PhD project: Population drivers, demographics and disease in wild snake populations

Reptile populations around the world are declining due to a number of threats such as habitat loss, climate change and, increasingly, disease. It is crucial to understand how such threats influence the dynamics of populations of all wildlife (not only reptiles) as counts are a standard method for assessing the conservation status of a species. 

To date, there has been a limited number of studies looking at the population dynamics of reptiles in the UK, which is worrying, particularly after the recent confirmation that snake fungal disease (Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola) is present in wild UK snake populations. Currently we don’t know how the disease affects European snake species, but if we look to the US, where snake fungal disease has been better studied, then the potential impacts are startling. 

This research project will focus on investigating the population dynamics of barred grass snakes (Natrix helvetica) at a population where snake fungal disease has recently been identified. The snakes will be surveyed over a number of seasons using artificial cover objects combined with legacy data to help understand how the population functions. Some of the factors that will be investigated are population demographics, transience and survivability, which are important to establish before trying to assess the potential effects of snake fungal disease. 

These surveys will involve capturing and photographing each individual in order to develop a capture history. At the same time as monitoring the snakes, each individual will be examined for the visual signs of disease and swab samples will be taken for later analysis when appropriate. 

Grass snakes have a unique ventral belly scale pattern (like a tiger’s striped) which is the foundation of the method used to identify individuals through time and space. It is hoped that this may cast a light on the spatial ecology of the barred grass snakes at the field site. 

Steven Allain is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology.  


Professor Richard Griffiths
Dr Becki Lawson (Zoological Society of London)
Dr Dave Leech (British Trust for Ornithology)


NERC EnvEast PhD Scholarship

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