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Lizzy Hucker helps launch snake research project in state wildlife area

Lizzy Hucker is shown with a snake. Photo courtesy of Lizzy Hucker.

When you think of the Chicagoland area, wildlife might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But to Lizzy Hucker, a small suburb outside of Chicago, Illinois, is where her appreciation for wildlife—and snakes in particular—was born.

Hucker, who will be graduating this spring with a bachelor’s degree in wildlife ecology, grew up in Barrington, located northwest of Chicago. While she was in high school, Hucker started volunteering with a local restoration group Citizens for Conservation (CFC), an organization that restores critical habitat for native plants and wildlife in the Chicago area. Hucker’s favorite CFC workdays were always the ones when she was lucky enough to catch and observe wild snakes.

Even in high school, Hucker knew she wanted to become a researcher. She decided to attend UW–Madison because she knew of its excellent reputation as a research university and its highly esteemed wildlife ecology program. During the first semester of her freshman year, Hucker joined Zach Peery’s wildlife ecology and conservation lab—and she has not looked back since.

Hucker started as a field tech, helping graduate student Nathan Byer with his final field season of researching Blanding’s turtles at Sandhill State Wildlife Area in central Wisconsin. Byer, who always seemed to be thinking of complementary side projects, encouraged Hucker to start her own investigation working with the previously unstudied snake populations at Sandhill. And so began Hucker’s independent undergraduate research project at UW–Madison studying snakes and other reptiles.

“People fear snakes because they do not know about them,” says Hucker. “There is a lot of misinformation surrounding snakes, bats, and other so-called scary creatures that gets perpetuated by the media and circulated by people who [don’t understand] their ecological importance — and their general awesomeness! [That understanding is] critical to improving public support and success of conservation strategies for these misunderstood animals.”

Snakes are declining in numbers worldwide due to habitat loss, low prey availability, and climate change. And they present a big challenge to study. Snakes are notoriously difficult to monitor due to their secretive nature and use of inaccessible habitats.

Hucker’s research project focused on the use of artificial cover objects (ACOs), flat pieces of wood, metal or rubber placed on the ground to attract snakes. Snakes tend to aggregate beneath these structures, which can offer an enticingly warm environment for cold-blooded (ectothermic) animals, as well as foraging opportunities and shelter from predators. Since ACOs are low-maintenance and require minimal time commitment compared to other survey methods, ACO monitoring is ideal for measuring the relative abundance of organisms across a large area.

Hucker’s study attempted to clarify the relationship between ACO thermal characteristics and snake capture rates, focusing on a family of small-bodied snakes called colubrids, and also to assess ways to optimize survey techniques.

The project, officially titled “Using a systematic coverboard monitoring network to reveal effects of temperature on capture rates of small colubrids,” received two small grants from campus and private funding sources. Hucker has presented at three symposiums and is working on publishing a paper about a project related to her work with Blanding’s turtles, titled “The effect of nesting stage on seasonal and daily thermal selection patterns in Blanding’s turtles, Emydoidea blandingii.”

Before Hucker’s colubrid project, snake communities at the Sandhill State Wildlife Area had never been thoroughly investigated. Hucker was able to provide DNR researchers with data on the snake communities in the wildlife area, information that may prove valuable for future management practices.

After she graduates from UW, Hucker plans to pursue a master’s degree and eventually a Ph.D. in herpetology or wildlife conservation. She is excited to learn—and to educate. Hucker believes academia is just as much about sharing what you know with others as it is about learning from others, whether they are an emeritus professor or a student. In the future, she hopes to share what she has learned on a large scale, doing public outreach, and working with conservation and ecological education groups.

Snake mythbusters:

  • Myth: Snakes are slimy.
  • Truth: Snakes are not slimy! Snakes have scales, making them cool and dry to the touch.
  • Myth: Snakes are aggressive and/or mean.
  • Truth: Snakes are not aggressive or mean! Snakes—even venomous ones—are terrified of people and will leave you alone, unless you bother them. If provoked by a human, snakes will try to defend themselves, responding to what feels like a threat from a perceived predator.