In the Field

By Jeff Ettling, Curator of Herps/Aquatics

My first trip to Armenia took place June 3 - 24, 2004. The purpose of the trip was to initiate the first long-term project of the Center for Near East Viper Conservation. This initial study will focus on the movement patterns, habitat preferences and natural history of the Armenian viper, Montivipera raddei. The rendezvous point for our team was Yerevan, Armenia. The data from this study will be used to develop a conservation management plan for the species. We met on June 3, and finalized our itinerary for the next three weeks.

The field team consisted of the following individuals: Andy Snider (Detroit Zoo), Nikolai Orlov (Russian Academy of Sciences), Natalia Ananjeva (Russian Academy of Sciences), Aram Agasyan (Ministry of Nature Protection - Armenia), Alexander Malkhasyan (Ministry of Nature Protection – Armenia), Konstantin Shiryaev (Tula Exotarium) and myself. In addition to our focused work at Khosrov Reserve it was decided that we would also visit two other populations of Armenian viper: one north of Yerevan and the other in the southern portion of the country.

Khosrov Reserve was established in 1958 and encompasses a total area of 258.6 km². The reserve consists of 5 isolated districts. Our study is being carried out in the Garni District. It has an area of 33.1 km² and is located approximately 30 km southeast of Yerevan. The reserve is situated along the western slopes of the Geghama Mountain ridge and is composed of an array of highland plateaus, mountain chains and volcanic massifs. It is considered one of the most important protected areas in Armenia due to its unique plant and animal communities. Over 50 % of all Armenian flora and 171 animal species (60 endemic species) are represented in the reserve.

A total of 20 Armenian vipers were collected at the study site. All snakes were sexed, weighed, measured and permanently marked for future identification with subcutaneous implanted passive transponders. The six largest males were selected to have small temperature sensitive transmitters surgically implanted in the body cavity. The surgeries were performed at our base camp and the snakes were released the following day. In the two-week period following surgery the snakes were located four times. After conducting the initial tracking session I trained Alexander how to use the equipment and had him locate the snakes on our next three outings. He mastered the use of the equipment very quickly and did an excellent job of pinpointing the location of the snakes. On a monthly basis they will be forwarding the location data (GPS coordinates) for each snake to me via e-mail. Through the use of the ArcView program we will input the location data and map out each snake's movement patterns.

Two other populations of Armenian vipers were visited for comparison of habitat. The first site was in the Meghri Mountain Range in southern Armenia. There were several differences between Meghri and Garni. Although Meghri (7,218 ft.) was only 400 ft higher in elevation than Garni, it lacked the treed valleys that predominate our study site. The other major difference was the overall appearance of the snakes: darker ground coloration, smaller dorsal blotches and narrower head (males). During the 2005 trip we will be collecting blood samples from a variety of populations not only for genetic comparison, but to evaluate vitamin D3 levels as well. I expect that there will be variation between the populations since they are disjunct.

We also visited a site 30 minutes north of Yerevan (one of the closest populations to the city) in the Argel Mountain Range. The snakes from this population look very similar to those from our study site. There are treed valleys in the Argel range, but they are not as extensive as those in Khosrov Reserve. The biggest threat to the Argel population is direct persecution from pastoral shepards. They kill snakes on site as they consider them a threat to their livestock. As a consequence the Armenian vipers that remain do not stray far from the rocky outcrops in the higher reaches of the mountain. This area will definitely need to be targeted for future outreach education programs.

We also discussed the development of educational materials to support our conservation efforts for the Armenian viper. It became apparent that the targeted audience would be the rural populations that come in contact with the snakes most often. Our Armenian colleagues feel that the best tools would be posters and small booklets. Their approach would be to conduct one-on-one talks with shepards, farmers, etc. This has been the approach taken with the Persian leopard program and it appears to work.

Our Armenian colleagues are also interested in extending the duration of this study from two to five years. In addition to providing a stronger database, it will also provide us the necessary time to conduct other side projects (vitamin D3 study, genetic analysis, education outreach, etc.).

I consider this initial trip to Armenia to be a complete success. Our research team is made up of dedicated individuals who are committed to seeing this project succeed. I look forward to my return next year.