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Learn from the habitat “haves” to help save an endangered rattlesnake

Newswise – COLUMBUS, Ohio – Comparing the genetics and patterns of ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ habitat relocation among two populations of threatened rattlesnakes has yielded a new way to use landscape science data to guide landscape planning. conservation that would give the have-nots a better chance of surviving.

The study suggests that a collection of six relatively close but isolated populations of eastern massasauga rattlesnakes in northeastern Ohio could increase their numbers if strategic changes were made to the stretches of land between their home ranges. The results contributed to the successful application for federal property purchase funding to make some of these proposed landscape changes a reality.

Reconnecting these populations could not only help restore eastern massasaugas to non-threatened status, but also establish thriving habitat for other prey and predator species facing threats to their survival – addressing two concerns conservation, according to the researchers.

“We’re not just protecting Massasaugas — we’re protecting everything in them,” said H. Lisle Gibbs, professor of evolution, ecology, and organismal biology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study. “Even if we focus on this species, habitat protection has all of these collateral benefits.”

The research was published recently in the journal Ecological applications.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnakes live in isolated areas of Midwest and Eastern North America and were listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2016 due to the loss and the fragmentation of their wetland habitat.

This study focuses on two known groups of Eastern Massasaugas in Ohio: the Killdeer Plains Wildlife Preserve in north-central Ohio, which supports one of the most genetically diverse and largest populations of the country, numbering in the thousands, and six small separate populations in the East. Massasaugas clustered close together in Ashtabula County.

Study co-author Gregory Lipps, an Ohio State field biologist, has studied groups in northeastern Ohio for years. Federal officials once told him that the populations were too small to be viable – but the genetic part of this study showed that the populations had already been connected and deserved a second chance to rebuild.

“So now we’re working to try to reconnect them, to bring them back to a viable population large enough to sustain even when disturbances occur that cause populations to fluctuate,” Lipps said.

First author Scott Martin, who completed this work as a doctoral student in Gibbs’ lab, had previously sequenced the genomes of 86 snakes from the six fragmented sites in northeast Ohio. For genetic comparison in this new study, the team captured and took blood samples from 109 snakes living together at the Killdeer Plains site. Genetic analysis, combined with where the snakes were at the time of capture, showed that snakes living in fragmented sites in northeast Ohio were far apart, having stopped mixing there. has at least three generations.

“Once we knew they didn’t seem to be moving, the real question is why aren’t they moving? The distance isn’t that great – so we focused on finding what was stopping them from being connected,” Martin said.

Previous research had indicated how far a male eastern massasauga snake could safely travel to find a mate and start a family in a new location. GPS and genetic data from population samples from the Killdeer Plains and northeastern Ohio showed how common movements were among related snakes in a successful group, and how rare relocation was among snakes living in fragmented habitats. Martin came up with the idea of ​​combining all the data to see what was different about the landscapes of the two regions – and what might interfere with the relocation of snakes to groups in Ashtabula County.

“It seemed to be about specific habitat features,” Martin said. “If snakes in northeastern Ohio were moving as far as we expected based on how Killdeer snakes move and species range data, they should be able to move between these small sites. And yet, when we look at genetics and use pedigrees to see if there is breeding between sites, there simply isn’t.

Using landscape maps, the researchers created models from the data that detailed the “resistance value” of various landscape features that would help or hinder the movement of northeast Ohio snakes to find partners. Wooded areas, croplands, roads, and housing estates – also known as impervious surfaces – have been shown to be major barriers to snake relocation. Wet meadows are the ideal habitat for Eastern Massasaugas.

“You can imagine two snakes in the same habitat that are probably very similar genetically because they can move around easily. And then in this other area, you have two snakes close together, but on either side of a four-lane highway, and they’ll be genetically different because the snakes don’t cross that highway, and with the time, they diverged,” says Martine.

“This means that a highway would have a high resistance value and an open field would have a very low resistance value.”

These discoveries, and Lipps’ longstanding work with Northeast Ohio landowners and numerous conservation agencies, helped Ohio and Michigan collaborate to apply for and receive a $2.3 grant. million dollars from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to acquire land for the benefit of Eastern Massasaugas in both states.

“To me, this is a clear example of where basic Ohio State research has produced practical results that have then been directly used to help conserve wildlife in Ohio – in d ‘In other words, accomplishing one of the purposes of a land-grant institution, which is to provide useful and practical knowledge of value to the citizens of the state,’ Gibbs said.

This research was supported by the State Wildlife Grants Program, jointly administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Ohio Division of Wildlife, the Ohio Biodiversity Conservation Partnership, and the National Science Foundation.

William Peterman of the Ohio State School of Environment and Natural Resources was also a co-author on this study.


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