Sunday, September 09, 2007

Western mud snake

Every once in a while, my herpetologist, Bones, is late. Granted, he drives an hour and half every other day to check turtle nets as part of our ongoing population survey. Sometimes, when he’s more than 15 minutes late, I think of the extra 15 minutes I could have slept, wondering if they would have made a difference. Other times, while I’m waiting in my office for him to arrive I ask myself over and over (with my head on my desk), “why can’t you just go to bed at a reasonable hour?” Bones normally has a good excuse for running late: school buses, the Saints game, a slow line at McDonald’s for his bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich.

Bounding around the garage one morning last week, 30 minutes late, he proudly announced that he had a great excuse for his tardiness that morning. Wrapped around his hand, high above his head, was a lovely red and black mud snake he encountered while driving 60 mph down Hwy. 102. Like most of my colleagues in Missouri, Bones stops his car to help turtles and snakes cross roads. He likes to see what species are around and will often whip out his camera for road-crossing animals. I don’t know how much this common practice among wildlife enthusiasts really helps populations, but recent studies have suggested that while road kills do not affect overall populations of mammals, herpetofaunal populations are seriously impacted by automobile traffic.

I had never seen a mud snake before that morning. I had seen countless pictures of them in publications where they’re situated alongside pictures of bird-voiced treefrogs, swamp rabbits and other species that are supposed to be found in swamps. In 1982, a mud snake was recorded from the park, but it hasn’t been confirmed since then and it’s not because we haven’t looked. The likely reason we haven’t found a mud snake is because their primary food source, amphiumas and sirens (long, eel-like salamanders that live in sluggish backwaters), haven’t been documented in the park since the early 1980’s. The regular drainage of the swamp by adjacent landowners seriously impacts the park’s ability to hold any permanent water. Without a permanent water source for the amphiumas, the mud snakes have moved on. In fact, they’ve taken up residence in Wilkerson Ditch, the degraded main waterway in the county that collects water from 13,000 acres of land. Of course, the park’s meager 1,026 acres is included in that number.

Mud snakes are particularly secretive and seldom seen during the day. They are semi-aquatic animals of the embayment, found from southeastern Missouri to the Gulf Coast where they live in shallow waters under rotting logs and debris. The one Bones found was a pretty small one. As he put it, they can grow to about 7 feet and get “real beefy.” We’ve encountered beefy turtles and beefy diamondback watersnakes, both particularly large for their kind. The largest mud snake on record measured 81.5 inches, which is, indeed, beefy.

Unlike every other snake I’ve ever met, mud snakes do not bite to defend themselves. Instead, when captured, they gently touch your hand with the end of the tail. It doesn’t hurt or even come close to breaking the skin. Local myths suggest that mud snakes have a sharp scale at the end of their tail that delivers a deadly venom, hence the local name “stinging snake.” Once again, the irrational fear of snakes has probably caused senseless killings of mud snakes throughout their range.

Bones held on to the mud snake for a few days so he could show it to his fellow snake-loving friends. These days, it’s becoming hard to get excited about the park's natural history since our species count in the turtle project has dropped to about three a day. We haven’t found a mud turtle, a Mississippi green water snake, a broad-banded water snake, or the grail animal, the Western chicken turtle--all animals that were likely in the park before all of the drainage projects came online. As I suspected when I started this job, the altered hydrology has literally destroyed the ecological health of the last presettlement bottomland forest in southeast Missouri. Naturally, I’m thrilled I finally saw a mud snake, but for Bones’ sake and the state of the park’s herpetological status, I really wish he had found it within our boundaries.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bones here...that was a nice post. I think 9 feet may be a stretch, and I do not remember saying that, but if I did, it was in error. Most sources I have agree with your ~81 inch max length, so near seven feet. I have seen a specimen about six feet and at this length, it has a significant girth for a nonvenomous snake.