Checking in on Pine Snakes

Pine Snake Census
Counting the pine snakes living in the New Jersey Pine Barrens is best done while they are hibernating. Photo by Kerry Barringer.

Last week, I was invited to join the annual pine snake census in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. The census is organized by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation to support the work of Dr. Joanna Burger, a professor of ecology at Rutgers University who has been studying pine snakes for most of her career. Others from the conservation community were there as well: wildlife biologists, local naturalists, grad students, and scientists working on conservation and restoration in the Pine Barrens. At this time of year, the pine snakes are in their winter dens, three to four feet underground. We had to dig down to the dens, then carefully remove the hibernating snakes.

Pines snakes are rare and beautiful animals, endangered by loss of habitat and poaching from collectors. They are light brown on their belly and brown above, with dark brown markings on their back. They blend in well with the sand and dead leaves on the ground. They are constrictors, so they don’t have a poisonous bite. They can be an inch or two across in the middle and up to three feet long.

Dr. Burger and the other scientists recorded data on the snakes’ age, size, hibernating temperature, and behavior, looking for clues to the health of the individual snakes and to that of the snake population. DNA samples were taken to determine the genetic diversity of the snakes, which helps determine the long-term viability of the populations. After taking the data, we carefully rebuilt the snake dens and put the snakes back in. The data that we gathered will be sent to different laboratories for analysis. Final results are months away, but for now, the populations appear to be small but stable.

We packed our boxes and bags, gathered the shovels, and said our goodbyes. Most of us will work together on other projects in the coming year, but we all plan to be back next year to see the pine snakes. If you would like to learn more about Dr. Burger’s work in the Pine Barrens, read her wonderful book Whispers in the Pines.


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