Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Rainbow Snake

Want to learn about something that drives me?  About a passion that burns uncontrolled in my soul? Makes me happy and frustrated at the same time?  Has brought me sheer exhaustion but I am still crazy enough to pursue it?

I want to introduce to you the rainbow snake. 

The rainbow snake is arguably North America's most attractive snake species.  Considered the holy grail of snakes in the southeastern United States, it has been sought after by many herpetologists with only failure and the bottom of a whiskey bottle to show for their efforts.  I will freely admit that the search to learn more about the rainbow snake has altered my mind to the point that I have a dangerous passion for this species.  Only Sasquatch hunters are crazier.

Rainbow Snake
Photo by J.D. Willson
Rainbow snakes are high on the priority list as a snake species that may need immediate conservation measures implemented to ensure it continue existence.  The trouble is that no one knows very much about them.  We have learned through anecdotal observations that this amazing species eats American eels.  This alone is cause for concern as eel populations have been plummeting in the last 20 years all across the eastern seaboard.  We also know that they are oviparous (lays eggs) and nest far from the water's edge in a dry sandy area.  Human developments also typically target the same high and dry areas as prime places to occupy.  This with the additional road infrastructure that bisect the southeast are very serious threats to female and baby rainbow snakes as they migrate to and from these nesting areas.

I am one of the lucky few who has been privileged to find many rainbow snakes while I lived in the southeast.  I was also blessed with access to the Savannah River Site where more rainbow snakes have been caught than anywhere else.  I made it my mission while in graduate school (instead of doing my research - see my previous blog Snakes - Why Did It Have To Be Snakes?) to discover a method to find, catch, or trap rainbow snakes reliably.   Despite my long hours in the field, my efforts resulted as all previous attempts at this task.  Sure I caught my fair share (most herpetologists would say more than my fair share) of rainbow snakes in the process but I was not able to ever predict a capture with any certainty. 

My search for finding the perfect method for catching rainbow snake dominated my graduate school life while at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.  I would set traps and drive roads endlessly looking for a spot with high rainbow snake densities.  While I discovered a few places that you could trap rainbow snakes and stream crossings that produced DOR and AOR rainbow snakes, I still did not have a reliable and consistent method for catching them.  My friend, Tony (master educator and snake hunter extraordinaire), suggested that I shine lights from bridges into the water for rainbow snakes.  It was then that I introduced Tony to 1 million candle power rechargeable spotlights for the task.  He found a new passion for spotlighting off bridges but unfortunately only found watersnakes and cottonmouths with a few other old ball snakes throw in.  See the video below for a daytime example of rainbow snake by-catch.  Hmmm - what to do next?


I took it upon myself to prove that you can walk streams at night and catch the shit out of rainbow snakes.  I spent the next two field seasons in the field every night walking streams.  Starting at sundown I would walk, shine, walk, shine, walk, shine, walk, and shine in streams until roughly 3:00am each night.  I walked myself to sheer exhaustion.  Not unexpectedly, I did not find a single rainbow snake with this method but I still swore I could figure the species out!  I was not going to stop trying either!!!!  Eventually this compulsive habit was part of the avalanche that ended my graduate career.
Rainbow Snake Habitat At Night
As the Director of the Center for Snake Conservation, I have been passively promoting the need for rainbow snake research and the development of species specific conservation measures.  The CSC is not quite ready to make the full commitment of building a huge southeastern contingent for this species but that does not mean we aren't doing anything.  We do have a Rainbow Snake Initiative that requests for any information about rainbow snakes and where they were found.  Below is an example of a cell phone video sent to us through the Rainbow Snake Initiative website.  Is this enough?


Probably not.  In order to make rainbow snake conservation a priority, I am going to have to build my personal presence in the southeast.  I need to let the world know about this amazing snake and why it is so important we learn about its ecology and natural history.  People need to experience my passion firsthand for this snake in order for me to pass on a wonder and appreciation for all snakes.  I know my fascination of snakes is highly contagious especially when I can exploit the amazing adaptations of a species such as the rainbow snake as my teaching tool.

Am I ready to abandon what I have been building in Colorado to pursue my infatuation of rainbow snakes?  Maybe I am?  I have been slowly reducing my involvement in the CSC's Colorado work so I can focus growing the CSC in other ways while secretly dreaming of my passion.  Well - all snakes are my passion but the rainbow snake has me perplexed to the point of almost an obsession.  The rainbow snake has given me glimpse of who it really is and what makes it tick without giving up anything about its true identify.  As a sucker for frustration, this glimpse is just enough to keep me coming back.  Even with the limited insight I gather from a new clue about this amazing snake, my passion is raging into a fury to learn more and more about this species.  Its beauty and complexity is unsurpassed by any other snake species.

Yes, I am emotionally involved with rainbow snakes - no doubt about it.  I have invested too much of myself into discovering their true identity not to be emotional.  My rational mind reminds me that while I will pursue this dream, I must first ensure that everything is secure with the CSC.  That said, I am absolutely driven towards this snake.  I don't care if it takes me another 1,000 nights of walking streams to discover their secrets, I will do it.

Fun By-Catch When Walking Streams At Night
Yes - I know it is not a snake!

1 comment: