Conservation Research Laboratory: General Conservation Projects

Brian Blais

Noninvasive conservation techniques for monitoring spatial ecology and habitat use: conservation of the threatened narrow-headed gartersnake, Thamnophis rufipunctatus
  • Time Period: 2016 - 2021

  • Location: Central Arizona (Mogollon Rim region)


Project Description & Bio:

Understanding ecological dynamics of a species is paramount to uncover life history traits and adaptations to environmental stimuli. One such field is spatial ecology and habitat selection. By tracking animal movements, we gain insight into their resource requirements, movement dynamics, and home ranges. Moreover, radio telemetry techniques can also investigate social and reproductive behaviors, activity, and physiological tolerances. This is warranted for species reintroductions and conservation translocations, especially since a data void exists regarding the viability of reintroductions. The success of conservation-driven translocations is dependent on the subsequent survival and reproduction among that given population.

The narrow-headed gartersnake, Thamnophis rufipunctatus is a small, semi-aquatic snake endemic to lotic riparian areas of the Mogollon Rim region in Arizona and New Mexico. Due to population decline and habitat loss largely stemming from predation and competition by non-native species, T. rufipunctatus was listed as threatened in 2014. A multi-partnered conservation working group, including Arizona Game & Fish Department and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, joined to formulate T. rufipunctatus management and recovery objectives including: 1) establish a viable reintroduction program from an ex situ source; 2) identify biotic and abiotic characters associated with seasonal microhabitat usage; and 3) characterize terrestrial behavior to better inform potential conservation measures regarding projects in occupied habitat.

My interests are broad but generally focus on wildlife conservation, especially applied non-invasive techniques that address ecological questions. I work directly with the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation — Phoenix Zoo’s conservation department to address objective #1 and provide science-based conservation and management recommendations towards the recovery of narrow-headed gartersnakes. Working collaboratively on ways to facilitate ex situ management as a robust tool for species recovery can be applicable across a wide variety of taxa. Part of my research takes advantage of a unique opportunity to study behavioral, physiological, and life history traits at the ex situ level to better understand and systematically address conservation questions at the in situ level. In 2016, KCRL, the Phoenix Zoo, and management agencies conducted the first conservation translocation of zoo-propagated T. rufipunctatus  into a site within its native range and devoid of non-native threats.

Currently, I use a non-invasive radio telemetry technique (see Wylie et al. 2011 Herpetological Review) and other tools to monitor gartersnake populations. Many of these novel techniques are applicable to other taxa for conservation purposes. I’m also interested in connecting with outreach programs to facilitate all-around interest in wildlife conservation and management. This includes genomic techniques (e.g., phylogeography, eDNA), road ecology, and citizen-science initiatives. Often, I address my interests with herpetofauna as they provide excellent models for conservation and ecology.

Major questions:

1) What is the spatial and behavioral ecology of T. rufipunctatus and which characters influence microhabitat selection? 2) What can we learn from ex situ management and how can it be a tool for maximizing viability of in situ conservation translocations? 3) Can novel, non-invasive techniques generate the same information as status quo techniques, especially for population monitoring?

Personal background:

Brian has a background in ecology, evolution, and wildlife management gained from a blend of academics and employments. Originally from Connecticut, Brian spent several years working for their state wildlife agency partaking in a plethora of field work including bat population monitoring, imperiled shorebird conservation, amphibian disease ecology, and public engagement. Brian has also been on the road with studies or jobs in the Midwest, Australian, and Peru. Following a lifelong passion, Brian acquired a MSc degree studying the genomic phylogeography of the smooth greensnake before making his way to the American Southwest. For fun, Brian enjoys cooking, traveling, and leaping out of cars to help turtles cross roads.

See more about my collaborative research endeavors here: