Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Experiential Journal: The Life of Snakes

By Jamie Bachar

Friday, April 26, Ramapo College of New Jersey hosted the annual Ramapo River Watershed Conference, which features various speakers on topics related to environmental issues in the region. One such speaker was Randy Stechert, who shared his knowledge of snakes in the New Jersey and Hudson Highlands.

Stechert has been studying reptiles and amphibians for 48 years and has conducted thousands of surveys for timber rattlesnakes in the New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania area. Stechert specializes in non-dangerous snakes. Statewide, Stechert is credited with determining the location of 82% of all known timber rattlesnake dens in New York, according to his private homepage.

During his presentation, Stechert described numerous snakes that live in the area that he has tagged and fought for protection. Stechert began his presentation speaking about the milk snake, which is a species of king snakes. They are not dangerous to humans and like the Black Racer snake eat mostly mice and other snakes.

Of the 22 species of snakes found in New Jersey, there are only two types of venomous snakes. One is the northern copperhead and the other is the timber rattlesnake.

Many of the snake populations are depleting, especially the rattlesnakes and copperheads. In fact at one time rattlesnakes were near extinction in New Jersey due to overkillings, but after laws were passed to protect them they have out preyed copperheads and the copperhead numbers are decreasing. 

Generally, it is out of fear that people kill snakes and many don’t know if they are venomous or not. Poaching snakes has really depleted their populations.

Stechert also explained that many people are getting approval to build homes that are known to be around snake dens. There is a huge threat to the snake population in New Jersey because people are encroaching on their dens. Typically, snakes can not reproduce till 9-10 years old and they have limited reproduction years. There is also a low survival rate of juvenile snakes, which is another contributing factor to their low population numbers.

Typically, the venomous snakes are the most docile. The non-venomous snakes are the most active because they have less defense against attackers. For instance, the eastern hognose snake don’t usually bite but their defense is to imitate rattlesnakes and other venomous snakes. They puff up and spread their neck, roll around on their back, twisting with their tongue out and then lay belly-up. People often think that when snakes die they end up on their back but that isn’t so. For some reason though this snake goes on its back to act dead so their enemies will leave them alone.

Under the state’s Endangered and Non-game Species Conservation Act, it is illegal to kill, harm, harass or collect any snakes. All relocations must be handled by professionals to ensure the snake’s survival. It is also illegal to handle snakes, which unfortunately happens all the time.

Snakes fill a very important ecological role; they control rodents and insects and serve as a food source for numerous animals. In short, snakes are indicators of a healthy ecosystem.

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