Copperheads are being implanted with trackers so Missouri scientists can study them

A team of researchers is surgically implanting GPS trackers in copperheads to study the elusive and mysterious snake, media outlets report.

Copperheads can be extremely difficult to find. A research team led by Ben Jellen, a biology professor at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, spent 150 hours looking for copperheads in Missouri forests and only found two, according to KWMU radio.

With the few snakes they’re able to catch, researchers put the snake on a ventilator, anesthetize the animal and insert a small radio transmitter inside it, the public radio station reported. Just recently, a St. Louis Zoo veterinarian helped perform surgery on three copperheads at the Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center in Kirkwood, according to KTVI.

The nature area is a primary site for the ongoing study of copperheads, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.

“The trickiest part in these little snakes is getting [the transmitter] into the body cavity,” said Chris Hanley, assistant director of animal health at the St. Louis Zoo, according to KWMU. “You don’t want to just go under the skin, because the body will kick it out very easily like a splinter.”

Afterward, the animal is released back into the wild to be tracked. Jellen trudges through the Missouri wilderness carrying an antenna that looks a lot like the ones stuck on top of houses for TV, video from KTVI shows.

“A lot of times, the signal is coming from within two feet in front of me and I still can’t see the snake,” Jellen told KWMU. “Eventually, I see it is directly between my feet.”

An eastern copperhead, which grows to be two to three feet long, is the most common venomous snake in Missouri. Yet many of its characteristics remain largely unknown, experts say. Tracking the snakes’ movements will help scientists understand their ecology and population dynamics, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.

“Snakes can be mysterious and secretive creatures, yet still fascinating,” the Missouri Department of Conservation said in a news release.

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Chacour Koop is a Real-Time reporter based in Kansas City. Previously, he reported for the Associated Press, Galveston County Daily News and Daily Herald in Chicago.