UCF Biologists Lead Hunt for Rare Snakes

A team of University of Central Florida biologists, volunteers from the community, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will search for a rare and threatened water snake at Tomoka State Park in Ormond Beach May 15-20.

The federally funded project is aimed at studying the genetics of the Atlantic Salt Marsh snake. Researchers hope to find this snake at the park, thought to be one of its last strongholds.

More than 25 volunteers will work at the park searching the salt marshes day and night. The snakes are most active at night during low tide.

Students and researchers in Biology Associate Professor Chris Parkinson’s Lab are trying to understand the genetics of the snake and its relatives in an effort to understand and improve the conservation protection and management of this threatened subspecies.

“Understanding the snakes population history and their genetics will allow us to assess this species’ probability of survival during times of sea level rise caused by climate change,” Parkinson said. “Rising sea levels will likely eliminate much of the current salt marsh habitat that is utilized by the salt marsh snake.”

The snake is slender and about 2 feet in length. It is brown with a pattern of stripes that are broken into blotches of brown and yellow. It eats small fish in shallow water. The snake inhabits coastal salt marshes and mangrove swamps. The snake likes shallow tidal creeks and pools, in a saline environment ranging from brackish to full strength. It has been listed as a threatened species since 1977 and little is known about how it reproduces.

Extensive drainage and development within the coastal zone has reduced the snakes’ natural habitat. Chemicals from lawn runoff and those used to control mosquitos have also changed the water quality, leading some experts to wonder if that’s had an impact on the snakes’ reproduction and survival.

The information collected during the work at Tomoka State Park may help scientists understand the snake better and help protect the species. The information collected also is critical for one of Parkinson’s students. Gregory Territo is using the data collected from the fieldwork as part of his graduate thesis.

Parkinson has a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University and a Ph.D. in Environmental Biology from the University of Louisville. He has traveled the world to conduct research on snakes of all kinds. He brought his passion to UCF in 2001, where he has won multiple teaching and research awards and has brought in more than $2.5 million in grants to the university.

Members of the media are invited to visit with the team of experts in the field beginning at 11 a.m. Friday, May 18. Biologists will be seeking specimens on land and in waterways reached by canoe. There should be plenty of photo and video opportunities. For information and directions contact Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala, UCF News & Information, 407-823-6120 or zenaida.kotala@ucf.edu

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