According to the World Health Organization, healthy communities rely on well-functioning ecosystems to provide clean air, fresh water, medicines and food security, as well as limit disease and stabilize the climate. A major key to a healthy ecosystem is biodiversity. But biodiversity is disappearing at unprecedented rates worldwide. Studying this process on even the smallest scale can help address the problem.
Since a wildlife habitat can be as small as a neighborhood or even a backyard, picture a habitat of leafy backyards where a particular species is thriving. If that neighborhood becomes surrounded by barriers to the animal’s movement, such as busy streets, shopping centers or tall buildings, the animal will mate only with others it is already related to.
Over time, the genetic diversity of its descendants will decrease until they become extirpated or extinct in that neighborhood. Their extirpation reduces the overall biodiversity of the neighborhood’s ecosystem and threatens everything else in it.
Since 2019, a research project in metro Atlanta has been assessing the impact of urbanization on wildlife by tracking a particular snake to see how its survival, genetic diversity and disease status are affected. The project is led by Bryan Hudson, a PhD student in the Forestry and Environment Conservation Department at Clemson University, in partnership with the Chattahoochee Nature Center.
“We chose to focus on snakes because they represent model movement-restricted vertebrates and on the Eastern Kingsnake in particular because of its generalist nature and positive reputation among people,” said Hudson.
The Eastern Kingsnake is easily recognized as a large-bodied black snake, often five feet long with yellow rings covering the entire length of its body. Known by many as “the good snake,” it’s harmless to humans and impervious to the venom of native venomous snakes and in fact feeds on them.
The study, called “Urban Kings: A Citizen Science Project,” uses its Urban Kings Facebook page to recruit ordinary citizens – called citizen scientists – to report Eastern Kingsnakes in the core metro counties for Hudson and his associate, Samantha Kennett, previously with the Chattahoochee Nature Center, to study.
Hudson has taken many of the snakes to the UGA Vet School for implantation of tiny radio transmitters that enable him to bring them back to their original habitat and track their movement. He also clips a scale from each for analyzing their genetic make-up.
Participation is easy. If you spot an Eastern Kingsnake, immediately take a photo and mark the exact location. If it’s alive, call one of the two numbers on the Facebook page. Then, even if it’s dead, send the photo and details to one of the two emails listed.
Sometimes the project involves rescuing a snake in trouble, such as happened with Amy Gutierrez of Brookhaven, a biologist and lifelong snake fan.
“I’ve always been fascinated by snakes,” she said. “It started with their incredible colors and the way they’ve adapted to so many environments, climb trees, cross deserts, swim.”
An avid gardener, she had covered her strawberries with bird netting, unaware of the danger it poses to snakes. Upon returning from a trip, she found an Eastern Kingsnake tangled in the netting, dehydrated and near death.
“We called Bryan because I didn’t think I could unentangle it without hurting it,” she said. “I got instructions from Samantha and drove it to the Chattahoochee Nature Center. They nursed it back to health. If I had returned a day later, it would have died.”
A week later, Kennett brought it back.
Gutierrez’s two young children watched as Kennett gently pulled the snake from a cotton sack. Before she set it free, they all got to pet it.
If you are among the many humans who dislike snakes, a visit to the Urban Kings Facebook page may change your mind. The page is full of pictures of happy children and adults with Eastern Kingsnakes.
But there’s another reason for you to visit the page. Though participation in the northern Atlanta suburbs has been good, it has been spotty in Buckhead, Brookhaven, Sandy Springs and Dunwoody. The project will run through the end of the year, and Hudson needs our participation.
Ultimately, he plans to publish his findings for use by urban planners in designing healthier cities, where people and animals will co-exist in biodiverse ecosystems where all will survive and thrive.
If you want to be a citizen scientist, but snakes just aren’t your thing, you’ll find many other Atlanta-area citizen science projects listed online.