When working with wildlife, things don’t always go exactly how you’d expect them. One of the Chattahoochee Nature Center’s Wildlife Technicians, Samantha Kennett, stumbled upon a surprising act of nature through her work with the Urban Kings Project.
This project is a collaboration between CNC, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and Clemson University researchers into the habits and territory of the Kingsnake, a non-venomous snake that has somehow adapted itself to thrive in urban areas. They aim to tag and track these snakes to determine how they are so successful in this man-made environment.
Samantha was working on a snake nicknamed “Diana.” This adult female Kingsnake joined the study back in May 2019. She was tagged with a radio transmitter and released.
“When we first found Diana she was basking at the edge of a pond in the afternoon sun, and was released close to the spot she was first located,” said Kennett.
Two weeks later Diana was found in unusual location: about three feet from the edge of that same pond… in the water. Samantha came back with rainboots and made her way into the water, only to kick up “one of the largest common snapping turtles I have ever seen” to the surface of the pond. As the snapping turtle swam away, the sound of Diana’s signal in the receiver grew fainter and fainter.
There were a few hours left of daylight, so the Urban Kings team circled the pond to see if maybe, just maybe, they could tell where the turtle went. As luck would have it, the snapper swam directly across the pond and was nestled in the mud not far from dry land. With some serious effort, and lots of mud, they hoisted the unhappy snapper out of the muck and back to CNC for evaluation.
There were a lot of questions: How did the snapper prey on the Kingsnake? Was she basking at the edge of the pond? Did a hawk strike first then mistakenly drop her in the water? Will the snapper be able to pass the transmitter on its own?
For most of these questions, these are answers we will never know. Only one question was answered. The snapping turtle successfully passed the transmitter in mid-June 2019 and was released shortly after back into his pond.
“Though this was an unhappy ending for Diana, this is part of nature; everything’s got to eat,” said Samantha. “Although we’ve set out to learn about Kingsnakes, we’ve now also collected valuable data on the natural history of snapping turtles, and can note this unique observation. In wildlife work, you never know what you’re going to get.”
By Samantha Kennett, Urban Kings Research Assistant and Previous CNC Wildlife Technician
When it comes to snakes, the National Wildlife Federation estimates at least 20% of the Georgia population carries a fear of snakes in some degree. If there is one snake species that people show a softer spot for, it is the harmless Eastern Kingsnake. Eastern Kingsnakes are Georgia native non-venomous snakes. Like many other snake species, Kingsnakes play a key role in managing rodent populations as your own natural form of pest control. But what Kingsnakes are really known for, and the reason they are called the “king,” is their ability and proclivity to prey on venomous snakes like rattlesnakes and copperheads. Though anything with a mouth can bite, Kingsnakes are general docile snakes not known to bite often.
Despite living in a wide range of areas across the Eastern United States, the Eastern Kingsnake has been going through a noticeable decline in population within the Florida and South Georgia areas of their range. According to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, one of the largest populations along their Savannah River site has almost entirely disappeared over the span of 20 years. However, this is not the case in the Metro-Atlanta area where Kingsnakes are spotted frequently and seem to be doing relatively well. It’s exciting to think that these snakes seem to have some survivability in urban environments, but what do these snakes need to survive? How much space do they need? What habitats within an urban setting are they utilizing? What might be limiting their survival? In future urban planning and development, how can we better coexist with wildlife and create livable habitats where they will not only survive, but thrive? These are just a few of the questions the Urban Kings Project is trying to answer.
In 2019, the Urban Kings Project, a citizen science endeavor, began working to understand just how these urban Kingsnakes seem to do so well in developed and developing urban landscapes. This research is focused on understanding how different levels of urban development are influencing Eastern Kingsnake movements, habitat use, health, and overall survival. Part of the goal is to create an evidence-based strategy to help future urban developers and planners create effective green space where wildlife can remain in areas with lots of people. To better understand how populations are changing over time, the researchers are creating a population distribution database filled with Kingsnake sightings reported by citizen scientists.
Being a citizen science project, there is a lot of community involvement. Though this project focuses on the survival and study of these incredible snakes, education and public outreach is another goal. Whether it’s working public community outreach programs or responding to Kingsnake house calls, the people behind this project work diligently to help community members understand the importance of Kingsnakes in their neighborhood. These outreach opportunities are pursued to encourage people to participate in reporting sightings, but also in hopes to alleviate some of those snake fears.
This project would not be possible without the continued support of community citizen scientists, and YOU can be one of them! To participate, please keep an eye out for your neighborhood Kingsnakes. If you see one:
Please call the Urban Kings Project immediately (Bryan Hudson 404-556-1863 or Samantha Kennett 678-315-2020). They need to examine the snakes to collect certain data, such as sex, weight, length, health screens, and to obtain a non-invasive DNA sample (clip a few belly scales, essentially the same thing as cutting your fingernails).
Keep an eye on the snake if possible until you have reached them on the phone.
Try to take a quick picture on your phone without disturbing the snake (trying to keep them from escaping before someone can respond).
And if you find a dead Kingsnake (road kill, cat/ dog kill, etc.) PLEASE collect the specimen by placing it in a few plastic bags. They can still gather lots of important data from these animals, so they do not go to waste! If you can’t collect the dead snake, please call the project immediately and they will try to get out to collect it before it disappears.
If you’re lucky enough to have a larger neighborhood Kingsnake, your snake might be a part of the movement aspect of the study. If the Kingsnake is a large enough individual, the partner team of veterinarians at the UGA veterinary school will implant a tiny radio transmitter just under the skin. This is a quick and easy procedure. The Kingsnake will then be released in the exact spot that it was found. This allows the researchers to follow the animal, which tells them what helps them survive in urban environments. This is the fun part, and the part that you can come out and observe.
We live in a time where it seems a new neighborhood is developing on every corner. As urban landscapes continue to expand, our choices in how to create them are more important than ever in how these actions will impact the world around us. Projects like this one help us take a step in the right direction for choices that support human-wildlife coexistence. For more information regarding the Urban Kings project or to report your Kingsnake sightings, please check out the project page here.