The following piece appears in the Spring issue of Sanctuary, Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

© 2009, Karl Meyer

The State of the Snake

A black racer saved me once.  Not to over-glamorize it, that snake was dead.  Still, it came between me and the fast-closing mongrel bent on ripping me from my bicycle on a lovely spring day.  It was inches from my calf when it suddenly yelped, screeched to a halt, and circled back timidly–the fur raised on its neck.  I too had noted the large snake looped along the pavement.  But I knew something the canine didn’t–I’d examined the beautiful gray-black scales of that mostly-intact black racer corpse the previous afternoon.

Where snakes are concerned, I’m a lot like that dog.  Our shared mammalian fear of snakes, ophidiophobia, appears to be a hard-wired survival trait harkening back to an age when reptiles were far more prominent. “Fables about snakes far outmatch reality,” herpetologist Tom Tyning will tell you.  None of Massachusetts’ fourteen species provoke much fear in Tyning.  He’s studied snakes for four decades and today is one of the Bay State’s staunchest advocates for preserving populations and critical habitats for increasingly rare species, “Since Europeans arrived in North America our response to snakes can be summed up on one word: persecution.”

Tyning authored the Stokes Nature Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles.  His UMass graduate work included radio-telemetry tracking of timber rattlesnakes.  For the past decade Tyning’s been a professor of environmental science at Berkshire Community College–on the heels of 24 years as a touted trip leader and master naturalist with Mass Audubon.  Our inordinate snake fear is evident in the near extirpation of the state’s two venomous species, copperheads and timber rattlesnakes, but all species suffer persecution and, “In encounters where snake identity comes into question, the snakes always lose.”

Common patterned species like northern water snakes and milk snakes are often misidentified and killed—yet the chances of someone happening across a venomous snake, even in their few remaining habitats, are minuscule.  “There have only been two recorded snake bite deaths in Massachusetts in over 200 years,” Tyning notes.  Curiously, venomous species are not even the rarest snakes in the Commonwealth.

Five native snakes are today protected by penalties of hefty fines and/or imprisonment– it’s illegal to “harass, kill, collect, or possess” them.  “Geographically challenged,” is how Tom Tyning describes the state-threatened worm snake’s predicament.  At just 7-11 inches, these sandy soil burrowers both prey-on, and resemble, earthworms.  The worm snake is a more southern and western species whose biological footprint brushes just north into the metro-Springfield area.

As habitat and size goes, black rat snakes are at the other end of the spectrum.  With a few specimens measuring over six feet, they are the state’s longest snake.  Endangered rat snakes are noteworthy for their climbing ability, even laying eggs in the rotting cores of trees.  Black rat snakes are found in pockets of habitat in central Massachusetts and the Connecticut Valley.  But most of us, even if we stare up into the sun-dappled May woods for the rest of our days, will never see one.

“The coolest thing about them is their climbing ability,” researcher Peter Mirick will tell you.  Mirick is widely known for his nearly 30 years as editor of Massachusetts Wildlife, the Commonwealth’s quarterly on natural history, conservation, hunting, and fishing from the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.  But few know that his biology studies in grad school focused on reptiles and amphibians.  Today, Mirick’s field work continues–including an ongoing study of a population of endangered rat snakes in Sturbridge begun in 1997.

“In spring they are very arboreal, looking for birds and squirrels,” he says, “They’ll stick to a pine tree like Velcro.”  A kid’s enthusiasm creeps into his voice, “They have a whole different set of muscles.  They’re shaped like a loaf of bread in cross-section.”  Peter Mirick devoted nearly an entire issue of Massachusetts Wildlife to a guide describing the Commonwealth’s snake species in 2009.  Thanks to radio-tracking, he once witnessed the combat “dance” between two male rat snakes, “They intertwined from end to end.  They don’t bite each other, they wrestle. The point seemed to be holding your opponent’s head down.”  Once the loser skulked off, the winner went into a hollow log, “Apparently to mate with the female.”

Peter Mirick says common snakes like garter, ring-necked and northern water snakes seem to be doing fine, but populations of state-listed species, including the Eastern hognose snake–which receives only minimum protection, all face challenges.  He notes that decades of public and private land protection work has made great strides in protecting habitats, but speaks at a time when the MA Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program and the state’s ability to protect rare species have come under attack.

