How, you might ask, does a person get a radio collar on a rattlesnake?
Radio-collaring wildlife, of course, is kinda passé. Marlin Perkins, Jim Fowler, etc. The self-satisfied safety of Mutual of Omaha and, for some of us, TV dinners on trays in the living room, with its outdated-even-then wallpaper of melancholy-green trees in mist. Today radio collars are mostly used for pet control and training; wildlife biologists still use collars for some animals that actually have obvious necks but radio telemetry extends to a wider kind of tracking. A colleague of mine glues miniature systems to the backs of migratory upland sandpipers; out walking, we can see one occasionally perching on fence posts, the antenna extending from the bird’s hiney. Doug Wynn, a retired high school biology teacher who has done extensive herpetological work for the Division of Wildlife and other organizations in Ohio, has an implantation technique developed and honed over many years of work in the field and in the lab. One day he told me about it:
The way that we do that is we chase the snake into a tube and then anesthetize the snake, then pull it out, scrub it, do about a one and a half inch incision along its side and then we stick a transmitter in—I stick it in the abdominal cavity. The transmitter’s about the size of the last two segments, the terminal two segments of my little finger, kinda like a little firecracker. And so I slip that under the skin down in the abdominal cavity and it’s got a 12-inch antenna. That’s hanging out, then. And so what you do is you go 12 inches up the head and you make a little incision. And then I use a shish kabob skewer that I bought at Kroger’s and I drilled a hole in the pointed end of it. And I just stick that through that little hole and slide it under the skin, right down the body to the incision where the transmitter is sitting. Then I take the end of the antenna and I slip it through the little hole of the skewer. I pull the skewer back toward the head and that extends a very flexible antenna under the skin. And then I sew it up. With sutures. If I’m on a roll I can do one in 15 or 20 minutes.
Timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus) once had a huge range in the eastern half of the United States, from about the 95th parallel in the Central Plains north to the southern tip of Michigan, east into New Hampshire, and south into the northern edge of Florida. Remember that early flag from the time of the American Revolution, Don’t Tread On Me? Now, of course, it’s different. Extirpated from some not-inconsequential bits of its previous range (including Canada), the timber rattler is officially endangered in Ohio. So when the Ohio Department of Transportation planned a limited-access bypass around the town of Nelsonville that would cut across a segment of Wayne National Forest, wildlife officers from both organizations assessed the project’s potential impact for the iconic snake. Scientists hiked the hillsides, searching for den sites, watching for snakes. They interviewed residents, sometimes learning that people saw “thousands of snakes” even though the same folks couldn’t accurately identify a rattler in a photograph.
Sometimes they found weird but credible occurrences.
For years, Dee’s Diner on Route 33 had a photo of a huge rattler on the wall, but it turned out the animal was killed farther north, near St. Clairsville. A taxidermist’s mount of a snake 47.5 inches long was on display in a Nelsonville hardware store for 20 years or so. (Maybe it suggested the importance of heavy metal tools of the whacking variety.) Another such specimen was displayed at a local Elks Lodge in the 1970s (“Elks Care, Elks Share”). In 1989 an Ohio Department of Natural Resources scientist was out with a bunch of students. The youngsters caught a snake “and were ‘tormenting’ it in an attempt to get it to rattle.” The report notes drily, “This was the only confirmed occurrence of a timber rattler where the snake was not killed or injured,” since “tormenting” seems to fall short of actual injury.
After two years of investigative work, including 200 hours in the area’s hills and hollows, the team determined that a small, secretive population of C. horridus persists in the recovering forests east of Nelsonville. Consequently the snake became a stakeholder in the highway bypass project. One of a number of documents prepared during the project’s planning, the Final Biological Opinion lays out explicit steps for everyone involved in construction: “The use of an Environmental Inspector will help minimize impacts to the timber rattlesnake”; workers “will be instructed to avoid all snakes and prohibited to harm any rattlesnakes seen in the project action area.” There’s even a little training video that all employees of the contractors had to watch, and I did, too, which includes photographs of coiled timber rattlers looking handsomely un-horrid among bald eagles, cute thumb-sized Indiana bats, glistening amphibians, and spring-and-summer wildflowers, all in luscious color starkly contrasted to the dull, calf scour-colored runoff pouring into streams that illustrated what were clearly Not Best Practices on work sites.
