Creature Conservation In New Jersey’s Pine Barrens

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In late summer, before the warmth of the day has faded away, a visitor to New Jersey’s Pine Barrens might hear the calls of spring peepers, smell the crisp pine needles scattered across the ground, and maybe even see a heron wade through the cranberry bogs. If they’re really lucky, they’ll also catch a glimpse of one of the Pinelands' several threatened snake species, or spot the tiny flowers of the Pickering’s morning glory or Pine Barrens gentian. All of these incredible species of flora and fauna call the Pine Barrens home. Some of these species cannot be found throughout the rest of the world, and many are under threat from encroaching development and bad management of the area. d05e658d0fe061b5f80ff451cca2ac21-huge-im

The Pine Barrens is the largest area of protected land in the Mid-Atlantic states, encompassing most of the southern third of New Jersey. It was the first National Preserve in America. The pine and oak forests, Pygmy pine plains, and Atlantic white cedar swamps characteristic of the Pine Barrens provide habitat for over one hundred endangered and threatened species of plants and animals, including the rare timber rattlesnake, Pine Barrens tree frog and even our national bird, the bald eagle. Major threats to these populations include habitat fragmentation by roads and housing development, poaching, and lack of forest fires, which are essential to the ecological stability of the forest. 


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Despite this array of problems, we can still be optimistic about the future of these diverse Pine Barrens inhabitants; conservationists and scientists are working hard to protect the land and wildlife of an area so valuable to New Jersey’s natural history. Currently, researchers are studying animal behavior and population ecology, surveying which habitats rare plants can thrive in, and fighting for better protection of the land against development and harmful government policies. In fact, Pine Barrens environmentalists have discovered several new species of fungi and beetles, saved an endangered wildflower from extinction, and pioneered a snake research program that has led to a fuller understanding of rattlesnakes, pine snakes, corn snakes and more.

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Pine Barrens herpetology: the study of reptiles and amphibians, is of particular interest to me, as I grew up learning from leading snake biologists about their work, and, with my family, helped them to protect these beautiful snakes. Joanna Burger, a behavioral ecologist at Rutgers, and Bob Zapalorti, an expert on New Jersey’s reptiles, have spent over 20 years studying the hibernation, breeding, and population patterns of the threatened Northern Pine Snake and endangered corn snake and timber rattlesnake. Through their work, and the work of younger scientists under their leadership, these critical species are better protected,  and a program to radio track rattlesnakes and pine snakes has been started. At the moment, scientists from Drexel University and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation are tracking more than 10 pine snakes to learn about their movement patterns, identify new hibernaculum dens, and hopefully find more snakes!  

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In order to best protect these endangered snakes, we need to understand their behavior and ecology; knowing what habitat snakes need and which factors will have a negative impact on their population is the first step to defending them. One of the interesting ways researchers are accomplishing this in the Pine Barrens is through the “Snake Dig”, an annual event where dozens of scientists, other environmentally minded individuals, and their families work together to dig up about 7 pine snake hibernaculum dens before the snakes come out of hibernation, catalogue and ID the hundreds of snakes, and record important data on snake habitat, health and behavior. I went to my first Snake Dig as a 3 month old baby, and haven’t missed one since. I look forward to that March weekend all year, as it never fails to amaze me how incredible these animals are, and impress upon me how important it is to protect them. I’ve helped dig up, identify, measure, record behavioral data, and pit tag several hundred snakes over the years, contributing to a collection of knowledge that is truly invaluable to the protection of these species in New Jersey.  

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Although giant strides have been made in snake conservation in the Pine Barrens, as well as in the protection of other species like the bald eagle and Pine Barrens gentian, the fight is definitely not over. Poachers still capture wild pine snakes and corn snakes to sell in the illegal pet trade, and development across the Pine Barrens is fragmenting the population of all snake species, since cars kill many snakes who bask on the pavement or attempt to cross the highways. I’m working with Drexel scientists on new genetic research to determine whether this population fragmentation is leading to inbreeding and lack of genetic diversity, potentially a very serious problem for the health of the species. The DNA sequencing and genetic analysis I’m working on are incredibly important to me, as I grew up loving the Pine Barrens and its species, especially the snakes, and want to do whatever I can to ensure that the beautiful place and its wildlife remain healthy and protected. I hope that environmentalists, both in New Jersey and across the country, can use their passion for natural wonders like the Pine Barrens to fight for their protection, and I know that I, along with the generations of scientists, conservationists, and activists, who have fought for the Pine Barrens will continue to work to save the Pinelands and all of the species that live within it.  
Posted by Isabel DeVito on Oct 11, 2017 3:14 PM America/Chicago

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