The attacks include both a private lawsuit and a legislative challenge to the state’s powers.  House Bill 4167, the Coakley-Rivera bill, was backed by an unusually large and somewhat unlikely group of Western MA state representatives.  The bill is largely viewed as spearheaded by complaints about development rights raised by Springfield WWLP TV Channel 22 Vice President and General Manager William Pepin.  Pepin objects to restrictions or changes that might be required through Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program considerations as he seeks to build a luxury retirement home–plus a second house on a smaller parcel, on 36 acres of land purchased with his wife in April 2009 in Hampden, MA.  Parts of the tract turned out to be the habitat of the increasingly rare Eastern Box Turtle.  Pepin is currently challenging NHESP powers in court.

Many business and development interests—and legislators in the Channel 22 viewing region, are rooting for the heavy-handed challenge to the state’s species protections in Coakley-Rivera.  But those worried about the viability rare populations see the bill as a knee-jerk, statutory-response to problems that could be addressed via minor procedural changes.  If passed as written, House Bill 4167 would strip the state’s NHESP of significant review powers—including long-held-and-rarely-used failsafe tools that are critical to ensuring the Commonwealth’s biological heritage will be protected for future generations.  Peter Mirick describes today’s species protection work in the face of developer demands as doing ‘wildlife triage’, “There’s only so much habitat to go around—with them wanting everything.”

Last September 30th, Dave Small, the state’s Assistant Regional Director of the Ware River Watershed at Quabbin Reservoir, received a call and then an email about snakes.  He was out the door in a heartbeat, “I told my boss I had to leave,” he chuckles.  The reason for the departure: baby Eastern hognose snakes.  Small zipped over to a sandy Quabbin site where friends hovered over marvelously patterned hognoses, each barely six inches long.  The snakes moved cryptically in grass and sand, just off the pavement’s edge.  They counted four in all, but one was dead–likely crushed by a pedestrian or passing cyclist.

Dave Small, President of the Athol Bird and Nature Club since 1988, is also Acting Executive Director of the Millers River Environmental Center.  They stood vigil until the snakes retreated to sandy burrows with the day’s setting sun, but worried more would be lost if they were using the pavement for warmth.  The next morning, October 1, 2009, Small and a friend were back.  Gingerly walking the pavement edge, they spotted three tiny hognoses; then another two—five in all.  They circled outward and returned: and five snakes had morphed into seven.  What happened next is described in Small’s blog, “Almost immediately movement caught our attention as another snake appeared from below ground, than another and another. Fourteen in all!”

The tiny, adult-look-alikes burrowed straight up through sand, moving “in fits and starts out into the undergrowth shedding their skins along the way.”  Bulky-bodied hognose snakes rely on their fabulous coloration—ranging from mustard to gray, to black and brown, for protection.  These harmless snakes specialize in consuming toads in their sandy habitats.  But if surprised or challenged, they will inflate an almost cobra-like hood and hiss, feigning strikes to fool predators.  If that doesn’t work they may simply loll over, playing dead in a singularly unappetizing display.

As the rarity of watching snakes hatch sank in with Small, he phoned Peter Mirick–partly to share the event, but also to check with the biologist about what was taking place, “I was on the cell phone with Peter making sure what I was observing; I wanted to fully understand it.”  In retrospect, “I just felt so privileged to be there,” Small says.  Like many of us, Small has a healthy snake phobia, “I’m definitely not one that has to pick up every snake,” he laughs. Yet if conditions permit each March 31st, he spends his birthday looking for snakes.

Though the Eastern hognose snake is mentioned beside our rare species in NHESP documents, “It’s a snake that is, at the moment, totally unprotected,” says Tom Tying.

At UMass, researchers are currently satellite-tracking six hognose snakes, he notes, “They tend to be big fat snakes that people notice, and kill.  They are truly uncommon.” Peter Mirick says he wouldn’t be surprised if the hognose was proposed for listing as a species of special concern, “It is probably at that level.”  And Dave Small–fascinated for decades by birds, butterflies, and all manner of herps since he was growing up in Athol, agrees about the hognose, and notes anecdotally, “Overall, there just aren’t as many snakes around as there used to be.”

