New paper on Timber Rattlesnake hibernacula

Timber Rattlesnake at hibernacula

PhD candidate Andrew Jesper has a new paper out today on determining suitable hibernacula for the state threatened Timber Rattlesnake. The initial habitat suitability model was developed based on known hibernacula across the state of Illinois. The model was refined over a series of surveys based on the model and updating the model based on information from the surveys. Habitat suitability models inform land conservation decisions, enabling prioritization of areas most likely to support suitable hibernacula.

ABSTRACT: The dependency on hibernacula for extended periods presents terrestrial reptiles with the challenge of locating thermally adequate hibernacula each winter. Defining the habitat characteristics of hibernacula is crucial for understanding the overwintering requirements and distributions of hibernacula-dependent reptiles, alongside identifying habitats which warrant special conservation concern. Our objectives were to identify the overwintering habitat characteristics of the imperiled timber rattlesnake Crotalus horridus in Illinois, USA, and to determine the distribution of likely hibernacula habitats throughout the state. Due to the initial sparsity of hibernacula records in Illinois, we adopted an iterative habitat suitability modeling process consisting of 3 distinct rounds of Maxent construction and revision. Each round was informed with updated information from model-guided surveys or by building rapport with in-state naturalists and researchers who knew of additional hibernacula locations. We created our final model using 36 hibernacula and identified slope angle (indicative of rock outcrops and shallow soils), topographical position index, forest patch area, and aspect (decomposed into 2 linearized variables: southness and eastness) as important drivers of C. horridus hibernacula habitat in Illinois. Together, the 5 variables and site surveys suggest the suitable overwintering habitat for C. horridus in Illinois is located on south- to southwest-facing outcrops on upper slopes and ridges of larger forest patches. Such habitat is distributed primarily in southern Illinois and throughout the Mississippi River and Illinois River border counties. Our study adds to the current understanding of the species’ overwintering requirements and provides a foundation for future ecological studies, management, and survey efforts throughout Illinois.

Read the full paper in: Jesper, A. C., S.A. Eckert, S.R. Ballard, J.A. Crawford, and M.J. Dreslik. 2024. Distribution and drivers of critical hibernacula for the timber rattlesnake Crotalus horridus in Illinois, USA. Endangered Species Research Volume 53, page 467

UBAP leader A Rahlin presents Chicagoland ornithological research

UBAP leader Anastasia Rahlin presented two talks recently.

In January Rahlin presented “Oak Masting in the Chicagoland Region” at the Cook County Forest Preserve District – Resource Management talk as part of CCFPD’s Environmental Education program.

Rahlin and collaborators have been collecting oak masting data in the Chicagoland region over a seven-year period from 2017-2023. The talk focused on data regarding northern red, white, and bur oaks and discussed the history of oak masting research, outlined potential hypotheses that explain the likelihood of mast seeding events, and explored preliminary model results linking weather factors such as temperature and precipitation to acorn masts.
This study examines the impact of oak masting on Red-headed Woodpecker populations, an acorn caching species. Preliminary analyses linking acorn masts to Red-headed Woodpecker presence/absence and whether masting influences Red-headed Woodpecker overwintering in northern Illinois sites were also discussed.
In February, Rahlin presented  “Investigating Extreme Weather Impacts on Sedge and Marsh Wren food limitation and nesting success” at the McHenry County Forest Preserve District Research Roundup talk series.
Rahlin has been examining how habitat quality and extreme weather events impact marsh and wet meadow species in northern Illinois. Her talk focused on continued efforts to monitor marsh and sedge wren body condition through wren morphometrics and blood metabolites in order to understand how the two species respond to droughts and storms. Rahlin also discussed nesting outcomes for both wren species, as well as avenues for future research.

UBAP lead and ornithologist Anastasia Rahlin presents on railway ecology

UBAP program lead and ornithologist Anastasia Rahlin was invited to present at the 2023 Railroad Environmental Conference (RREC). Her talk, titled “Railway Ecology: Using Railway Corridors to Restore Native Habitats and Preserve Biodiversity,” discussed the emerging field and made recommendations for future research.

There are 48,000 hectares of railway right of way in Illinois, 774,000 hectares in the US, and 4,122,000 hectares globally which could be managed for wildlife conservation.

