Volume XXIII No. 24• June 18, 1999

BHSU biology professor and student to spend two months on Caribbean Island studying an endangered snake

Leaving your job to spend two months on a Caribbean Island is everyone's dream, but for Dr. Brian Smith and student Ryan Baum its just another day of work.

Smith, an assistant professor of biology at Black Hills State, and Baum, a senior biology major from Spearfish, will spend eight weeks camping out and surveying the lizard populations on three islands near Antigua in preparation for the re-introduction of the Antiguan racer, a critically endangered snake. The lizard population is being surveyed because the Antiguan racer feeds on the lizards, two species in particular.

The BH biology professor states there are approximately 100 Antiguan racers left in the world. The snake population has been decimated by predators such as the rat and mongoose that are common to the islands. The mongoose was introduced in the late 1890s to control the rat population on the sugar cane plantations across Antigua where rats had been accidentally introduced by European colonists.

“Even losing one snake is a major loss,” said Smith. “They are rarer than sea turtles, pandas or the rhinoceros.”

Smith says the study isn't flashy, the subject of investigation isn't furry, but it involves an extremely rare species.

Smith and Baum will be conducting a baseline study of the lizard population this summer using strip transects and point counts. A formal census has never been done. A single small island is now home to the snake and its current lizard populations will set the guideline numbers for re-introduction of the snakes to other islands in the area.

In preparation, the three targeted islands will have their rat and mongoose populations eradicated.

According to the BH researcher, the Antiguan racer (Alsophis antiguae) is a small snake not over two feet in length.

“It's not a special looking snake,” he said. “It's coloring is drab; a gray and brown mix. It is harmless and since there are no mammalian predators around you can walk right up to them. That makes our job easier.”

Last January, Smith spent some time on the islands working with the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project (ARCP) gathering data on the snake population. He was working with Jenny Daltry of Fauna and Flora International, a major environmental organization in Great Britain. He was referred to her work by a professional colleague and after exchanging e-mails they decided to collaborate on the research. She had only been working part time on the project.

“Since Jenny and I are the only two herpetologists working on the project, it looked like a worthwhile endeavor,” said Smith. To continue his research, he has received grant funding from the Columbus Zoo, Fauna and Flora International and from BHSU.

Baum also wrote two small grant proposals to the BHSU deans' council and to the university's Nelson research endowment. Both proposals were approved.

The BH senior said, “It's an opportunity to understand what goes into a project such as this. It will give me a knowledge of herpetology that you don't normally find in the classroom.”

Smith said the experiences Baum will receive are usually given only to graduate students, so this is an outstanding opportunity for him and will give him a leg up when he continues his quest for a graduate school assistantship.

There are several long-term outcomes Smith and his colleagues hope to accomplish over the duration of the five-year study. First, is the re-introduction of the Antiguan racer to several deserted islands; second is the continued monitoring of snakes and lizards; and third, is to involve students, including an Antiguan student, in the on-going project.

Smith said that an Antiguan student will be joining the two BH researchers when they arrive on the islands. He believes local involvement has been and will continue to be important to the continued success of the research.

The recovery of the racer is being directed by a consortium of six members: The Environmental Awareness Group of Antigua, Fauna and Flora International of Great Britain, the Durrell Wildlife Preservation Trust of Britain, the Antiguan Forestry Unit, the Island Resources Foundation of Washington, D.C., and Black Hills State University. Together this group is called the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project (ARCP).

BHSU will be officially voted on as a member of ARCP this summer.

Following Smith's and Baum's baseline work on the lizard population and estimating the carrying capacity of the islands, the re-introduction of the racer will begin this fall.

Smith's basic goals are then to follow the re-introduction of the Antiguan racer to part of its former range and follow up with annual censuses of the lizards and snakes.

The ARCP believes that a global population of approximately 500 Antiguan racers is needed to conserve the species. Knowledge of the lizard prey base available to snakes on each island will help to determine whether this goal can be met and which islands are most suitable.

In the meantime, Smith and Baum are busy planning for their trip and two-month outdoor experience. There are endless lists and equipment checks to review.

Smith noted that it sounds to most people like a vacation, but camping out and doing research can get tedious. By the time they enter the final two weeks of their stay on the islands, thoughts of ice cream and cooler weather will take on added significance.

A camping we will go - Dr. Brian Smith, right, assistant professor of biology at Black Hills State, and student Ryan Baum will spend two months in the Caribbean surveying the lizard populations on some small islands near Antigua. They are working with an international consortium to re-introduce the Antiguan racer, a critically endangered snake found only on Great Bird Island, to other islands it formerly inhabited. Two species of lizard are the racers' main diet so it is necessary to determine if there is a sufficient food supply. The two researchers are preparing their camping gear and double checking lists of supplies for their June through mid-August research project.