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How field work helps husbandry

Reptiles and amphibians are still an understudied group of animals, and as herpetology keepers, we are constantly trying to learn more about the animals in our care. Sometimes caring for these animals can be tricky because we simply do not have all the answers to the questions we ask. But we have learned that their environment can play a major role in the health and well-being of the animal. At the Zoo, it is our responsibility to manipulate the space and habitats of the animals to best suit their needs. Most of the time we never get to visit the animals in their natural habitats, so we read books and scientific manuscripts about the species we care for and learn from knowledge passed down from other keepers. But sometimes we are lucky enough to visit their native habitats to learn firsthand things like: What does the weather feel like? What is the soil composition? What kind of plants live in that habitat? What other kinds of organisms live there too? Where are the species found, and what are they doing? When you visit an animal’s ecosystem you can get the full experience.

I have been doing field work and attending the yearly meeting of the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Species Survival Plan® (SSP) Team in Michigan for several years now. The first year, I was not as prepared as I should have been for the various, and sometimes treacherous, habitats where these snakes can be found. I have since learned to pack several layers of clothing to wear in the field, as it gets very cold in Michigan! Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes are the northernmost occurring rattlesnake species in North America; their range even extends to parts of Canada! They are also called the “swamp rattlesnake” and are known to use crayfish burrows during hibernation. We find many of the snakes when they come out to bask in high grass, muck, and cattails. It is easy to step in an unforeseen hole or lose a boot to the muck and need help getting out. This has happened to me before!

When we are in the field, monitoring for massasaugas, we have a checklist of data to collect when a snake is found, such as: What is its location? What is it doing? Is it moving or sitting still and basking? What is the body position of the snake? What is the snake’s temperature? Temperature of the ground? Air temperature? Wind speed? Just to name a few. The snakes are then safely collected and taken to an on-site lab for zoo veterinarians to collect more data before they are returned to the same spot they were found. Each snake we find is microchipped (like your dog or cat), so we can identify each one. We will often re-catch snakes from previous years. Vets will collect blood samples, perform ultrasounds, and swab the snake to test for a rapidly spreading fungus called Ophidiomyces that has threatened some wild snake populations. Data collection is important to help us analyze what they are up to as individuals, as well as their overall population trends. 

Through field work, I have realized it is extremely beneficial to caring for these individuals to visit where the animals are found. We use the experiences and data we collect in the wild here at Zoo Atlanta to help guide us when creating habitats for the animals. We think about what types of soil and plants are found in the natural habitats. We control the light cycles, the temperature changes, and the humidity to match as well as we can to what they would experience in the wild. This has helped promote more natural behaviors and has improved the overall health and well-being of our Zoo animals.

Ashley T.
Keeper III, Herpetology

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