Save the Scales?—Experts Push for Snake Protection

John Roach
for National Geographic News
August 5, 2002
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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.

"The great majority of ambush predators among Australian elapid snakes are either threatened or suspected to be threatened," said Reed. "Most of this is probably due to decreased prey abundances as habitat is disturbed by human activities."

The reason Australian elapids whose males do not fight one another are more likely to be threatened with extinction comes down to size: "The mating system does not confer a mating advantage to larger male size via male to male combat," Reed and Shine note in their study.

As a result, females tend to be larger than the males, making them more susceptible to predation by humans. By killing more females than males, humans make it more difficult for these snakes to maintain viable populations.

Reed and Shine identified six snake species that are not officially considered threatened by Australian wildlife agencies, but are ecologically similar to other threatened species.

Call for Conservation

The revulsion toward snakes, says Reed, is partially due to misinformation and myths about the evils and dangers associated with snakes; information and myths that he says are not true.

"Compared to deaths caused by horses, dogs, and other humans, snakebites result in very few human deaths," said Reed.

According to Whit Gibbons, head of the Environmental Outreach and Education program at the Savannah River Ecology Lab, humans stand a better chance at being killed by an earthquake or volcano—1 in11 million—or by drinking a lethal dose of detergent—1 in 23 million—than death by snakebite—1 in 36 million.

The researchers hope that the erosion of the myths about the dangers of snakes via education will result in an increase in funding for basic snake ecology research.

Quentin Wheeler, Division Director of the Division of Environmental Biology at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, says that the foundation tries to fund research that has the broadest implications possible.

"The reality is that we have very limited budgets and that we receive many more scientifically worthy proposals than we can fund," he said.

"Forced to prioritize, the National Science Foundation and its advisors logically rank those projects highest that advance the cutting edge of science and that have a positive impact on the largest subset of the community possible," he added.

For their part, Reed and Shine believe that the conservation of snakes would have a large, positive impact:

"It is vital that we protect ecosystems, not just cute species," said Shine. "The only hope for biodiversity is to conserve entire interacting systems of species. Snakes play an important role in many such systems."

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