Save the Scales?—Experts Push for Snake Protection

John Roach
for National Geographic News
August 5, 2002

Snakes Photo Essay: Go >>

Snakes—the dry and scaly reptiles who strike fear in the human soul—may be slithering unnoticed toward extinction, warns a team of scientists. The researchers say more funding for basic snake ecology research is imperative if we want to conserve the species.

"Historically, reptiles get the short end of the conservation stick—they aren't furry or feathery and thus tend to not engender much public sympathy," said Robert Reed, a research associate at the Savannah River Ecology Lab in Aiken, South Carolina. "Snakes are especially reviled in much of the Western world."

This revulsion, say Reed and his colleague Richard Shine, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Sydney in Australia, combined with the snakes' secretive nature means that little is known about the past, present, or future conservation status of the species.

"We need rigorous scientific research on snake ecology so that we can understand the animals well enough to conserve them," said Shine.

Earlier this year Shine and Reed co-authored the first report on the conservation status of 75 Australian elapid—venomous—snakes, gleaning their data primarily from the examination of more than 18,000 Australian elapid snakes preserved in museums around the world.

The examination of museum specimens is a low-cost shortcut to identifying variables that correlate with a species' conservation status. With vulnerability variables identified, snake conservation can be better targeted, conclude the researchers in their study, which was published in the March issue of Conservation Biology.

Threatened Snakes

The research shows that the Australian snakes are not threatened with extinction due to typical factors such as body size, specialized diets, degraded habitat, or low reproduction rates.

"Instead, behavioral traits such as foraging mode—ambush versus active predation—and mating system—the presence or absence of male to male combat—were the best predictors of whether a snake is considered threatened," said Reed.

The study shows that it is the ambush predators—snakes that lie in wait for prey to cross their paths—and snakes that do not engage in male combat that are the most likely to be threatened with extinction.

Continued on Next Page >>


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