Monday, October 22, 2007


Image from FWS
Image from FWS
In April, I mentioned an Ohio endangered species that got some cable airtime, and rightfully so. Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs1 traveled to Ohio’s north coast (that is, Lake Erie) to spend some quality time with someone I am proud to say that I (very briefly) worked with.

The Lake Erie Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon insularum) is, like most water snakes, very angry. They’re not venomous or dangerous in any way, just large and inclined to bite and musk. How large, you ask? They can get up to 3.5 feet. This “musking” is a defensive mechanism in which they spray the smelly contents of their cloaca3 all over whomever has grabbed them. It’s not pleasant.

They make their home on Kelley’s Island, a small (8 square miles) island just 3 miles off the coast of “Mainland” Ohio. I suppose that’s inaccurate, as that may be their geographic location, but they really make their homes squeezed among boulders of the rocky coast. From there, it is a short slither into the lake for some fishing. Water Snakes live up to their name well, as they are agile hunters in the water, and eat their share of small fish, frogs, and other similarly sized aquatic wildlife. They may be the same species as the common Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon), but as a separate population, they are entitled to their own protection.

As Kelly’s Island is a popular resort town, the snakes were not exactly the most welcomed of natives. For years, they were tormented by locals and visitors until, in 1999, there were less than 2,000 left. In May 2000, they were added to the Ohio and Federal Endangered Species Lists, and signs declaring “Save Our Snakes” were distributed through the island. Kristen Stanford, in an effort to change public thought surrounding these snakes, has become the Island Snake Lady, and the Lake Erie Water Snake population is now up to a minimum estimate of 6,500 individuals—not bad for seven years. The way she reaches the public is by reaching the children. At one herpetological meeting, she talked about a grandmother who wouldn’t harm the snakes any more because little Jimmy (name changed to protect the innocent) had talked with the Snake Lady, and the Snake Lady said the snakes were good.

Anybody who lives around the Great Lakes knows that the invasive Zebra Mussels have become an ecological nightmare. Well, not long after they were introduced, a natural predator of theirs, the Round Goby, was also (accidentally) brought into the lakes. This didn’t particularly lower Zebra Mussel populations, and Round Gobies boomed. However, the Lake Erie Water Snake seems to feed increasingly on these alien invaders. If the Gobies eat the Mussels, and the Water Snakes eat the Gobies, we might be one step closer to solving that problem.

1One of my dreams is to have a research job so disgusting that it can be featured on a show like that2.
2Another is to host a show like that.
3Latin for “sewer”. You can probably guess what it is.


Miriam Goldstein said...

Neat snake! But theoretically at least, the snakes eating the gobies would increase zebra mussel populations. (or have no effect, since the gobies don't seem all that hungry for mussel.)

Garfman said...

The gobies are plenty hungry for the mussels, there are just too many mussels for them to make much of a dent. I see your point about the mussel population, though any time a native animal starts eating invasives, it's a good thing.

Anonymous said...

Your mention of working with the Island Snake Lady didn't mention the Nerodia Rodeo.

Rainstorm said...

Wow that doesn't happen very often - the chain of predators there, I mean. Usually a species overtakes, continues to overtake, and then starts to eat human babies.

That's kinda cool for the snake though!