The behavioral and physiological effects of long-distance translocation on Western Rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus)
Available at: https://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/theses/1103
Date of Award
MS in Biological Sciences
Emily N. Taylor
Long-distance translocation (LDT), the relocation of an animal outside of its home range, is a popular strategy for mitigating conflict between humans and venomous snakes. While LDT has been demonstrated to prevent a snake’s return to the location of capture, it may result in increased mortality, magnitude and frequency of movements, and activity range sizes. Thus, it has generally been discouraged. However, the effects of LDT on stress physiology and thermoregulation have gone largely unstudied in reptiles. To elucidate these effects, we conducted an experimental LDT on Western Rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus) on Vandenberg Air Force base in California.
Fourteen snakes were monitored, beginning in mid July 2012 and ending in early September. Each was implanted with a radio transmitter and iButton temperature data logger within the coelomic cavity. In late August, seven snakes were translocated to similar habitat, approximately 30 kilometers away, where they were monitored for 9-13 days. Prior to translocation, all snakes were tracked every other day, while after translocation all snakes were tracked every day. A ‘Before-After Control-Impact’ (BACI) experimental design was used, with a dedicated control group, but also with the translocated group serving as control prior to the act of translocation.
We collected data on snake body temperatures (Tb) and temperatures (Te) of physical operative temperature models (OTMs) that simulated non-thermoregulating snakes and allowed for a comparison of habitat thermal quality between our two study sites. Together, Tb and Te allowed for a formal assessment of thermoregulatory effectiveness. Additionally, blood concentrations of corticosterone (CORT), the primary stress hormone in reptiles, and testosterone (T), a metric of male reproductive ability that is often negatively associated with CORT, were assayed just prior to translocation and again at the end of the study. During each of the two sampling periods, in addition to baseline hormone concentrations, stressed hormone concentrations were assayed following the application of an acute stressor (the baseline blood draw plus one hour’s captivity in a plastic bucket). We also studied the effect of LDT on the CORT and T response (stressed concentration minus baseline concentration). Furthermore, we evaluated how LDT impacted a suite of behaviors related to defense and movement, as well as snake body mass and body condition index (BCI). Finally, we assessed the effects of LDT on movements and spatial use (activity range size). We sought to assess the effects of LDT on movements, spatial use, and behavior in order to facilitate comparison with other translocation studies, as well as to evaluate those impacts in a physiological context. In addition to assessing the impact of LDT on CORT and T separately, we evaluated a relationship between the two steroid hormones, and, using a model selection approach, we evaluated relationships between CORT and T and movements and spatial use.
The thermal quality of the habitat at our two sites did not differ and we found no effect of LDT on snake body temperature or thermoregulatory effectiveness. We found that spatial use increased following LDT, since the average 100% minimum convex polygon (MCP) activity range size of our translocated snakes was greater than that of our control snakes during the post-translocation period. However, movements (mean distance moved per day and total distance moved) were unaffected by LDT. Translocation was not found to affect snake body mass or BCI, indicating that snake energy demands did not increase as a result of LDT. Of the behaviors that we recorded, many (rattling, tongue-flicking, fleeing, moving vs. stationary when found) were observed too infrequently to carry out satisfactory parametric analyses, though a qualitative assessment leads to the conclusion that LDT did not affect them. The effect of LDT on how often our snakes were visible was marginally significant, but post-hoc testing found no differences. Nonetheless, the translocated snakes tended to be visible more often than the controls, during the post-translocation period. We found no effect of LDT on the percentage of a snake’s body sunlit when visible. Our translocation was not found to any CORT metric, while for T, the only metric that was affected was the baseline concentration. Baseline T was found to be higher in translocated snakes than in control snakes following translocation. We found some evidence for a positive relationship between CORT and T for baseline and stressed concentrations. Our model selection procedure found little evidence for a relationship between snake movements and spatial use and either CORT or T.
Our results are encouraging in that we did not find that LDT disrupts thermoregulation or results in a condition of chronic stress, as indicated by the CORT results. The positive effect of LDT on baseline T is somewhat mysterious, but studies on mammals suggest that increased T may aid in spatial learning and memory. Since the site that a snake is translocated to is entirely novel, an elevated capacity for spatial learning and memory could be beneficial to a translocated snake. Our finding that spatial use increased following LDT agrees with other studies of LDT in snakes, but some studies have found that movements increased following LDT, while we did not. In addition to snake movements being unaffected, we translocated our snakes within a relatively thermally benign climate in coastal central California. Translocations carried out in more extreme climates, with either cold winters or hot summers may indeed result in an effect on thermoregulation and a state of chronic stress. Consequently, we advocate further study of the physiological effects of LDT on other snake species in a variety of climates. Additionally, while it was our goal to study the short-term effects of LDT, more long-term studies, which follow the snakes through the entire active season and the winter hibernation period, may be informative.