Recently, staff from the EDCF were invited to visit the Jekyll Island Authority's Conservation Department! to see the conservation and research programs they are implementing for eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. Because we love to learn about other programs and find ways to collaborate with other organizations, we jumped at the opportunity to get out and visit! The island also supports the home of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, many natural areas, and does have some permanent residents on the island.
The Conservation Department at the island manages research projects, habitat management, and educational programs for residents and visitors to the island. We were excited to learn about their long term monitoring programs for eastern diamondbacks, where they have tracked over 30 eastern diamondbacks in the last 6 years! We look forward to seeing their research published in the future.
When EDCF staff arrived on site, we were greeted by Joseph Colbert, their Wildlife Manager, and Cailin Lutz, one of their Wildlife Conservation Members. With everyone eager to get in the field, we quickly hustled in to the Conservation Department's office to get an overview of their monitoring program and get a feel for the habitat on the island. The island, according to Joseph, bolsters two populations of diamondbacks: one on the northern portion of the island, and another on the south. Past venom studies done by Florida State University have indicated that each of these populations have unique venom compositions.
(Left) Cailin Lutz teaching Derek Dykstra (Right) on how to use the radiotelemetry receiver.
After taking some time to discuss their monitoring programs, it was time to set out in the field. It was a beautiful day for rattlesnakes, with weather in the upper 70s to low 80s. After the past week of cold weather, we hoped that some eastern diamondbacks would be sunning themselves and staying close by their refugia. Cailin set out to lead the pack, showing one of our interns, Derek Dykstra, how to operate their radiotelemetry receiver.
After walking for a few minutes down the beach, Cailin begin to pick up a signal from one of their snakes, affectionately named Hannibal. We quickly sped off the path and began to follow the signal until arriving in an area that we circled and found where the signal was coming from. Unfortunately, Hannibal was not on the surface; but rather, deep down inside a root and limb pile, likely preparing for further cold weather after the last cold snap.
Example of a type of micro-habitat that eastern diamondbacks utilize for overwintering
Refugia, like the one we found Hannibal in, are extremely important to eastern diamondbacks, particularly in habitats where gopher tortoises are not present or are in low density. While large scale management often focuses on prescribed fire and vegetation, which are important to rattlesnakes, management of these micro-habitats used for overwintering may be one of the most important tools for managing eastern diamondbacks. These refugia sites, especially in areas on the fringe of the eastern diamondbacks range (NC and LA), may be the key to the species persisting in areas, or being locally extirpated.
After visiting the first site and finding Hannibal underground, we decided to go check out two other sites to try and catch a glimpse of snakes moving on the surface. The first site was pretty close by, where we again found the rattlesnake hunkered down for the winter in a refugia site, similar to the first. The second, we took a bit longer of a walk down to the salt marshes. Cailin led the way with steadfast footing, obviously used to making the trek across the salt marsh, while we went mud skating trying keeping up!
(From left to right) Tony Daly-Crews, Executive Director; Kim Daly-Crews, Research Coordinator; Cailin Lutz, Jekyll Island Authority Wildlife Conservation Member; Derek Dykstra, EDCF Intern; Chase Pirtle, Land Conservation Coordinator.
When we arrived at the signal for the last snake, again we found this girl curled up awaiting more winter weather. This trip out to Jekyll Island further illustrated just how important micro-habitat is to eastern diamondbacks, especially in areas where we do not see any, or very little, gopher tortoises. We spent the rest of the afternoon discussing great collaborative efforts that our organization and staff at the Island could do together. Pretty soon, our organization plans to put out management plans for public land managers and others to use when managing for eastern diamondbacks and other herpetofauna!
Thank-you to Jekyll Island Authority Conservation Department for hosting us and we look forward to future work together!