The Northern Arizona University (NAU) Gartersnake Project is a collaborative group of scientists and students who work to conserve and educate the public about gartersnakes. We are hosted at the Colorado Plateau Research Station, the Biological Sciences Annex, and the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. Our primary focus is to provide student-driven research and outreach to assist in recovery of Federally Threatened narrow-headed (Thamnophis rufipunctatus) and northern Mexican (T. eques megalops) gartersnakes in Arizona and New Mexico. These snakes have suffered catastrophic population declines in recent decades, primarily due to synergisms between habitat loss, invasive predators, and loss of native prey species. Below you will find brief descriptions of the research we are conducting to inform conservation of these snakes. A more comprehensive explanation of each project as well as related links can be found in each project’s sidebar. Research inquiries can be addressed to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Background Accordion Closed
Scientists at the NAU Gartersnake Project and collaborators have been studying narrow-headed gartersnakes for over 15 years, and northern Mexican gartersnakes for over six years. During this time we have been at the forefront of attempts to document and protect both species, including developing a standardized protocol for surveying and monitoring of both snakes. Northern Arizona University Gartersnake Team members have been a part of the interagency Gartersnake Conservation Working Group since its inception, and we prioritize involving students and working collaboratively to help conservation of declining species. We hold federal, state, university, and tribal permits to conduct our research with gartersnakes and other wildlife.
Our research includes: documenting and monitoring distribution, habitat use, ecology, and reasons for declines across their U.S. range; planning, implementing, and monitoring the first introduction of wild narrow-headed gartersnakes (in New Mexico); researching methods to improve captive husbandry for narrow-headed gartersnakes; using citizen science to augment understanding of both species’ distributions; aiding federal, state, tribal, and other agencies with contract work; predicting the effects of climate change on both species; and producing reports that have informed listing and recovery planning for the U.S. States Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Distribution, habitat use, ecology research & monitoring Accordion Closed
To understand the threats facing gartersnakes, we use mark-recapture techniques to study populations, and use radio-telemetry to study focal individual animals. Standardized field methods include visual encounter surveys and trapping with Gee™ minnow traps. We continue to conduct mark-recapture research throughout Arizona and western New Mexico. Focal studies include long-term monitoring of the narrow-headed gartersnake population in Oak Creek (Coconino County, Arizona), and assessment of catastrophic wildfire impacts on gartersnakes in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico.
Telemetry studies of narrow-headed gartersnakes in Oak Creek (Coconino County, Arizona) were completed during 2004-2006, and have been ongoing since 2012 with northern Mexican gartersnakes. Telemetry is accomplished by surgically implanting a snake with a radio transmitter in a sterile veterinary operating room. Implanted radio-transmitters allow scientists to track individuals’ movements and examine their habitat use, behavior, and predator-prey interactions. Northern Arizona University graduate students have previously studied northern Mexican gartersnakes in the Verde River (Yavapai County, Arizona), and are currently conducting telemetry research near Roosevelt Lake (Gila County, Arizona). We are also previously assisted with an Arizona State University master’s student research on northern Mexican gartersnakes at Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Bubbling Ponds and Page Springs Fish Hatcheries.
Translocation & introduction of wild Gartersnakes Accordion Closed
Before the species was listed, the head of the NAU Gartersnake Team (Dr. Erika Nowak) was involved in the implementation of a salvage and introduction of narrow-headed gartersnakes in the Gila National Forest (Catron County, New Mexico). Following the catastrophic Whitewater-Baldy Fire, we used Dr. Nowak’s published research on herpetofauna translocations to plan for the best possible outcome for affected gartersnake survival, while acknowledging previous failures of similar translocation programs in other species. Individuals were salvaged from Whitewater Creek and the Middle Fork of the Gila River in order to safeguard genetic diversity from these drainages. Some individuals were brought into captivity at the Albuquerque BioPark to establish a breeding colony; others were translocated to creek that was not affected by the fires. In cooperation with many state, federal, and private entities, the NAU Gartersnake Team has conducted telemetry and mark-recapture research with the introduced wild population, and the long-term success or failure of this important project is currently being evaluated with New Mexico collaborators.
Improving captive husbandry for Narrow-headed Gartersnakes Accordion Closed
The NAU Gartersnake Project has been conducting student-led research on captive propagation of narrow-headed gartersnakes since 2010, often in collaboration with the Phoenix Zoo. Northern Arizona University’s Biological Sciences Annex is a federally AAALAC-accredited animal holding facility that provides veterinarian-supervised care to captive gartersnakes. This facility is also where gartersnakes who received radio-transmitter implants recover from surgery. There are also dedicated facilities for long-term care of injured and/or salvaged gartersnakes, including hibernation (brumation) chambers.
