Tracking Wild Snakes to Assess Their Population Health

By marking snakes encountered on the North Carolina Zoo’s grounds, Zoo staff are learning valuable information about the status of our local snake population. In addition, snake research on site creates unique opportunities to teach visitors about the importance of these misunderstood but critical predators. Snakes are also tested for a fungal disease that is affecting an increasing number of wild snakes in North Carolina.


Tracking Individual Snakes

Zookeepers at North Carolina Zoo are studying wild snakes encountered on the Zoo grounds by Zoo guests and employees. The goal of the study is to learn more about the wild populations of snakes at the zoo, how they are utilizing the zoo grounds, if there are any preferred areas, and if long-term trends in snakes can be identified. To do this, every snake that is encountered and reported is measured, weighted, and sexed, while a GPS location and environmental data are also recorded.  Before snakes are released back either where they were found or another safe location when needed, we insert a Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tag for future identification purposes of each individual.  PIT tags work like the chips that can be put into your dog so that if it gets lost, it can be scanned by a vet to identify the owner. Since March 2015, we have encountered more than 200 snakes and individually marked over 150 individuals.  We have encountered 13 different species, ranging from the tiny worm snake to the timber rattlesnake, which is a species of special concern.    


A Fungal Disease

One unexpected result from the study is that some of snakes wild-caught at the Zoo’s Streamside exhibit suffer from a type of “Snake Fungal Disease.” Vet and keeper staff are currently testing for this increasing common disease that seems to spread across North Carolina, and exploring methods for treating the disease. 

Educating the Public

When recording data on the snakes encountered at the Zoo, we also use the opportunity to educate zoo visitors about the importance of snakes in the environment and dispel the many myths surrounding them. We highlight that only a few snakes pose threats to humans, but even those snakes would rather avoid humans than engage with them. Importantly, by keeping rodent populations under control, snakes also play an important role in keeping tick populations under control.