There is some exciting research happening at Murphys Point, thanks to funding received by the Friends of Murphys Point Park.
In 2013, the Friends received a two-year Species at Risk Stewardship Fund Project grant related to Gray Ratsnake stewardship and population monitoring. The first year of the funding was devoted to analysing existing research and assessing long-term management of the population.
“Based on that analysis, we were able to proceed with field work to collect additional data in order to continue our protection efforts for the Gray ratsnake,” explained Tobi Kiesewalter, senior park naturalist at Murphys Point. “Our main goal is to determine if there are additional hibernacula, or overwintering sites, for the snakes in certain areas of the park so that we can protect that habitat.”
The Gray ratsnake is listed as threatened species. In the 1990s, several snakes were implanted with radio transmitters in order to track their movements and determine where they hibernate in the park. When that program ended, monitoring efforts continued with a capture-and-release program. A tiny microchip was inserted into captured snakes so that upon recapture they could be measured, weighed and their health assessed to collect data pertaining to the population at Murphys Point.
This year the funding allows for the hiring of technicians to track the snakes in order to locate new hibernacula. Brock Ogilvie is filling the position this summer. He started in late April by monitoring and recording the gray ratsnakes that emerged from known hibernacula.
“From April 19 to May 25 I, along with some other park staff, visited two different sites for an hour or two to conduct a grid search in order to find the snakes as they emerged,” he explained. “Upon capture we assessed whether the snake already had a pit tag. If it had a tag, it was measured, weighed, recorded and released. Those without tags were implanted and added to the database.”
The next part of the project has been to collect up to six gray ratsnakes that are large enough to be implanted with a small radio transmitter so that their movements can be tracked throughout the summer until they return to their hibernacula. So far, three large snakes have been implanted with the radio transmitters.
“This surgery is completed by trained veterinarians from the Smiths Falls Veterinary Clinic,” explained Mr. Kiesewalter. “The clinic must follow very strict protocols as part of the program.”
Upon recovery the snakes are then released back into the park. Each transmitter has its own frequency, with pulses emitted at a rate that corresponds with the snake’s body temperature. “This pulse can be detected by the radio antenna I carry,” Mr. Ogilvie says. “Distance and direction can be determined by how loud the pulse is.”
Tracking occurs daily and the actions and status of the snakes are recorded by Mr. Ogilvie. “This constant monitoring allows us to identify critical habitat for the Gray ratsnake, including egg-laying sites, preferred locations for basking and shedding skin, as well as the hibernacula. We are also learning about typical days in the life of a gray ratsnake while contributing valuable information to our database.”
The tracking will end once the snakes enter their hibernacula. In the spring, researchers will return to the sites to find the snakes and surgically remove the transmitters.
“We are really pleased to be able to complete this research in order to add to our database and further protection efforts for Gray ratsnakes,” said Stephanie Gray, Friends president. “We are also taking the opportunity to use the funds to enhance education about this snake. We have a beautiful new display in the visitor centre at the park and we are taking advantage of social media to update people on the tracking efforts.”
Brock is posting regular updates on Twitter – you can follow the feed by clicking on the @grayratsnake Twitter feed to the right. You can also find links to articles (click our Gray Ratsnake page) and regular updates on Facebook by liking “Friends of Murphys Point Park” or “Ontario Parks – Murphys Point” – again, the icons are on the right!
“We also plan to offer special opportunities for people to accompany Brock as he tracks the snakes,” Ms. Gray adds. “These telemetry tours will be advertised online and in the park. They are geared to adults due to the type of rugged terrain that may be encountered and we are asking for donations to the Friends for the sessions. Tax receipts can be issued. We can accommodate individuals or groups of up to about three people per session.”
Throughout the summer there will also be occasional demonstrations, prop talks and evening programs about Gray ratsnakes at the park. The program schedule is posted each week on the Friends’ website.
For more information or to sign up for a telemetry tour, contact the park at 613-267-5060 ext. 234 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.