Investigating effectiveness of signage in educating the public

An important component of WPC’s recovery of the Ojibway Prairie population of massasauga rattlesnakes in southwestern Ontario involves public outreach and education to curb human-rattlesnake conflict. These conflicts can result in a person experiencing a “nuisance” encounter with a snake, or, in rare cases, a snakebite requiring immediate medical attention. The snake, on the other hand, might end up being killed outright, or moved out of its home range (which is more humane, but still bad for the snake). Overall, human–snake conflicts result in negative outcomes for people and snakes, and if left unmanaged, could undermine conservation efforts.

To help prevent conflicts between people and snakes, a few years ago WPC’s team installed six informational signs at strategic trailheads to inform park users on the presence of venomous snakes and measures to prevent snakebite. We weren’t sure, however, if the signs would be noticed, read and understood by our target audience. So, to determine whether or not the signs were effective at increasing park user awareness of massasauga presence, status and threats, and snakebite prevention, we conducted random questionnaire surveys before and after the signs were installed.

Massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus) informational sign installed in late August 2016 at 6 trailheads at the Ojibway Prairie Complex and Greater Park Ecosystem, Windsor, ON. Signs were evaluated between August and October 2016.

I am happy to announce that the results of this study were recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Human-Wildlife Interactions, titled “Informational Signage Increases Awareness of a Rattlesnake in a Canadian Urban Park System”. The study was a collaboration between Jonathan Choquette, Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery (OPRREC) Lead Biologist, and Alexis Hand, a past member of the OPRREC field team. We found that awareness of the presence of massasaugas increased significantly after sign installation (79% of park users questioned), whereas awareness of status, threats, and snakebite prevention methods did not change.We also found that the majority (65% – 87%) of park users questioned were supportive of massasauga recovery initiatives. Our results suggest that informational signs were effective, to some degree, at short-term information sharing with recreationists in the context of venomous snake conservation.

Awareness of massasauga rattlesnake presence, status and legal protection among park users, before and after sign installation, based on a questionnaire survey at the Ojibway Prairie Complex and Greater Park Ecosystem. Number of respondents to each question is denoted by ‘n’. Error bars denote 95% confidence interval. *Denotes statistically significant difference.

As a relatively cost-effective approach, these types of informational signs warrant further consideration as part of an overall strategy to mitigate human–snake conflict. Signage could be used to present park users with information about snakes and encourage behaviors that would minimize the likelihood of conflicts. This work will help the OPRREC team fine-tune future outreach messaging, and justifies the expansion of informational signs as massasauga recovery efforts continue at the Ojibway Prairie.

Jonathan Choquette

Lead Biologist – Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery Program

Jonathan manages the recovery program for the Ojibway population of the massasauga rattlesnake in Southern Ontario. Jonathan’s research interests lie in the field of urban herpetology, having studied both biology and landscape architecture at the University of Guelph. Jonathan has authored or co-authored numerous reports and publications about the conservation of Canadian reptiles and amphibians in urban environments.

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