It’s rare, it’s being pushed from its natural habitat, and in the past two years over two dozen have been found lurking underground in Fulton County.
It’s the Kirtland’s snake, a harmless grayish reptile with black spots and a bright red stomach. And because its numbers have declined it’s being studied in the county through a partnership by the Toledo Zoo, Bowling Green State University, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Between April and November since 2016, teams have pored over a local area where three Kirtland’s snakes were originally discovered. The result has garnered new data on the elusive creature, including one observation that surprised researchers.
“It’s a fun project,” said Matt Cross, a conservation biologist with the Toledo Zoo.
The Kirtland’s snake habitat is typically found in open, wet prairies, but those habitats have been reduced, Cross said. That has caused the snake’s “rare” status and its need to find other places to dwell.
“They’re turning up in areas we wouldn’t expect them,” Cross said. “The state was unaware there were Kirtland’s snakes here, and it’s hard to get a feel for population numbers in this state. There are a lot of question marks.”
The snake was petitioned last year for a federal listing under the Endangered Species Act, but was denied due to insufficient data. Cross said studying the snake in its Fulton County habitats and in other Ohio counties will help collect the necessary information.
Found mainly in the Great Lakes area, but also sighted in Kentucky, the Kirtland’s snake spends the majority of its life underground. About 30 have been found locally including a number of pregnant females. Hundreds have been found elsewhere in the state.
Cross said the local project began when a Toledo Zoo volunteer was canoeing in Fulton County and saw a distressed snake in the water. The volunteer snapped a photo and presented it to zoo personnel, who weren’t satisfied it was a Kirtland’s snake. They placed objects in the county to attract the snakes but found nothing.
Later, the zoo received a call from a county resident. Their teenage son was fishing nearby, disturbed the objects out of curiosity, and revealed three Kirtland’s snakes.
“There’s a reproducing population there,” Cross said.
Digital x-rays of the snakes by the researchers found they weren’t using crayfish burrows just as makeshift shelters but as a food source. “That’s a pretty unique observation. Now we have a clearer picture of why they’re associating with crayfish,” Cross said.
The local survey and others around the state are attempting to identify the snake’s locations, he said. In Fulton County, they’re fitted with radio transmitters to track their movements.
“We plan on continuing the work there as long as we can,” Cross said. “It’s a nice local hot spot for these snakes.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.