Disappearing diamondbacks relocated to longleaf woods

The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is disappearing from South Carolina.

OWEN RILEY JR.

The thing about moving one of the deadliest snakes in North America is that it's dangerous. For the snake.

But relocating eastern diamondback rattlesnakes can be done, researcher Jayme Waldron found. And moving them to larger tracts of pinelands might be the best bet for conserving what is maybe the most hated native Lowcountry species -- a 6-foot-long, muscled arm-thick, venomous viper that people have stomped, chopped, shot and even dynamited for generations when they crossed paths.

Why not just let it die? The diamondback is a keystone species in the health of the longleaf savannah ecosystem, the pines that are the heart of the Lowcountry. That's places like the prestigious ACE Basin, the ecological preserve of nearly a quarter-million acres along the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers between Charleston and Beaufort.

The tracts are habitat for 300 varieties of native plants, myriad birds including the wild turkey, 170 species of reptiles or amphibians, and 36 mammals. The rattler eats rodents and is food for raptors and other animals.

The diamondback is a species of concern in South Carolina, disappearing as people move in. Foresters are now working in places such as the ACE to restore the savannahs after two centuries of devastating logging and the substitution of poorer quality commercial pine habitat.

"This is a magnificent animal. When we lose him, we lose a large part of the Lowcountry because the diamondback's habitat is a vital part of what makes this place," veterinarian Sam Seashole said in a 2006 story about Waldron's study.

Slaughter, in fact, is a big reason why relocating a diamondback is dangerous for the snake. Just the notion that one might be around makes a lot of people's skin crawl. After The Post and Courier ran the 2006 story about Waldron's study of "translocation as a mitigation tool," one reader commented simply, "Kill them. Kill them all."

Diamondbacks do have a reputation for ferocity, the classic "it came out of nowhere" rattler with a lightning-like strike. But the snake is relatively docile.

For the 2006 story, Waldron brought along a group of observers while radio-tracking the snakes. When she uncovered the brush from them, the snakes remained passively coiled and didn't rattle, even though they were surrounded by bigger creatures.

The problem is the diamondback's marking are such good camouflage that if you look away for a moment, it can't immediately be picked out again when you look back. People step or sit on them unaware, or put a hand down by them.

The good news for the queasy is that Waldron's study confirmed what a lot of herpetologists suspected intuitively. A relocated diamondback won't stay put, at least for the first year. It will cover four times as much range as usual before it settles down. So the farther it can be kept from traveled roads the better. Waldron's findings suggest it's safer for the snakes if they are relocated to woodlands bigger than the ones they left.

Waldron conducted the study for the University of Georgia in cooperation with S.C. Department of Natural Resources Department. She relocated 10 snakes from tracts in ACE Basin along with two for other sites to the Webb Wildlife Center along the Savannah River, after radio-tracking them for a year on their home range.

It wasn't a given they would stay there. Snakes aren't nearly as simple as they seem. In the late summer breeding season, a diamondback might travel a mile or more to mate, but the next night will return to where it was. Reptiles are notoriously territorial. Relocated alligators have been found to travel 40 miles or more to return to home waters.

Waldron found that for the first year, the relocated snakes did cover more ground, and apparently to look for a place similar to the one they were taken from. For instance, one female was relocated from ricefield impoundments. The snake didn't settle until it found a cypress swamp.

"It seems they were trying to figure out where they were, keying on some landscape feature we don't understand," she said. "Cypress swamps don't look anything like ricefield impoundments. But they're wet."

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bopete.