Article by Jim Ray, Pantex Wildlife Biologist/Scientist
For more than a decade Pantex and West Texas A&M University studied the ecology of our resident prairie rattlesnakes. We captured hundreds of them and marked them with subcutaneous microchips.
Around 40 of them carried radio-transmitters, which we carefully surgically implanted into their body cavity. These snakes then went about their business, and their transmitters allowed us to follow them around and learn more about their behavior and general ecology. We quickly confirmed the location and characteristics of winter dens, or hibernacula as they are referred to scientifically. Prairie dog holes are an obvious choice, as are sinkholes associated with old landfills and pipelines. Hibernacula must be deep enough that the snakes can escape freezing temperatures, and most animal burrows (ground squirrels, woodrats, etc.) evidently do not meet this requirement – snakes moved to dens of more significant depth prior to the onset of the coldest weather.
Rattlesnakes cannot be subjected to freezing temperatures; thus, as the nights get colder in the fall they begin to use burrows at night to escape this danger. After a few light freezes (usually in October or November), they make a quick trip back to the den in which they will spend the winter.
From our research, we learned that rattlesnakes can be on the surface during every month of the year. Rattlesnakes are cold-blooded and have a need to bask in the sun, and thus warm to the point that all tissues and organs work properly. In fact, chances are pretty good that some snakes will surface to bask in the sun anytime during the winter that temperatures exceed the low 50s, especially provided there are clear skies. At warmer temperatures, the snakes can actually bask even under cloud cover.
One aspect of wintering snake ecology that we did not get to was how many snakes might congregate in these dens. Just from experience, we think most Pantex hibernacula host up to a dozen or two snakes, but the prairie rattlesnake is known to congregate in numbers in the hundreds. I have seen as many as five or six basking around a den entrance at once. Oftentimes, the 9-inch young-of-the year will be coiled up on the backs of larger snakes.
Hibernacula receive historic use, and it is believed that the young snakes follow the scent of the older, experienced snakes to the dens. In our area, outside of prairie dog colonies, winter dens may be scarce and thus limit rattlesnake populations. Here at Pantex, snake populations from large areas oftentimes end up in a single available winter den, thus making that den site very important to the snakes of that area.
So what does this all mean? Well, I hope you enjoyed the ecological aspect of this blog. But, if it is just the safety aspect that you are interested in, be sure to be very observant when you are working or otherwise out in the field when wintertime temperatures warm.
A prairie rattlesnake basking on a warm fall day on the edge of its winter den.
Pantex volunteers are spreading holiday cheer this week during two celebrations for local organizations.
Pantexans helped residents and staff of Martha’s Home celebrate Christmas at a party Tuesday sponsored by Consolidated Nuclear Security, LLC (CNS). About 55 guests enjoyed food, music and family photos. Each woman and child received a gift from Santa.
For more than 25 years, Martha’s Home has provided shelter for homeless single women and mothers with children.
The festivities will continue Thursday at the Ussery-Roan State Veterans Home Christmas party sponsored by CNS. About 300 residents, staff and their families will all enjoy food, music and family photos. Santa will present each resident a new bath robe and hand out candy canes to the children.
When asked what gift the staff would most appreciate, they said a lift to help raise bedridden residents. CNS representatives will be on hand to present the veterans home with a $3,000 donation for the purchase of the equipment.
The Amarillo facility provides long-term care to nearly 120 Texas veterans and their spouses.
Consolidated Nuclear Security, LLC sponsored a Thanksgiving lunch at Hilltop Senior Citizens Center in Amarillo, Texas.
Pantexans and Hilltop staff, along with volunteers from the Potter County Deputy Sheriff Association and Vista College, served the traditional Thanksgiving fare. About 500 Hilltop members, family and community friends enjoyed turkey, ham, cornbread dressing, vegetables and an assortment of cakes and pies. Staff members even delivered meals to about 40 homebound seniors.
This is the sixth year Pantex has sponsored the meal.
Founded in 1974 by a group of African-American seniors, Hilltop Senior Citizens Center offers daily meals and activities to a population diverse in age and race. Many of the center members are on fixed incomes and enjoy coming to the center to play games and attend classes.
Members of Hilltop Senior Citizens Center and community friends enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving lunch provided by Consolidated Nuclear Security, LLC.
Madelyn Creedon, NNSA Principal Deputy Administrator, recently recognized Pantex Plant Security Police officers Jessie Longoria and Lt. Zach Mayo for providing off-duty aid to a shopping mall security guard in disarming and detaining an alleged assailant earlier this fall.
Creedon recognized the Pantex officers for risking their personal safety and for helping to protect the public while being off-duty from Pantex.
Gary Wisdom, Senior Director of Pantex Safeguards, Security, and Emergency Services, said Pantex security police officers are some of the best trained and dedicated people within the NNSA enterprise. “That these two individuals risked their personal safety to save others is consistent with what I know of both and typical of the caliber and character of people we have protecting the Plant,” he said.
Pantex Security Police officers receive intense training which helped aid in their swift response to the shopping mall incident. The Pantex officers are uniformed individuals authorized to carry firearms and are able to make arrests at Pantex without warrants. They are employed for the protection of special nuclear material, or other government property.
About the photo:
Pantex Security Police officers Lt. Zach Mayo (left) and Jessie Longoria were recognized by Madelyn Creedon during a recent site visit. Each officer received a signature Pantex insignia ball cap as a token of NNSA’s appreciation for their off-duty heroics.
Pantexans are dedicated to encouraging the next generation of technical professionals, skilled trade workers and first responders.
Consolidated Nuclear Security, LLC was a sponsor for the recent Step Up to Success conference for area high school students. Students attended two sessions of their choice with professionals from career fields such as healthcare, business, engineering, agriculture science, criminal justice, law, communications, information technology, culinary arts and skilled trades.
Engineers, sheet metal workers and firefighter paramedics from Pantex Plant shared the education and skill requirements for their jobs.
Los Barrios de Amarillo, a civic organization established by Hispanic community leaders, hosted the bi-annual event for more than 700 high school students in the Texas Panhandle. Los Barrios also offers a middle school conference in the spring.