Rahlin discussed where research efforts should be focused”

Collisions and wildlife crossings

    • Continue fencing high-speed railways
    • Create wildlife passages for low-vagility species

Habitat Restoration

    • Maintain native plant diversity in verges
    • Focus on restoring grasslands – appear more susceptible to invasive species

Species monitoring and management

    • Expand focus from large mammals
    • Standardized, repeated surveys needed to establish baselines
    • Need for robust occupancy and abundance models
    • Multi-year monitoring before and after construction/expansions
    • Investigate life history parameters for well-studied species
    • Adaptive management framework

Future Research

    • Before-After-Control-Impact (BACI) designs
    • Establish experimental vegetation plots along verges
    • Take advantage of novel technology

INHS PaCE Lab members present at The Wildlife Society meeting

Two members of the INHS PaCE Lab presented at The Wildlife Society annual conference November 5-9 in Louisville, KY.

scientific poster about point of care device to monitor birdsUBAP program leader and ornithologist Anastasia Rahlin presented a poster “Using Point of Care devices to assess Marsh and Sedge Wren food limitation”

Food limitation affects wildlife health and survival, may stem from differences in body condition or habitat quality between sites, and may be exacerbated by extreme weather events. Blood metabolites have previously been used as a food limitation index in birds. To assess changes in blood metabolites in marsh and sedge wrens, we used Point of Care devices to measure blood glucose, ketones, and triglyceride levels as short and long-term food limitation indices. We collected blood samples from wrens in May-August 2022 and 2023 in two Illinois DNR state parks and one dedicated conservation area in the Chicagoland Wilderness region over the duration of the breeding season. Our data indicate short-term food limitation may increase as the breeding season progresses for both Marsh and Sedge Wrens. Ongoing modeling will test whether body condition (age, fat and muscle scores), habitat quality (wetland extent and composition), or extreme weather (drought or flooding) best predicts glucose, ketone, and triglyceride levels over the course of the breeding season. Our findings will provide insights into physiological responses of sedge and marsh wrens to food limitations, and highlight the utility of using POC devices to rapidly measure blood metabolites in the field with minimal impacts to study species. An additional goal of this research is to use blood metabolite data to identify high-quality sites for migratory birds; our data will be used to evaluate the effectiveness of conservation areas at providing high-quality habitat. This work will inform wetland and wet meadow management strategies for migratory birds.

scientific poster about pond breeding amphibian egg massesARC program leader Ethan Kessler presented a poster “Reproductive output of forested ephemeral wetland-dependent amphibians across a modified landscape”


Forested ephemeral wetlands (FEW) support diverse communities of habitat specialist species across the eastern United States, including wetland-breeding amphibians (WBA). Due to their reliance upon FEW for breeding habitat, the location of FEW on the landscape influences population dynamics and distribution of WBA. Generally, FEW are difficult to detect due to their small size and position under the canopy, however, recent technological advances provide the ability to remotely detect FEW with great accuracy. Improved FEW detection methods enable a better understanding of how FEW characteristics and distribution influence WBA presence and abundance. We counted egg masses of two widespread WBA species, Spotted Salamanders and Wood Frogs, at 231 FEW on public lands in southern Illinois using a double observer methodology from 2020–2023. We then used local and landscape characteristics to predict egg mass abundance for each species. We found egg mass counts were highly correlated between observers for each species, but the presence and abundance of egg masses were not highly correlated between the two species. For Spotted Salamanders, we found a positive effect of wetland size on egg mass abundance but found no effect of canopy cover within a 200 m buffer. Conversely, for Wood Frogs we found no effect of wetland size, but egg mass abundance was positively associated with canopy cover within 200 m of FEW. Results from this study will provide a foundation for the estimation of WBA across broad geographic scales using discrete maps of FEW.


New paper on Alligator Snapping Turtle movement by ARC program leader Ethan Kessler

Translocated Alligator Snapping Turtle with radio transmitter attached

A paper just out this week  in the Journal of Wildlife Management, “Movement behavior and passive dispersal of a reintroduced population of alligator snapping turtles” found that translocated AST behaved similarly to wild populations, and is largely passive. This can have conservation implications as reintroduced animals may be transported downstream by high flows.



