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Digging in the Dirt

We've all seen people digging up clams and mussels, but what would prompt a person, a college-educated person, to unearth snakes? It's not for snake stew or snake tacos. No, it's to help the snakes survive.

The snakes in question are Pine Snakes, which reside in woodlands, barrens, and cultivated fields along the East Coast and can grow to lengths in excess of 8 feet.

Unlike most of their brethren, Pine Snakes don't necessarily flee from human intruders. Often these powerful snakes will rear the front portions of their bodies high into the air, hiss violently, and attack if disturbed. And though their bite lacks venom, Pine Snakes have been known to send even rugged outdoorsmen scurrying for cover.

But these outbursts occur only during the warmest months of the year. When the weather cools in the fall, Pine Snakes retire to underground burrows, or hibernacula, with other Pine Snakes, Black Racers, and occasionally Corn Snakes. They find these sites, which are invisible to the human eye, by following scent trails.

Once underground, the snakes curl up and spend the next several months hibernating. Red Foxes, Striped Skunks, and other predators will sometimes discover a hibernaculum and prey upon its occupants, but more often the snakes and their wintering quarters remain unmolested.

One reason is because Pine Snakes and Black Racers tend to burrow deeply in the soil -- up to 6 feet below the surface. Thus there's quite a bit of labor involved for the scientists who study these creatures. First, scientists must dig a giant hole in the ground, then gently lift the cool and docile snakes from their resting place, measure the snakes and record their behaviors, rebuild the hibernaculum, and return the snakes to it.

Rutgers professor Joanna Burger and her herpetological colleague Robert Zappalorti are two such scientists. They've spent years in New Jersey's pine barrens studying the area's Pine Snakes, which are suffering at the hands of unscrupulous collectors and dealers willing to pay hundreds of dollars apiece for specimens. Burger and Zappalorti were studying the snakes just last week, in fact, weighing and measuring, shoveling and shoveling.