Throughout history, the snake has been seen as a symbol of evil. From the very first story of creation, when the serpent, declared “the most cunning of all the animals that the LORD GOD had made (Genesis 3: 1) ” causes the fall of mankind by tempting Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit, the image of the snake is one that inflicts fear, hatred and unease. Ancient mythological stories of Medusa’s head of serpents have entertained readers for thousands of years. Even in more recent history, St. Patrick is alleged to, through a divine miracle, driven all the snakes from the Irish Isles. This negative allusion connected with snakes has not been without consequence, however.
From the great Anaconda of the South American Rainforest to the famed Rattlesnake of the Western Frontier, hundreds of snake species have reached the endangered status. From this very region, the Lake Erie Water Snake has declined so severely in population that specialists fear for its survival. The United States government has recently labeled it a threatened species. The state of Ohio has declared it one of the state’s few endangered animals.
The local reptile thrives on such nearby islands as Put-in-Bay, Kelley’s and Rattlesnake, however, because it flourishes so seemingly well on these islands, many local residents feel it has no right nor reason to be protected. Government researchers say that the rural development and human persecution that take place on theses islands are the two main contributors to the Lake Erie Water Snake’s loss of habitat and its gradual decrease in population. In fact, dozens of studies conducted over the past seventy years prove that the Lake Erie Water Snake needs to be Federally protected in order to aid the environment, and ensure its own survival in our local waters. Nearly 4, 000 years ago, a pack of glaciers in the northeastern region of this continent began to melt, filling in the large crevices that we know today as the Great Lakes.
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Many species of snakes became stranded on certain islands in and around these Great Lakes. They were forced to adapt to their new surroundings, and it was the Nero dia Sipedon Insular um, commonly known as the Lake Erie Water Snake, that came to survive on its own in the waters that now make up the northern border of Ohio (King, April 2000: 2).
The Lake Erie Water Snake is a distinct genetic subspecies of water snake, and Western Lake Erie is the only place in the world where Lake Erie water snakes can be found (King, April 2000: 1).
Over many centuries the island water snakes have developed characteristics different from related species on the mainland. While living on the islands it adapted to the predominant food supply, learning to catch fish, in contrast to its cousins which dined primarily on amphibians (Kelleysisland.
The non-poisonous Lake Erie Water Snake is a uniform gray or brown color, ranging in lengths between one and a half to three and a half feet long (King, April 2000: 2).
Its underbelly is a white or pale yellow and, when threatened, the Lake Erie Water Snake will flatten its head and body and release a strong smelling odor (geocities. com / rainforest /vines. html: 2).
At times, it has been known to strike and bite with its undersized but threatening jaws.
The Lake Erie Water Snake mainly feeds on fish and some amphibians, but, due to their complex habitat, their diet often changes. Its habitat is composed of shrubs and trees along the shoreline, as well as rock crevices, limestone shelves and ledges for sunning and shelter (Seymour, May 2000: 5).
Dr. Richard King, the founder of the Lake Erie Water Snake’s environmental studies, first noticed the rapid decline in the snake’s population in the late 1970’s when he was a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He began to study the snake, its reproduction, and its hibernation patterns.
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Over the last 23 years, Dr. King has made great advancements in saving the Lake Erie Water Snake from extinction. Dr. King learned that individual water snakes differ greatly in the distance they traveled, with daily movements ranging from 60 to more than 1, 300 meters (King, May 2001: 2).
He also concluded that the water snake began entering hibernation in late September, although some were still active on warm days in October.
In July of 2000, Dr. King began his greatest experiment on the snakes yet. He captured 20 snakes, and using a tracking method termed radio telemetry, he surgically implanted tracking devices into the snakes’s toma chs. The writers of the Lake Erie Water Snake newsletter recently conducted an interview with Kristin Stanford, a graduate student at Northern Illinois University in the department of biological sciences.
