Thursday, January 21, 2010

Threatened Northern Pine Snakes

Northern pine snake on sand

The northern pine snake is a relatively large (5-7 feet or 122-172 cm) black and dull white to yellowish or light gray snake. These snakes have blotches that are dark towards the front of the body but may fade to brown near and on the tail.

Known for their noisy hiss, pine snakes are typically ground dwellers and rarely climb vegetation. Since this species is both secretive and fossorial (it burrows underground), it can easily go undetected even in locations where it is known to be common

Let's start out by saying that the pine snake is a nonvenomous constrictor. It kills its prey by coiling itself around it in order to suffocate the animal. Pine snakes are known to eat mammals as large as rabbits, as well as small rodents and birds. They are usually most active in early morning or late afternoon when they leave their burrows to hunt.

The Northern pine snake (Pituophis melanoleucus melanoleucus) is a threatened species in New Jersey and was the September Species of the Month. The designation was part of a yearlong program to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the New Jersey Endangered Species Conservation Act and the formation of DEP's Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP).

Pine snakes are egg-layers and typically lay their eggs in underground nests that they excavate in open sandy areas. Eggs are usually laid in mid-summer, and adult females have the tendency to re-use their nest sites year after year.

Pine snakes in New Jersey require dry pine-oak forest types growing on very infertile sandy soils such as Lakehurst or Lakewood sands (Burger and Zappalorti 1988, 1989). Both human-caused and natural disturbances (e.g. agriculture, forestry, and fire) are probably involved in creating the types of openings important for nesting and basking. Sandy infertile soil not only provides for persistent openings in disturbed sites, but may also be important because pine snakes are the only snakes known to dig hibernacula and summer dens.

The secretive nature of this snake has lead to some degree of uncertainty about its overall status in the northeastern United States. All indications seem to suggest that pine snake abundance has decreased throughout its northeastern range, however. It is also believed that pine snakes have been extirpated from West Virginia and Maryland. The
New Jersey Pinelands may hold some of the largest populations of pine snakes in the Northeast, but even in the Pinelands this species is at risk.

If unexpectedly encountered on the trail or in the woods, this large, white-and-black patterned snake would most likely vibrate its tail, hiss loudly, and then try to escape. Though its bold appearance and actions may fool or scare some people, this particular species of snake is not venomous. In fact, it is harmless to people and is a beneficial predator in nature.

There are four types of pine snakes that can be found in the United States. The northern pine snake is found in the Northern and Eastern-Central regions of the country, in areas with sandy soils and dry upland forests. The population distribution of this pine snake is spotty and all indications suggest that pine snake abundance is decreasing throughout the Northeastern region.

Coiled Northern pine snake

The northern pine snake populations in New Jersey have been affected by a loss of habitat due to development, illegal collecting (due to its popularity as a pet), and other more individualized behavior such as the thoughtless killing of snakes by hikers, automobile drivers and users of off-road vehicles. Never kill a snake if encountering one in a natural area, either when you are traveling on foot or in a vehicle. Back away slowly and do not disturb it.

Anyone who is interested in reptiles and amphibians and enjoys being outdoors can become a volunteer with the Herp Atlas Project. Department staff and volunteers are collecting data on the locations and abundance of all reptile and amphibian species throughout the state. This data will be used to map the critical habitat and distribution of these species, which will allow the agency to better plan for the state's wildlife conservation efforts. Department staff would like to learn about your sightings of an endangered, threatened or rare species in New Jersey. To file a report of a sighting, download and complete the Threatened and Endangered Species Report Form. This data helps biologists and wildlife managers to look at habitat and population trends and then develop appropriate conservation strategies.

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