“I’ll have to call you back. I’m rushing an injured snake to the lab.”
Emile DeVito, Manager of Science and Stewardship at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation (NJCF), had just finished cleaning up yet another pile of garbage illegally dumped in the New Jersey Pine Barrens when I called. Hiding among the debris was the injured Eastern Kingsnake which DeVito retrieved and was transporting to Herpetological Associates, Inc., otherwise known as “the lab,” where the snake could be examined by an expert and, if needed, operated on. The Eastern Kingsnake, DeVito points out, is an “amazing creature” that is immune to rattlesnake venom and preys upon all three of the threatened and endangered snake species in the Pine Barrens, including the Northern Pine Snake.
The Northern Pine Snake has played a starring role in EELC’s work for NJCF and other clients, including successfully opposing development of a superstore in the Pinelands that would have degraded wetlands and led to loss of habitat for the endangered snake. Saving snakes is part of a typical day’s work for Dr. DeVito who oversees NJCF’S nearly 20,000 acres of land, most of it in the Pinelands.
DeVito, who has a doctorate in Ecology, spends much of his time conducting research and educating the public – from government officials to school groups – about the area’s fragile ecosystems. In the Pine Barrens alone, among the “ghost towns”, forests, rivers and bogs, are 34 species of mammals, 144 species of birds, 54 reptile and amphibian species, and 24 fish species. 43 of the species are listed by the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife as either threatened or endangered.
What or who were the influences that led you to becoming an ecologist?
My oldest brother, Michael. When he returned from the Peace Corps in about 1975, I was finishing high school, and he started taking me bird watching, camping and backpacking. I was always interested in math and sciences of all kinds but when I started spending time in the wilderness with my brother, I decided this is what I wanted to do. I had wanted to study astronomy and physics, and I’m still very interested in those things – I just went to watch the eclipse with my family. But because of the influence of my brother, I headed toward ecology, natural history, and bird biology.
My other major influence was Ted Stiles at Rutgers University and a legend in New Jersey. He had a major influence on hundreds of people now working in conservation. Everybody knows him and sadly he passed away a few years ago. He was a tremendous teacher, a fabulous ecologist and advocate for open space. He would run field trips all over New Jersey and take his classes out into the woods and on camping trips to learn about field biology. I’ll never forget one field trip with my Rutgers class at Farrington Lake in Middlesex County. We were standing around talking with Ted about birds when, all of the sudden, he broke off into a dead run, dove into the lake with all of his clothes on, disappeared underwater and came up with a 5 foot long water snake he had seen swimming!
You conduct biological and natural history tours all over New Jersey but the Pine Barrens are the most popular and that happens to be where most of the NJCF land is. What would I experience on one of your tours there?
Depending on the time of year, I would take you to all the different habitats, whether it be cedar swamps or burned-over pine forests or wetlands filled with wildflowers, and you would learn about the important relationships between the plants and the animals in those environments, such as the adaptations plants make to attract animals that will disperse their seeds. You would learn how predators catch prey and hide from other predators, and how plants defend themselves from insects. Whatever is going on at that particular time of year, you would see it and understand how it all works.
What kind of research is conducted in the Pine Barrens?
Aside from our own research, we host tons of researchers from many universities who conduct their own scientific and ecological studies on the plants and animals.
One thing we do is monitor all of the threatened and endangered species in the Pine Barrens. We radio track Pine Snakes which are threatened. We have volunteers and professionals all working on a voluntary basis who conduct surgery to implant the radios in the snakes so we can find out more about their critical habitats and their movements. The biggest concern we have with the snakes is, even though we’ve saved most of the land in the Pine Barrens, there are still so many highways. The snake population is very vulnerable because they need huge areas and at some point in their lives they need to cross highways. These highways are real barriers to snake populations intermingling. Basically, it’s snakes living on islands surrounded by highways – which is not good for their long term genetic diversity.
What is the biggest ecological issue facing the Pine Barrens?
The biggest issue facing the core preservation areas in the Pine Barrens is all the illegal recreational vehicle traffic. People drive off-road vehicles through the area, damage the roads, destroy the forests, and whatever else is in their path. Unfortunately, the Park Police cannot keep up with all of them.
Another big issue is that eventually there’s going to be a withdrawal of the water for human consumption which will make all the habitats very vulnerable. We already use a lot of the water from the area, and the Pine Barrens wetlands are drying up around the edges. If we use too much freshwater, the core preservation area could dry out enough to ruin the critical habitats.
I read that your kids named two of the tracked Pine Snakes Hermoine and Ron, names from the Harry Potter books. Are Hermoine and Ron still around?
Yes, my kids liked to give the snakes names and, for the most part, they are named after Harry Potter characters. Ron is probably around, an older male but probably still capable of breeding, but unfortunately Hermoine got killed by a hiker’s dog. Somebody had their dog off the leash – which they’re not supposed to do – and the dog bit Hermoine’s head and she died.
How do you help the snakes repopulate?
We are conducting several behavioral studies with Joanna Burger of Rutgers University, Hoard Reinert of College of New Jersey, and other researchers from Drexel University and Rutgers. The nearly 20,000 acres that NJCF has purchased is critical habitat where we are protecting the snakes’ nests from predators, such as coyotes, foxes, and other snakes, and from human poachers who illegally remove the snakes for trade, and off-road vehicles. We monitor the nesting areas closely and when the snakes lay their eggs, we remove the eggs and bring them to the lab. Once the eggs hatch in the lab, we bring them back to their nests and cover them up with sand. When they emerge it’s just as if they had hatched right there in their nests. In fact, we are waiting for all the eggs to hatch right now. Some of the young of the endangered corn snakes are “head-started.” We feed them over-winter in the lab instead of letting them hibernate their first year. When we return them to the field in the spring, they are nearly twice the size of their nestmates that hibernated. In a few years, we will know if this method increases survivorship of the young.
What are your favorite “chill” spots in New Jersey?
The Pygmy Pine Plains in the Pine Barrens is one of the most important natural sites in New Jersey. Another one is Cedar Swamp in the Brendan T. Byrne State Forest which is filled with rare species and is dedicated to David Moore, the former long-time director of NJCF who started the state’s natural area system. Finally, I’d have to say Terrace Pond, a beautiful glacial lake in Wawayanda State Park in West Milford.
Do you have a favorite quote that exemplifies your work and why you do it?
A favorite quote of mine is from John McPhee’s book, In Suspect Terrain, because of how it reflects on New Jersey’s fascinating geology for the last billion years: “You see the rivers running east. Then you see mountains rise. Rivers run off them to the west. Mountains come up like waves. They crest, break, and spread themselves westward. When they are spent, there is an interval of time, and then again you see the rivers running eastward. You look over the shoulder of the painter and you see all that in the landscape. You see it first you have seen it in the rock. The composition is almost infinitely less than the sum of its parts, the flickers and glimpses of a thousand million years.”
Post-script: DeVito reports that the snake he found in the garbage unfortunately could not be rehabilitated for life in the wild, but will remain in the lab as an “educational snake” for the remainder of its life.
From the Highlands to the Pine Barrens to the Delaware Bay, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, founded in 1960, “protects threatened natural areas and farmlands through land acquisition and stewardship, to promote strong New Jersey land use policies and forge partnerships to help safeguard water and other natural resources.” (From www.njcf.org)
Currently, EELC is representing NJCF on several environmental cases including opposing environmentally damaging and unneeded pipelines that are planned to cross New Jersey.