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Why Did the Snake Cross the Road? Effects of Roads on Movement and Location of Mates by Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis)

Richard Shine, University of Sydney
Michael Lemaster
Michael Wall
Tracy Langkilde
Robert Mason

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Abstract

If animals avoid road surfaces or are unable to follow conspecific trails across such surfaces, previously continuous populations may be fragmented. We gathered data on the effects of a small (4-m wide) gravel road on the behavior and trail-following abilities of garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) in Manitoba, central Canada. As expected, the road surface had less vegetation cover, a more open canopy and, thus, higher incident radiation than did the surrounding grassland. Contrary to expectations, however, substrate temperatures were lower on the road than in its surrounds, because of the higher reflectivity of the road's surface. On a nearby asphalt road, substrate temperatures were relatively high on the road surface only in the evening, as surrounding areas cooled. Focal sampling showed that snakes avoided the gravel road, typically changing direction when they encountered it. If they crossed the road, they did so by the shortest possible route (straight across). Mate-searching male snakes were less able to follow substrate-deposited pheromonal trails left by females if those trails crossed a road than if the trails were entirely within the surrounding grassland. Thus, roads may significantly modify snake movement patterns, as well as the ability of males to locate reproductive females. Our study provides the first detailed information on the effects of roads on snake behavior.

Key words

behavior, connectivity, habitat fragmentation, pheromones, reproduction, reptile
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087