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Seen Any Rattlesnakes Lately?

Our writer treks through the underbrush with herpetologist John Herman as he tracks Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes.



Alex Stafford

 

I’m standing at the edge of a cypress dome wishing I owned a pair of snake boots. Dr. John Herman, a herpetologist at Florida Gulf Coast University, is standing nearby on the roof of his truck. He holds a radio receiver pressed to one ear and waves a bulky metal antenna in the air. His wife, Wendy Brosse, and I wait on the ground. After a few minutes, a faint beep comes from the receiver, and Herman adjusts the antenna, refining its angle.

“I’ve got him,” he says after another minute. He climbs off the roof of his truck and slides behind the wheel, clearly delighted. “He’s going to make us work for it today.”

Herman seems young for a scientist—he’s 39, though he looks younger. He is tall and thin and wears a dark scruff of beard on his face. Brosse, who is from Costa Rica, calls him “guapo” (handsome). This morning we’re trekking through the conservation lands on FGCU’s campus as part of Herman’s ongoing research project, the foremost radio telemetry study on Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes in the state of Florida.

As it stands now, almost no data exists on diamondbacks south of the Florida panhandle. To date, there have been three radio telemetry studies on diamondbacks in the southern United States, and those studies cover South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida. But snakes in southern Florida don’t always behave like their northern cousins.

“What you do to conserve rattlesnakes in north Florida,” Herman says, “is not the same here.”

And conservation is the ultimate goal. For the last 40 years, the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake population has been declining. Diamondbacks are large snakes that require a lot of territory, and because of development—new housing and roads—that territory is becoming more and more fragmented. Yet diamondbacks are not currently protected at the state or federal level.

“Often we don’t collect data on a species until it’s already in trouble,” Herman says. “If we’re going to develop a plan to protect these snakes, we need data now.”

 

We walk in single file at the rim of the wetland, Herman in front, me in the middle and Brosse behind. Herman takes long strides with the antenna out front and the receiver held to his ear. A steady thumping, like a low heartbeat, comes from the device.

“I definitely have him now,” he says.

In radio telemetry studies like this one, three main pieces of equipment are required. The first is a transmitter. The size of a AA battery, the transmitter is surgically implanted in the animal to be tracked—in this case, rattlesnakes—where it puts out a regular signal. This signal is picked up by a receiver, a handheld device that can be tuned to specific frequencies. The transmitter implanted in each snake has its own frequency. The final piece is the antenna, a 3-foot-long metal contraption used to locate the signal broadcast by the transmitter.

As he walks, Herman sweeps the antenna back and forth.

“This part is kind of an art,” he says.

The receiver continues to put out a low thumping as we scale a chain-link fence and move deeper into the brush where it’s shaded and damp. There’s no path, just tall ferns and stands of alligator flag that we have to push through. Herman clearly has a plan for where we’re going, even if it doesn’t seem obvious.

“You have to develop a feel for it,” he says. “If someone were watching us from up above, we’d look like a bunch of drunken sailors stumbling around.”

Sawgrass slices at our arms and spider webs catch in our hair. Herman asks casually, “Are you allergic to poison ivy?” We move deeper into the swamp, and I mention that I’m surprised to find rattlesnakes in this kind of habitat.

“They tend to spend more time in wet areas than we thought,” he says. “As we track them over a couple of years, we’ll figure out why that is.”

 

Herman admits he was always a weird kid.

“Snakes have fascinated me forever,” he says.

He studied zoology as an undergraduate at Michigan State University and received his Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Toledo. He worked at the Toledo Zoo for three years before completing his studies and taking a position at Florida Gulf Coast University. Early after being hired at FGCU, Herman put the word out to his students: “Call me on my cellphone if you ever see anything cool.” During his second year at the university, one of his former ecology students called him from the food forest, a botanical garden of edible tropical and subtropical species, on campus.

“We heard a rattle,” the student said.

Herman raced to campus and was able to see the snake—a 5-foot female Eastern diamondback rattlesnake.

“You don’t find a big female without there being others,” he says.

That was the moment he realized his study was possible.

Quickly, Herman began to set things in motion. From the university, he received funding to cover several transmitters. He made arrangements with a veterinarian in Naples, Dr. Jeff Noble, to surgically implant the transmitters. He told students, workers and professors to be on the lookout for diamondbacks. Everything was ready to go. All he needed was his first snake.

In December 2015, a member of the grounds crew on campus phoned Herman. They’d been clearing underbrush, the man said, when they spotted a rattlesnake.

“I instantly turned into a 5-year-old kid,” Herman says.

When he arrived at the site, he was able to capture the snake. She became the study’s snake No. 1, or Judas snake.

“Because you put in a radio transmitter and she leads you to all her friends.”

A month later, when tracking snake No. 1, Herman found her copulating with a small male. He waited until they finished and then captured the male, who became snake No. 2. Over the next six months, he was able to capture and tag six more snakes for the study.

 

In the swamp, a Carolina wren makes its warbling call and tree frogs croak like a raganella. Herman stops, listens to the receiver.

“I think he’s in the middle of this cluster. I’ll try to push in and then call back out to you guys.”

He moves into a clump of alligator flag.

“I don’t have a visual on him yet,” he says. Then, “Now I have him. He’s tongue-flicking at me, wondering how I found him again.”

Herman holds a handheld GPS over the spot where No. 7 is curled and reads off a set of coordinates that Brosse records. She asks him a series of questions, and he calls back the answers.

“Coiled?”

“Yes.”

“Burrow?”

“No.”

“Rattle?”

“No.”

“Vegetation?”

“Alligator flag.”

Though we stand only a few feet away, No. 7 doesn’t rattle or raise his head. The only sign that he is aware of our presence is the movement of his tongue.

“Rattlesnakes are not outwardly aggressive animals,” Herman tells me. “Their primary defense is to be invisible. Most times they don’t strike. They don’t rattle. They just blend.”

When he finishes with the data, Herman steps away and asks if I want to take a look. I move closer.

It takes a moment for my eyes to find the snake in the shadows, even though I’m looking straight in his direction. I’ve seen rattlesnakes in captivity—curled up, inert, dusky-skinned, indistinguishable from a taxidermied snake—but this one is different. Living, breathing, tongue-flicking. His scales are smooth and vibrant, and a small circle of sunlight falls across his face. He is brilliant, a creature that demands admiration, and for the first time I understand the full force behind Herman’s passion. This is a snake worth tracking through rough landscape on a hot summer day, and it is absolutely worth protecting.

 

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