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Smith studies Caribbean lizards to expedite saving endangered snake

How do visiting South Dakotans cope with living conditions found on the Caribbean Island of Antigua? They live like the natives complete with a hot humid climate, mosquitoes, goats and chickens says Black Hills State student Ryan Baum.

Baum and BHSU biology professor Brian Smith spent two months this summer in the Caribbean studying and counting lizards, which just happen to be the primary food source of the endangered snake, the Antiguan Racer (Alsophis antiguae). Smith and BHSU are working with a consortium of scientists, environmental advocates, and government bureaucrats to re-introduce the snake to several small islands with a sufficient food supply of lizards. The lizards Ameiva griswoldi and Anolis wattsi are the snakes' favorite meal.

With only about 80 Antiguan Racers alive today on Great Bird Island, plans are underway to re-introduce the snake to other nearby islands with a supportive habitat. Those islands need to have shade, a food supply and no introduced exotic predators such as the mongoose or rat which are largely responsible for decimating the snake population.

Working out of the village of Willikies on the main island of Antigua, Smith and Baum would work as many as eight days in the field and then would return to Willikies for a couple of days to replenish supplies and meet with consortium members, Antiguan officials, and other scientists.

Smith said their research altered their thinking about which island has the best habitat for re-introducing the snake population. They had expected one of the larger more forested islands to provide the best conditions for the Antiguan Racer, but instead found one of the smaller islands better suited for re-introducing the snake. It had a larger and more robust population of lizards, no predacious rats and a smaller but sufficient forest habitat.

Plans call for the re-introduction process to begin this fall on one of the smaller islands. The largest of the four Islands other than Great Bird Island had a large forest and promising habitat, but the island needs to recover from the effects of rats, which were just eradicated this June and July. Smith says he will have to go back to Great Bird Island, which is used as a baseline for the study, to monitor the re-introduction process. He expects to go back as early as this winter and then again next summer.

Back on campus, Smith and Baum are studying data gathered during their field work. They had as many as 15 lizard counting stations per island and visited each station at least nine times. Smith estimated they took more than 450 separate counts during their stay this summer.

Although working in an island environment sounds enchanting and idyllic, the end result was hard work, long hours, and hot and humid conditions. Tourists who happened to come upon them at one of the small islands were surprised to see the two Americans and offered them cool drinks, so it wasn't all work and no play.

For Baum it was a learning experience not only from a scientific point of view but from a social and cultural point of view as well.

From the research aspect Baum said, “I was overwhelmed by the number of people involved in the project. You can learn a lot talking to people involved in the conservation project. It makes things much more interesting.”

Baum was able to participate in meetings and group discussions with scientists and government officials involved in the project. This is an opportunity not ordinarily found in the typical college classroom.

“They asked for my opinions and encouraged my participation,” said the BH senior. “It's helped formulate my ideas for the future.”

Baum was struck by the fact that they often had to improvise and make changes in plans while in the field doing their research. It is now clear to him that no matter how well prepared, there are always circumstances that arise that change plans and procedures.

“Seeing the snake put the project in perspective,” he said. “You really notice the snakes and lizards. It was interesting watching them and not disturbing their habitat. It helped me to begin thinking as a biologist.”

Smith agreed with Baum saying, “You get attuned to what you are doing by watching. You learn a lot by just watching lizards.”

Since this was Baum's first visit outside of the United States, he was equally impressed with the Antiguan people and their culture, as well as with the research. After spending nearly two months on the islands, Baum said he began to adjust to a different lifestyle.

“They (Antiguan people) don't have much money but they really grasp life and live it fully,” he said.

He described a scene of a mother and her children outside of their cottage washing clothes by hand and singing songs. They appeared happy and content. This isn't something you normally see in the states, he remarked.

He also said a person gets used to chickens and goats outside the bedroom window. As the research project ended, Baum felt they were living just like the Antiguans.

Echoing Baum's sentiments, Smith said. “In my professional career I haven't bumped into people who are so easy to work with. It was one of the easiest experiences I've had working outside of the United States. The Antiguan people are great to work with, they are friendly, non-aggressive and with no egos involved.”

In fact, Smith felt everyone associated with the project, including the scientists to the international officials and local government people, were helpful and friendly. There was simply a lot of interest in the project from all concerned.

The BH herpetologist said Black Hills State's role is expanding since it was officially voted in as a partner in the six-member Antiguan Racer Conservation Project (ARCP).

“I suggested re-organization of the project to include seven islands rather than four,” said Smith. “The ARCP suggested that I monitor the snake's re-introduction at one of the sites this fall.”

Racers for re-introduction will be taken from Great Bird Island and its 80 remaining Antiguan Racers, and then Smith will monitor the re-introduced snakes on an island selected for the first re-introduction.

The snakes will be outfitted with radio tag tracking devices for easier scrutiny.

Five male and five female Antiguan Racers will be re-located this fall. Two males and two females will be radio tagged.

“Radio tagging is used to determine whether re-introduced snakes act normally, but is restricted to four snakes in case the tagging procedure itself disturbs the snakes and their behavior,” said Smith.

Smith says he plans to get more students involved in the project. He would like to have two from BHSU and another student from the West Indies assisting in the research. He was told informally that there would be funding for the expanded project.

With the school term underway and a full teaching load at hand, Smith says finding the time to get back to the islands this fall will be difficult. In the meantime, there is plenty of research data to organize.

Baum would like to go back, too, but will be deciding about a future that includes graduate work. His recent field research experience can only enhance his chances at landing a graduate research assistantship and ultimately a new career.




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