Protecting Imperiled Wildlife Requires the Right Tools: What’s in ARC’s Toolbox?

Conserving rare species—ones that, in many cases, we don’t know much about—is a constant challenge. Luckily, technology is on our side. All the time, new methods and tools emerge that help us in our work at ARC. Some seem like sci-fi. We can figure out where a species was by taking water samples. Some, like species distribution modeling, translate ecological theory into action using machine learning. Others are surprising. Sometimes, we track individual animals by waving a pole over our heads connected to a beeping electronic box. But all of them help us in our mission to protect and restore amphibian and reptile populations all over the country. Below, we’ll walk through a few of our methods from our toolbox to give a sense of how the work at ARC really gets done. 

Environmental DNA 

One of our biggest challenges is simply figuring out where a species lives. For most amphibians and reptiles, that’s harder than it sounds. They are small, secretive, and on top of that, are often only active for short periods, sometimes only in certain seasons. That can make it very time and resource intensive. Plus, sampling can disturb habitat, like the cavities under rocks that hellbenders use. 

Enter eDNA. When it comes to detecting rare species, eDNA is the stuff of scientists’ dreams. Living things are always leaving traces, like by shedding skin cells or excreting waste. This technique allows us to sieve those tiny bits of DNA and identify what species left that minuscule sample behind. For example, in the Black Warrior Rivershed, a water sample can tell us if a Black Warrior waterdog or a flattened musk turtle – has passed through that spot. If they have, we know that’s habitat they are using. From there, we can build a conservation strategy that protects that area and eventually restores healthy habitats to allow populations to grow. 

Camera Traps

For years, we used drift fences to survey super rare species. Drift fences are fences put into the ground, usually 50-100 feet long, and often set up as a cross on the landscape. This method relies on the fact that amphibians and reptiles aren’t the most strategic creatures. When they run into a fence, they usually just walk along that fence until they get around it, so we can put pitfall traps at the ends (or middle) of these fences, and they’ll drop right into the traps.

However, pitfall traps are problematic. They require a ton of work—the biologist has to check the traps at least once daily so that the animals don’t overheat. This wouldn’t be a big problem for one trap. But it can quickly become a full-time job, especially when we are trying to document rare species across a vast landscape. Another problem is that they can be ineffective. Some species, like pine snakes and racers, are experts at getting right back out of any trap they enter. Plus, the traps can become a buffet for learned predators. 

Over the last few years, there’s become a solution for all this. We now have good enough and affordable game cameras to place cameras instead of traps. We even build special structures that direct and funnel an amphibian or reptile to crawl through to get their picture taken. 

The cameras tell us what species are in an area—not just amphibians and reptiles, but small mammals, birds, and even invertebrates. Then, we have a great picture of the overall habitat and learn whether we have rare species there, all without disturbing our subjects. 


Radio telemetry is a method to locate animals and track their movements. It’s a system made up of a transmitter worn by an individual animal, an antenna, and a receiver. Once an individual is wearing a transmitter, we can carry our antenna around and let it pick up invisible and silent electromagnetic waves. Those radio signals become beeping sounds in the receiver, and the closer we get to the animal, the louder the beeps. 

For rare species, like the eastern diamondback rattlesnakes of South Carolina’s Francis Marion longleaf pine forest, following the beeping and finding the snake can provide valuable data points. We are trying to figure out how many of these snakes are left and how they are using their habitat so that we can then work on connecting what populations remain. Telemetry comes in handy for clues on how uncommon or hard-to-detect species use the landscape.

PIT Tags

If you’ve ever had a pet microchipped, you’re familiar with this technology. Passive Integrated Transponder, or PIT, tags are small electronic tracking devices inserted under the skin of an animal. Biologists love PIT tags because they aren’t costly and, once attached, don’t bother the animal. They don’t have a power source; instead, they are activated by a reader placed near the animal that sends a radio frequency signal to the tag. When activated, the tag responds by transmitting a unique identification number back to the reader, divulging the animal’s identity. 

At ARC, we use this to track individuals over time. So if we catch a turtle, we’ll be able to tell if it’s the same turtle we caught five years ago. That allows us to estimate population size, understand the demographics of a population, and look at things like animal health and growth trends. 

These tools and the data collected with them are key to protecting imperiled amphibians and reptiles throughout the US. We use these data in many ways, from determining where to look for animals next to deciding what conservation actions to take. Because one of our biggest challenges is finding rare species, we can prioritize where to look with species distribution modeling. Modeling informs our sampling efforts the next time by helping us figure out where we should search. It can involve mathematical modeling, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. From there, we determine and implement the on-the-ground conservation and restoration actions that will have the most impact on vulnerable species in our Priority Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Areas, or PARCAs. With your help, we can continue using all the tools in our toolbox to protect these vitally important and often misunderstood species.