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snakes

Living with snakes

Bentley turns summer research experience into YouTube video.

For two and a half months this summer, Alex Bentley lived alone, spending the majority of his time with snakes. Bentley, a junior biology and Spanish major from Salem, Va., worked with pit vipers and the Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy (ARC) group in the Francis Marion National Forest in order to research the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. 

The eastern diamondback was once endemic in certain areas of the Southeast. Because of development, however, its habitat has been fragmented and its natural distribution has recessed. They are now endangered in North Carolina. The purpose of Bentley’s summer research was to gain a comprehensive understanding of how diamondback populations are dealing with these changes.

“The more we find out about [the diamondback’s] spatial behavior and natural history, the better equipped we will be to protect them,” says Bentley. “Although the conservation status for these snakes varies from state to state, it is important to take action now and gain more federal and state protection because there’s a potential for extensive loss of genetic diversity.”

Bentley has always been passionate about snakes. When he was five years old, his family went into the woods and began throwing rocks into a stream. Bentley picked up a rock and saw a small snake underneath. He was hooked.

“It’s tough to say what fascinates me so much, but even today finding a snake gives me the same thrill I got 16 years ago,” says Bentley. “In a way, the more I’ve learned about snakes, the more interested I am, but these interests have become much more focused.”

Now Bentley is focusing on pit vipers and venom. Besides researching the eastern diamondback populations, he also gathered venom samples to be analyzed for composition variations between species. This research may correlate with the research that Bentley is preparing to complete this upcoming summer. 

Bentley learned of the project through Dr. Chuck Smith, assistant professor of biology at Wofford. The two share a common passion for snakes.

“I’ve also loved working with snakes since I was a kid, and it’s great to see someone as passionate as Alex working with this project,” says Smith. “From what I’ve seen, he is a very driven and hardworking young man. It’s been a pleasure having him in class, and I’m excited to see where this research takes him.”

Bentley says that the most challenging part of his summer was living by himself.

“This was my first experience living alone and at times it was tough not having other people around,” says Bentley. “On the other hand, it was an extremely enriching experience. It was good practice in self-sufficiency, and it was extremely rewarding to know that I was contributing to a cause that I care deeply about.”

At the end of the summer, Bentley combined his love of snakes with his interest in filmmaking. Bentley previously worked with Matthew Aurednik, a Wofford College junior environmental studies major from Lexington, S.C., to create the documentary “Flow,” which chronicled their discovery of the Appalachian Trail. 

“Film is a really deep form of expression for me. It’s a way of connecting to my work and life. When I’m working on a film, the whole process pushes me to reflect more and think deeply about things,” says Bentley. “I’m happy to relate my experiences and to show people the importance of conservation work and maybe inspire people to be involved. Furthermore, I want to show people that snakes aren’t evil creatures and that they’re important to our ecosystem.”

This documentary, “about Life.,” was produced in cooperation with ARC. As Bentley says in the documentary, if there’s one thing he has learned, it is that we have no right to nature, only the privilege. He encourages viewers to donate to the ARC, and through their partnership, a portion of these proceeds will support Bentley's upcoming research.

To view the documentary, follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUR-8oyL6W8 and to donate to the ARC and help fund Bentley’s summer research, visit http://amphibianandreptileconservancy.org/donate and specify “restricted gift for aboutLife.projects.”

by Kelsey Aylor ’18