She is currently working on the L. E. W. S.
telemetry study on Kelley’s Island. Many people refer to her as “the Snake Lady,” due to her extensive knowledge and research on the Lake Erie Water Snake. “The main goal of our studies is to learn more about the water snakes’ hibernation. This includes the location of these sites and other related information concerning their entry into and waking from hibernation. Because of the snakes’s emi-recent listing as a federally threatened species, people are becoming more aware of the snakes’ presence and their protected status and are leaving them alone.” L. E.
W. S. News than asked Ms. Stanford why the snakes are state endangered and federally threatened. “It is important for people to understand that the world population of the Lake Erie Water Snake only occurs on 12 of the Western Lake Erie islands in an area less than 40 km. in diameter.
On a geographic scale, this makes them very vulnerable to extinction because of their limited range. Decreases in adult populations over the last 20 years have occurred at several sites, especially on the Bass islands.” Dr. King and the rest of the L. E. W. S.
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(Lake Erie Water Snake) crew have concluded many important studies in advancing scientific knowledge of the Lake Erie Water Snake. Approximately 95% of the Lake Erie Water Snake’s population gene pool occur on the offshore islands of Western Lake Erie (Seymour, May 2000: 11).
The male snake reaches sexual maturity at around two years of age, while the female does not reach sexual maturity until her third year of existence (geocities. com / rainforest /vines: 2).
Thus, the average snake must survive between two to four years in order to reproduce.
These snakes are also extremely susceptible to genetic absorption through interbreeding with other common northern water snakes (geocities. com / rainforest /vines: 2).
The unique, pure properties of the Lake Erie Water Snake are than weakened and eventually lost when interbreeding takes place. With the depleted population of the Lake Erie Snakes around the islands, the snake is forced to look else where for potential mates. Thus, the forced cross breeding between the Lake Erie Snake and other, more common water snakes has been a major contributing factor to the decline of the Lake Erie Snake. On August 30 th 1999, the Lake Erie Water Snake officially became a federally threatened species.
Until that point, the snake’s population had decreased rapidly each year. The Lake Erie Water Snake once inhabited 22 islands and rock outcrops in Western Lake Erie, as well as a portion of the Ontario mainland and shorelines of the Catawba/Marblehead peninsula. According to the Division of Wildlife, it is now found on only eight islands: Kelley’s, Middle Bass, North Bass, South Bass, Gibraltar, Ballast, Rattlesnake, and Sugar Islands (Species Information U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service).
Lake Erie Water Snakes have declined mostly because of the destruction of their habitat. The number one cause of habitat loss is the pollution from pesticides and oil on the shoreline, but another formidable threat is human persecution and cruelty. Irrational fears and the lack of education as to their relative harmlessness have proved the doom of many Lake Erie Snakes. The fear of snakes is so widespread that it even has its own name, Ophiciophobia. Though the world has its snake lovers, majority of people around the world steer clear of snakes, especially when confronted by one.
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Most humans would just avoid a confrontation, but still many would view the snake as a direct threat and attempt to harm or kill the snake. Many people fear an attack of the snake, and some just fear the very sight of the snake itself. Fair amounts of islanders dislike the snake, and may chose to ignore the new law. “My mom was so terrified of them”, recalls lifetime Put-in-Bay resident Melinda Urge, “that she used to pay the kids in the neighborhood a dollar for every dead snake they showed her. She still calls us to come and kill snakes when she sees them in her garden, and we have to come over and pretend like we got them before she will come out again.” In the summer of 1999, the U. S.
Fish and Wildlife Service began a campaign to combat this negative image, and irrational fear of snakes. They posted over 300 permanent signs notifying islanders and visitors of a Federal penalty for anyone caught harming the Lake Erie Snake. Representatives for Fish and Wildlife also went to local schools to educate children about the importance of protecting their local snake. They also held town meetings, manned numerous information booths and passed out literature about the snakes. By making local people more aware of the snake and its rarity, the U. S.
