Marshall graduate student studies rattlesnakes for thesis project

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KANAWHA COUNTY, WV (WOWK) – The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources and Marshall University have teamed up for a first-of-its-kind herpetology study that is at the center of one graduate student’s thesis project.

Under Marshall’s Biological Sciences Department, Elizabeth Johnson is studying the movement of timber rattlesnakes here in the Mountain State to help conserve the species.

The project is called “Translocation of Timber Rattlesnakes at Two State Forests in West Virginia”, which are Kanawha State Forest and Cooper’s Rock State Forest.

“We are sort of experts in our field and to me, working with timber rattlesnakes, there’s not a huge line of people doing that, so it sort of feels cool, it’s really special to me to be able to work with an animal like this,” said Johnson.

The Lexington native says studying this serpent is a passion she stumbled upon a few years ago.

“I got to see a timber rattlesnake for the first time in Indiana. Something just clicked for me and I knew that I wanted to work with rattlesnakes, so I started looking for rattlesnake positions and ended up here,” said Johnson.

Here in West Virginia, she has relocated six snakes at KSF and monitors their behaviors, helps them thrive and fights the species decline due to habitat loss.

Johnson tracks the rattlesnakes using radio transmission. She ID-ed each snake with a transmitter.

“My antennae picks that up and in all the fuzziness I can hear a ‘beep… beep’ and that’s how I know which direction the snake is in,” said Johnson.

For others, it’d be like looking for a needle in a haystack, but with the right tools, you can slither right up to the snake.

Once Johnson locates the snake, she jots down the GPS coordinates and takes some notes.

“Did the snake move? Is it shedding? Can you tell if it has eaten? But the most important thing out of all those for us is if the snake moved or not,” said Johnson.

The data is used to calculate the snake’s home range. Johnson tracks the snakes every three days or so.

The field season ends in March where the transmitters will be removed and then replaced in the summer for the start of the new season.

Johnson is also studying timber rattlesnakes at Cooper’s Rock State Forest in Monongalia and Preston Counties, with help from WVDNR supervisors Vincent Spade, Kevin Oxenrider and Marshall Advisor, Jayme Waldron.

Johnson says if you see a timber rattlesnake at KSF or in your own backyard, it’s encouraged to report the sighting to a park ranger, call your local DNR office or email

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