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Joint Corn Snake Study

The corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus) is a colorful, secretive species of rat snake that reaches the northern limit of its range in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.  Also called the red rat snake, the corn snake is listed as an endangered species by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. In 2017, the Pinelands Commission began to collaborate with Herpetological Associates, The College of New Jersey, and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to conduct an intensive research project on the corn snake in the Pinelands.

The research includes two components: radio-telemetry and headstarting, which is a conservation technique where vulnerable young animals are raised in captivity until they attain a larger size and then released into the wild. For the telemetry aspect, we surgically implant small radio-transmitters in adult corn snakes. Research team members locate the snakes on a regular basis to collect data to determine the size of their activity range; types of habitats used within their activity range; location of their nesting, shedding, and hibernation or winter den areas; and the timing for mating, nesting, shedding, and hibernation. Each corn snake is fitted with a passive integrated transponder, or PIT tag, which is a tiny microchip inserted beneath the ventral scales on their belly that allows permanent identification of the snake. Team members are live trapping small mammals at our study sites to learn the types of prey that are available to corn snakes and collecting scat samples from corn snakes to determine what they are actually eating.

For the headstarting component of the study, we collect corn snake eggs from nest areas and transport them to the laboratory for incubation and hatching. We insert PIT tags into one group of hatchling snakes and release them back at the nest site soon after hatching. We also PIT tag the remaining hatchlings, but keep them in the laboratory over the winter, feed them, and release them back at their nest site the following spring. By PIT tagging the hatchling snakes, we hope to be able to assess future growth and survivorship of the two groups of hatchlings over time. We routinely feed, weigh, and measure the hatchlings in the laboratory to determine the efficiency of assimilating food and their growth rates. We are also conducting experiments on the laboratory hatchlings to understand their preferences for temperature, the amount of vegetation canopy cover, and whether they prefer to lay on sand, soil, leaf litter, or pine needles. The goal of this research is to better understand the habitat requirements and life history of this secretive serpent to develop meaningful conservation management programs for the species and ensure its continued survival in the Pinelands.