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Snakes may creep you out, but they're crucial to the ecosystem. Here's how new technology is supporting that

A new research project is working to help us better understand snakes, using new technology. Their slithery and elusive behaviors have traditionally made them hard to study in nature.
Rattlesnake tracking
Posted at 8:32 PM, Mar 04, 2024

Some people are terrified of snakes, some respect them but don't want to be near them, and others love them.

But no matter how you feel about snakes, they are crucial to keeping our local ecosystems in check by acting as an important class of predators.

"We don't want to kill all the mountain lions in the world, and we don't want to kill all the wolves and coyotes because they're so important, like functional aspects of natural systems. I want people to be able to extend that thinking to snakes because humans traditionally have a fraught relationship with snakes," said Rulon Clark, a professor of biology at San Diego State University.

That's why a new research project is working to help us better understand snakes, using new technology. Their slithery and elusive behaviors have traditionally made them hard to study in nature. Researchers say snakes also tend to behave differently when they know they're being watched.

"We know little about them in terms of kind of the day-to-day interactions they have between each other and with their own prey items and with other animals in the community," said Clark.

San Diego State University has teamed up with the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance to study rattlesnakes specifically. They're using a special kind of tracker to attach to the snakes, so we can learn more about their movements when they're being themselves.

"It's really similar to the devices that humans use to track like steps or exercise," said Clark.

"Those devices have very small acceleration readers— accelerometers— in them. They can record hundreds of times a second. Ours record at about 25 values per second. So if I have one on my hand and I move it, it records acceleration in the forward, in the up and down, and in the side-to-side planes."

With this information, we can learn where rattlesnakes are more likely to be. That could help us on the hiking trail to look out for them, and make sure we keep our distance.

On a larger scale, this study could help pinpoint where rattlesnakes could benefit from wildlife crossings. That way they're less likely to be run over by cars and can continue keeping our ecosystem in check.

Researchers also hope to expand on the technology they're using with this project, so more animals that are difficult to observe in nature can be studied.