Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Looking For The Famous Cottonmouth Moccasins of Seahorse Key ... at night, with mosquitoes, lightning, and teenagers.

Last night, the Seahorse Key Marine Ecology campers went searching for the legendary Seahorse Key Cottonmouth Water Moccasins.
We were lead by Dr. Coleman Sheehy, a biologist who has studied these snakes for years and has an infectious enthusiasm for them. 
This year's walk was different from past camps, because the snakes have fallen on hard times. Since the nesting seabird colonies suddenly abandoned the island in April of 2015, the snakes have lost a major food source.
Not the birds, the snakes don't eat them.
They eat the fish that the seabirds drop from their perches.
The presence of the moccasins ... LOTS of them, keep predators away from the nesting colonies.
This mutualistic relationship between bird and snake has gone on for decades, but at least for now it is over.
The result?
The snakes are starving... hungry to the point of cannibalism.

More birds are nesting over at Snake Key 2 miles away, but Seahorse still remains vacant a year after the mysterious abandonment.

With the kids properly sloshed with DEET and armed with flashlights we set out on the dark starlit beach. It wasn't long before a kid spotted our first snake.
(It was hard to see through the INSANE CLOUDS OF MOSQUITOES), but we all got a good look, took some pics, and then moved on.
A beautiful distant lightning show was happening out over the Gulf as we walked. It was incredible, even if I only captured a partial view in the phone pic above.
In the first 8 minutes of our walk, we spotted 4 moccasins on the beach. They are basically beachcombing, using their strong sense of smell to locate dead fish or other edibles along the shore.
All of them were skinny, not the typically thick bodied Seahorse Key cottonmouths of years past. 

We cut the walk short due to our rapid success in snake spotting AND the vast hordes of mosquitoes that ignored our bug spray defenses.
The dark walk back to the lab was lit by stars and that incredible lightning show reflecting off the calm Gulf waters.

These kids, from Ohio, Arkansas, and New York are going to have GREAT stories to tell when they get home.
And ... isn't that what it's all about?


Julie Zickefoose said...

It saddens me to think that the snakes are starving to the point that they're visibly thin. Such an interesting commensalism going on. And the combination of teens, cottonmouths, mosquitoes and lightning is a giddy one.

robin andrea said...

What a great walk you took those teenagers on. Those are the kind of nights they will always remember. A bummer though about those skinny snakes. Sure hope they find something yummy and nutritional to eat.

Pablo said...

I don't suppose you could teach the snakes to eat the mosquitos, could you?

Lisa Greenbow said...

I am glad their weakening isn't due to the green algae that has been in the news. Sad for the snakes. It does make you wonder why the birds departed.

Heather McC. said...

Poor snakes. :-( And poor kids getting eaten by mosquitos! However, the timing of your snake related post is a good one, because I've really been hoping someone could ID a snake my husband and I bumped into the other day. Would you be willing to take a peek at a few pictures I took? I don't want to be a pest or anything, but it's been driving me crazy wondering what kind of snake this was. We live on the coast of South Carolina (Charleston area) and were trimming the branches of one of our palmetto trees. When we were clearing the branches away we spotted this little guy: http://imgur.com/a/6R3u0 We scratched our heads for awhile, looked online at pictures of various juvenile snakes but never did reach a solid conclusion. Given the fact we didn't know for sure what he was, (and also that my neighbors would likely kill him regardless if they came across him) we relocated him to a safer location.

Wally Jones said...

What a terrific outing! You're absolutely right - the experience those kids had will remain a part of them forever. And they hold the keys to the future.

Very nice work being part of all that.

Vicki Bennett said...

Sounds like a wonderful night walk if not for the mosquitos but I'm stuck on the question of why the seabirds have moved away. That seems significant. No theories whatsoever?

R.Powers said...

I'm super late on responding, but your snake was a ratsnake, and THANK YOU for releasing it in a safe spot. We need more folks like you!

Giddy pretty much describes it! They'll never forget the snakey/skeeter walk and will always be able to top their friends tales when the subject of mosquitoes comes up!

Wally, Yup, somewhere, off in the future, these kids are old, but they are still telling this tale.

Vicki and Lisa,
Seabird evac ideas focus on the 2 most substantial events that occured at about the same time. Influx of raccoons ... rumor of someone releasing them there, and homeland security chopper hovering over the islands at night. No smoking gun yet if ever.

Hopefully the birds will return in 2017 and the snakes that survive til then can rebuild.

Genius. Working on that now.

Heather McC. said...

Thank-you! I was leaned towards a ratsnake but just wasn't sure at all.