Herpetologist unsure of snake study

The Georgia state herpetologist wants to see more data before he speculates on what a study that connects a decline in the kingsnake population to an increase in the number of venomous copperheads in pockets of the Southeast means to Coastal Georgia.

John Jensen, state herpetologist and a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, has seen the data compiled by an ongoing snake population survey conducted by researchers with the Ornianne Society and the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichauway. It counted 299 kingsnakes and 2,012 copperheads in 377 traps in a variety habitats.

The traps were set at Fort Stewart in Liberty County, about 60 miles northwest of Brunswick, and near Newton, about 200 miles west of Brunswick.

Although on the surface, the numbers appear easy to interpret, Jensen says he is not prepared to draw a direct correlation between fewer kingsnakes in some places and large populations of copperheads.

“There are areas where we know kingsnakes have declined, but in other areas, they are holding strong,” Jensen said.

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He wants to see more information on areas where kingsnakes are declining and where they are not before making any scientific judgments about a possible jump in the number of copperheads living in places like Coastal Georgia. Because kingsnakes eat much more than just venomous snakes, other possibilities have to be studied, as well, he said.

But the study is interesting and a good place to start in considering the consequences of a possibly more widespread kingsnake decline, Jensen said.

Dirk Stevenson, a co-author of the study and an assistant conservation scientist at the Orianne Society, a Georgia-based nonprofit for snake conservation, says the study’s data indicate when kingsnakes decline, copperheads increase. Why that happens, though, is open to interpretation.

He says kingsnakes can grow as long as 5 feet and are “very catholic, indiscriminate predators,” constricting their prey, which is often small mammals, lizards, birds and frogs. They’re even known to follow nesting freshwater and terrestrial turtles and devour a clutch of freshly laid eggs, Stevenson said.

But other snakes are often on the menu, too.

“Where they occur with copperheads, they really do like scarfing them down,” said Stevenson, who noted they eat them head first, so they “go down smoother.”

Copperheads are a heavy-bodied venomous snake that can grow to a little more than 3 feet long.

The study didn’t look at why kingsnakes are declining. Previous studies have suggested that habitat loss, road mortality, pollution, toxin buildup in their tissues, fire ants and overcollection for the pet trade could all play a role.

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