The probability of what was called “an individual take” was determined to be low, owing to the rarity of rattlers in the area. And no wonder, I thought, after working my way through pages of confused-sounding assertions by locals who claimed to have seen the snake, of disappointingly rare “occurrences” which generally meant somebody came into contact with a snake that was dead, or about-to-be dead. Granted, the report contained no Bayesian statistics, no → or truth tables set like cairns along the way. This was not a formal exercise in equations either sound or valid. It was speculative narrative.
After reading, I thought timber rattlesnakes sounded nearly mythical, former inhabitants of former forests, something you might shiveringly hope to see, like the ghost of the dead railway engineer said to haunt the abandoned Moonville Tunnel out in Vinton County. But despite the dearth of rattlesnakes during those 200 person hours of searching and the resulting low expectations, timber rattlesnakes did show up on the construction site. In July 2008, one became not only a snake stakeholder, but a kind of unpaid investigative consultant.
Tony Durm, the ODOT project manager, first told me the story briefly. One of the workers on the construction site stepped into the woods to pee. Returning to work, he nearly trod on a coiled timber rattlesnake. His next words weren’t part of Tony’s story, but the upshot was that somebody called Doug. Doug told me about that, too:
And I got the call and I went down and captured it, put a transmitter in it and then we started keeping track of it. Then one or two months later the same guy working on the fence found another one. And this time he had my cell phone on his cell phone and he called me immediately and I went down there shortly and caught it. I put a transmitter in it.
Two snakes, where nobody had found any.
Corridors are, literally, dedicated to hurrying as fast as you can (the word means “running tunnel” in its Latin roots) and the modern design of a limited access corridor strips away roads’ old function of connectivity between travelers and a diversity of possible arrivals (the highway traffic slowing, channeled along a Main Street lined with houses, schools, stores, parks, courthouse squares…). “Safer, faster, easier” is how the transportation department describes the bypass, and both speed and safety are served by eliminating all those intersections, those traffic lights, those variables and possibilities that, if you turned off here or here, would lead to the Opera House, the Rocky Outlet Store (which used to actually be a boot factory before all the labor was moved offshore), the historic railway. Corridors eliminate diversity in pursuit of streamlined objectives. And if you didn’t want to always have to idle in backed-up traffic, behind someone’s horrible exhaust and busted muffler outside Burger King or Tammy’s Country Diner, you were very grateful for the time you gained once the bypass opened. If you owned that Diner or the Burger franchise, not so much.
But limited access design comes smack up against ecology’s basic principle of connectivity. You can think about it economically (people getting out of their cars to browse in the town’s business and arts district, both unflourishing but holding on) or you can pull out the maps, look at the swath of signifying green, and remind yourself: the bypass runs through National Forest land. Two threatened species reside there (the Indiana bat and the timber rattlesnake) as well as others that, as the bumper stickers warn, will go away if they’re ignored. So design of those 8.5 miles of four-lane have some unusual features, combining the principles of exclusion and connectivity. And so, we come to the Snake Fence.
No, wait, let’s back up. Several avant-garde wildlife features distinguish the bypass. An eight-foot fence has been installed to keep white-tailed deer (mostly) from leaping into traffic and totaling themselves along with oncoming cars. It’s designed with 16 “jump out” openings, places where a deer that somehow managed to get into the traffic corridor can hop back out of the deadly mosh pit. I took a look at one of these: it was set on top of a little drop-off, so it would, indeed, be much easier to get away from the road than to jump up to it. Even small trees, just four inches in diameter, can offer shelter to Indiana bats, so the woods run right up to the fence line, without the usual wide selvage of slashed and Roundupped land. The tree felling was limited to winter months, when the bats were presumed to be safely huddling in hibernation.