Northern Arizona University’s Green Fund, the Coconino and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Conservation and Mitigation Program (CAMP), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and private donations recently funded a captive breeding program and vivarium for narrow-headed gartersnakes on the NAU campus in Flagstaff, Arizona. Captive-bred narrow-headed gartersnakes from the Black River were released into an outdoor enclosure at the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Pinetop regional office in 2016 to test this enclosure for future salvage of wild snakes. Northern Arizona University currently houses narrow-headed garternsnakes brought into captivity after the 2014 Slide Fire in Oak Creek Canyon. Captive-bred offspring will be used to augment existing wild populations, repatriated into areas where gartersnakes have been extirpated, or even introduced into new locations. We are particularly excited about the semi-outdoor vivarium, where important natural habitat features are being replicated in a secure environment to decrease stress, improve health, and encourage breeding of captive snakes. Both undergraduate and graduate students will study species behavior, provide outreach to the public through livecams, and study other aspects of gartersnake propagation, including disease prevention and management.
Citizen science & outreach Accordion Closed
We are currently building on a recent NAU graduate student project to use citizen science as a detection tool for these gartersnake species, in conjunction with standardized field survey methods. Both species are extremely cryptic in color and behavior, which make them difficult to detect in the field. Citizen science has been effective in gaining species information by producing new distribution records, as well as informing the public about these species and involving citizens in conservation. Citizen science work is ongoing and interested parties can view information about our project and sign up in the Citizen Science sidebar.
Climate change Accordion Closed
We are working with collaborators at the University of New Mexico, the US Geological Survey, and the Colorado Plateau Research Station to understand effects of climate change on future suitable habitat for narrow-headed and northern Mexican gartersnakes. Collaborators used data collected by the NAU Gartersnake Team to build species distribution models under current and future projected climates landscapes for each of these species. In our models we incorporate climatic and hydrological predictions developed by the Bureau of Reclamation and partners, as well as NASA’s Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) data. Please see our report titled Predicting Effects of Climate Change on Riparian Obligate Species in the Southwestern United States for further information.
Contact work & expert advising Accordion Closed
Scientists at the NAU Gartersnake Project have federal recovery permits to handle and conduct research with both narrow-headed and northern Mexican gartersnakes. We have a wealth of specialized knowledge of these species, and are available to assist with developing and implementing research, monitoring, and biomonitoring programs. This work also allows students to experience research-informed biological consulting first-hand.
We have consulted with state and federal organizations, including the Arizona Department of Transportation, to provide biomonitoring services during construction projects where these species could be adversely affected. Given that NAU Gartersnake Team members have been involved in so many collaborative projects across the range of these gartersnakes in the U.S., our biomonitoring is often informed by site-specific knowledge of the areas where construction is occurring.
Collaboration Accordion Closed
Collaboration has been a large part of our success researching these species. Many conservation successes can be attributed to working with federal and tribal partners including the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U. S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service, and the Yavapai-Apache Nation. Current state organizations include the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, the University of New Mexico, Western New Mexico University, the Arizona Department of Transportation Environmental Planning division and Arizona State Parks. Private entities include the Salt River Project, the Phoenix Zoo, Alpine Animal Clinic, the Albuquerque BioPark, and individuals who care about gartersnakes. Non-governmental organizations include Friends of the Forest, Verde Watershed and Restoration Coalition, Friends of the Verde River Greenway, Oak Creek Watershed Council, The Nature Conservancy, and others. Our programs have received additional financial support from NAU’s Watershed Research and Education Program, Interns-2-Scholars Program, Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program, graduate student support grants, the John W. Prather Scholarship, and private donations. Our research would not be possible without the enthusiasm and support of our student team members and countless volunteers and organizations.
Collaborators of the Gartersnake Research Project
- U.S. Forest Service
- Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest
- Coconino National Forest
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- U.S. Geological Survey
- Colorado Plateau Research Station
- National Park Service
- Yavapai-Apache Nation
- Arizona Game and Fish Department
- New Mexico Game and Fish Department
- Arizona State Parks
- Arizona State University
- University of New Mexico
- Western New Mexico University
- Salt River Project
- Albuquerque BioPark
- Phoenix Zoo
- The Nature Conservancy
- Friends of the Forest
- Verde Watershed and Restoration Coalition
- Friends of the Verde River Greenway
- Oak Creek Watershed Council
- Alpine Animal Clinic