Their work, funded by a grant from the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, provides intensive — and sometimes grueling — exposure to field research. After identifying the best potential snake habitats using satellite imagery, Houston and Thomas walk for hours through the woods of Roanoke and Craig counties, where they set up and check out elaborate, non-invasive traps designed to photograph the snakes.
The contraptions consist of a series of drifting fences that guide the snakes to 5 gallon buckets attached with motion sensor cameras. As the snake passes through the holes in the bucket, a motion sensor camera takes its picture. The students also placed cover boards in prime locations, hoping that pine snakes would find shelter underneath.
“I’ve always had an interest in reptiles, especially snakes, since I was very young,” said Thomas, a wildlife conservation specialist from Frederick, Maryland. “Snakes often get a bad rap, and through this project we can raise awareness of the importance of this particular snake and encourage more people to see these creatures in a positive light.”
Students also raise awareness with leaflets and a website explaining their research and encouraging people to report snake sightings.
Just weeks into their search, their efforts attracted scores of timber rattlesnakes, copperheads, lizards, chipmunks, skunks, rabbits, and a few curious black bears that stuck their paws in the buckets.
“Every day we have the motto, ‘Today is the day,'” Hamed said. “We just have to be patient. We’re taking samples from a large habitat and looking for public trails. These snakes are amazing members of our ecosystem and I’d like to think they still exist in Virginia.