We are very excited to welcome a fellow #scicomm fanatic to the blog today! Tianna Burke tells us all about bringing fieldwork back to the community. For more about Tianna, see the end of this post.
This year I have been lucky enough to put two of my favourite things together in my current position with the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve (GBBR) – field work and outreach education.
As a UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve, one of our missions at GBBR is to support the conservation of biodiversity through education and public outreach to foster a sense of shared responsibility to protect this special place. In 2017, GBBR has helped support conservation efforts through the work we have done thanks to funding from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Canadian Wildlife Service grant programs. Part of this effort was the monitoring of massasauga rattlesnake gestation sites and foxsnake hibernation sites.
This field work made me feel so lucky to live here! It allowed me to see amazing tracts of forest, fantastic rock outcrops, and some of the incredible islands out on Georgian Bay. The geology around here is something else!
When you are in the field so often, you are also more likely to see species other people rarely get to see. On one of our site visits we spotted this amazing Eastern hog-nosed snake, which put on quite the dramatic performance. This species is known for the dramatic hissing and cobra-like displays it employs before resorting to its plan B – playing dead. It looks terrifying, but is actually harmless!
So, why is it important for us to monitor gestation and hibernation sites? Well, because these areas are essential to the life cycle of these two species at risk. During July and August, we surveyed a variety of rock outcrops for gestating massasauga rattlesnakes. Massasaugas gestate alone, however they can be within proximity to other snakes. Shorter summers in Parry Sound mean that most of our massasaugas give birth every 2-3 years, whereas in more southern areas they are known to have yearly litters. A litter can consist anywhere from 5-20 neonates (baby rattlesnakes)! Since it’s important to monitor these areas regularly to ensure habitat availability and quality, we were able to partner with other organizations and individuals for future monitoring.
Foxsnake hibernation site surveys were conducted on properties that had been monitored back in 2004, as part of a University of Guelph master’s thesis. Most of these snakes were known to hibernate on islands and lay their eggs inland. Unlike the massasauga, foxsnakes do not give live birth. We wanted to see if they were still available and active 13 years later (hint: excitingly, they were!!).
Since we are working in an area with venomous snakes there are safety protocols that we obviously need to follow. These include wearing high-ankle hiking boots, long pants, and carrying, snake hooks. If we got lucky and found a snake, we would capture and process it, which included taking photos and checking for pit-tags. Pit tags are tiny microchip, similar to what a pet dog or cat would get, that are implanted just under the skin. Although we don’t tag snakes ourselves, many of them may be pit-tagged thanks to a history of snake research in the Parry Sound area, especially at Killbear Provincial Park.
One might assume that the most difficult part of this job was working with a venomous and potentially dangerous snake. However, that wasn’t the case! In fact, the most difficult part is challenging the misconceptions that surround snakes.
The massasauga rattlesnake is Ontario’s only venomous snake, and the eastern foxsnake mimics the massasauga by rattling its tail when threatened. Due to habitat loss and persecution by humans, they have both been listed as species at risk. There are so many misconceptions about snakes by people who live in and visit the Georgian Bay area, but social media has been a fun way to bust some of these myths.
Social media platforms allow us to reach more people than conventional methods of outreach such as booths and presentations. I’m sure many people reading this blog have heard of Scicomm, or science communication, and this is pretty much what we are aiming to do – bring the field to everyone’s computer.
But how do you grab people’s interest? By coming up with engaging and unique posts! One of my personal favourite ways of doing this is using the #TriviaTuesday or #WildlifeWednesday hashtags! These have made our posts fun and informative and have resulted in higher engagement levels. People love a good game, but they also learn from our trivia, as it revolves around the species biology, identification, or safety. Here are just a few of the examples!
One of our biggest hits on Facebook was a post I wrote about rattlesnake neonates. I was a little worried that there would be some negative feedback about “breeding rattlesnakes”; however, it was quite the opposite. We wanted this post to share the excitement of a successful breeding attempt by a species at risk, so we chose to take the same approach as we would for humans: we made it a birth announcement! It was positively received by most people on our page and also by the local radio station.
Georgian Bay is an amazing place because of the beautiful scenery and amazing creatures that live here. Many times the public only sees the scenery and rarely the species within it. Even when we, as biologists, go out into the field looking for certain species, we often have to do more than one survey because they are so cryptic and hard to find.
Much of what is known about some species, especially snakes, is what has been portrayed by folklore, popular media, or family/friends, often leading people to be afraid of or dislike these important creatures. By running trivia games and writing unique social media posts, I hope that we are able to not only change people’s negative opinions of these species but also educate them on how to live alongside wildlife by understanding how animals and plants live, how to ID them, and why they are important. At GBBR, we are slowly but surely seeing a change in public perception, a shift in behaviour, and increasing respect for the natural world…I love it!
Tianna is a conservation biologist currently working for the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve. She obtained her undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo in environmental studies and completed her M.Sc. at Trent University studying Bank Swallow habitat. Working with so many passionate people is what fueled her love for the environmental field, especially her love of birds. She can be found on twitter @Tingo_89, where she co-manages the #BioLitClub and shares her passion for birds, cats, and her strange hobby of taxidermy.