Which brings us to the bat boxes. These aren’t artificial hibernacula, they’re little warm-weather lounges, places for bats to hang out and chill when they’re not actually foraging. Positioned under exceptionally broad, open underpasses (“double-span,” Tony told me—wide enough to encourage sheltered passage by all kinds of wildlife), these are large wooden constructions, maybe four or five feet long by three feet wide, and open on the bottom. Stand beneath them looking up and you see vanes of plywood set closely together—like the gills of a giant, woody mushroom, maybe, or an intimidatingly big collection of honey frames waiting for bees the size of bats. Who’s using them? I asked Matt Perlik, a staff biologist with ODOT.
“Nobody that we know of,” he said.
Matt tells me there are new artificial styles of roosts available—flexible, made of polyurethane, attached loosely to tall wooden poles you can erect for instant habitat. They’re meant to look like big flaps of loose, shaggy bark. “Maybe these are a better solution,” he said—easier to clean and maintain, found and used more quickly by the bats. Because those boxes… Matt was almost definite. “I believe none of them have been used.”
Okay, so now we come to the snake fence.
What, exactly, does it look like? It’s a silver-colored, knee-high barrier draped like a proto-Crysto art installation piece in the grass at the forest’s edge. All along the top the mesh curves gracefully away from the road, to prevent animals from scrambling or slithering right over. Senescent tallgrass pokes through in places—big and little bluestem, Indian grass, signature prairie grasses in the open sun. This is the stand-alone fence, 9/10ths of a mile, lining both side of the highway. Another 4/10ths of a mile is connected to the base of the deer fence.
It’s high-grade stuff, a tough 3/8-inch mesh made to such exacting specifications that permission had to be granted to waive ODOT’s usual Made-in-America requirement. Maintenance is difficult; in a heavy rain loose material can dam up against the mesh and cause a washout; falling tree limbs can damage even the more robust deer fence.
But the snake fence’s main purpose isn’t just to keep the serpents off the road and back in the woods. It’s exclusion in service to connectivity; the snake fence funnels the reptiles toward their own underpass. Not a double-span bridge this time, but a subtle tunnel, hardly noticeable from above. It looks like a normal metal culvert intended for rain runoff; there’s even a piece of sheet metal lying nearby, imitating the tossed-away crap that litters roadsides, though in this case it’s been placed there deliberately, another chill-out spot for the targeted wildlife. Tony lifted the panel and we looked beneath it. Nobody there, not today.
“What we’ve found out is that animals don’t want to go into a dark void,” Tony told me. “They need to see daylight at the other side.” And for a four-lane highway with wide berms on either side, that’s a long way for daylight to travel, since light doesn’t bend and slither much. In the median, between the east bound and west bound lanes, a robust grating served as skylight and airshaft.
“Look,” said Tony. “See that?” And, bent over so low my head was level with my knees, I did. I saw daylight. And no snakes.
But those two snakes were caught during the highway construction and outfitted with implants, using Doug’s shish kabab skewer technique. Both could then be monitored with radio telemetry: where they ended up, where they denned over the winter. They proved that there was, indeed, a population of the state’s endangered timber rattlesnakes persisting in the very area that had been theorized, rumored, wished-for.
Researchers from Ohio University planned to conduct a monitoring project to evaluate the effectiveness of the fence. After winning the research contract from the state, the team consulted with Doug.
“I met with them because none of them had ever done any timber rattlesnake work. I said, I don’t want to sound negative or pessimistic but I’d be surprised if you found any. And I was totally wrong. They actually had students out pretty much every day through the summer and they found six.”
So, six snakes.
“In order to have a viable population you have to have 30 to 40,” Doug told me. But it’s extremely hard to extrapolate numbers in a given location when so little is really known about them—the timber rattler is a notoriously secretive snake. “You cannot calculate population sizes of snakes very accurately. In order to do so you have to get recaptures.” After nearly 25 years of working with snakes in the field, Doug has had about a dozen recaptures. Maybe 13. Still, he believes there are likely four viable populations of timber rattlesnakes in Ohio. One of those is where the highway bisects the forest.