Anne Stengle will also be out on spring’s earliest days searching for snakes.  The UMass undergrad got interested in them partly through her job at a Southampton exotic pet shop (it no longer offers reptiles), and later as a Holyoke Community College student where she signed on to do research work on the black rat snake under Tom Tyning’s guidance.  It was the first study of the black rat snake in the western Massachusetts.  It got into her blood, “Rat snakes are incredibly gorgeous, especially when you see them coiled up in a tree. They can go back and find the same spot year after year.”

At 24, Stengle’s among the new generation of herp researchers.  She worked on surveying native snakes in the Holyoke Range in 2007, incorporating radio-tagging.  That field work is done, but she continues working up data.  Meanwhile, she has moved on to tagging and studying endangered timber rattlers in the Berkshires—snakes Peter Mirick calls, “Our number one wilderness animal.”

Asked about any snake phobias, Stengle replies, “Nope—never,” She notes that most people think of snakes as egg-layers, yet half the state’s species have live births.  Stengle loves getting out to the places where those rare study species reside.  Though she favors rattlesnakes, one of her most memorable sightings was a litter of newly-born copperheads, “There were seven of them they were a muted gray–they hadn’t shed yet.  We just sat and watched.”  What amazes Stengle in her rattlesnake studies is also part of what makes this species vulnerable, “Female timbers go almost two years without eating in order to give birth—they don’t eat their entire gravid year.”

Tom Tyning’s work on snakes is providing new information on timber rattlers, copperheads and rat snakes–some of it through genetics.  In some rugged habitats where populations still exist he’s finding distributions and combinations of co-habiting snakes that begin to look like a little the Galapagos Archipelago, “We don’t know why they all coexist in some places together, but we get these oddball distribution maps that don’t quite fit what we would have guessed.”  Without further habitat protection its unknown how increasingly small, genetically-isolated populations can do, “Work in Sweden has shown that these populations can go fine for a while, and then crash,” he says, “Last year’s cool, wet summer here resulted in lots of reports of dead females or partially developed young.”

Tyning will continue mapping genes on species that can live 20 – 30 years, but only breed every two years.  Swedish biologists are making progress introducing new gene-mixing techniques in their rare populations.  But Tyning also notes a troubling development in some rare species here: anecdotal reports of disease similar to the “white nose syndrome” that has decimated the Northeast’s hibernating bat populations.  “Some claim they are seeing a health issue with some species—a fungus or bacterium.”  The worry again is that human visits and disturbance in these isolated habitats and hibernacula are possible vectors in distributing a catastrophic pathogen.  Global warming could also prove part of the scenario, “If these diseases are a real factor,” says Tyning, “We need to try and get a handle on this and inoculate or isolate populations.”

One bedrock necessity is simple enough: habitat for snakes to go about life cycles unmolested by ever-widening human consumptive patterns.  Smaller, less mobile populations like worm snakes may require just a few protected acres to remain viable.  But, for sunning, hunting, breeding, and hibernating, the sometimes-intermixed populations of copperheads, timber rattlers and rat snakes may require relatively-untrammeled tracts of hundreds—or even 1,000 acre, to continue into the future.  That means an absence of ridgetop houses, ATVs, mountain bikes and poorly chosen windmill sites with attendant road networks.  It may mean leaving the dog at home.

Tom Tyning notes with relief that one notorious rattlesnake poacher, Rudy Komarek–who reportedly removed thousands of timber rattlers from New England sites for his carnival barker lifestyle, passed away in Florida just a few years back.  But what ultimately is most needed is perhaps a simple acknowledgement that snakes have a right to exist as life forms, co-evolved with humans across millions of years on earth.  “We fail to ask the right questions,” Tyning insists, “They have their own intrinsic value. These are creatures that live without arms and legs; they hunt animals, and navigate in complete darkness.  They are nothing short of miraculous.  We are lucky to be alive with them at this time.”

Karl Meyer’s story about an encounter with Common Nighthawks along the Deerfield River will appear in the May/June 2010 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.