Vipers in View

by Jeff Ettling, curator of herps
January, 2006

In 2004, the Saint Louis Zoo initiated a collaborative radio-telemetry (the science of gathering data and transmitting the data electronically) study to monitor the seasonal movements and habitat use of the endangered Armenian viper. The goal of the project is to use the data on home range size and demography to develop a conservation management plan for the species. I made my second trip to Armenia from May 17 to June 6, 2005. The following is an update on the radio-telemetry study as well as an overview of some of the new initiatives involving the viper.

The study continues to focus on the Armenian viper population in Khosrov Nature Reserve. This site was originally selected because it Is one of the only areas where the viper is afforded protection. During the 2004 trip, six male vipers were implanted with radio-transmitters. After returning to the United States, my Armenian colleagues, Aram and Levon Aghasyan, continued to track the snakes until they went into hibernation (early October).

Four of the vipers have been lost to predation. Short-toed eagles which are snake-eating specialists, as well as 18 other diurnal (active during the day) raptors are prevalent in Khosrov Reserve. Since male vipers are the ones most often encountered "out and about," it is not surprising that they are a targeted prey item.

A total of nine new snakes were collected at the study site. All snakes were measured, weighed, tagged for future identification and returned to their point of capture. Two of these vipers (1 male, 1 female) were selected for inclusion in the radio-telemetry study. Following surgical implantation of the radio-transmitters, both specimens were held in terrariums for several days to observe their behavior. With everything appearing normal, the snakes were returned to Khosrov Reserve.

Alik Malkhasyan, who works for the Armenia Ministry of Nature and the World Wildlife Fund, has become very proficient at locating the snakes using the antenna and receiver. Alik along with Aram and Levon Aghasyan continue to monitor the movement patterns of all transmittered snakes. With the assistance of Karen Bauman, Saint Louis Zoo laboratory manager, the preliminary data will be used to map out the movements of the vipers.

During the recent trip I also had the opportunity to visit an Armenian viper site northeast of Yerevan. Due to its proximity to the city, snake collectors have removed large numbers of snakes from this site over the years. However, there still appears to be a healthy population of Armenian vipers. We found 25 vipers in a three-hour period! In addition, the biodiversity of other reptile species is high. This is a prime site for a Nature Reserve. Over the next year we will be looking into the guidelines necessary for Reserve establishment as well as costs associated with ongoing management (enforcement, personnel, etc.). I am very excited about the potential this site has to offer.

I also had the opportunity to return to the Meghri Mountain range in southern Armenia, where our team first discovered Armenian vipers in 2004. I am particularly interested in this area because the vipers look different from those in the central/northern portions of the country. Instead of having the gray background color with large orange blotches, they are dark black with smaller blotches or S-shaped orange markings down the back. Over the next two years, I will be collecting blood samples from as many of the populations as possible so I can conduct a genetic analysis. The coloration of the vipers from this region may reflect an adaptation to the local environmental conditions, but only time will tell.

With the assistance from the Zoo's education department, and Armenian viper conservation poster and brochure have been developed. It will be available in three languages (English, Armenian and Russian). These materials will be used by the field team for outreach education in rural communities and with pastoral farmers who often encounter the snakes.

The plans for 2006 include: adding an additional site to the radio-telemetry study, initiation of the "grass-roots" education effort with pastoral farmers and rural communities, and collection of blood samples from as many populations as possible for genetic analysis.

Effective management strategies for the Armenian viper will not only require a sound knowledge of movement patterns and preferred habitat, but an understanding of the range wide population structure and intraspecific evolutionary subdivisions.

I look forward to returning to Armenia this year to continue our important conservation work. Look for progress updates in future issues of stlzoo.