Maladaptive movement behavior is a leading cause of failure for reptile reintroductions, thus characterizing movement for translocated populations is important to project success. From 2014–2016 we radio-tracked 183 immature reintroduced alligator snapping turtles (Macrochelys temminckii) using very high frequency telemetry in a stream in southern Illinois, USA. We assessed environmental, temporal, morphometric, and microhabitat factors influencing movement, including post-release dispersal from reintroduction sites, movement probability, and step length. We used directional statistics to investigate the effects of precipitation and age on directional movement in the stream. Numerous factors influenced active movement, including ambient temperatures, time since release, use of log jams, turtle size, and age. Precipitation had an age-biased effect on movement. Directional analyses suggested that movement was largely passive as turtles were swept downstream with increased discharge. Overall, the behavior of reintroduced alligator snapping turtles was similar to that reported in wild populations. Passive downstream transport has implications for reintroduced and natural populations as a force for unintentional emigration in channelized streams under current conditions and future high flow regimes.

Read the full paper here.

Kessler, Ethan J. and Michael J. Dreslik. 2023. Movement behavior and passive dispersal of a reintroduced population of alligator snapping turtles. Journal of Wildlife Management.

New Timber Rattlesnake publication by PhD candidate Andrew Jesper

Trailcam image of Timber Rattlesnake at den opening

Abstract: Many temperate reptiles survive winter by using subterranean refugia until external conditions become suitable for activity. Determining when to emerge from refugia relies on the ability to interpret when above-ground environmental conditions are survivable. If temperate reptiles rely on specific environmental cues such as temperature to initiate emergence, we should expect emergence phenologies to be predictable using local climatic data. However, specific predictors of emergence for many temperate reptiles, including the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), remain unclear, limiting our understanding of their overwintering phenology and restricting effective conservation and management. Our objectives were to identify environmental cues of spring emergence for C. horridus in Illinois to determine the species’ emergence phenology, and to examine the applicability of identified cues in predicting emergence phenology across the species’ range. We used wildlife cameras and weather station-derived environmental data to observe and predict the daily surface presence of C. horridus throughout the late winter and early spring at communal refugia in west-central and northern Illinois. The most parsimonious model for predicting surface presence included the additive effects of maximum daily temperature, accumulated degree days, and latitude. With a notable exception in the southeastern U.S., the model accurately predicted the average emergence day for eight other populations range wide, emphasizing the importance of temperature in influencing the phenological plasticity observed across the species’ range. The apparent broad applicability of the model to other populations suggests it can be a valuable tool in predicting spring emergence phenology. Our results provide a foundation for further ecological enquiries and improved management and conservation strategies.


Read the paper at:

Jesper AC, Eckert SA, Bielema BJ, Ballard SR, Dreslik MJ. 2023. Phenology and predictors of spring emergence for the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) PeerJ 11:e16044

INHS PaCE Lab at Turtle Survival Alliance Symposium

Dr. Dreslik and several lab members are presenting posters and talks in Charleston, South Carolina this week for the Turtle Survival Alliance’s 21st Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles


Population structure of the Western Pond Turtle (Actinemys spp.) across twelve military installations in California
Emily Asche, Matthew I. Parry, Thomas S. B. Akre, Robert Lovich, and Michael J. Dreslik
Western Pond Turtle (Actinemys spp.) populations are currently threatened with habitat loss, predation, and shell disease. The synergies among threats have caused severe population declines whereby they are an endangered species in Washington, a sensitive species in Oregon, and a species of special concern in California. It is imperative to investigate their status in California to determine how prevalent threats are and what level of conservation action needs to be taken to avoid declines. We examined the population structure of the Western Pond Turtle populations at twelve military installations across California through sampling in one-week bouts using 50 aquatic traps at one visit per base. We recorded the body size, life stage, and sex of all individuals. Our study is intended to represent a first pass at determining if there are any immediate conservation concerns, such as biases in stage or sex ratios and population size structure.

