Population snakes forward with help of GPR technology

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By Nathan Smith, Air Force Civil Engineer Center Public Affairs / Published July 08, 2014

Dr. Ilya Buynevich, left, and Logan Wiest construct experimental inclined shafts for ground-penetrating radar imaging. The imaging is used to compare the artificial shafts to natural northern pine snake burrows and is part of an effort to map the hibernation habitats of the threatened snake and help recover the population in New Jersey. Buynevich is an assistant professor of earth sciences at Temple University and Wiest is a graduate student at Temple University. (Courtesy photo/Dane Ward, Laboratory of Pinelands Research, Drexel University)

Dane Ward leads a northern pine snake into an experimental burrow so scientists can compare images with and without the animal in the shaft. In response to the snake’s threatened status in New Jersey, a team of Air Force and Temple and Drexel University members mapped the hibernation habitats of the snake at Warren Grove Gunnery Range, New Jersey, in an effort to help rebuild the population. Ward is a doctorate degree candidate at Drexel University. (Photo/Dr. Ilya Buynevich, Temple University)


The threatened northern pine snake population in New Jersey is getting a boost, thanks to the new use of a technology that has been around for almost a century.

Air Force officials at Warren Grove Gunnery Range, New Jersey, have been collaborating with Temple and Drexel University researchers for more than 10 years to preserve the habitat of the snake, while simultaneously providing research and training opportunities for university students.

The effort took a step forward during 2013, when researchers decided to explore the use of ground-penetrating radar, or GPR, technology to map the winter hibernation habitats of the snake. The snake is listed as a threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Research like that being conducted at Warren Grove is important to complement protections already put in place by the Endangered Species Act, said Kevin Porteck, the Air Force natural resources subject matter expert at the Air Force Civil Engineer Center here.

"Military ranges often provide excellent habitat for wildlife, and with increasing development around these installations, military lands can become the last refuge for a species within a region," Porteck said. "If the population of a particular species on a military installation becomes imperiled and warrants protection by law, the result can be restrictions on the use of an Air Force range for training and testing activities."

Fortunately, the Air Force has been able to avoid significant land use restrictions by applying ecosystem management principles to help mitigate the negative effects of mission activities and, in many cases, contribute to the recovery of the species, Porteck said.

GPR provides high-resolution imagery several feet below the Earth's surface, and is traditionally used in fields such as archaeology, prospecting and underground mining projects. Researchers saw an opportunity to take advantage of the technology in preserving the northern pine snake’s habitat.

Dr. Ilya Buynevich, an assistant professor of Earth sciences at Temple University, worked with graduate students to conduct the GPR imaging research at Warren Grove, resulting in a mutually beneficial arrangement for the students and the Air Force.

"It is essentially 'x-raying' through the ground using electromagnetic waves that help visualize structures like sediment layers, buried objects, animal burrows and many other underground anomalies," Buynevich said.

Since the electromagnetic waves travel at roughly the same speed as radio waves, there is no adverse effect on the northern pine snakes in the area being surveyed.

Dane Ward, a graduate student at Drexel University who participated in the GPR research, said the technology made their work easier.

"Each spring, researchers encircle these hibernacula, or hibernation habitats, and document individual snakes found in each,” Ward said. “This effort is very important for the management of this population, but is time intensive and costly. We hope to utilize GPR to identify whether snakes are in hibernation sites in order to reduce the survey effort. If possible, in the future we hope to quantify the number of snakes in hibernacula to avoid corralling them."

Research has shown human activity and disturbance reduces the pine snake’s use of the hibernacula, reducing their abundance and forcing them to find new habitats instead of reusing the same hibernacula in successive years. The use of remote technology, such as GPR, helps researchers avoid disturbing the hibernacula, thus helping the species thrive.

The snake's categorization as a threatened species means without proactive efforts like those at Warren Grove the species could likely disappear in the region, Ward said. The nearest colony of the species is in North Carolina.

"The northern pine snake, pituophis melanoleucus, is a threatened species in the state of New Jersey," Ward said. "This level of conservation protection suggests that, without proper management, this species could be lost from the state. Previously, pine snakes were found in western Virginia and Maryland, but these populations are now (erased)."

Because the population of northern pine snakes in the New Jersey Pine Barrens is isolated from other populations, the species' vulnerability in the region is heightened since there is no natural immigration from surrounding populations.

The research has already paid dividends for his university, Buynevich said, demonstrating interdisciplinary collaboration and making the department more competitive in applying for other research funding, including one that focuses on crab burrows in beach sand.

The species and the Air Force will benefit as well, Porteck said.

"The research being conducted on the northern pine snake by the collaborative partners at Warren Grove Gunnery Range will be used to ensure essential habitats are protected from harm so that the species will thrive," Porteck said. "By sustaining ecosystems and biodiversity, the Air Force can also provide a landscape that can sustain military testing and training activities now and in the distant future."

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