Ratsnakes May Benefit from Global Warming

Researchers from the University of Illinois conducted a study of ratsnakes in Ontario, Illinois, and Texas, with resulting showing that the species can adapt to higher temperature by becoming more active at night.

Patrick Weatherhead, researcher at University of Illinois, and his students conducted research that demonstrates that ratsnakes in Canada, Illinois, and Texas would all benefit from global warming.

"Ratsnakes are a species with a broad geographic range so we could use latitude as a surrogate for climate change," Weatherhead said. “Snakes are ectotherms, that is, they use the environment to regulate their body temperature. We were able to compare ratsnakes' ability to regulate their temperature in Texas as compared to Illinois and Canada."

Weatherhead inserted tiny transmitters that emit radio pulses into ratsnakes to track their location and behavior. In order to save battery life through the winter months while the snake was hibernating, the transmitters were designed to slow its pulse rate (not the pulse rate of the snake) as the temperature dropped.

"The relationship between the change in temperature and how it affects the transistor's pulse rate is pretty precise. We learned that we could predict the temperature of the snake from the pulse rate of the transmitter," he said.

Weatherhead said that although temperature-sensitive transmitters have been available for some time, automated receivers vastly increased data collection. The research approach used now combines automated temperature recording with automated recording of snakes' locations.

"If a warmer climate causes snakes to be more active at night, they may be less vulnerable to animals that hunt them, so the mink, hawk, and raccoon populations could also be adversely affected. Predicting the ecological consequences of climate change for wildlife requires going beyond the study of a single species," stated Weatherhead.

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