May 19, 2017 by Species Ecology
Broadening Public Perception Beyond High Profile Vertebrates: Scopes for Snake Conservation
An unfortunate certainty associated with the ever-growing human population is the loss or alteration of habitat. Coupled with this population increase, technological advances have allowed humans to become more mobile, and with that mobility comes the increased likelihood that other organisms will—intentionally or not—move with them. These are just a few of the reasons why many species of nonhuman organisms are experiencing population declines. Although many people are willing to extend some effort for conservation when endearing animals like pandas, tigers or parrots are concerned, the sympathy extended to the marvelous variety of snake species is rather limited. Snakes have intrigued humans for centuries, and were incorporated into several mythologies and cultures. Among the biologists who study snakes, there is little question of their fascination about the natural history of snakes. In spite of a limbless ectothermic body, snake species have radiated to inhabit all of the Earth biomes except the polar regions—even then, species can be found within the Artic circle (e.g., Vipera berus). The variety of locomotory modes observed in snakes has garnered much interest. There is also considerable enthusiasm for snakes in a rapidly growing and dedicated sector of the commercial pet trade. Sadly, the considerable amount of effort by researchers and enthusiasts has not translated into public support for snakes. Declines in the sizes of snake populations do not receive the same level of attention as has recently been the case for tigers, bears, sea turtles or any number of amphibian species. The same enthusiasm for snakes observed among commercial breeders might be exacting a negative, but poorly quantified, impact on wild populations. Other human activities are known sources of declines in wild snake populations, even among venomous species. In the United States for example, the continued sanctioning of rattlesnake round-ups clearly does not provide any benefits for the populations of these species (mostly Crotalus adamanteus, C. atrox, and C. horridus). The troubling nature of this treatment of snakes is compounded by the fact that many of these species represent the highest levels in their respective trophic webs. As such, continued declines in snake populations are likely to leave their prey populations (several of which are commonly construed as pests) unchecked. The field of snake ecology has advanced considerably over the last 15 years— conceptual frameworks have been revised in light of new findings, and improvements in technology have afforded opportunities for new avenues of research. Snakes are fascinating to many laypeople and scientists alike, and numerous studies of snake ecology and natural history have been conducted. For nearly all snake species, however, a comprehensive understanding of their ecology, and especially population biology, is lacking. Such gaps in our knowledge limit our ability to develop effective conservation and management strategies or, more often, prohibit arguments that conservation is needed at all. We argue that snakes, although often challenging to study, offer many opportunities for ecological study unparalleled by other taxa. We expect that this short article will provoke interest to ecologists, conservation biologists, and curatorial staff at zoological parks and to be of particular interest to herpetologists and wildlife and resource managers in tropical South and South East Asia where snake diversity is relatively high but conservation management is poor to none.