Endangered snake recovers on Lake Erie islands

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Kristin Stanford coordinates research on the endangered Lake Erie water snakes. She places a captured snake into a pillow case held by research assistant Max Castorani. They will record information about the snake before releasing it.
Kristin Stanford coordinates research on the endangered Lake Erie water snakes. She places a captured snake into a pillow case held by research assistant Max Castorani. They will record information about the snake before releasing it.

An endangered snake is reclaiming a place on the shores of the Lake Erie islands. A long term study based at Ohio State University’s Stone Lab on Lake Erie monitors the snake’s numbers and habits, as well as its popularity among the islanders. The researchers’ efforts have brought the snake back from the brink of extinction in less than a decade.

Shawn Kurtzman plunges into a thicket of poison ivy and thorny bushes. He makes a grab for a snake that, when captured, bites him and sprinkles him with smelly body fluids.

(Q) “Is that the snakes I smell, kind of musky?”

(Group response) “Yeah They’re real gross.”

Three feet long and lacking venom, the snake won’t do him much damage. But still, why would Kurtzman do this? He’s not on a dare, this is research. The feisty creature he’s just captured is an endangered Lake Erie Water snake, and Kurtzman is a research assistant in a program that aims to secure the snake’s future.

Kristin Stanford of Northern Illinois University coordinates the program. She says the reptiles were once far more common.

“When the islands were first discovered back in the 1700′s by French explorers, they actually called the islands out here islands of serpents because there were so many water snakes,” she said. “And they would describe these overhanging willow trees with wreathes of water snakes.”

That was more snakes than human settlers wanted to deal with. Years of killing snakes and destroying habitats forced the population to dangerously low numbers. While the species as a whole is not threatened, the Lake Erie subspecies was listed as federally threatened in 1999, and state endangered in 2000.

Capturing the snakes allows the researchers to monitor their numbers, diet and habits. Back in the lab, they measure and weigh the snakes, feel to see if they’ve eaten recently, and scan for implants that would mean they had been captured before. After processing, they return the snakes to their original location.

All this information helps them understand how to efficiently count the snakes, and keep them a part of the island ecosystem.

“This animal was an important part of the system before we came here,” she said. “And so I just think that therefore it’s an important part of that natural island community that you want to try to protect some part of.”

The snakes are very close to being removed from the endangered list. Their numbers are robust on all but one of the islands, and only a few more acres of habitat need to be preserved. Stanford has led education and outreach efforts, and will formally survey island residents for their attitudes.

It appears, though, that the islanders are not inclined to kill off the reptiles a second time. As Stanford and her three research assistants work their way along the lake shore at South Bass Island State Park, pouncing on the snakes as they go, a small crowd gathers.

One of the onlookers, Jeff Sharon, visited the park with his father, specifically to see the water snakes.

“I think a trip is really good if we find snakes,” he said. “Snakes are really interesting. I think it’s funny how they creep out my mom.”

Stanford says that capturing the imagination of children is key to the welfare of the snakes.

“You’re not necessarily going to change adult attitudes and opinions by going and preaching to them,” she said. “But if you can get to the kids, and make the kids understand why it’s important to conserve, they have a passion.”

Her strategy seems to be working even on adults. Bob Gatewood is a resident of South Bass Island, where he sings in the band Calabash and runs the Snack Shack at the state park. He says Stanford’s enthusiasm for the snakes is contagious.

“She comes down here and she looks at, for them,” Gatewood said. “And she has such a passion about her work, she gets all excited. And even just talking to her you kind of get into it yourself and you go, yay water snakes.”

Elsa Youngsteadt, WOSU News

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