Saturday, May 11, 2013

Undercover For Forty Years: Does the Black Swamp Snake Still Exist in Alabama?

One of the most valuable ponds in Alabama, if you ask me
            It was a drive from Auburn University to a conference in the Florida panhandle that allowed us a short detour to visit one of the most storied wetlands in Alabama herpetological history. But, I didn’t realize that at the time.

            You wouldn’t know it by looking at them now, but there are a few wetlands in Conecuh National Forest that harbor some of the most extraordinary reptiles in the state, if not the southeastern United States. Today, the handful of adjacent ponds within Open Pond Recreation Area don’t look so welcoming to rare animals; closely-mowed grass reaches right to their borders and the entire area is more reminiscent of a golf course (albeit with picnic tables and camping spots) than the backwoods. But the tame lawn immediately surrounding these few small ponds belie their wild past, a past hinted at by the landscape of longleaf pine forest in the distance.

            Rainbow Snakes are one of the most infrequently observed and perhaps rarest animals in Alabama. Glossy with striking red stripes, the animal is beautiful and unmistakable. That is, if you ever see one. Despite being closely-linked to specific haunts—clear streams with lots of their preferred prey, eels—there are no places one can go to reliably find a Rainbow Snake. If you spend enough time outdoors, and together with a combination of timing and luck, a Rainbow Snake just might present itself someday. But don’t hold your breath.

The famed Alabama Black Swamp Snake
            Black Swamp Snakes, on the other hand, don’t have the same reputation. These small, non-descript snakes (with bright red bellies) are also closely-linked to specific habitats—mostly isolated ponds with lots of aquatic vegetation—but once you find these ponds, a little mucking around will likely produce a small and wriggling Black Swamp Snake. Much of the research on this species has taken place in South Carolina. Spending time wading around certain ponds in these areas will result in buckets of Black Swamp Snakes (literally, in some cases) and that easily can give the impression that they are common. They are not. At the edges of their range, such as in Alabama or western Florida (where they are technically not even the same subspecies as the animal in South Carolina), the handful of ponds that harbor Black Swamp Snakes are few and far between and probably about as rare as the number of people that can point them out.

            In the short section dedicated to Rainbow Snakes in Dr. Robert Mount’s classic book, “The Reptiles & Amphibians of Alabama”, there is a brief passage that is as bewildering as it is understated in describing what was found at a “site” in Covington County in the 1960s:

“Eight specimens (Rainbow Snakes) were found there at night along with 28 Seminatrix pygaea (Black Swamp Snakes)...”

            I remember reading that passage over and over again. Eight Rainbow Snakes in one place at one time?! Twenty-eight Black Swamp Snakes? How was that even possible? Being students at Auburn University, we had access to something most did not: the esteemed professor emeritus Dr. Mount himself. And it was he who revealed some more specifics about this mysterious “site”.

            Dr. Mount had been hit up for this information prior to our trip, but this was unbeknownst to me as I sat in the van along with Craig Guyer, Sharon Hermann, and Sean Graham, and came to a stop on a dirt road in the Conecuh National Forest. Not far from the picnics and Frisbees surrounding Open Pond itself, we had reached a small wetland segregated from the popular recreational areas by thick vegetation. More vegetation surrounded the small pond itself, which was ankle-deep and seemingly small enough that one could lightly toss a rock across the entire expanse of the open water. Not what I would consider promising for rare wildlife.

We also found an ogre eating some snakes
            But the key was in the mats of dried vegetation surrounding the pond. As the water dried over the summer and into the fall, the water level gradually shrank lower and lower, leaving a thick green carpet of the previously submerged and aquatic plants. Rolling back this carpet like a mat of sod revealed a mud that was wet, gray and teeming with Black Swamp Snakes. Perhaps this was how they stayed hydrated, secure, and alive through Alabama droughts.

            Reveling in our find, the first Black Swamp Snakes seen in Alabama for decades (despite being mere kilometers from the homes of three herpetology-minded friends that shall remain nameless), it was some time before I realized that the Rainbow Snakes had eluded us. As did the Black Swamp Snakes when we returned to the pond some months 
A more photogenic herpetologist
later when it was full of rainwater. In their place, a sole Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum) patrolled the shallows. Maybe we didn’t find any snakes on this return visit because the habitat had changed so much. After all, we no longer had any convenient vegetation mats to roll back and check under; but, I would have expected to see at least see one or two snakes swimming around the pond or hiding within the submerged plants. I couldn’t help but wonder about the fate of this small, isolated population of animals; it wasn’t hard to imagine that they had just blinked out of existence, maybe from some disease, a careless chemical dump, or just because it was a bad year for the small salamanders and invertebrates they feed on.

       If Black Swamp Snakes have a future in Alabama, it is an incredibly precarious one; yet, they are not afforded any particular protections. Perhaps their abundance elsewhere is a disincentive for conserving them even where they are rare. Perhaps this mindset is why more species have vanished from Alabama than any other state in the continental United States. Perhaps we will soon have to add the Black Swamp Snake to the list.

Related Blog Posts:

Willson, J., Winne, C., Dorcas, M., & Gibbons, J. (2006). Post-drought responses of semi-aquatic snakes inhabiting an isolated wetland: Insights on different strategies for persistence in a dynamic habitat Wetlands, 26 (4), 1071-1078 DOI: 10.1672/0277-5212(2006)26[1071:PROSSI]2.0.CO;2

Winne, C., Dorcas, M., & Poppy, S. (2005). Population Structure, Body Size, and Seasonal Activity of Black Swamp Snakes (Seminatrix pygaea) Southeastern Naturalist, 4 (1), 1-14 DOI: 10.1656/1528-7092(2005)004[0001:PSBSAS]2.0.CO;2

Dodd Jr., C.K. (1993). Population structure, body mass, activity, and orientation of an aquatic snake during a drought Canadian Journal of Zoology, 71 (7), 1281-1288 DOI: 10.1139/z93-177

Photos appear courtesy of Sean Graham.

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