of North Carolina. Other Orianne Society activities include restoring hellbender populations in North Carolina and Tennessee and indigo snakes in South Georgia and Florida.

Indigo snakes often spend time in gopher tortoise burrows in the longleaf pine forests of South Florida. Both species are endemic to the Coastal Plain. The tortoise is a keystone species and dozens of animals depend on it for survival.

The indigo snake played a role in the Orianne Society’s founding: The Orianne Society started as a request from a young girl to her father over 12 years ago. Thomas Kaplan and his daughter, Orianne, were visiting a zoo where Orianne had the opportunity to hold an indigo snake.

She asked her father if she could have one as a pet, but he had to tell her that it was not possible because it was an endangered species. Upon hearing that, she made a very selfless request: She asked her father if he could save the indigo snake.

Kaplan contacted Jenkins, then with Wildlife Conservation Society, and they decided to start an effort to preserve indigo snakes.

Soon after that decision, a broad group of partners were brought together to develop a strategy. They funded Project Orianne, led by Jenkins and Kaplan.

                               Timber Rattlesnake

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