Evaluating the ecology of tantilla relicta in Florida pine–wiregrass sandhills using multi-season occupancy models
Occupancy modeling may be the most effective tool for studying the occurrence of secretive fossorial squamates. Our objective was to use occupancy models to test whether Florida Crowned Snakes (Tantilla relicta) are a suitable model species for other, more-secretive fossorial squamates. Tantilla relicta are easier to study than other fossorial squamates and likely respond to habitat management (e.g., fire frequency) similarly to these harder-to-study species of concern. We sampled T. relicta using 24 groups of drift fences in longleaf pine–wiregrass sandhills, Ocala National Forest, Florida, USA to assess how habitat characteristics and weather influenced their occupancy, detection, colonization, and extinction rates. We predicted that temperature, rainfall, substrate composition, and prescribed burn history would influence T. relicta occupancy, detection, and movement in variable directions. The best-supported multiseason occupancy model included 1) initial occupancy influenced by time since last burn, 2) extinction and colonization as random processes, and 3) detection influenced by percent leaf litter and rainfall. Tantilla relicta were most likely to occupy recently burned sites and were most easily detected during dry periods and at sites with low leaf litter cover. Our results are consistent with research suggesting that short-return prescribed fires benefit many reptile species in central Florida’s xeric longleaf pine–wiregrass forests. Further, our results provide modest evidence that T. relicta are suitable model organisms for studying fossorial squamate assemblages.