Forty Acres Field Guide: Blotched Watersnake

UT is an urban university in the heart of the city, yet the campus and its environs teem with fascinating plants and animals—from tropical parakeets to the world’s weirdest cactus.


Blotched Watersnake
(Nerodia erythrogaster tranversa)

Under the cover of darkness, Travis LaDuc, PhD ’03, passes out tall rubber boots and headlamps to his students. They suit up and wade into Waller Creek behind the Alumni Center, bending down to peer in the crevices around rocks and tree roots. When someone sees a flash of movement, there’s no time to hesitate—plunging in a hand as fast as possible is the best way. “If you seize up and the snake sees you coming, he has a chance to bite,” LaDuc explains. “And these snakes are pretty bitey.”

LaDuc’s Field Herpetology class is not for the faint of heart. Since 2006, the UT lecturer and Texas Memorial Museum assistant curator has been taking students snake hunting in Waller Creek. Their target is the blotched watersnake, a common species LaDuc describes as “big, brown, smelly, and mean.”

updatedThe only species of snake known to live in Waller Creek, it’s 2-3 feet long and non-venomous—but still packs a painful bite. LaDuc has been bitten dozens of times. “But I worry more about the back end than the front end,” he says. “Their musk is like a skunk’s.”

So why study this ornery species? “Because they persist in an environment that has been tremendously altered by humans,” LaDuc explains. “Why and how do they survive when other snakes no longer do?” Learning the snakes’ survival strategies, he explains, may help show how drought and pollution are changing the creek.

LaDuc and his students have tagged 106 snakes with microchips and tracked eight with radio transmitters to study their movements. Before releasing the snakes unharmed, they also take blood samples for a future DNA study. The researchers are now crunching six years of data with the goal of publishing a paper later this year. Results aren’t in yet, but one thing is certain—the blotched watersnake is one tough critter. “These guys take shelter under concrete barriers, bridges, whatever they can find,” LaDuc says. “They persist.”

To read the rest of the Forty Acres Field Guide, click here.

Photo by Ronnie Pittman.


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