Not only were the two implanted individuals valuable in determining the placement of the fence, they joined the small number of transmitting snakes that are revealing new information about timber rattler life histories. For example, there’s a little-known thing called leaf-hiding. In the spring, when the snakes first emerge from hibernation, they move a short distance from the dens into the cover of leaves on the forest floor, staying there for several days. It’s not a behavior currently figuring in many forestry management practices.
“But it’s a behavior that most timber rattlesnakes know about,” says Doug. I like his wit. “We’ve even had it snow on top of the leaves and the snakes stay under the leaves and don’t go back to their den.” Controlled burns to promote oak over maple, a standard practice in state forests, removes that leaf litter. Is leaf-hiding a behavior that’s vital to the snakes? Could removing the leaf litter harm them? Doug thinks so.
And of course, then there’s forestry itself. Multiple use is a king rat snarl, an impossible tub of campaign promises. Doug cuts one perspective free, holding it up for inspection:
The Division of Forestry argues that clearcuts should be good for rattlesnakes because they contain more food. But I looked at that and thought, well, that’s not what the habitat utilization studies have shown. So there must be a reason that they’re not using the clearcuts. And my own idea was that if I was a male timber rattlesnake, I would not want to spend most of my summer in a clearcut having to find individual deer mice or white footed mice and having to eat 30 of those, I would rather be in a deep forest where you’ve got gray squirrels where you eat one gray squirrel and that’s it for the year. I can spend the rest of my time looking for females.
In the language of the Endangered Species Act, “harm” includes “significant habitat modification or degradation that results in death or injury to listed species by significantly impairing essential behavioral patterns, including breeding, feeding, or sheltering.” It’s closely related to—indeed, it can be consider a form of—“take,” which is defined, “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” But of course, you have to recognize the behavioral patterns; and for that you sometimes have to try to think like a snake.
Left alone, a timber rattlesnake might live for 30 years. There’s a record of one living thirty-five years, but like the very old in our own species, it became unable to feed itself. The first of the two Doug implanted with the transmitter was quickly released, whereupon it went about its life, the length of which was yet to be determined. In a few days it snugged into a den to overwinter.
“Well, the next year the snake came out of the den and somebody killed it. It was smashed in a couple of areas and thrown behind a pile of gravel where people wouldn’t see it.” But the transmitter led the researchers to the site. Doug took the carcass to a veterinarian to be x-rayed. “And there were three areas on its body where the spinal cord or the dactyl had been broken. Not like you would expect if somebody ran over it but rather if somebody was beating it with something.”
The second snake traveled away from the national forest onto private property. Doug’s team radio-tracked it, captured it, and moved it back onto public land.
And then that snake wound up dying the next year. And when I found it, I mean the last time I saw it, it really looked bad. It had some blisters on its body, which is pretty common when snakes hibernate where it’s damp. She shed right after she came out of hibernation but she still didn’t totally clear up. Since then, identified across the country, there’s a fungal disease that is being found in populations. It’s very fatal. This snake may have had it.
Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, a.k.a. snake fungal disease, has killed the closely related Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes, causing monstrous ulcers and lesions. “It is likely a soil contaminant, and either was recently introduced to the soil or has always been there and something has caused the snakes to be susceptible now,” according to Matt Allender, an Illinois wildlife veterinarian. It’s an emergent disease which, like Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis among frogs and Pseudogymnoascus destructans among bats, could rip through populations already declining from the ubiquitous problem of habitat destruction. Allender speculates that fragmented territory can force snakes into closer proximity, abetting the spread of the fungus.
