Rare Snakes Restored to Illinois Prairie Preserve

Eighteen smooth green snakes bred in captivity were released into the northern Illinois prairie a few dozen miles from Chicago today.

The snakes were freed as part of a joint conservation effort by Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo and the Lake County Forest Preserve District to restore the reptile in its natural environment.

“Categorized as an Illinois Species in Greatest Need of Conservation, these tiny, jewel-colored snakes have drastically dwindled in population over the past few decades,” Lincoln Park Zoo said in a statement accompanying the release of this file photo of a smooth green snake.

“Snakes need champions too,” said Lincoln Park Zoo Reintroduction Biologist Allison Sacerdote. “People like the warm and fuzzy animals, but it is important that conservation stretches across the entire ecosystem.”

After years of development across Illinois, the Prairie State has less than one percent of its original prairie intact, the Zoo noted in its news release.

“Our wildlife monitoring program revealed, that even in areas with the suitable habitat, smooth green snakes were absent or extremely rare despite our habitat restoration efforts,” said Gary Glowacki, Wildlife Biologist of the Lake County Forest Preserve District. “The decline we have seen is largely due to habitat loss as prairies were converted into agriculture, urbanization, and the widespread use of pesticides.”

Crickets and Worms

The snakes were hatched and allowed to develop under the watchful eye of animal care staffers to give them a fighting chance when they were released, the Zoo said. “The first step for us is to ensure females have a cozy place to nest and lay their eggs, which are about the size of a pinky fingernail,” said Dan Boehm, Zoological Manager of the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo. “Once the eggs hatch, we feed the young snakes a steady diet of crickets and worms and monitor their progress to assess which individuals would fare best in the wild.”

Of the most recent group of juvenile snakes hatched at the zoo in 2010 and 2011, more than half will be released into the preserve located a few dozen miles north of Chicago. The remaining snakes will stay at Lincoln Park Zoo where they can be seen on exhibit at the Children’s Zoo.

“The snakes destined for the prairie will be part of what scientists call a ‘soft release,’ meaning they will spend some time getting accustomed to the wild while still being contained in a controlled, managed environment designed to limit predators,” the Zoo said. “The individuals are then more likely to stay local to the forest preserve if they are accustomed to the area.”

“This group of snakes is the second batch released as part of the recovery program. Conservationists were pleased to see individuals from the first year thriving in their new wild home and say the success of the initial release provided them insight into the best way to set the snakes up for success,” the Zoo statement said.

Photo courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo.

Read more about this project on the Lincoln Park website.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn