Part Two: Students Gain Respect for Snakes, Turtles and an Ecosystem
Eleven Hanover High School students recently joined naturalist and author Ted Levin and chemistry and AP environmental science teacher Jeannie Kornfeld for five days in the wilds of southeast Georgia. The group was part of the high school’s March Intensive program, and the guest of Dr. Christopher Jenkins of the Orianne Society, the world’s largest nonprofit organization devoted to the conservation of imperiled reptiles and amphibians. The society is headquartered in Georgia, where they manage more than 48,000 acres of longleaf pine forest.
This is the second installment of a two-part story that was written by the students in a bunkhouse in the pine woods. Students divided into groups of two and three, and then members of each group collaborated on the details of one of the activities they experienced during their time with the Orianne Society. On the flight home from Atlanta, the various sections were collated chronologically and then edited for consistency of language and style. The multi-authored story is the combined effort of Hanover students Jenna Boillotat, Nick D’Orsi, Addison LaRock, Jordan Levin, Harangad Singh, Dan Slayton, Hannah Smith, Jessie Weiss, Oren Wilcox, Alexis Williams and Ziqi Zhang.
On Wednesday morning, we hunted gopher tortoises, indigo snakes and eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. It was hard to believe we had been in Georgia only for a day and a half. Already, we had learned much from our mentors, had experienced ecosystems we formerly knew nothing about.
We drove two hours south to a sprawling longleaf pine forest maintained for research and hunting by a reptile-sympathetic family, named the Warnells, who have a long history of conservation and husbandry in the longleaf pine forests, which once stretched across the coastal plain from southern Virginia to central Florida. Today it is an endangered ecosystem, much modified by development and farming and fire suppression. It cradles more endangered species of plants and animals than anywhere in the U.S. east of Hawaii.
Once we piled out of the vans, Dirk and Matt, both affiliated with the Orianne Society, showed us treasures they had caught the day before: pine snake, coachwhip snake, nickel-sized hatchling musk turtle, spotted turtle and a batch of marbled salamanders.
We split into groups of four and five, each accompanied by an Orianne Society scientist, to collect field data, engaging in what Chris termed citizen science, one of the hallmarks of the society. Our quest: the gem of snakes, Drymarchon couperi, eastern indigo snake, one of the longest in the United States. Drymarchon translates to “emperor of the forest,” a suggestion that the indigo snake is a major predator that eats anything it can overpower, including venomous snakes, rats, birds and turtle eggs. Indigo snakes winter in gopher tortoise burrows, long, narrow tunnels that may extend 30 or more feet into the sandy soil.
Tortoise burrows descend three to six feet and shelter life, which makes the tortoises themselves keystone species in the pine forest. (Not unlike beaver in the Northeast.) Chris explained that dens must be large enough for the tortoise to turn around. The way one spots a tortoise den is by spotting the wide, sandy, sparsely vegetated apron that surrounds the entrance. The herpetologists taught us to use mirrors to beam sunlight down the dens, a sort of natural spotlight to search for snakes, tortoises and even black widow spiders, which drape their messy webs just inside. There are other freeloaders, too: frogs, scorpions, mice, lizards, cottontails, armadillos and mosquitoes — any life that can squeeze into a subterranean burrow, avoiding fire and frost and summer sun … and predators. We were warned that when we walked around a den to beware of snakes and spiders.
Before leaving, Chris proclaimed, “Pick up the blackest of snakes,” the indigos — other snakes without this coloration could be dangerous. We gathered cameras, mirrors, data sheets, and snake hooks, and then spread across the wind-blown sand deposits, the desert-like landscape, toward indigo “hotspots.”
Chris’ group searched many tortoise dens with no luck. It was still cool and windy, and we were bundled in our sweatshirts and windbreakers. We moved on to a second clearing and just as we crested a sand hill a tortoise scuttled backward into its burrow. Circling the den, we crouched down around its sandy apron, and beamed sunlight down the tunnel. Sure enough, a grey-paneled shell and a pointed face of a gopher tortoise stared back at us. The tortoise’s eyes were dark and still, its throat inflating with each breath. Its body fit perfectly in the narrow burrow, plugging the tunnel, its clawed feet braced against the sandy earth. We checked several other dens and found another tortoise — this time seeing only the side of the shell.
We left the tortoise and walked along the railroad tracks, turning over brush and old railroad ties. We found several small fence lizards, their backs camouflaged like bark while the stomachs of the males shone a bright, turquoise blue. We also chased in vain a beige-colored, four-foot-long coachwhip snake, which flowed over the junked ties and disappeared into an impenetrable pile of saw palmettos.
Another group of three students discovered an untagged young eastern indigo snake and a larger, gravid indigo snake in the leaf litter, just across the entrance to a tortoise burrow. When Dirk Stevenson, an Orianne herpetologist, spotted black scales reflecting sunlight, he grabbed the little snake first and then, after digging through the leaf litter and around the burrow entrance, his hand shot out with the gravid female. We held the snakes in our hands, tails wrapping around our arms and necks, heads slowly creeping and tongues flicking for scent.