Detection and occupancy of the Western Pond Turtle (Actinemys spp.)
Matthew I. Parry, Emily Asche, Robert Lovich, Thomas S. B. Akre and Michael J. Dreslik
Low densities, followed by a secretive nature, create challenges for accurately estimating population estimates and site occupancy rates. The Western Pond Turtle (Actinemys spp.) faces range-wide declines and is currently a species of special concern in California. Our project aims to determine their status across 12 military installations using an occupancy/detection framework while attempting to maximize captures during one 50 aquatic trap/four trap night sampling session per installation. Because we sampled areas of known occupancy, we could focus on estimating detection rates. We aim to create an MS Excel tool to determine the detection probabilities while accounting for various environmental and habitat-related covariates.

Survival matters: Comparing the demographic traits of Clemmys and Glyptemys with long-term capture-recapture data
Devin Edmonds, Michael J. Dreslik, Jeffrey E. Lovich, and Carl H. Ernst

Freshwater turtles are one of the most threatened vertebrate groups, with over half of all species at risk of extinction. Overexploitation and habitat loss are the largest threats, with many turtle populations now small, isolated, and needing conservation action to ensure they persist. To enact informed conservation measures and monitor recovery efforts, managers benefit from information about demographic rates like survival and recruitment for highly threatened turtle species. Survival plays a particularly important role in population persistence, considering the life history of most turtle species is characterized by a long lifespan, delayed sexual maturity, and low fecundity. Thus, even small changes in adult annual survival rates can cause otherwise stable populations to decline. We analyzed three historical long-term capture-recapture datasets to estimate annual survival and recruitment for populations of Spotted Turtles (Clemmys guttata), Wood Turtles (Glyptemys insculpta), and Bog Turtles (Glyptemys muhlengerbii) that live in increasingly threatened wetlands and surrounding habitats. All three have ranges characterized by disjunct distributions and often small and isolated populations. Adult sex ratios in turtles can be affected by differences between the sexes in the timing of maturity, rates of mortality, sex-determining mechanism, or differential immigration/emigration. The two Glyptemys species have genetic sex determination while Clemmys has environmental sex determination. This latter distinction could affect each species responses under warming climate scenarios, since Clemmys might be expected to have female-biased populations as global temperatures increase. However, sex-specific differences in survival of Glyptemys species could also occur. Using multi-decadal data, we analyze sex-specific and species-specific survivorship from a site in eastern Pennsylvania where these turtles were sympatric. Our results help inform conservation efforts for three threatened freshwater turtle species and show the strengths of historic long-term data.

Baseline energetic requirements of Ornate Box Turtles (Terrapene ornata)
Andrea L. Colton and Michael J. Dreslik

Increasing ambient temperatures due to climate change may lead to altered behaviors as turtles attempt to regulate internal body temperatures. Increased efforts to maintain temperatures may result in energetic tradeoffs, leading to reduced individual fitness and, thus, population abundance. Estimation of resting metabolic rates for turtles affords calculation of baseline energetic requirements and the potential to predict costs associated with warming landscapes. Using flow-through respirometry, we will determine the resting metabolic rates (RMRs) of adult Ornate Box Turtles (Terrapene ornata) across a temperature gradient to provide information on energetic costs. The baseline estimates will then be used to determine the annual RMR costs on the landscape.

Ranges on the spectrum of recovery: conservation action for the Spotted Turtle and Eastern River Cooter in Illinois
Michael J. Dreslik

Extinction rates in the Anthropocene are significantly higher than background and previous major events. The extinction process can occur when local populations become extirpated, particularly those on the range periphery where habitats are often sub-optimal. Turtles are one of the most critically endangered taxa, with many anthropogenic factors triggering declines. Although jurisdictional boundaries can often complicate conservation, many North American turtles have peripheral populations of conservation concern. Within Illinois, peripheral populations of the Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) and Eastern River Cooter (Pseudemys concinna) are protected as State Endangered; however, their apparent recovery is quite different. I discuss conservation prioritizations, status assessments, and conservation implementation needs for both species in Illinois. Finally, I compare the pathways to recovery for both species.
Conservation Tools and Actions: Oral Thursday PM

Where do those pet frogs come from?

  • red and black frog
    Ranitomeya reticulata: Red-backed Poison Frog

Photos by Devin Edmonds

PACE Lab doctoral student Devin Edmonds investigated the origins of poison frogs in the pet trade, tracking down ethical and illegal sources. The results of his study were published in Herpetological Review.

Read the full story here!