Photo of a Copperhead Snake

Copperhead Research

Play the Copperhead Biology Research VideoMost visitors to the Stemler Cave and Stemler Cave Woods Nature Preserves would likely prefer to avoid the venomous Northern Copperhead snake.

Not Sammi Schmidt '15, Lexi Nash '17, Aly Janosko '17 and Nate Micklautz '17. Several times a week, the four biology students and Dr. Ben Jellen visit the 200-acre woods above an underground cave near Columbia and Millstadt, Ill., to search for and trap the highly camouflaged coppery brown snakes. Their research is providing important data about Northern Copperheads’ hibernation habits.

Those they catch are taken to the St. Louis Zoo’s animal hospital, where tiny radio transmitters are safely surgically implanted just under the skin of adult snakes or glued to the outer skin of baby snakes no larger than a pencil. The snaked are then returned to the nature preserve.

When Dr. Jellen and his team visit the woods every couple of days, they dial into radio frequencies assigned to the snakes. The embedded transmitter emits a beep, which enables the students to track a snake’s location, movement and underground depth.

“The faster the beeps, the warmer the snakes are, which tells us how far down in the soil they are hibernating,” Sammi explained. A small orange flag is placed to mark the spot wherever a snake is located. The students record ecological data such as temperature, precipitation, cloud cover, whether the soil is loose or tightly packed, and whether the snake is alone or with others.

Copperheads hibernate from November to April. “No one is certain whether they hibernate inside the cave, in terrestrial burrows or in tree root systems at the preserve,” said Dr. Jellen. “This project helps delineate critical habitat for many herpetological species and contributes new information to aid habitat management practices within the preserve. It’s a wonderful opportunity for student research. Once they have enough data, they will publish their findings.”

Photo of Students doing Copperhead ResearchThe students work closely as a team and each is conducting an independent study project. Sammi, a senior studying conservation biology, tracks the neonates’ movement in their first year of life. Sophomore honors students Aly and Nate study hormonal influences on the male and female snakes’ mating behavior.

Lexi, a sophomore pre-dentistry major, is studying genetics, DNA sequencing and multiple paternity in litters of copperheads. “I’m able to apply what I’m learning in the classroom to the outside,” she said. “I’m glad to have this hands-on experience because I’ll be doing research the rest of my life.”

Their research is funded by a $2,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources-Illinois Wildlife Preservation Fund, as well as grants from the University. McKendree leads the collaborative study with faculty members from Southwestern Illinois College, Saint Louis University, the University of Illinois and the Illinois Natural History Survey. The project will continue through 2015.

Learn more about McKendree University and the Biology program.

Some photos provided by Gail Hollis.