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Jodie Massie, a graduate student from Black Hills State University, holds “Big Mama,” one of 47 female garter snakes that gave birth to over 1,200 baby garter snakes in the BHSU animal care facility. These animals are part of one of the largest research experiments of its kind.
Black Hills State University graduate student Jodie Massie, who is completing a research project as a part of her coursework in pursuit of a master’s degree in integrative genomics, is making plans to release more than 1,200 snakes to their den after collecting research on the snakes over the last three months.

Massie, her husband and laboratory assistant Ben Blake, and her graduate advisor Dr. Brian Smith released 47 female garter snakes and their offspring, numbering in excess of 1,200 newborns, back to the den site at which they and Kansas State University researcher Dr. Mike Westphal collected the pregnant females in late May.

Smith noted that this is likely to be the largest single experiment of its kind. The researchers kept the pregnant females in the animal care facility at BHSU for the past three months, feeding them four to five earthworms apiece every three to four days, until they gave birth.
The female snakes began giving birth Aug. 21. For three weeks, one female after another delivered their newborns. The females averaged over 30 offspring per female, with one snake giving birth to 64 young.  At one point, eight females gave birth in one day.
Massie and Blake stayed in the lab working from 12-16 hours a day for these three weeks, taking data on birth weight and body length of each newborn, as well as the weight of the females before and after giving birth.  The data will form the core of Massie’s master’s research and will answer questions about the amount of effort, in terms of energy expended and weight gained and lost, that garter snakes in South Dakota put into reproduction.

In a previous study conducted in Canada, researchers found that garter snakes, on average, gave birth to seven newborns per female, with approximately 60 percent dead at birth. In contrast, the garter snakes at the BHSU facility gave birth to at least four times as many snakes, with about 80 percent surviving.

Massie and Blake will be happy to see their charges released back into the wild.

“It’s bittersweet.  It’s been a lot of hard work and long hours, but it has also been very rewarding and we will be sad to see them go,” Massie said.

It is not thought that keeping the females in captivity until childbirth, and then releasing them and the babies back into the wild shortly after their birth, causes any harm.  “In fact, it’s likely that we gave the babies a good head start,” said Smith.

In the hands of Jodie Massie, a graduate student from Black Hills State University, is one of over 1,200 baby garter snakes born at the BHSU animal care facility. These snakes and their 47 mothers were used in conjunction with one of the largest research experiments of its kind. This baby garter snake was born Sept. 10.