Snake declared extinct rediscovered in St Lucia
Scientists strive to ensure the survival of the St Lucia Racer.
CASTRIES, St Lucia, Friday July 13, 2012 – The St Lucia Racer, a snake that had been declared extinct more than 70 years ago, has been found alive and well in a nature reserve on an islet just off the coast of St Lucia.
At least 11 St Lucia Racers have been tagged by a group of international scientists hunting for the snake in the Maria Islands reserve, a part of St Lucia located about one kilometer south of the mainland, according to the British-based Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.
Scientists estimate that 18 snakes live on the reserve, said Durrell's Eastern Caribbean program manager Matthew Morton.
"In one sense it is a very worrying situation, with such a small population restricted to a single, tiny site," he said. "But in another sense, it's an opportunity ... It means that we still have a chance to save this species."
The gentle, non-venomous brown snake was declared extinct in 1936, but one was spotted on the reserve in 1973 and rare sightings have since been reported. Late last year, Durrell, with help from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other groups, launched a search for the snake on the larger of the two Maria Islands.
A team of scientists and several volunteers spent five months scouring the rocky outcrop where they found some of the snakes slithering around during the day, looking for lizards and frogs to eat. Once they captured them, they implanted microchips that will transmit data including information about their lifespan and other unknown details, Morton said.
Scientists also collected DNA samples, but the results on whether the snakes are genetically diverse won't be known for several months. Diversity is said to be important because it would allow for a more successful breeding program.
There's currently a lot of in-breeding on the 12-hectare islet, but scientists did not spot many deformities, which is encouraging, Morton said.
Brian Crother, a United States-based expert on Caribbean snakes who was not involved in the project, said he was excited about the finding.
"It provides us with another opportunity to preserve a piece of biodiversity that we thought we had lost forever," he said.
As a result of the scientists' findings, Durrell called the St Lucia racer the world's rarest snake, but Crother and other scientists disputed the claim.
"I think saying 'rarest' is a good way to bring attention to a desperate situation, but whether it really is the rarest, I don't think you can say for sure," said Crother, interim biology department director at Southeastern Louisiana University.
Scientists are now trying to figure out the best way to save the snake, which is less than one meter long and is known for being comfortable with human beings.
Morton said moving some of the snakes to St Lucia's mainland is not an option because the mongoose, its biggest predator, lives there and will destroy the population. He said breeding the reptiles on other offshore islands is a possibility, but scientists have to determine whether there's an adequate food supply.
Frank Burbrink, a biology professor at the College of Staten Island who was not involved in the project, said the snakes should be bred in another place to ensure their future.
"You don't want to put your eggs in one very, very, very small basket," he said.