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    Science & Technology

    The snakes among us

    By Christina S. Murrey
    Christina S. Murrey
    Published: Dec. 14, 2010

    Dr. Travis LaDuc, assistant curator of herpetology for the Texas Natural Science Center, studies water snakes as they slither around in Waller Creek beneath our gazes and the shadow of Darrell K Royal Texas-Memorial Stadium.

    Don’t worry, the snakes are non-venomous.

    Since 2006, LaDuc and others, including current and former students from the university’s Vertebrate Natural History course, have been capturing and radio-tagging the snakes in Waller Creek to better understand their biology in our urban ecosystem.

    Snakes like these are good ecosystem indicators and can help The University of Texas at Austin ecologists understand how wildlife are adapting to our urban ways.

    • Quote 2
      Heicer Ledezma said on Jan. 11, 2011 at 12:11 p.m.
      It is important to know how the wildlife adapt to our urban ways, so we need to know what to do in order to preserve this wonderful environment. What is the first step?
    • Quote 2
      Travis LaDuc said on Jan. 11, 2011 at 12:02 p.m.
      Thanks for all of the wonderful comments! As you probably could tell from the video, this has been a fun project and I've really enjoyed the feedback from the public and UT community. I'll try to briefly answer some of the questions listed in the comments. We've marked over 75 snakes since 2006, all blotched watersnakes. There are no other large snakes inhabiting the waters of Waller Creek. Why? We're not sure, but modifications to the creek over the past half a century (or more) have caused a reduction in adjacent habitat as well as a likely reduction in the available prey base (mammals, amphibians, and fish). We have only radio tracked four female snakes to date - we've learned that they have a great deal of site fidelity from year to year, with home ranges ranging about 300 m along lengths of the creek. We've found the females on "dates" with male snakes as well as watched the snakes eat toads and fish. We hope to track some males this coming year; our guess: they have longer home ranges than the females. And as for distinguishing between watersnakes and venomous cottonmouths, definitive identifications can be a tricky thing, especially if the snakes are moving in the water. Cottonmouths are typically more heavy-bodied, but other distinguishing features, such as pupil shape, require a much closer (and more risky) inspection. My suggestion: best thing to do is to give all unidentified snakes a wide berth and enjoy observing them from a safe distance.
    • Quote 2
      Ryan Lee said on Jan. 10, 2011 at 10:53 p.m.
      The importance of nature is reminded.
    • Quote 2
      Larry Bracher said on Jan. 7, 2011 at 1:34 p.m.
      I remember when ground was broken to expand the stadium in the early '70's. There were demonstrations on campus with students carrying whole tree limbs and trunks and chanting that the bulldozers would bring an end to Waller Creek. It is wonderful to know that it has fluorished and is still on the publics mind.
    • Quote 2
      Frank Hubbard said on Jan. 7, 2011 at 1:27 p.m.
      Interesting story and well presented. I would like to see some identification of the water snakes vs. cottonmouth ( poisonous ) as I have seen many people who are unaware of the difference harm water snakes. In my many years of exploring creeks and rivers in Central Texas the cottonmouth is uncommon in populated areas but I do think it is good to know the what each looks like. Once again well done story!
    • Quote 2
      Terri McCaslin said on Jan. 7, 2011 at 9:18 a.m.
      What an interesting and wonderful way to start the morning. Now I wish I had had this class available in the mid-70's. Thank you, Dr. LaDuc. Terri McCaslin -Albuquerque
    • Quote 2
      Stephen Brueggerhoff said on Jan. 6, 2011 at 3:17 p.m.
      Excellent story on benefits of practical field research going on right here on campus. What a wonderful resource and great research program.
    • Quote 2
      Janet Doles Brown said on Jan. 6, 2011 at 1:14 p.m.
      Thank you for the Snakes/Waller Creek info! Great to know that Waller Creek is still viable and flourishing after all these years...mine were 1953-6 at UT. Great experience... in addition to living in Austin from 1949-2007.
    • Quote 2
      John Economidy said on Jan. 6, 2011 at 8:14 a.m.
      So what were the species found and in what quantity? What specifically was learned from the radio tagging?
    • Quote 2
      Ca Dozo said on Jan. 6, 2011 at 7:46 a.m.
      Why are there no venomous snakes in Waller Creek? What keeps the water moccasins away?
    • Quote 2
      Nan Reid said on Dec. 21, 2010 at 9:56 a.m.
      I've watched Waller Creek for years, often forgetting where I was going, distracted by herons fishing the shallows, French ducks (mallards to most people) bobbing along, allowing the current to take them, a huge snapping turtle, possums, raccoons, and various snakes. I marvel at the power of this idyllic little stream when we get a Texas toad-choker. The one thing I would caution Dr. LaDuc and his students about is that Waller Creek is also home to some pretty hefty colonies of poison ivy... Keep up the good work, guys, we need our wild spaces!
    • Quote 2
      Hayley Gillespie said on Dec. 20, 2010 at 8:12 a.m.
      Great to see these fab folks doing their thing in Waller Creek. I hope we can keep Waller Creek looking great for years to come. For those of you who don't know, this is the same creek that the City is paying millions of dollars to put into an underground tunnel starting just below campus so that a few downtown businesses can have patios out of the "flood zone". Waller Creek is such a great resource for education, "greening" our urban areas and serving as corridors for wildlife. I'm glad UT recognizes its worth; it's too bad the City of Austin doesn't. Keep up the great work Travis!
    • Quote 2
      Jeremy said on Dec. 19, 2010 at 10:52 p.m.
      Great video and story. I walked over Waller Creek for years without knowing such an amazing ecosystem existed. It is wonderful to learn that UT still has the best educators of any campus in this great nation teaching students so actively. Thank you, Professor LaDuc. ...And thank you UT for celebrating this activity. I cherish the time I spent on campus.
    • Quote 2
      Susan said on Dec. 16, 2010 at 11:02 p.m.
      I've worked at UT since 1996 and I've seen 3 snakes on campus during this time. The most memorable one was poking its head out of a knot hole in a tree as I walked under it, on my way over a bridge crossing Waller Creek!
    • Quote 2
      Bill said on Dec. 16, 2010 at 11:59 a.m.
      People who are interested in learning more about Waller Creek can obtain a very interesting geology book on the creek from the Geology Library.
    • Quote 2
      Nancy W said on Dec. 15, 2010 at 3:08 p.m.
      It's a great opportunity to see what lives among us despite ourselves. I used to park near it and every morning I some new animal or change on the creek. I hope they keep it in it's "wildness" for people to enjoy.
    • Quote 2
      Laurie Lentz said on Dec. 15, 2010 at 11:18 a.m.
      Wow! I had no idea that such wonderful creatures are alive and well (?) in Waller Creek. Made my day!
    • Quote 2
      Julie said on Dec. 15, 2010 at 11:10 a.m.
      This is hands on learning out in the field is really terrific. I bet those students will never forget that experience. Some may even aspire to become researchers. It worked for me!
    • Quote 2
      Stacy said on Dec. 15, 2010 at 10:26 a.m.
      This was a really cool video (but I still don't like snakes!)
    • Quote 2
      Sarah said on Dec. 14, 2010 at 10:22 a.m.
      Cool video. It's fascinating to see how the creek has adapted to all the changes on campus!
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