SAN DIEGO — Researchers from San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and San Diego State University are joining forces for a new way of studying snakes.

What You Need To Know

  • Researchers are using new technology to track red-diamond rattlesnake movement and behavior like never before

  • They are among the first to use accelerometers, similar to the technology found in cell phones

  • Many species of snakes are facing threats such as habitat loss and getting hit by cars as they cross busy roads

  • The devices do not impact snake behavior, and each device will fall off over time and be recovered by the team

Snakes might make some people nervous, but for Jeff Lemm and Emma McAndrews, a red-diamond rattlesnake sighting makes them ecstatic.

“Just look at them," Lemm said. "It’s a red, beautiful snake. They are one of the most mellow rattlesnakes on earth.”

Lemm is a herpetologist and a conservation program specialist at SDZWA. McAndrews is a graduate student in the Rulon Clark lab at SDSU. Their collaboration focuses on tracking rattlesnake movement and behavior, which has been historically difficult to study since they spend most of their time sitting still to evade predators or ambush prey, and direct human observation interferes with their natural behaviors.

The team is among the first to use accelerometers to study snakes, similar to the technology found in cell phones. Transmitters are attached to their rattle, and the accelerometers are placed gently near their neck, allowing 24/7 monitoring and data gathering.

“We’re going to know what a snake’s doing all the time, which has never been done before," Lemm said. "So it’s very exciting, and it’s very great for the snakes because a protected species like that, you need to know what they’re doing, how much space they use, any bit of information we can use to conserve them better.”

Lemm says the accelerometers measure direction and speed, gathering 75 data points every second to create a continual, three-dimensional acceleration trace. Machine learning technology is then used to analyze the acceleration data patterns and videos of verified snake behavior to recreate the behavioral profile of the snake when it is not being monitored.

McAndrews says many species of snakes are facing threats like habitat loss and getting hit by cars as they cross busy roads.

“We have Highway 78 just behind me here and that is a really, really common road strike road," she said. "We see tons of roadkill on that road. I’ve seen snakes killed on that road.”

By understanding rattlesnake behavior, she hopes to use the new data they are gathering to determine whether things like wildlife overpasses would help the red-diamond rattlesnakes.

“I’m just feeling very fulfilled and very lucky to be a part of this project, working to protect such a beautiful and threatened species of snake,” she said.

Lemm says the biodiversity reserve at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a hotspot for this species and will help them figure out what action to take to protect them in the future.

“If you think of these guys, or any species really, as a brick in a wall, and when they go extinct, you take that brick out of the wall, the whole wall’s going to fall," he said. "You have to protect every single species in an ecosystem.”

The researchers say the devices do not impact snake behavior, and each device will fall off over time and be recovered by the team, so there is no harm to the environment.