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Me and the Copperheads

Last week I had lunch with a good old friend of mine, Jim Green. He got his degree in Zoology, then a law degree (patent law) and is now coming back for yet another degree in biological and chemical engineering. He did his research on snakes, so we reminisced and laughed about the time several years ago (that was before Kevin joined the lab, which is why I was recruited for this study in the first place) when we were taking blood samples from copperheads.

What we wanted to do is see if snakes have melatonin and if so, if it shows a diurnal rhythm in concentration like it does in other Vertebrates (believe it or not, nobody’s done that yet) and the copperheads were the only snakes he had, about ten of them, each in its own terrarium in a tiny shed outside of campus.

So, we needed to take blood samples at noon and, after a few days of recovery, again at midnight. So, we went in at noon one day. Jim would pick up a snake and hold it by its head. My lab budy Christ Steele was holding the body of the snake. Jim’s advisor Hal Heatwole was taking the blood samples straight from the heart, and I was the “nurse assistant” taking care of needles, syringes, anticoagulant, test-tubes, etc. The whole thing, ten snakes, took perhaps an hour or so and worked out perfectly without any glitches.
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About a week later, when we came for a repeat session at midnight, we were starkly reminded that copperheads are nocturnal animals. They were active. And I mean ACTIVE! Due to acute effects of light on depressing melatonin release, we had to take samples in very dim red light, with some highly uncooperative snakes. The process took hours!

At one point one of the snakes got lose in the room and, since the room was practically completely dark, I could not see where it was underneath the cages. So I said “OK, you snake guys figure out where it is and call me back once you have it under control” and I slid out of the door. I got teased for this act of cowardice for years afterwards.

Unfortunately, the melatonin essay repeatedly did not work and we did not have enough blood volume to try with a new kit, so the study was never completed. The snakes got used in other experiments, Jim finished and defended his Thesis and left town and nobody else wanted to try to do a repeat. I hope one day someone will. Perhaps with a non-venomous snake species for a change – makes midnight sampling much safer and easier!

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Comments

  1. #1 Sir Oolius
    February 13, 2007

    About a week later, when we came for a repeat session at midnight, we were starkly reminded that copperheads are nocturnal animals. They were active. And I mean ACTIVE! Due to acute effects of light on depressing melatonin release, we had to take samples in very dim red light, with some highly uncooperative snakes. The process took hours!

    Oh my, I just read that to my labmates and we all had quite a chuckle! Thanks for that, it really made our day…and made us appreaciate that we work with mice and rats!

  2. #2 BirdAdvocate
    February 13, 2007

    He ha ha ha! That wasn’t an act of cowardice, it was an act of discretion. You’re much more intelligent than they.

  3. #3 Kimbits
    February 13, 2007

    Actually holding still, though probably not practical in that cramped little shed, probably would’ve been the safest bet.

  4. #4 coturnix
    February 14, 2007

    Yup. The big guy was quite loudly hissing so I waited until he was on the farthest end of the room and then I slid out really quietly.

  5. #5 Kelsey
    June 2, 2008

    Hi my name is Kelsey we found a copperhead in our yard about 30 minutes ago. We have the copperhead in a bucket but were not 100% for sure if its a copperhead. Where was the copper head at that you found? The copperhead in this picture looks a lot like the one we found.

  6. #6 Coturnix
    June 2, 2008

    These were in the laboratory – at some point in the past someone caught them but I do not know how, where or when. If it looks like this, be careful and call the Animal Control folks or a Biology department at a local university or Natural History Museum (ask for a herpetologist).

  7. #7 Sophia Christensen
    June 2, 2009

    Oh my gosh I just found a copper head in my back 40 acares and I almost hit it with the cicle I was useing to cut down some tall weeds . And it was the exact same color and also with and size as that one . I live in Nc ,and I have heard about these snakes but never seen one up close. But man I am going to watch where I am going from now on !!!!! Thank you for the information.

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