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Fire on the Mountain: The Effects of Wildfire on Montane Buzztails

In the Summer of 2019, the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico were stricken with a powerful and devastating wildfire caused by a lightening strike. This fire would come to be known as the Miller Fire, and would burn over 5,700 acres of wildlands. However; in the ashes and charred wood left behind, a new opportunity emerged to understand how wildfires affect the rattlesnakes which call these mountains home. Study of these montane rattlesnakes may offer answers to a number of pressing questions about high-intensity and increasingly frequent wildfires resulting from climate change. Saunders Drukker, a PhD candidate with Texas State University, is on a mission to answer such questions about the mountain fire and its effects on the buzztail biodiversity of the Peloncillo Mountains. His study is currently focusing on three species: the Banded rock rattlesnake (Crotalus lepidus klauberi), Black-tailed rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus) and New Mexico ridge-nosed rattlesnake (Crotalus willardi obscurus) - with two other resident rattlesnakes, the Western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) and Tiger rattlesnake (Crotalus tigris) also being observed and recorded. Each of these species inhabits different habitats found in the mountains in areas of differing vegetation, elevation and groundcover; and several such habitats were damaged or changed by the Miller Fire.

Above: A beautiful Banded rock rattlesnake (Crotalus lepidus klauberi) photographed by Saunders.

This ongoing research consists of a multitude of tasks; everything from wandering the mountains looking for snakes (no doubt Saunders and his team are experts at finding them), to measuring and weighing live rattlesnakes to record data about their health, to collecting fecal samples for chemical isotype analysis. Saunders and his team also spend time monitoring plant species in the ecosystem to determine important vegetation structure needs of the species and how the montane ecosystem is recovering in the wake of wildfire.

So far, this immersive research has already taken data for over 42 individual rattlesnakes of 4 different species (including 24 Black-tailed rattlesnakes and 13 Banded rock rattlesnakes!). Preliminary data about changes in behavior and habitat selection in response to fire is already taking shape - but final results are still TBD. The Rattlesnake Conservancy is proud to fund this research project, and cannot wait to hear the final results and conclusions! Donations by supporters and members help make these research and conservation projects possible. If you love hearing about conservation efforts like these as much as we do, consider becoming a member today! We also look forward to working with Saunders in the future as we push to help ensure the continued existence of these unique montane rattlesnake species in a changing world.

Above: Black-tailed rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus) photographed by Saunders Drukker.


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