Most of us have a fear of fire and rattlesnakes, but not so for one University of South Carolina biologist.

Once widespread throughout the southeastern U.S., the eastern diamondback rattlesnake has become extremely rare due to loss of their habitat. For instance, an eastern diamondback hasn’t been spotted in the wild in Louisiana in twenty years. It has also become a state-protected rarity in North Carolina, and conservationists applied to have it listed federally as an endangered species 4 years ago.

New radio-tracking research conducted by University of South Carolina’s (UofSC) Jennifer Fill shows that these snakes have a crucial need for pine savanna, which requires periodic wildfires or managed burns to maintain the open-canopy forest.

“I love snakes and fire. When I was looking at grad schools, I thought, ‘if I can just combine those two things, I bet I’ll be really happy,'” said Fill, a biologist who recently defended her dissertation at UofSC.

According to UofSC’s Steven Powell, “Diamondbacks have long been associated with open-canopy forests, or savannas, in the southeastern U.S. These habitats experience frequents fires, which turn out to be no problem for at least one important tree, the longleaf pine, Pinus palustris. Fill says its combination of growth patterns and structure makes the longleaf pine one of the most fire-resistant trees around.”

“For its first six to twelve years, it stays a little seedling at ground level,” Fill told Powell. “It develops a deep taproot, and if a fire comes through, the needles burn in a way that protects the growing tip of the plant.”

After those early years, the longleaf pine has a burst of growth, a “bolting” stage that manifests a tall tree with a firm root. In the southeastern coastal plain, the tree creates a natural habitat of well-spaced pines with a dense groundcover of grass and low-lying shrubs — fuel for the frequent and necessary fires in the savannas, reports Powell.

Savanna ecosystems support the kinds of medium-sized mammals that eastern diamondbacks prey on – rabbits, fox squirrels and raccoons, for instance. In a new PLOS ONE study, Fill shows just how critical that open-canopy environment is to the diamondback.

As Powell reports, “Conservation-minded scientists are interested in identifying surrogate habitats that might support the dwindling population of eastern diamondbacks.” Fill’s recent paper addresses marshes as a “potential candidate, but one particularly noteworthy observation in the research is that every eastern diamondback they studied had pine savanna as a part of its home range.”

For more information and details about Fill’s research, see:

To help support research like Jennifer Fill’s at the University of South Carolina, visit Carolina’s Promise.

Image Above: The eastern diamondback rattlesnake might be in the twilight of its very existence. A famous emblem of revolutionary-era America featured on the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, the eastern diamondback has had its habitat reduced to just 3 percent of what it was when Europeans first arrived. Credit: University of South Carolina

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What does this have to do with STEM and STEAM education?

By teaching kids about snakes, you are teaching them about science and nature. Formal and home classrooms can benefit greatly from the study of animals. Kids always love animals, from soft and fluffy to icky and sticky. Use the animal kingdom to bring out that childlike sense of wonder. They’ll learn from it and so will you!

Herpetology is a branch of zoology concerned with the study of amphibians (including frogs, toads, salamanders, and newts) and reptiles (including snakes, lizards, turtles, terrapins, tortoises, crocodilians). Batrachology is a further subdiscipline of herpetology concerned with the study of amphibians alone.

Zoology, or animal biology, is the branch of biology that relates to the animal kingdom, including the structure, embryology, evolution, classification, habits, and distribution of all animals, both living and extinct, and how they interact with their ecosystems.