Which brings us back to the bats. Like in every other place throughout their range, the Indiana bat population in Wayne National Forest is doing pretty poorly. Since their listing as an endangered species in 1967, their numbers have shrunk by more than half. Habitat destruction—i.e., timber harvest, which is still a priority for public land in southeastern Ohio—plays a part in their demise, of course. But a main problem early on was disturbance of the colonies during winter hibernation, as spelunkers ventured into caves where the animals hibernated. Bats startled into wakeful panic or alarm burn right through their fat, leaving them skinny and susceptible to illness. The white nose fungus so deadly to bat colonies does the same thing; the animals can’t sleep well when they’re sick, and the fretful waking essentially starves them to death. And it was probably people that introduced the fungus causing white nose syndrome into North American caves. Even gently-intentioned wildlife enthusiasts can unwittingly bring death—on their clothes, on their boots—into the places animals have found sanctuary.
What did Doug tell me about rattlesnakes? “They have to stay away from people, basically.”
A friend writes: “Since New Year’s, I’ve been thinking a lot about this discourse of removing ‘toxic people’ from your life. And I think it’s kind of essentializing to conceive of some people as ‘toxic’—and misunderstands the basic concept of toxicology, which is that almost any chemical (like water) can be damaging at a high enough dose, and almost any chemical (like digitalis) can be benign at a low enough dose. This isn’t to say that you should put up with people treating you badly, or that you have to be friends with everybody. But remember that plants and non-human animals develop toxins for good reasons, through evolution, that their toxicity is always relative and contextual, and that they serve important ecological purposes. Sometimes when a snake bites you, it’s because you fucked up.”
In the mid-18th century, John Bartram described an encounter with a rattlesnake—surely either a massasauga or a timber rattler—on a stony ridge high on a tributary of the Susquehanna River called Swatara Creek. The name most likely derives from a now-vanished Iroquoian language, Susquehannock. Swatara meant “where we feed on eels.” Bartram described, “At this place we were warned by a well known alarm to keep our distance from an enraged rattle snake that had put himself into a coiled posture of defence, within a dozen yards of our path, but we punished his rage by striking him dead on the spot.” (The 1751 publication that relates this encounter uses the long s, the letter’s typography drawn up high as if to strike.)
Mark Catesby, too, described the Rattle-Snake, a viper which he identified as Vipera Caudisona Americana. “[T]he Rattle Snake is the most formidable, being the largest and most terrible of all the rest [of the American vipers].” Although he once saw an eight-foot long “monster,” his characterization of the snakes’ behavior (and perhaps by implication his own as well?) was more temperate. “They are the most inactive and slow moving Snake of all the others, and are never the Aggressors, except in what they prey upon, for unless they are disturbed they will not bite, and when provoked, they give Warning by shaking their Rattles.”
In Wilderness Plots: Tales about the Settlement of the American Land, Scott Russell Sanders recounts a slaughter recorded in northern Ohio, early in the 19th century. “On the slate ledges above Justin Eddy’s place the men killed 72 yellow rattlesnakes on one Sunday. The largest rattler was hauled out and tormented for an hour with sharpened poles. At last the creature clamped its fangs into one of the sticks and its venom ascended, by actual measure, 22 inches through the pores of the wood.”
Even a champion of snakes, writing in 1834, excluded rattlesnakes from his laudatory apologia. Edmund Ruffin, in a piece called “The Usefulness of Snakes,” digressed. “But all that are known to be poisonous, I willingly give up to the vengeance of the snake killers. The dreadful rattlesnake is now scarcely known below the mountains…”
When I was six, the Army Corps of Engineers moved the Hocking River so it was no longer near the center of the town that had grown up along its banks. The new channel—almost half a century old, now—no longer s-curves through the university campus; it lies slack and slow in a high-banked ditch, like a river with a botched lobotomy. (For a while a local group called themselves the Ad Hoc Committee to Put the Hocking Back—they might have imagined some kind of monkey wrench action or they might have just liked the name and actually focused on other environmental issues. I really like the name, too.) I don’t remember the construction project, though my father tells me that the earth shook, every day, for more than two years. The highway bypass project must’ve done the same.
