If you drove through Fox Ridge State Park at some point during the recent Autumn months, there’s a good chance you and your car contributed to the untimely demise of a Midland Brownsnake attempting to cross the road. If so, you unwittingly participated in some fascinating research being conducted by Eastern Illinois University faculty and students.
“We’re looking at this population of Midland Brownsnakes that is endemic to this area,” said Iwo Gross, an undergrad biology student working in Dr. Stephen Mullin’s herpetology lab. “More specifically, we’re looking at the effects of road mortality; vehicle collisions with these guys are very common here during the fall.”
These small and harmless snakes are infrequently observed throughout most of the year. During October and early November, however, hundreds of them cross a park road in an attempt to migrate from areas where they are active in the warmer months to their hibernation sites in the park's forested upland habitat. Unfortunately, a number of them never successfully complete the trip.
“This is not a new event, to have this number of snakes killed on the road,” said Mullin. “It’s been happening for years. Over the last dozen years or so, I’d hear reports from students but never had any personal confirmation or additional information.”
This changed in Fall 2010 when Mullin suggested to Gross that studying this phenomenon might be an endeavor worth pursuing for a class project. Gross began a daily routine of walking up and down a three-kilometer stretch of road at Fox Ridge, picking up any snakes he found, dead or alive.
A medical cauterizer is used to mark each snake with a unique identification number; this is used to identify the snake as a "recapture" if it is found again in the future.
“We label them with a GPS unit to know where we caught them on the road, to see if there are any specific hot spots where we find them more often,” adds Gross.
“His walking of the road yielded lots of animals,” remembers Mullin. “To get data from 200 individuals is phenomenal for an undergraduate project in a classroom. We decided to see if we could take that and translate it into a project that can span a couple years for his honors thesis.”
Mullin applied to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for funding to construct a number of 100-meter long fences along the park road. These 12-inch high fences have successfully contributed to a conservation effort for the snakes; they attempt to go around the fences when migrating and drop into buckets embedded into the ground along each fence. During his daily routine, Gross collects all snakes found on the road or in the buckets and takes them back to the lab for processing. The newly marked and measured snakes are then released the next day near their sight of capture.
“The addition of the fences and the additional manpower that has allowed for them to be installed has taken this one step further,” said Mullin. “We have a lot more information, and a lot more accurate information in terms of when things are happening, how many individuals are involved, what sexes they are, what size classes they are, and therefore roughly what age they represent. We can get a much better handle on issues related to survivorship and long-term health of the population.”
While the project is fairly simple in terms of its design and use of materials, Mullin believes it could lead to bigger things.
“I would argue this allows us to use this situation as a model for other areas where road mortality occurs,” asserted Mullin. “This snake is not a state-listed animal. It is not a federally listed animal, and probably never will be. But if we have some understanding of how management strategies in this park can benefit this species, I would argue that’s applicable to other areas where the species is threatened for some reason.”
Bigger things are also what Gross has on his mind. He'd like to turn this project into a senior thesis and even get his work published.
“That would be an amazing opportunity," said Gross. "I really want to continue schooling, too. I want to go to graduate school, and hopefully even get a Ph.D. in the future.
“I just think this is a great jumping-off point. At least in a herpetology sense, it was Dr. Mullin who really got me really interested. I’ve always been interested in all sorts of animal fauna, but it was really my time at Eastern that got me interested in (Midland Brownsnakes) specifically. I really hope to utilize this information and all the experience I get through research. It really is rewarding, too, just to save their lives every day.”