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UT Tyler Biology Department Faculty Awarded Grant to Examine Threatened Rattlesnake

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June 27, 2014

Media Contact:  Hannah Buchanan
Public Affairs Specialist
Marketing and Communications
The University of Texas at Tyler
903.565.5769 or 903.539.7196 (cell)

June 27, 2014

The University of Texas at Tyler Department of Biology was awarded nearly $210,000 from the Texas Comptroller’s office to study a species of rattlesnake in the state, Dr. Michael Odell, vice president for research and technology transfer, announced.

The research grant was awarded to four UT Tyler biology faculty, led by Dr. John Placyk, associate professor. Other UT Tyler co-collaborators are professor of biology Dr. Neil Ford, assistant professor Dr. Joshua Banta and research associate Marsha Williams. The team will assist the agency to identify and study populations of the Desert Massasauga Rattlesnake, Sistrurus catenatus edwardsii.

“Currently, little is known about the ecology of S. c. edwardsii populations in Texas and throughout much of the rest of their range,” Placyk said. “The work will provide much needed ecological – such as habitat use, life-history characteristics – as well as phylogenetic and population biology data that can be used to further assess the conservation status of the species in the state of Texas while also offering conservation managers invaluable information to utilize in their decision-making processes.”

The Desert Massasauga is believed to be declining in numbers across its historical range in the United States, which includes Texas, according to Placyk.

Placyk and Ford will co-advise UT Tyler graduate student researchers Mitch Barazowski of Bartlett, Ill. and Steve Hein of Baltimore, Md., both of whom will assist with the project.

Serving UT Tyler since 2007, Placyk is a herpetologist who has worked with snakes, utilizing genetic data to assist in the conservation of threatened and endangered species for 14 years. As the primary investigator on this project, he will serve both as the project manager and the molecular geneticist responsible for conducting the proposed population genetic and phylogenetic research.

Placyk has been granted a number of state-level grants that focus on the conservation concern of various species.

He holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Tennessee – Knoxville and a master of science in biology from Northern Michigan University. He also serves as a UT System Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation faculty mentor at UT Tyler.

Serving UT Tyler since 1979, Ford has been studying the ecology and natural history of snakes for more than 35 years, much of that in Texas. He will serve as fieldwork coordinator on the project, having extensive experience and research examining the impacts of human activity on snake populations.

Serving UT Tyler since 2011, Banta will perform species distribution modeling of the Massasauga winter dens to produce maps of potential dens covering the entire state. His research expertise is in landscape ecology and genetics.

His involvement in past projects has directly addressed conservation issues in Texas.

Williams will serve as the Geographic Information System analyst for this project and will conduct the ecological niche modeling for the rattlesnake den sites. Serving UT Tyler since 2007, she is an expert in river geomorphology and GIS applications.

For more information, contact Placyk, 903.566.7147 or jplacyk@uttyler.edu.

One of the 15 campuses of the UT System, UT Tyler features excellence in teaching, research, artistic performance and community service. More than 80 undergraduate and graduate degrees are available at UT Tyler, which has an enrollment of more than 7,500 high-ability students. UT Tyler offers courses at its campuses in Tyler, Longview and Palestine as well as a location in Houston.

Snake photo credit: Bill Love

UT Tyler