I think about the weird, inward way snakes listen to the world. They’ve actually got the full bone structure of the vertebrate inner ear, just no eardrum membrane to thrum when brushed with soundwaves from the circumambient air. Head to the ground, a gliding snake receives the world’s percussive actions with its jawbone, or the skin of the belly, before the dance of tiny bones and cochlea start up the cochlear transformer, as if a little homunculus Hephaestus is still working the bellows, far underground, to enliven the mind with sound. The whole structure of ear openings (the cartilaginous stuff of Shakespeare, into the porches of mine ears did pour) is a lost trait among snakes, a form of evolutionary reduction, the slow streamlining of the body for a life in burrows and caves—fossorial. I love that word, with its associative dust of ancient lineage.
“Snakes hear just fine,” my colleague Eva tells me. But I can’t help wondering what it feels like for them. It’s like that philosopher’s question about consciousness, cast underground. Here’s the challenge: imagine the phenomenal world mediated with different senses. Palpation-by-sonar. Auditory skin. What is it like to be a snake? What Is It Like to Be a Bat? There are moments, sudden shudders, when you feel your animal life inside your mind. Like the time I was just topping a rise in the early-spring woods, scrambling up a slick face of sandstone, hands-and-knees, and looked up; I was in a thicket of poison ivy, each viney stalk bent at the top like a troop of cobras, staring me down. Only a thought, that simile, but the quick-sweat of fear under my jacket, in my gut, until I could stand up and the world returned to its expected configuration, beech leaves and bracken and my boots beneath my knees. Or that self-torquing startle on the trail when the bear starts to run and the old neural knowledge snaps wide awake: I am prey. And when you watch its black butt hustling not towards you but away, you still can’t think words like “hustling” or “butt,” words that will contain the alarming otherness within cognition’s balustrade, it’s only later, much later, when you’re telling the story.
I don’t know why a snake would want to glide across a highway. Maybe it remembers the route it used to take to a particular sunny outcrop and heads hopefully in the general direction. (Do snakes feel hopeful?) Maybe it feels a need to be somewhere—anywhere—else, to move away into a new territory, the kind of inner push that hormones drive in adolescent mammals. I don’t know what it might think when it bumps its diamond-shaped snout against a fine mesh impediment, pulls back to test the perplexing air with that flickering tongue. I’d like to see one arrive at the snake underpass, lift its head to the culvert’s lip, and then decide. Enter? Or not?
I really did lie on my belly in the sparse grass, in the warm October sun.
I might conceivably be able to squirm into the metal culvert under the four-lane, elbow-and-knee my way several yards in. I’m a skinny 5’4” inches, a little stiff in the joints but not impossibly so. And it’s always interesting to go poking where people don’t, generally, go. If I got to the center point, what then? Midday, I love savasana, rounding out the stolen hour-for-yoga when the present moment slips free from intention’s grasp. Would I lie still, feeling the rumbling of traffic through my belly, along my spine? Would I speed up, spooked with urgency, bumping my head in the haste to get to the far side?
Or, because it’s me, unmetamorphosed, would I more likely just roll on my back, look up through the grating, there in the highway’s median, to the distant sky, and wonder, what precisely would I call that shade of blue?
Bartram, John. Observations on the Inhabitants, Climate, Soils, Rivers, Productions, animals, and other Matters Worthy of Notice. London: J. Whiston and B. White, 1751.
Durm, Tony. Personal Interview. 14 October 2015.
Ferguson, Ken. “Another Fungal Epidemic?” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 10.3 (2012): 120.
Kelker, Luther Reily. A History of Dauphin County. NY: The Lewis Publishing Co., 1907.
Sanders, Scott Russell. Wilderness Plots: Tales about the Settlement of the American Land. NY: Willian and Morrow, 1983.
Smith, Holly J and Justin S Stevenson. “The Thermal Environment of a Concrete Bridge and its influence on Roost Site Selectin by Bats” Proceedings of the 2013 International Conference on Ecology and Transportation (ICOET 2013).
Taylor, David. South Carolina Naturalists: An Anthology, 1700-1860. Charleston: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.
Wynn, Doug. Personal Interview. 12 November 2015.
Elizabeth Dodd’s most recent book is Horizon’s Lens (University of Nebraska Press).