Kirtland’s Snake Research

A neonate Kirtland’s snake.

To find the elusive and lovely Kirtland’s snake (Clonophis kirtlandii), you will not need to venture far into the back country. This little serpent turns out to be quite the city slugger.

“Something that sets them apart from other snakes, or animals for that matter, is the peculiar preference that this threatened snake has for urbanized areas. They seem to thrive amongst piles of trash in large cities, and no one quite knows why,” explains Rikki Ratsch, a graduate student at IPFW studying the Kirtland’s snake for his thesis. He is co-advised by Dr. Bruce Kingsbury and Dr. Mark Jordan.

Though some of the methods of his study are time-honored practices such as coverboard surveys, one main objective of his research involves cutting edge technology.

“The primary objective of my research is to design and test an eDNA protocol for Kirtland’s snakes that can be used for future surveys. By the end of my project I want to make, in essence, a handbook for the sampling and testing of Kirtland’s snake eDNA,” Ratsch explains.

The method called “eDNA”, or “Environmental DNA”, is a scientific method that is becoming more and more common to test and use for those curious about what organisms are present in a given area. The method entails collecting environmental sample in water, samples that could theoretically contain DNA left over from the organism sitting in the water. These samples will later be tested, or “screened” using the genetic testing protocol called qPCR.

But why is this a useful method?

“Using Environmental DNA could dramatically reduce effort and cost by improving survey efficiency. Another advantage of eDNA is that you can go to a site, collect and test an environmental sample, and prove that species is there without ever interacting with it. This is particularly advantageous for imperiled species, where every individual is valuable,” said Ratsch.

This could also be a crucial advantage when studying a creature like the Kirtland’s snake that is particulary difficult to find. The secretive nature of the Kirtland’s snake, or any organism for that matter, unfortunately has an impact on our ability to monitor the healthy of its population.

“The reclusive nature of Kirtland’s snakes leaves us with large gaps in our knowledge of them. This is a particular problem because they are an imperiled species that faces many threats, such as habitat loss, predation, and snake fungal disease,” Ratsch noted.

Despite this unfortunate news, not all is lost. Ratsch had a successful season of surveying for Kirtland’s snakes, with 130 snake capture events and 100 new individuals caught.

More good news is that within the Kirtland’s snake’s range in the American Midwest, there is a handful of other researchers studying the natural history of the Kirtland’s snake including Dr. Megan Seymour.

Ratsch does not feel that he is alone in his success studying the Kirtland’s. “We still don’t know that much about Kirtland’s, so it’s great to see everyone make progress in their studies. I feel that soon we will be able to piece together the natural history and habits of the Kirtland’s.”

Two Kirtland’s snake in the hand.