MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – It is fair to say that black ratsnakes have no greater friend than Kyle Von Hasseln of Bridgton. A senior at Middlebury College in Vermont who is majoring in biology, he has been getting acquainted with the reptile since the summer of 2004.

Black ratsnakes are powerful constrictors that, when juveniles, resemble copperheads.

They are semi-arboreal in nature and are often seen climbing trees to take shelter in hollowed cavities and to search for food. They feed almost exclusively on small rodents, rabbits or birds, and are not poisonous.

“The black ratsnake is declining in Vermont due to increasing human population and development, and is thus in danger of extinction locally. I became so interested in helping preserve the black ratsnake population here that I decided to build my entire thesis around it,” said Von Hasseln. “After examining various current peer-reviewed literature, I learned that genetic data is increasingly used in conservation projects and realized that molecular biological research needed to be incorporated into my studies in order to have the most positive impact upon the snake’s population.”

For his thesis research to assess the genetic diversity of the reptile in Vermont, a Middlebury College Academic Outreach Endowment Service-Learning Grant enabled him to spend the 2005 summer gathering shed snake skin, tissue and blood samples of Champlain Valley specimens, and then sequence and analyze the DNA in a Middlebury laboratory. Von Hasseln’s research will be of direct relevance to the conservation of the black ratsnake population, recently listed as state-threatened.

After spending the summer of 2004 in conventional fieldwork research outlining the extent and geographic distribution of the black ratsnake’s population within Vermont, Von Hasseln is now looking at its DNA. His research this year involves extracting DNA from the sample he gathered during the 2005 summer from different regions of the valley, and then proliferating them in the lab.

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