Radio telemetry and the neonate ecology of the Northern Pinesnake (Pituophis melanoleucus)
Due to the cryptic and fossorial nature of Northern pinesnakes (Pituophis melanoleucus), there is a lack of data on their early life behavior and dispersal. An understanding of first season life history traits from hatching to ingress is particularly difficult to monitor. Without field observations, it is difficult to elucidate key developmental processes, such as shedding rate, feeding rate, diet preference, habitat preference, dispersal patterns, and the spatial ecology after leaving the nest. These life history factors could have pronounced effects on land management concerning this species, State Threatened in New Jersey. Until recently, the use of radio telemetry was only applicable for adult pinesnakes. External transmitters are not appropriate for semi-fossorial constrictors as they interfere with normal snake behaviors such as prey handling and excavation. However, we surgically implanted eight P. melanoleucusneonates with small transmitters, less than 3% body weight, and radio-tracked them after leaving their nests to fall ingress. We monitored neonate activity daily and recorded environmental and behavioral data.
Within two months of initial egress, neonates were preying on small adult rodents. Neonates shed multiple times over the first season. Radio telemetry helped confirm black racers (Coluber constrictor) as a predator of neonate pinesnakes. Neonates traveled distances from the nest ranging from 30m to 300m. Neonates with pit-tags only were observed within 70m of the nest throughout the field season. Our data suggest that the use of radio-implanted transmitters in neonate pinesnakes does not negatively impact normal snake activity, behavior, and movement patterns and may be applicable to other cryptic species.