Forget rattlers, protect kings

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 6, 2011

While groups of biologists are working to get the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake on the endangered species list, local herpetologist Jimmy Stiles said there’s another snake that needs that distinction even more – the Eastern kingsnake.

Stiles said the Eastern kingsnake is not federally protected, though its numbers have drastically diminished over the last 30 years.

“It is listed as a species of conservation concern by the state,” he said.

Stiles said the Eastern kingsnake is a subspecies of kingsnakes and is the only declining species of kingsnake in Alabama.

“The others are doing fine,” he said.

Stiles said biologists haven’t figured out what is causing the decline.

“It’s still a mystery,” he said. “We haven’t studied it close enough to know exactly.”

Stiles said the reason herpetologists know that the snake is declining is because Robert Mount, a biologist from Auburn University, visited the Conecuh National Forest in the 1980s and published data that showed the Eastern kingsnake was the most common in the Conecuh National Forest.

Fast forward to 2002, when Stiles and his wife, Sierra, trapped an abundant amount of snakes of different varieties for four years.

“During that time, we caught thousands of snakes,” Stiles said. “And not one of them was an Eastern kingsnake.”

Stiles said they haven’t found any in the south end of the county, but a few have been found near Gantt, and a couple in Andalusia.

“But on this side of the county in the national forest, they have totally disappeared.”

And the Eastern kingsnake’s demise is having the opposite effect on poisonous copperheads in the county.

“Copperheads are now the most abundant snake species in this part of the county,” he said. “Our guess is that their main predator, the Eastern kingsnake, has disappeared.”

Stiles said more people are bitten annually by copperheads than any other snake in Alabama.

“They are very dangerous and very common,” he said. “The best way to tell that the snake is a copperhead is it has a hour-glass pattern wrapped over their backs.”

Stiles said biologists have been feeding copperheads to the indigo snakes, which were reintroduced to the Conecuh National Forest in 2010.

“Both the indigo snakes and Eastern kingsnake primarily feed on venomous snakes,” he said.

Stiles said biologists are in the very early stages of discussing a re-introduction plan for the Eastern kingsnakes into the Conecuh National Forest.

The indigo re-introduction took about four years from talks to the actual release. Stiles said it took tow years to raise the first batch of snakes.

Until then, “if you do see a kingsnake, don’t kill it,” he said.