Snakes in a Lab

Published on 26 October 2021

When Ben Jellen, Ph.D., associate professor of biology at University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy in St. Louis, had the opportunity as an undergraduate student to go out into the field and study amphibians and reptiles, he realized he had found his calling. Now, 22 years later, Jellen is still living his passion through several research projects examining types of snakes local to the St. Louis area.

While applying for animal studies permits in Missouri, Jellen contacted the state's herpetologist, a biologist with a specialty in amphibians and reptiles, who shared that the state was looking for someone to study the copperhead population in the Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center. This highly trafficked conservation center, that is just over 112 acres, attracts 80,000 visitors annually, so the potential for human and venomous snake interaction is high. Jellen gladly took on the project and has been tracking, through radio transmitters, the movement, habitat use, and hibernation of copperheads for the past 4 years.

One of the most surprising discoveries for Jellen has been where the copperheads choose to hibernate.

"Even though Powder Valley is 112 acres of wonderful and suitable habitat, about half of the snakes with transmitters have moved off site to spend the colder months," Jellen said. "They hibernate wherever there are rocky hillsides or slopes. For two years in a row, one snake hibernated in the riprap building up interstate 270 and two others hibernated underneath Cragwald Road."

In addition to his work studying copperheads, Jellen is studying the sex-attractant pheromones produced by female watersnakes. Jellen and his student researcher, UHSP junior Michelle Hollon are collaborating with a chemist from University of Missouri-St. Louis to isolate the sex-attractant pheromone, synthesize it, and potentially use it to corral invasive populations of other snake species (such as the Burmese Pythons in the Everglades and the Brown Tree Snake on Guam).

For many years, it was believed that the female left a terrestrial trail of sex pheromone that attracted male snakes, but Jellen’s recent research has revealed that the sex-attractant pheromone is dispersed both in the air (for help in long distance location by males), and on the ground (for fine-scale location of the female by males).  This allows male watersnakes can follow a trail on the water’s surface, and males of more terrestrial species can locate females from multiple directions and from relatively long distances.

Once Jellen and Hollon collect enough data from their study of the snake sex pheromone, the United States Department of Agriculture has invited them to submit a preproposal and their preliminary data for use on the invasive Brown Tree Snake. Jellen's research on copperheads will continue through 2022 at which point he will be able to help guide management decisions at Powder Valley Conservation and Nature Center, and facilitate public education and awareness for those visiting the park.

Jellen also has two other conservation related, on-going projects. One involving a pathogenic fungus decimating snake populations world-wide, and one examining salmonella strains in captive and wild reptiles in the state of Missouri.

Jellen's research has tend to focus on endangered and "unpopular" species in the public's eye. He is happy to give a voice to those who can't advocate for themselves, and asked why he cares about the role of snakes in the ecosystem, he is quick to quip a thought by Aldo Leopold, "The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts."

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