UNCG Campus Weekly

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John Sealy collaborates with Park Service to conserve our state’s timber rattlesnakes

Photo of John Sealy“If it weren’t for North Carolina’s state parks and the Blue Ridge Parkway, there would be fewer rattlesnakes in North Carolina,” says herpetologist John Sealy, Biology lecturer at UNCG. “These parks provide refuge for many populations of this declining species by protecting their habitat from development.”

If it weren’t for conservation management specialists like Sealy, there’d be fewer snakes in the parks and the parkway.

Sealy’s work addresses the challenges in managing a species that’s protected by law but is potentially life threatening to visitors and park employees. Management plans must protect both people and the venomous snakes, he explains. To this end, snakes must often be moved from roads, campgrounds and recreation areas built within their habitat.

This summer, Sealy held training workshops for parkway employees who may encounter timber rattlesnakes. The sessions focused on the snakes’ ecology and on safe methods of capture and transport. The participants included interpretive staff, biologists, maintenance workers and law enforcement. He did a first round of workshops about seven years ago.

In North Carolina, the timber rattlesnake is classified as “a species of special concern.”

Timber rattlesnake numbers are in decline, he notes. The species does not reproduce until age 8, and thereafter every 3 or 4 years, he explains. Few newborns survive to adulthood.

When adults are removed from the population by killing or capture, a population decline begins as reproduction rates further decline. Therefore a small amount of assistance provided by park personnel has a positive impact on populations.

Highway mortality creates the greatest reduction. Another drain is poaching, he says. And many are killed out of fear, by those unaware of the snake’s protected status.

In the early 1990s, Sealy was the first to use radio-telemetry with rattlesnakes in North Carolina, he says. He spent years observing timber rattlesnakes in the wild. He took the first photograph in North Carolina of timber rattlesnakes mating, he explains, an event rare to observe. That was 20 years ago.

Sealy had a BA in social science from Elon from the 1970s, and at age 43 he applied at UNCG to study biology. He wanted a career change, and he wanted to be part of the conversation regarding rattlesnake conservation in North Carolina. “I knew I had to have credentials and knowledge to have a voice.” The UNCG biology department provided the foundation for achieving that goal. With his bachelor’s from UNCG in 1997, he then earned an MS studying rattlesnake ecology at Appalachian State University.

No other North Carolina biologist has studied the timber rattlesnake so long, he explains.

It’s a passion he developed in his youth. “I was never taught to fear snakes – only to have respect for them.”