Fish and Wildlife Service managed to slow the decline in population. Over the past three years, the snakes’ reproduction rates have stabilized and human abuse, although never able to be fully regulated, is assumed to be on the decline. The population of the Lake Erie Water Snake is currently estimated to be between 1, 500 to 2, 000 adults, all contained in the Western Lake Erie Island region. Due to the extinction of certain species through out the world, the United Sates Government, in 1973, issued The Endangered Species Act to aid and protect those animals that are in danger of becoming extinct. It reads as follows: The congress finds and declares that various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the U. S.
have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development unhampered by adequate concern and conservation… these species of wildlife are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the nation and its people… the purpose of this act are to provide a means whereby the eco systems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species… and to take such steps as may be appropriate to achieve the purposes of these treaties (Endangered Species Act 1973, 1).
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The Government realized that due to the economic, industrial and agricultural growth of the country, much of nature had been abused and irreversibly destroyed. However, the significance of The Endangered Species Act has been hotly debated ever since its introduction into legislation.
The case of the Lake Erie Water Snake is no exception. Without the protection of The Endangered Species Act, this unique subspecies would be extinct by now. Yet the rocks and shorelines that provide the snakes’ natural habitat are still being destroyed by the islands’ booming development of waterfront properties, docks, marinas and ferry lines. Ever growing boat traffic poses a constant threat to their well being. Economic development has long been at odds with the preservation of nature. Although negotiation has been used by developers, government officials, and Fish and Wildlife agents in deciding whether construction will be damaging to the snakes’ habitat, no certain equilibrium is possible.
One must remember that as important and profitable as new docks, buildings and boat traffic may be, they are material things that can be constructed and reconstructed. However, once we lose a natural species, it is lost forever. If the Lake Erie Water Snake is lost to the growing industry of the Erie Islands, there is no getting it back. Some may argue that the snake has no significance, it will reap no benefits, dead or alive.
However, Megan Seymour, a wildlife biologist argues against this theory in her article on biodiversity. Biodiversity refers to variety within a living system… in terms of ecosystem biodiversity; it is generally agreed that the more biodiversity present, the more stable the ecosystem will be… the rivet hypothesis compares species in an ecosystem to the rivets that hold an airplane together. The loss of a few rivets (species) from the system may not have an immediate impact, however beyond some minimal threshold; losses will result in a catastrophic collapse.
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Another hypothesis states that as diversity changes, so does the ecosystem’s function, but because each species has a unique role within the community, the effect of these losses are unpredictable (Seymour, May 2001: 4).
This rivet effect explains how each species in an ecosystem plays an integral role in that ecosystem’s proper functioning. The Lake Erie Water Snake maintains an important place in the food chain. Eating small fish and other prey and providing prey for larger fish, birds and other wildlife. Lake Erie has already undergone its fair share of environmental problems. Heavy pollution throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, rendered much of the water useless for many types of wildlife – meanwhile hurting the fishing and tourism industries.
Although, the state has taken great steps to remedy the pollution problems and clean up the lake once and for all, the future of the Lake Erie Water Snake is still in peril. As natural forces and human forces take their toll on the snake population, it is evident how easily the population could be significantly reduced. The ongoing tedious efforts put forth by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other government officials have proven effective in helping and insuring the survival of the Lake Erie Water Snake. Their informative actions have no doubt saved the Lake Erie Snake from extinction.
They will continue to educate and inform the public about The Lake Erie Water Snake and any other endangered species that may one day need protection in order to help save itself from its own extinction. In the past few decades, worldwide influence has put pressure on the nation of China to rescue its dwindling population of Panda Bears. Similar campaigns for endangered species have taken place all over the world- from the great African Elephant, to the Australian Kangaroos, to our own Bald Eagle. Although the Lake Erie Water Snake may not be as popular as the Giant Panda or as revered as the Bald Eagle, it is still a unique and integral part of the natural heritage of this region and should be preserved at all costs. In this educated, highly scientific age, we no longer have an excuse to let irrational fears and negative allusions govern our abuse of nature’s creatures. Thousands of the world’s species have already been placed on the extinct lists.
It is imperative that with this community’s help, the Lake Erie Water Snake escapes that dire fate.