Conservation Success Stories: OKC Zoo Initiates Black Rat Snake Spatial Ecology Research

Here at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, we believe in the importance of conserving the world’s wildlife and wild places. In 2020, the Zoo contributed over $220,000 to benefit local and global conservation efforts. Much of this money was raised through the Zoo’s Round Up for Conservation initiative. Through individual guest contributions, Round Up for Conservation funds helped cultivate several conservation success stories in 2020. One of those ten focused on black rat snake spatial ecology research.

Black rat snakes can be found throughout most of the central and eastern United States and are an Oklahoma native species. The species is recognized by its black body and white underside and grows to approximately three to five feet in length. Black rat snakes are both diurnal and nocturnal. In the spring and fall, they are most active during the day, whereas in the summer, they’re most active at night. They are non-venomous constrictors, meaning instead of using venom to subdue their prey, they wrap their bodies around them and tightly squeeze. They are generalist predators, capable of hunting and consuming terrestrial and arboreal prey, including adult birds, nestlings and eggs.

Because black rat snakes are known to prey upon birds, the Zoo decided to take a proactive approach. When Zoo caretakers observed that native black rat snakes could pose a potential threat to the Zoo’s bird population, Zoo staff worked to reduce the threat by relocating snakes to its property across the lake. In an effort to reduce harm to both the Zoo’s birds and the native snakes, the Zoo is using  its Round Up for Conservation program to fund a black rat snake spatial ecology study, performed by a graduate student from the University of Central Oklahoma.

As part of this study, black rat snakes found at the Zoo are taken to the Zoo’s Joan Kirkpatrick Animal Hospital where the vet team surgically implants radio transmitters into the snakes while they are anesthetized. This is a harmless procedure and requires little time for recovery. After the radio transmitters are implanted, some snakes are released where they were found if it was not near any bird enclosures. Snakes found in or near bird enclosures are released at the property across the lake. The snakes are then tracked and located regularly throughout summer and early fall. While black rat snake populations are considered stable throughout their native range, these data will be utilized to understand the snakes’ movement patterns, determine survivability after relocation and help the Zoo to better protect the birds from the snakes. Data collection for this study will continue through 2021. in an effort to further conservation initiatives.

Wildlife and wild places are rapidly disappearing. The Zoo is working to conserve wildlife locally and globally. Please join in supporting conservation efforts by signing the #ENDTHETRADE petition at https://endthetrade.com/ or by participating in the Zoo’s Round Up for Conservation initiative. For more information about the Zoo’s conservation efforts and how to get involved, visit https://www.okczoo.org/conservation-projects.

- Dr. Rebecca Snyder, curator of conservation and science

Photo: Cotinis

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