Eighteen of the cutest creepy crawlers in Chicagoland were released into the wild on August 29 as part of a joint conservation effort by Lincoln Park Zoo and the Lake County Forest Preserve District that seeks to restore the Smooth Green Snake to its native prairie home.
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.
“Snakes need champions too,” said Lincoln Park Zoo Reintroduction Biologist Allison Sacerdote, Ph.D. “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.
“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.”
Essentially, the grasslands and the critters that call them
home need all the help they can get. In the case of the Smooth Green Snake, the help begins with a
“head start” at the zoo. Animal care
staffers provide optimum conditions for hatching and development so the snakes
have a fighting chance when they are released.
Photo Credit: James Seidler
“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 were released into the preserve located a few dozen miles north of Chicago. The remaining snakes will stay at Lincoln Park Zoo.
The snakes destined for the prairie are 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 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.