Sunday, 18 March 2012

Snakes alive?: With drought, rattlesnake behavior changes likely, potential declines hard to measure – via Herp Digest

Weather not diminishing population, but changing character of population (So say people from Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup and Tony Baez, reptile supervisor at the Abilene Zoo..
By Brian Bethel
For Sweetwater Jaycee Dennis Cumbie, there's little doubt that drought conditions have affected all creatures great, small and, most important for the group's yearly Rattlesnake Roundup, snaky.
"Anytime you have a drought as severe as what we've had, it's going to affect any and all wildlife," Cumbie said.
Generally, less water means a lack of coverage the snakes and their prey both like.
And the creatures that snakes like to eat tend to disperse in harsh conditions, searching for water.
It all adds up to wandering, hungry snakes.
"Last year when I went out looking for snakes, there were quite a number (that were) emaciated, or skinny," noted Tony Baez, reptile supervisor at the Abilene Zoo.
But experts said it's often difficult to know how much the population might have decreased because of the drought, pointing more toward likely behavior changes among the reptiles than speculations about census.
"We think it will deter some of the snake population," Cumbie said of the parched conditions. "But our numbers have kind of decreased as far as what we've had coming into the roundup. We don't think that's because of the number of snakes out there, though, we think that just means people haven't been hunting as much."
Chairman of the venom-milking pen at the Sweetwater event, Cumbie said snake hunting comes and goes as a fad. In the past some hunting clubs were particularly sizable, but many have dwindled either because of old age or a lack of interest.
"I guess people are just busy, that's one part of it," he said.
Last year's 1,500 to 1,600 pounds of snakes was "kind of low," Cumbie said.
Most of the snakes at the roundup come from about a 100-mile radius, Cumbie said.
Cumbie, who said he has been hunting snakes since 1977, said judging from what he and others have seen in 50 years or so of roundups, the Jaycees' yearly extravaganza isn't going to damage the area snake population, no matter what the drought has done.
"This country's so rough, there's no way you'd ever hunt them all out," another reason judging area populations is difficult, he said.
The area has been in a drought since December 2010, said National Weather Service Meteorologist Nick Reimer.
"Back in October most of West Texas was in an exceptional drought," though the area has improved "greatly" with some rainfall since, he said.
But with record high temperatures last year, Reimer expected at least an "indirect" affect on snakes.
The zoo's Baez said that he was almost certain the drought had affected area snakes in a variety of ways, though mostly in terms of behavior.
A dry year can mean snakes won't grow as much, Baez said, and therefore not shed as much.
Snakes under drought conditions also may not have as many offspring as in wetter years.
But it's somewhat hard to starve a snake, Baez said.
Considered "ambush predators," they can live weeks, even months, on little sustenance.
Snakes will wander away from familiar areas to find food and water if conditions become prohibitive.
And that can mean coming into greater proximity with people.
"If an animal is starving, even if it's a secretive one, because it's trying to survive it's more likely to be in proximity to a person," Baez said.
Houses, gardens, ponds, lakes and pools often serve as an oasis not just for snakes, but other creatures oppressed by drought.
"You'll naturally have animals come in because there is greener grass, and therefore the predators will follow," he said, along with more of the types of ground cover that snakes and their prey love.
While there's no way to guarantee a snake-free home, making one's property less "snake-friendly" — such as removing clutter and piles of rocks, logs or trash — can go a long way, Baez said.
"That's where prey hide, and so that's where predators hide," he said.
Snakes in this area tend to den communally and start waking up from hibernation in March, staying near their lairs until the weather is warmer.
In the early year, snakes tend to be diurnal, meaning they come out during the day time. But excessive temperatures, like those that broke records last year, can become too hot for them to handle.
So they may switch to a nocturnal schedule, being seen on the move at dusk and even around midnight if it's a particularly hot year.
The reptiles generally breed early in the year, but don't actually have their babies until late August or September, Baez said. Snakes generally return to their familiar dens in the fall for hibernation.
Nolan County Extension Agent Zachary Wilcox said he doubted one would see "much of a decrease in numbers" of snakes because of recent dry conditions, though he said he wouldn't be surprised if there hadn't been some decline based on his own experience with rattlesnake run-ins.
"I can tell you in late summer or fall, I'll normally kill six or eight or 10 of them just out and about on dirt roads or wherever," he said. "And I can tell you I haven't seen as many of them."

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