The crew of four stood silently together and listened to the growing beep of the radio transmitter. A snake lay curled up somewhere nearby — it was just a matter of finding it.
Copperheads, one of the venomous snake species that inhabit the Red River Gorge — an area within Daniel Boone National Forest in Eastern Kentucky that is popular for its hiking trails and rock climbing — can be surprisingly elusive.
But as the beeping from the transmitter grew louder, the team soon realized the serpent was just feet away.
The members of this snake-wrangling crew are students at Eastern Kentucky University, all working on research projects in the Gorge that focus on Copperhead behavior and habitat. They hope their findings will ultimately help minimize contact between humans and these often-misunderstood animals.
In the summer, the students are here on a nearly daily basis. Some of them even lived out of a camper in the Gorge for months at a time.
Each of the students is working on an independent project, but their research shares a common thread: collect data that the U.S. Forest Service can use to keep snakes and humans out of each others’ way.
“They (the U.S. Forest Service) don’t want people getting bit, and they don’t want snakes being killed,” said Jesse Sockman, one of the crew’s two graduate students.
They use radio tracking devices — surgically implanted in the snakes with help from the Louisville Zoo — to locate them. After the crew successfully finds one of the eight snakes implanted with a transmitter, they scan it with a separate device that identifies it.
The data they collect allow the team to learn about the snakes’ feeding patterns, mating cycles and other behaviors.
Copperheads inhabit much of the Eastern and Central United States, preferring forested habitat where they can hunt and ambush their favorite prey: mice and other small rodents; insects; and the occasional bird hatchling.
Though the snakes are not necessarily more populous in the Gorge than in other parts of their native range, the team focused its efforts in this area “because of its popularity and the increased likelihood of snake-human interaction,” according to a news release about the research.
Despite the animals’ camouflaged scales and healthy weariness of humans, the snakes occasionally run into hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts in the Gorge and elsewhere. These interactions can be deadly for the snakes, and often unpleasant, or possibly dangerous, for the humans.
The students, though, said people’s fear of Copperheads is largely due to a lack of understanding.
“They really are more scared of you than you are of them,” Sockman said. “Maybe we can change how people feel about the species and snakes in general.”
Sockman said his interest in dangerous critters, including Copperheads, stemmed from his mother, who was “terrified” of snakes and spiders, he said.
Rather than pass along her phobias, though, she tried to spark an interest in her son for the animals she feared most.
“I don’t think it was her intention, but she created an herpetologist,” Sockman said. A herpetologist is a person who studies snakes. “Conservation doesn’t work if you don’t have people who are passionate about a species.”
Now, one of Sockman’s primary research missions is to foster the same curiosity among the public that his mother fostered in him.
Stephen Richter, a biology profess at EKU who leads the project, said he hopes the research will educate the public on how to deal with snakes in their natural habitat.
“The most important tip, which is one many people ignore and why so many get bitten, is to leave snakes alone,” Richter said. “If you see a snake, do not attempt to move, capture or otherwise get close to it.”
Other snake species, including Milk Snakes and King Snakes, are often misidentified as Copperheads and killed as a result, said Austin Owens, one of the team’s two undergraduate students.
Early Thursday morning, after minutes of searching, one member finally spotted the first Copperhead of the day. The snake had tucked itself inside a small hole in the rotted-out stump of a dead tree.
After the crew logged some data about the snake and its habitat — the snake’s location, the temperature of the soil, and other factors — the creature slid deeper into its hiding place, vanishing from view.
Later in the morning, Josh Hendricks, a graduate student and member of the Copperhead team, said he hopes his work will teach people that Copperheads, albeit a venomous species, are an important part of a balanced ecosystem in Kentucky.
“It’s really about awareness and reducing conflict,” Hendricks said. “Everything in the ecosystem contributes to a balanced ecosystem, and snakes play a huge part in that.”