Monday, May 12, 2014

200th Post - Hmm - Snake Conservation

This is my 200th blog post in Running With Snakes.  Have I really stuck to writing blog posts?  Holy shit - I have!  This might just be the longest running streak for something that I have EVER done.  Wow!

In celebration of this monumental post and personal achievement, I am going to take a topic near and dear to myself for discussing, dissecting, and pondering.  I have written about this topic before but it is always a worthy discussion no matter how many times we bring it up.  Regardless, it seems appropriate to dedicate my 200th post to...


I just recently read a blog that explains in pictures why we need snakes (Buzz Hoot Roar).  Once again Indiana Jones is used as the poster boy for hating snakes (maybe I need to make a phone call to Harrison Ford about donating to the Center for Snake Conservation).  The blog explained how snakes benefit humans (pest and disease control) but it really didn't get into the amazing diversity of snakes and their behavior.  It is this diversity that I am interested in conserving - not just the rare or economically important snakes.  Snakes play roles in our ecosystems but we really do not understand their true importance.

First I am going to make some broad assumptions that I am willing to discuss with anyone.  Then I will jump into some snake conservation issues beyond what are normally discussed.

Assumptions affecting conservation efforts around the world:
  • Humans conserve what they love and understand
    • Birds - colorful, noisy, diurnal, and visible almost anywhere (big commercial industry too)
    • Mammals - cute and cuddly; big and scary
    • Fish - big money (bass tournaments), fly fishing, and food source
    • Trees - everyone likes trees especially rain forest trees
    • Insects - maybe these need more conservation efforts
    • Sharks - Shark Week - enough said
    • Whales - Greenpeace makes this a 100 million dollar business
    • Turtles - who doesn't like a turtle?  Think Lonesome George
  • Humans are stingy
    • From the poorest to the wealthiest, humans don't give up money easily
    • When humans do give money to charities, they expect to SEE (see notes above) the value
      • Snakes are rarely seen or given good press = no money
    • If a man (or woman) of God/Yahweh/Allah asks for money, the poor and wealthy give without question or hesitation - hmm (time to start my own religion)
  • Humans believe what the media (TV) tells them
    • I think we all can agree with this one
  • Humans are stupid
    • Not open for discussion
Now on to snake conservation.  I mentioned above, pest and disease control alone as great reasons to conserve snakes but no one really understands the math.  How many mice will you have in one year if you start with just a male and female mouse?  Here is the answer that staggers people:

Assumptions for exponential growth:
  • Unlimited food
  • Unlimited space
  • No death (no disease, starvation, predation)
  • Mice have an average of 8 babies in each litter
  • Mice are able to reproduce at 4 weeks old
  • Mice have a new litter every 4 weeks
These assumptions equal an exponential growth rate of 1.609438 for mice.  Do the math and the mouse population in one year will be 488,234,890 mice.  Yes - you read that right!


There are 113 mice in this photo.  What does 500 million look like?
I cannot think of a better reason for snake conservation.  Snakes are nature's best mouse traps.  They can enter the smallest mouse tunnels and other hiding places to find and eat mice.  They eat the male mouse.  They eat the female mouse.  They eat the baby mice.  They eat them all.  Birds (hawks and owls) can't do this.  Cats can't do this.  Only snakes can.  If you don't want to get the plague or have all your food eaten by mice - you need snakes.  Just watch the beginning of this movie clip from "Never Cry Wolf" and you will see some of the potential of mice (yes - the wolves are eating mice but they can't control the population.  Wolves only catch the mice that become exposed aboveground.  There are no snakes to eat the mice in their homes so there is still a shitload of mice present):

But...I want to bring up some little discussed snakes just as an example of how important snakes are and add to the argument that snake conservation is needed and greatly ignored - ring-necked snakes.  I am not going to insert citations but you are welcome to look up the facts and opinions I use yourself.  If you absolutely must have citations, you are always welcome to send me an email and hope it makes it through my spam filter (please no porn emails).

Ring-necked Snakes

Ring-necked snakes have a huge distribution in North America.  They range from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Pacific Ocean.  The variation in size, color, habitat, and diet is pretty amazing.  These are snakes that are rarely seen as well.  Ring-necked snakes are fossorial (meaning they live underground).  Some subspecies are threatened by humans and other are not. They all belong to the genus species Diadophis punctatus.  I really don't want to go into a long review of each subspecies here but if you search for photos in Google Images to get a feel for their variety.

Ring-necked Snake Distribution copied from The Reptile Database
Ring-necked snakes play a role in ecosystem health where they occur but since they are a snake and hard to reliably find, no one has really studied their connection to the ecosystem.  Until we actually get into the details of their ecology, we will have to assume that their role is huge.  Here is why:
  • Ring-necked snakes are mid-level predators meaning that they eat the small things but other things can still eat them.  This makes them a critical link in the food chain/web.  Oh yeah, I can hear you saying right now that this isn't a big deal because if ring-nicked snakes weren't there, something else would be.  Maybe but I don't think so.  For example, in the northeastern United States, woodland salamanders (Genus Plethodon) have the highest biomass of all the animal organisms in the woods.  Ring-necked snakes eat salamanders connecting the lower trophic levels of the food chain to the higher trophic levels.  Without ring-necked snakes, the energy produced by the trees, collected in plant tissue, decomposed by fungi and bacteria, and eaten by the little invertebrates would not reach the hawks, foxes, turkeys, or anything else that eats a ring-necked snake.  Rink-necked snakes are that connection from the organisms with the highest biomass (woodland salamanders) to the top of the food chain.  
Okay - big deal right.  Maybe you don't think it is but think about the salamanders for a minute.  While these salamanders do not reproduce at the rate of mice, they still reproduce.  What if the world was over run by salamanders?  While this might be a neat novelty at first, it would wreck our ecosystems by eliminating all the small invertebrates necessary for plant tissue processing - the world would look different.