We stretched out a tape measure and placed the indigo on the sandy, pine needle floor; four pairs of hands stretched her muscular body out. She was six feet long and weighed more than four pounds. We scanned the snake with a receiver and discovered that she had been implanted with a passive integrated transponder device — a PIT tag for short — much like the barcode system used to ring up groceries. This snake, then, was a recapture, a snake Dirk had previously tagged. The smaller indigo, however, hadn’t been tagged. While we gently held it in our hands, Dirk took a thick needle and injected a transmitter subcutaneously, in the fascia below the dermis.
Although the coachwhip had eluded Chris’ group, Kevin’s caught one, a long, thin, whip of a snake, with large round eyes. Coachwhips are fast, diurnal predators that chase lizards and avoid indigos (if they’re fortunate). We were told that coachwhips bite, but ours was a gentle, if terrified snake.
All teachers who lead March Intensives give their students reading assignments to be completed before their program begins. Our required reading included Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, by Janisse Ray, which recounted a childhood spent in rural isolation — living in a junkyard amid the husks of cars and refrigerators. It’s the life of a country girl who didn’t know much about the wild, but grew to be a passionate spokeswoman for the vanishing longleaf pine ecosystems and one of America’s most esteemed nature writers.
We were invited to Ray’s farm in Reidsville, Ga., a short drive from our snake-catching activities. We joined Janisse, her husband Raven, and their daughter, Megan, for a home-cooked meal and a tour of their farm. As we pulled into their driveway, animals greeted us: a courting turkey, chickens, Guinea fowl, two dogs. Housed in pens were two neurotic peacocks, incessantly pacing back and forth. Also, there were goats, cows, rabbits, pigs, all of which approached us with calm confidence. After a whirlwind tour, we better understood the concept of agricultural diversity that we read about in our textbook.
Janisse entertained us with readings from The Ecology of a Cracker Childhood and three snake-related poems from A House of Branches, her book of poetry.
We returned to the Orianne Preserve and our final event of the day: the histrionics of an eastern hognose snake. Beth, a field biologist, had caught a hognose in one of her snake traps. First, it coiled and struck, viper-like. When that didn’t warn us away, it played dead, defecating and regurgitating (a semi-liquefied toad) all over itself. Then, it rolled over on its back, its tongue lolling out of its mouth.
Thursday mid-morning, after spending several hours writing and exchanging data and watching Beth scale-brand the hognose snake, we searched for gopher tortoise burrows in and around the preserve. Kevin brought the burrow-cam attached to a hose, and inserted it down each burrow. Although we never saw any rattlesnakes, we did see three tortoises, two in the same burrow, which plugged their respective tunnels like corks. And, surprisingly, inside one burrow a cloud of mosquitoes and gnats swirled around.
Next, we hunted for serpents, turning logs (a theme of the trip) and checking the snake traps and lifting sheets of tin, which had been scattered in the woods to attract snakes. Nada. We did catch several fence lizards, including another bright blue male, a southeastern five-lined skink, and a mole skink, which unfortunately lost its tail when we caught it. We donated the twitching tail to a fire ant colony and the residents swarmed the gift.
After lunch, we wade through and root-hopped around a swamp, looking for water moccasins, various species of water snakes, and anything else that might show up. A couple of slash pines rose out of soggy hummocks and towered above the cypress, tupelos and red maples. Kevin caught a lesser siren, a fully aquatic salamander in a mat of submerged leaves. No snakes.
Our final adventure, set for mid-afternoon, was to radio-track gopher tortoises (and hopefully find a diamondback). Unfortunately, the wind made 65 degrees feel like the mid 40s. We did track three tortoises to their respective burrows, braving the pads of thorny cactuses that slapped legs and stuck in calves. Eventually, after much listening and many false turns, we found each of the three tortoises in their burrows. Again, no rattlesnakes.
For our final Georgia dinner, Chris introduced us to southern barbeque. At the local smorgasbord in Lumber City, we swarmed the counter like a colony of fire ants.
Back home at the Orianne Preserve, sitting in front of our dormitory, Chris lit a bonfire and together we reviewed what we had accomplished during the March Intensive and discussed the nature of time — how quickly it passed while we engaged in rugged, thought-provoking, outdoor activities. The natural history of Georgia, its herpetological biodiversity and the passion of the people who study it, was a revelation, not a Biblical epiphany, but an ecological epiphany, threading together the past, the present and the unknown future. Here in the unglaciated South, sitting by a campfire, we spoke of the true nature of misunderstood things: venomous snakes and wildfires. And the yeomen service that will be required to educate the public. An indigo snake, for instance, is a hundred million years in the making, an unfinished reflection of Georgia pinewoods, which has been influenced by sandy soil and wildfire and the unintended generosity of the gopher tortoise. It is part of our natural and national heritage.