Biologists at Drexel University are championing the cause of the northern pine snake, which often ends up as road kill during the summer.
The snakes make their home in the Pine Barrens, which some think of as only “the woods on the way to the shore.”
“It looks pretty boring and pretty simple, it’s just a collection of a pine and oak trees, and it looks the same for about 45 minutes as you drive through it,” said conservation biologist Dane Ward, a Ph.D. candidate at Drexel.
The rare ecosystem in the Pine Barrens is home to several species that don’t live anywhere else, Ward said.
Northern pine snakes move pretty quickly on the sandy soils of their home turf but their pace slows a bit when they are startled or stuck on unfamiliar terrain such as parking lots or roads.
Ward is a member of Walter Bien‘s team at Drexel.
The researchers have determined that it can take up to four minutes for a pine snake to slither across a two-lane highway, and in that time 77 vehicles may travel a road such as Route 72.
Road kill happens. And, sure, that’s sad for any individual snake, but Ward is most worried about the entire population of northern pine snakes. Pine snakes are a threatened species in South Jersey, and you’d have to travel to North Carolina to see next closest population.
So why do these reptiles cross the road? At this time of year, pine snakes are looking for places to nest. Sometimes the best spot is on the other side of the Garden State Parkway or the Atlantic City Expressway.
“Females may spend most of their time in a forest but then when they need to build this nest they will actually find an open sandy patch and they will place their eggs in that for better incubation,” Ward said.
From 60 to 100 adult snakes in the area may be lost each year to road kills or habitat changes, Ward said. He and his mentor Bien are both state-certified snake surgeons. The reptiles they track each have an implanted radio transmitter.
Ward hopes Drexel’s work will spark more discussion about protection efforts and policies.
One idea: Some conservationists would like to build culverts, tunnels or alternatives paths to direct wildlife traffic away from busy roadways.
Another idea: Maybe “Snake Crossing” signs along the highway would encourage speeding drivers to slow down.
The snakes have a brown base color similar to the color of dead pine needles and black blotches that look like burnt pine combs. They’ve evolved to camouflage nicely in the forest, but stand out on the roadway.