Ring-necked snake eating a salamander
The biggest plus with ring-necked snakes is that they are small and beautiful.  People can and do view small snakes differently than big snakes (less fear).  Ring-necked snakes are great for dispelling myths and increasing human wonder about snakes.  I need to also tell you that ring-necked snakes also eat snakes and snake eggs - hmm...

Regal Ring-necked Snake
Guess what?  This blog post needs to change direction (sort of).  I want to list my summer action items for the Center for Snake Conservation.  The CSC has been around for over three years with not a lot of movement to becoming a PHYSICAL presence in the conservation world - sure we have an online presence but this does not mean much to people outside of the snake world.  I wrote in my blog post, "Why I Need $120,000 Dollars - An Introduction", that I only need $120K to get a facility for the CSC up and running.  Well, I also wrote that the CSC is much, much bigger than myself and my dream.  Of course, I am in it for the snakes but just think about the HUGE possibilities of snake conservation and the benefits to other organisms once the CSC is rolling physically.

Shit - I have to go back to the importance of snakes for a bit - then I will get into my plans...

Snakes are mid-level predators.  As I wrote above, this means that snakes are needed to link the low and high trophic levels in our ecosystems.  Conservation measures that benefit snakes, by default, will benefit the entire ecosystem.  If we manage our openspaces, parks, forests, and wilderness areas for snakes, we will ensure that deer have enough to eat (rodents compete with deer for mast foods like acorns), beneficial insects are plentiful, and even our plant communities are balanced.  Snake conservation is different than single species conservation (deer, turkey, or even an endangered species) because snakes are a very diverse group of organisms.

Most people don't realize the number of species of snakes that there really are.  Sure people see the gartersnakes in their yard but do they see the little brown snake (Storeria dekayi) that is a major predator on snails and slugs?  Snails and slugs wreck havoc on gardens eating just about any new plant shoot and little brown snakes keep their numbers in check.  Do they see the ratsnake living in their woodpile eating mice?  Do they see the greensnake in their bushes eating spiders?    They may every now and again but they don't hear about the huge benefit these snakes can provide humans.

Little Brown Snake
Snake conservation is not just about buying habitats and setting them aside.  Snake conservation is a huge and complex organism.  There are big issues and small issues - too many discuss here but here is one that disturbs me the most.

My biggest concern for snakes is roads and understanding the impact roads on have snakes to mitigate the number of dead snakes killed by cars.  Let's use the black racer as an example of a species that is impacted negatively by roads.  Racers are long slender, fast moving (most humans can outrun a racer - the obese and elderly may not be able to) snakes that live in most habitats.  Well, humans also like to build their houses in these same habitats so immediately we have a conflict.  Not so much with the homeonwers (racers rarely stick around long enough to be killed by a human but with cars.  Cars are the problem!  Wherever humans build a house, shopping mall, MalWart (my name for the hideous chain), or other buildings, we also build roads - lots of roads.  Snakes cannot cross roads very well.  They feel exposed which makes them slow down and cautious.  Then the car comes and - well look at the photos below.

Who cares?  So we don't have racers in our neighborhoods - big deal.  Actually it is a big deal - racers will eat anything that moves and they can fit into their mouths.  This included venomous snakes such as copperheads and rattlesnakes.  Yep - kingsnakes aren't the only snake eaters out there.  Racers also eat insects, mice, birds, frogs, salamanders, etc.  You got it - they are important!

Racer eating a copperhead
BUT....ROADS SLAUGHTER SNAKES!  What can we do about this?  Well, we can study our roads and find out if there are patterns to snake road mortality.  If we learn that a specific section of road is killing 75% of the snakes we find dead on the road, we need to construct an underpass.  If we learn that snake deaths are evenly distributed along the section of road, we may need to construct several underpasses and road barriers to direct snakes to the underpasses.  These studies are not being conducted.

In areas where new roads are needed, careful planning should occur to keep habitat corridors intact by building bridges or better yet - avoidance.  Also - we should NEVER use nylon mesh for erosion control.  This stuff is deadlier than roads but is commonly used to stabilize soils after road construction.  Well - nylon mesh is another blog post for a different day but I will at least share the success story below.

I can rant and rave about roads and the need to mitigate the number of snakes killed every day crossing a road but it is just frustrating me right now.  My writing is going to shit because of it.  I need to move on.

What am I going to do for snake conservation this summer?  Here is a list of 10 things I will be doing:

  1. Solicit donations from everyone (yep - here I come)
  2. Find 2 new board members who can make the CSC move
  3. Continue giving snake talks
  4. Get involved with the CSC Facebook page again
  5. Make more videos to show people how amazing snakes are
  6. Solicit donations (yep - again)
  7. Advertise the CSC across multiple media types
  8. Make CSC membership mean something
  9. Establish a CSC weekly email update to members
  10. Establish a CSC monthly newsletter for broad publication

We have been complacent too long - it is time to get it right.  I expect you as my reader to support my efforts and consider making an effort of your own.  Snakes are too important to be ignored any longer.

Snake Conservation Is A Priority Because Snakes Make The World A Better Place.

Well - folks.  There you have it - my 200th post - #201 coming soon.

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