Snaking Away

Researchers from around the world are paid virtually nothing to work long hours week after week in primitive mountain isolation. Their quest? The mysterious rattlesnake called ridgenose.

A yellow ribbon is used to mark the spot of capture, and the snake is transported down the mountain to the base camp. The hike down the mountain's steep peaks is tricky with both hands free. Holding onto a bag with a rattlesnake inside--a rattlesnake whose fangs can easily pierce the sack--greatly increases the drama of the descent.

When a snake is delivered to base camp, Holycross prepares his science table--located a few feet from the cookstove inside the army tent--for a detailed examination. Each of the captured ridgenose rattlesnakes is injected with a small magnetic identification chip that sits under its skin. The chip can be detected by a hand-held scanner if and when the snake is recaptured.

If the ridgenose is large enough, Holycross sedates the snake and implants a radio transmitter in its belly; the transmitter will last about four months. By mid-July, five snakes had been equipped with transmitters. After examination, the snakes are returned to the site where they were captured.

Tracking the ridgenose rattlesnake is a tedious operation that often leads the tracker onto unstable rock and into thorny locust thickets. But tracking is crucial to understanding a basic question nagging everyone working on the mountain.

How far do these snakes roam? The answer to the question will help determine whether the ridgenose rattlesnakes found on Animas Mountain evolved separately from nearby cousins.

It is up to 23-year-old Brian Fedorko, a wiry zoology and math student from Ohio Wesleyan University, to find out.

Although other snake hunters use simple, low-tech gear, Fedorko carries thousands of dollars of sensitive equipment in a small backpack. The equipment includes a radio receiver that picks up signals broadcast from transmitter-equipped snakes. Even with that equipment, Fedorko moves gracefully up the steep terrain with little strain. He's hiked miles every day for a month at altitudes ranging from 6,000 to 8,500 feet while tracking ridgenose.

Outside the base camp, the vegetation changes quickly as Fedorko climbs up a drainage crevice on the north face of the mountain. Oaks and conifers replace the desert plants, and a bit higher, a ponderosa forest and an aspen stand take hold. Scattered across the mountain face are patches of New Mexico locust, intermixed with the talus rock slides. Each area of talus has a name based on its shape or distinctive vegetation: Camel, Burnt Pine, Nose and Long.

As Fedorko approaches the site where he found a snake the previous day, he turns on the radio receiver and begins slowly sweeping an antenna above the landscape. The faster and louder the beeps coming from his receiver, the closer the snake. Fedorko's ear is finely tuned to the tenor of each beep, and he quickly zeroes in on a snake's likely location. At that point, Fedorko's eyes take over. Sometimes a snake is readily seen. Other times, 30 minutes of searching turn up nothing; the snake is underground or beneath a rock.

On this July morning, three of the ridgenose rattlesnakes are in the same area as the day before. The other two have moved about five meters.

The search for the latter two--which researchers have named Killer and Spaz--is particularly challenging because they are moving through thick stands of thorny locust. The day before, Spaz startled Fedorko, who's still a little edgy.

"Yesterday I was about two meters away and didn't see him when he jumped straight up in the air and landed in a shrub next to me," Fedorko says. "That kind of worries you when you're walking through this shit."

But Fedorko keeps pressing into the locust thicket until he finds Spaz resting on a bed of leaves beneath a small boulder. The snake pulls into a coil, but doesn't shake its rattle. The gray rattler's color blends perfectly with the surrounding rocks, making it difficult to see. But there is no doubt it sees Fedorko. Its eyes are locked on him as he takes an array of measurements at the site.

Fedorko doesn't see the snake's stare as a threat.
"They are very docile," Fedorko says. "Not that I would go around free-handling them or anything."

But the snake, Fedorko explains, prefers to conserve its venom for hunting lizards, rodents and birds--animals small enough to subdue and eat. The ridgenose avoids human contact, if at all possible. "They usually strike as a last resort," he says.

Fedorko is in his second season tracking ridgenose rattlesnakes. Last year he spent 13 days alone on the mountain conducting research--not only on the snakes, but on his ability to deal with solitude.

"It didn't really hit me until the third day that I wasn't going to see anyone for another ten days," he says. "After a while, you accept the fact you're going to be here. Then it's not so bad."

In fact, it can be great. The solitude provided the opportunity for close observation. Fedorko says he was able to repeatedly approach within two feet, and then photograph, a pair of endangered Mexican spotted owls perched on a tree limb.

Fedorko's close encounters with ridgenose rattlesnakes and spotted owls make any hardships seem trivial.

"You remember every place you caught a snake," Fedorko says. "I remember when I saw the owls. Every place has a story."

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