The timber rattlesnake, which is extinct in Rhode Island and Maine, is one of Connecticut's endangered species and is reportedly is losing the battle with humans, a trend that should be reversed.
Timber rattlesnakes find welcoming habitat in central Connecticut's rocky, wooded hills. From April to October, rattlesnakes leave their dens in search of food, which can lead them through people's yards and into woodpiles or stone walls. This past rattlesnake season, 45 sightings of the snake were reported to officials in and around Glastonbury, where there is a major concentration of the state's remaining rattlers.
Unfortunately, officials investigating the 45 reports of rattlesnake sightings found nine of these snakes to be dead. It is paramount that Glastonbury residents, and all co-inhabitants of timber rattlesnake territory statewide, are aware that, under the Connecticut Endangered Species Act of 1989 and the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973, the killing of the rattlers is prohibited.
If the threat of legal punishment for the killing of the timber rattlesnake is not enough, perhaps a recent study concerning the ecosystem benefits of the reptiles can convince citizens to spare the snakes' lives.
Humans have vilified the rattlesnake throughout human history. In many cultures, rattlesnakes are symbols of pure evil. A recent study by a team of University of Maryland biologists, however, proves that the timber rattlesnake provides indirect health benefits to humans.
Timber rattlers feed primarily on mice. After studying the snake's eating habits in eastern forests, the University of Maryland biologists found that each timber rattlesnake also consumes 2,500 to 4,500 blacklegged ticks living on the mice it eats each year. If there are any critters more hated than snakes, it just might be ticks.
But this is not a case of choosing between the lesser of two evils. Protecting the rattlesnake is about questioning our assumptions and beliefs about the vipers and understanding that the loss of one organism can alter entire ecosystems.
Blacklegged ticks (also called deer ticks) carry Lyme disease. Cases of Lyme disease are on the rise in recent times, causing scientists to ask why this disease is gaining strength. Previous studies have proved that a decline in mammals that feed on mice, such as foxes, can be linked to the recent increase in Lyme disease among humans. The University of Maryland study showed that timber rattlesnakes, though not mammals, provide the same tick removal service.
Although media, literature and certain cultural beliefs construct a sinister picture of rattlesnakes, perhaps hard science can help to overturn the vilification of this endangered species.
In early October, Doug Fraser, a Siena College biology professor, who has studied timber rattlers for 30 years, gave an educational talk at the Connecticut Audubon Center at Glastonbury. Fraser enumerated habitat loss, roadkills and poaching as the three greatest threats to the timber rattlesnake. Fraser also discussed the three-year reproduction cycle of rattlesnake females as a major challenge to successful recovery of the snake. In addition, Fraser pointed out that Glastonbury, The Nature Conservancy and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection have been successful in conserving 7 square miles of prime timber rattlesnake foraging grounds in Glastonbury.
Land conservation programs stem the loss of timber rattlesnake habitat, but we must protect these snakes when they show up in our backyards. According to University of Maryland biologist Karen Lips, timber rattlesnakes are "non-aggressive and rarely attack humans." With this in mind, residents who come across one of the endangered timber rattlesnakes should not kill it — just let it go its own way, eating mice and helping to reduce the blacklegged tick population.
William Conway, 21, of Milford is a senior majoring in environmental studies at Skidmore College.
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