Team is Among the First to Use Acceleration Technology to Study Snakes
SAN DIEGO, Jan. 30, 2024 /PRNewswire/ — San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and San Diego State University (SDSU) are joining forces to usher in a new way of studying snakes. In a collaboration between San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and Rulon Clark, Ph.D., professor of biology at SDSU, biologists are tagging wild rattlesnakes with external transmitters and accelerometers. Previously, telemetry devices on snakes had to be surgically implanted—severely limiting this area of study. San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and SDSU are among the first to use acceleration technology to study snakes.
The research program focuses on red-diamond rattlesnakes in the biodiversity reserve at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Rattlesnake movement and behavior have historically been difficult to study, and up until now, it hasn’t been possible to know what wild snakes are doing at all times. Rattlesnakes spend a majority of their time sitting still to evade predators or to ambush prey, and direct human observation interferes with their natural behaviors. Mounting small cameras in native habitats allows researchers to indirectly monitor the behavior of a snake, but San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and SDSU have taken it a step further by implementing state-of-the-art technologies in new ways for a full-picture view.
“Beyond being incredibly fascinating and dynamic, red-diamond rattlesnakes are critical to the health of the ecosystem,” said Jeff Lemm, conservation program specialist, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. “They have one of the smallest ranges of any rattlesnake in the United States, but the biodiversity reserve at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a hotspot for this species. It was a natural progression to tap into the expertise of San Diego State University and Rulon Clark’s lab to take this research to the next level.”
Non-invasive transmitters are attached to the base of the snake’s rattle with a small amount of glue and thread, and accelerometers specially designed for snakes are placed externally, near the neck. The transmitters allow researchers to track an individual snake’s location at different times throughout the year. The accelerometers—similar to the technology found in cellphones—measure direction and speed, gathering 75 data points every second to create a continual, three-dimensional acceleration trace. The discreet technologies do not impact snake behavior—and each device will fall off over time and be recovered by the researchers, so there is no harm to the environment.
Machine learning technology is informed by the acceleration data patterns and video of verified snake behavior, and then recreates the behavior profile of the snake when it is not being monitored. The long-term goal of the project is to build a comprehensive, fine-scale behavioral data set for this important species to help scientists understand its ecological relationship to other animals in the environment, their relationship to each other, and important details about its conservation and ecology.
“I call this a next-generation natural history approach,” said Clark. “We’re taking some of these recently developed technologies for ecology and behavior, and applying it to this type of animal. The accelerometry technology is transforming our ability to understand what animals are doing, when it’s impossible for us to be able to see those animals. It allows us to understand what’s happening even in the absence of direct observation.”
Many species of snakes are facing threats in their native range, including habitat fragmentation and destruction. Vehicle strikes during road crossings are among the leading causes of death—particularly for rattlesnakes in Southern California. Previous studies have shown there are genetic differences between snake populations on different sides of a freeway. By understanding rattlesnake behavior, scientists hope to use the data to help inform corrective action, including determining whether wildlife overpasses would benefit local snake species.
The biodiversity reserve at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park provides an unparalleled opportunity for scientific study, and the development of monitoring and management techniques. Of the 1,800 acres that comprise the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, 900 are undeveloped, supporting large expanses of coastal sage scrub vegetation. This reserve, located at the nexus of two regionally important habitat corridors, is extraordinarily high in native species diversity. It supports 16 species of native snakes, more than have been found at any other site in Southern California. This reserve forms a key part of the larger system of interconnected, protected areas designated to conserve San Diego County’s unique regional biodiversity over the long term.
About San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, a nonprofit conservation leader, inspires passion for nature and collaboration for a healthier world. The Alliance supports innovative conservation science through global partnerships. Through wildlife care, science expertise and collaboration, more than 44 endangered species have been reintroduced to native habitats. Annually, the Alliance reaches over 1 billion people, in person at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and virtually in 150 countries through media channels, including San Diego Zoo Wildlife Explorers television programming in children’s hospitals in 13 countries. Wildlife Allies—members, donors and guests—make success possible.
About San Diego State University
San Diego State University is a major public research institution that provides transformative experiences for its more than 36,000 students. SDSU offers bachelor’s degrees in 96 areas, master’s degrees in 84 fields and doctorates in 23 areas, with additional certificates and programs at regional microsites. SDSU ranks as the number one California State University in federal research support, as one of the top public research universities in California. In addition to academic offerings at SDSU, SDSU Imperial Valley and SDSU Georgia, SDSU Global Campus offers online training, certificates and degrees in areas of study designed to meet the needs of students everywhere. Students participate in transformational research, international experiences, sustainability and entrepreneurship initiatives, internships and mentoring, and a broad range of student life and leadership opportunities. SDSU is committed to inclusive excellence and is known for its efforts in advancing diversity and inclusion. SDSU is nationally recognized for its study abroad initiatives, veterans’ programs and support of LGBTQA+ students, as well as its powerhouse Division I Athletics Program. About 50% of SDSU’s undergraduate and graduate students are students of color. The university resides on Kumeyaay land and was most recently recognized as an Asian American Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI). SDSU is also a long-standing Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI). The university’s rich campus life and location offers opportunities for students to lead and engage with the creative and performing arts, career and internship opportunities with SDSU’s more than 491,000 living alumni, and the vibrant cultural life of the greater San Diego and US-Mexico region.
- Photos and B-roll of tagging red-diamond rattlesnakes with advanced technologies
- Video interviews with researchers working on the project
- Full press release in English and Spanish
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