LITTLE ROCK – It happens every year: large numbers of copperheads gather and move in unison to dens for hibernation. But it happens in October, not July or August. Now the common event has become an uncommon and inexplicable one.
“I know for a fact that all these snakes didn’t just wake up one day and do this,” said Chuck Miller, whose Marion County yard has been overrun with the pitvipers. “Something’s making them do it. They know something we don’t know. There’s got to be something more to this.”
Nearly 100 of the snakes are using a cedar tree as a sort of meeting place, and neither Miller, an outdoorsman and former snake owner, nor scientists who have traveled to the rural north central Arkansas site to study the phenomenon, know why.
Stanley Trauth, a zoology professor at Arkansas State University, said the snakes normally gather to move to hibernation sites in the fall. Trauth has traveled to Miller’s property to conduct research on the snakes’ behavior.
“With this hot weather we didn’t anticipate such a grand movement of so many snakes. In the fall they aggregate in fairly large numbers, so it’s quite an unusual event,” Trauth said in a telephone interview Monday.
Miller agrees. “If it were October, no one would know about it. It wouldn’t be that strange,” he said.
When the snakes first started showing up three weeks ago, Miller said he was a little concerned that no one would believe how many were visiting the cedar tree, so he began collecting the reptiles. He saw 20 the first night, he said.
One of his friends contacted Trauth and the research began.
Trauth and one of his graduate students traveled to Miller’s property and embedded a radio transmitter in one of the snakes for tracking purposes. Other snakes also had tags clipped to their scales.
Miller said seven of nine tagged snakes were taken a quarter-mile away from the tree and released, but have since returned to the tree and been recaptured.
Trauth said the copperheads gather at the tree to leave their scent. By rubbing the tree, other copperheads know that it is a marker on the way to a den site, he said.
But Trauth is only guessing that the snakes are preparing to move to a den for hibernation.
“All we can do is speculate as to what this is right now. This might be a precursor to an actual event. But having the numbers there that he’s had, it just makes you wonder what’s going on,” Trauth said.
A gathering of copperheads like the one in Miller’s yard has not been documented before, Trauth said. Though he can’t yet explain why it’s happening, he can say for sure it’s not for mating or feeding.
All the snakes that have been gathering at the base of the tree are adult males. Copperheads also like to feed on cicadas, but the insects haven’t appeared in the area in large numbers this year.
The best guess, Trauth said, is the snakes are moving to hibernate as usual – they’re just doing it earlier than normal.
All Miller knows is, it’s weird.
“It’s like seeing a bigfoot or something walk across the yard; if you don’t keep them, no one will believe you,” he said.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press.