“Save the snakes” is not a rallying cry you often hear.
The snakes are considered a threatened species under Kansas wildlife protection laws. So, the new reserve was set aside as part of a mitigation plan associated with the construction of a wastewater treatment plant that infringed on the snakes’ forest habitat in the Kansas river corridor. Snake expert Joseph Collins of the Center for North American Herpetology in Lawrence says he's been doing a lot of environmental assessments in the county because of rapid growth of Kansas City, Missouri. "When you cut the forest down, you no longer have habitat," he explains .
Kansas has been a stronghold for herpetology ever since globetrotting snake wrangler Edward Taylor started beefing up the specimen collection at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum in Lawrence in the 1920s. Then, frog expert William Duellman joined the program in 1959, and, today, Rafe Brown is carrying on the tradition discovering record numbers of frog, snake, and lizard species in the Philippines and Indonesia. Collins was also on the faculty from 1968 to 1997.
Back in the 1920s, protecting the slithering beasts seemed like a pretty wacky idea. “Far-fetched as the idea may sound,” Allen Samuel Williams of Reptile Study of America told the New York Times as the first snake protection bills were being introduced in New Jersey and New York, “snakes have a very real bearing on the cost of living ... Did you know that one small snake will eat from three to five mice a week?”
The newly protected snakes in Kansas, however, eat only snails and earthworms.
For a look at other unlikely conservation poster children, check out Scientific American’s slideshow of the world’s ugliest endangered species.
Image of red-bellied snake courtesy Suzanne Collins at the Center for North American Herpetology