Sssssssss…TrentU Student Researches the Massassauga Rattlesnake to learn about Low Detection Probabilities

Sean Hudson, a Master’s student at Trent University, is studying the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, one of Ontario’s at-risk snake species.

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Many species of plants and animals, particularly rare and elusive species, have low detection probabilities. This means that they tend to be very hard to find – which has huge implications for management and conservation efforts. 

If you can’t reliably find your study species, how can your conserve it, or even research it?! 

Imperfect detection usually occurs when a researcher makes mistakes in their observation; when a species is too rare; or when environmental conditions make it hard to find the species to begin with.

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Imperfect detection is a big problem because it can lead to the misallocation of  conservation resources, not protecting enough areas, and the potential extinction of undetected populations.

Globally, 19% of species listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature(IUCN) are classed as Data Deficient, with many more Not Evaluated. These species often have incomplete population data, leading to a lack of public awareness about their conservation status and how to protect them. 

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The Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake is an ideal species to analyze the effects of imperfect detection on wildlife studies, because they exhibit both behavioural and population-level traits associated with low detectability.

Sean has been conducting visual-encounter (when he sees it, he records it!) surveys for Massasaugas across Ontario, aiming to estimate the species’ detection probability.

Sean hopes the results of his research will support changes to Ontario’s current search protocol for snakes, such as:

  1. Assigning species & site-specific survey efforts
  2. Increasing survey frequency; and
  3. Conducting surveys during detectability peaks.

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A new approach to surveying, where survey protocols and efforts are conducted on a site and species-specific basis, may be more appropriate for Ontario’s snake species!

Sean says that Trent University and NSERC Create has provided him with many opportunities for professional development and networking through workshops.

Hisssssssssssssss…. We think you are on to something Sean!

Thanks for sharing your research with us! Keep up the great work!





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