- Associated Press - Sunday, July 31, 2016

ROCKY MOUNT, Va. (AP) - The instant 5-year-old Alex Bentley first saw a small garter snake slithering alongside a creek near his childhood home, he was hooked.

Now, more than a decade and a half later, Bentley can vividly recall that day. Even years later it provides motivation to learn as much as he can about his favorite creatures.

A Salem High School graduate and rising senior at Wofford College in South Carolina, Bentley has read thousands of pages of research and spent hours handling snakes in an academic capacity.

He spends hours each day in the summer heat searching the Southwest Virginia mountains for snakes. Yet words elude him to explain how his first in-person interaction with a snake made him feel.

“It’s something I have trouble describing,” Bentley said. “That first snake I saw in the wild, there was something like ‘whoa, what is that thing?’ It was so different. There is mysteriousness about snakes. They are so physiologically different from us and different in their behavior.”

Years after meeting the snake that initially piqued his interest, the student herpetologist is set on contributing something to the field of study.

After months of research and planning, Bentley began in July the first part of a study on timber rattlesnakes, using a GPS technology called radio telemetry.

The goal is to track the migration and mating patterns of the species during periods in which humans are not present in the snakes’ natural habitats.

Bentley said his study could change the way humans understand this type of snake, which has never been researched using such tiny technology.

“Here’s this thing that society has kind of stigmatized as evil or dangerous,” Bentley said. “I have the opportunity to figure out what they are really all about and what the truth is there. That is fascinating.”

How it works

Traditional radio telemetry usually involves the use of radio waves for transmitting information from a distant instrument to a device that indicates or records measurements.

In the case of animal research, this science has most widely been used via collars on bears or GPS units on elk and other big game.

Until Bentley’s project, the GPS technology has been too heavy to attach to a creature as small as a copperhead or rattlesnake - which only get as long as 4 to 5 feet and weigh as much as 2 to 3 pounds.

Charles Smith has worked with Bentley since Alex first came to Wofford three years ago and was thrilled when he started talking about a snake-tracking project.

“We’ve all had this dream of someday this technology is going to get miniaturized so we maybe do something with snakes,” Smith said. “Now we’re getting to see what they are doing in the time periods that we are not with them. The technology has caught up with the dream.”

Bentley attached a GPS unit to the first snake July 16 and plans to document results throughout the summer.

Paying for it

From the beginning, Bentley knew his project was going to be expensive. So in January, he began applying for research grants and soliciting private donations.

So far, he has raised $14,000 and is still accepting donations to further expand his research’s sample size.

The bulk of the money came from a $7,000 grant from South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities Inc., an organization put in place to help fund projects like Bentley’s.

Smith helped Bentley attain an Equipment Grant Fund for an additional $2,500 and the project also received $2,000 in private donations.

An indiegogo.com campaign created specifically for the venture has raised another $2,900 and remains open. Funds received will pay for the GPS tracking units, which cost about $1,000 each.

Bentley contracted with a company called Telemetry Solutions, operated by Quintin Kermeen, to obtain the tracking software and units.

“I wanted to know if our product is useful for snake biologists to use,” Kermeen said. “We’ve done projects before with (big snakes). With Alex, I saw an opportunity to see if this could succeed. He proved he can make it work.”

Bentley is a scientist more than a technician, he said, so learning how to use the GPS system did not come naturally.

“Quintin was very helpful with that,” Bentley said. “I think he picked up on that I was pretty new to this. He helped increase my understanding with these things. He was patient and I appreciated that.”

The value to an industry

Biologists often warn of a temptation to place human value on scientific research projects.

Smith pointed to what Bentley is doing as an example of how the simple act of learning can be worth a great deal of effort, time and sweat.

“There is value in discovery,” Smith said. “Just the sheer act of seeing something that nobody has ever seen before or just learning about the natural world . things are often much more complicated than we think they are.”

Because he has spent a great deal of time studying other creatures, Bentley has become more in touch with his own human nature, he said.

“Part of what makes humans so unique is our curiosity and our drive to figure things out,” he said. “It all plays together and is interconnected. To be able to put together the puzzle is a really meaningful thing.”

As Smith and Bentley have worked on the project, the educational benefit has not been limited to the student.

“It’s beyond teacher-student relationship. I consider Alex a colleague. There are certainly some things I am learning from him, too. His enthusiasm is infectious. It gets me charged up and is really rewarding to see him grow with this project.”

Bentley drives through small mountain towns and dirt trails at night searching for snakes or any sign of snake activity. It’s a tireless task that - despite the heat, sometimes fruitless trips and possible danger - he has come to love.

After all, there is no other way Bentley would rather spend his summer.

“There’s always more out there you can learn,” he said wiping the sweat from his brow after a long morning of snake searching. He’ll be back at it again in less than 24 hours.

“This is pretty normal for me.”


Information from: The Roanoke Times, https://www.roanoke.com

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