ELLENSBURG — An unsettling rattling filled the air, coming from a large plastic bin. Across the laboratory two men were setting out a large tray, scalpels and other surgical tools.
As the two approached the bin the rattling grew louder. Then one of the men lifted the lid, which held a sign warning of its contents.
Inside the bin, two Northern Pacific rattlesnakes glared up at them, hissing and rattling their tails.
Using a long clamp, Central Washington University biology professor Dan Beck and graduate student Joey Chase lifted one of the rattlesnakes from the bin and coaxed its head into a long plastic tube that held about one third of the snake.
The snake was anesthetized, cleaned and placed on the large tray. Surgery was ready to begin.
The rattlesnakes were to have radio transmitters and data loggers placed in them, as part of Chase’s master thesis, which looks at the effects of wildfires on rattlesnake growth and movement.
Using the transmitters, Chase will track the snakes’ movements to create a map and determine if they will live in places that have been burned in wildfires, or if they’ll avoid those areas.
Snakes are an important part of the ecosystem, and whenever they are killed by fires or humans, their loss can devastate it, Chase said.
“An ecosystem is pretty much just a network of all kinds of interactions happening, and so taking any component out is going to be bad,” he said.
Small animals, insects and more are eaten by rattlesnakes. Larger predators like eagles, badgers and owls prey on the snakes, keeping the ecosystem in check. Snakes should never be killed due to their ecological value, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Both of the male snakes for the surgery were estimated to be around 10 years old, and were picked up by Chase near Thorp, around the area affected by the devastating 2012 Taylor Bridge Fire that burned 36 square miles and destroyed 61 homes.
After putting the sedated snake on the table, Beck made a small cut around the end of the second third of the snake. The small red transmitter and blue data loggers, weighing less than a fifth of an ounce, were slid into the snake’s body cavity with ease and the cut was stitched back up.
The equipment doesn’t affect the snake, and works well with its internal organs, said Beck, who has done hundreds of similar procedures since the 1980s.
Once the surgery on the first snake finished, Chase placed it in a plastic tub. They’ll let the snakes recover for at least 24 hours before releasing them.
The snakes will be tracked a couple times a week until next year, when the transmitters and loggers will be removed. The transmitter will help Chase track the snakes using a specialized radio when he goes into the field. The data logger will record the body temperature at set intervals.
“It’s really cool, because in the graphs you can actually see when the snake goes under its den because its body temperature gets pretty close to freezing,” Chase said.
Using this data and the transmitter, Chase will also record characteristics of the landscape he finds the snakes in.
After each surgery, Chase measured the snakes and took photographs of their rattles to help keep track of their growth. On average, Northern Pacific rattlesnakes, also known as Western rattlesnakes, are around a three to four feet long and average about one and a half inches thick.
Northern Pacific rattlesnakes up in Washington only shed once a year on average, adding a new segment to their rattle each time, Beck said. The rattle almost acts like rings on a tree, helping researchers estimate a snake’s age and growth. They live to average of about 15 to 20 years in the wild, and up to 40 years in captivity, Beck said.
Chase completed his undergraduate schooling at Cornell University, working with a herpetologist there. He did several months of research on rattlesnakes in California, tracking them before coming to Central Washington University.
At first, Chase said he didn’t know what he wanted to do with rattlesnakes here, but after the various wildfires he said the decision was easy.
“After having these huge wildfires ... these animals weren’t studied, no one knows how the animals are affected by wildfire. So this is going to be the first study seeing how rattlesnakes are going to be affected by these large-scale events, which are getting more frequent and intense,” Chase said.