Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
What animal is yellow with black stripes, has no legs and lives in Southwest Nova Scotia?
If you guessed the Eastern Ribbonsnake, now listed as a threatened species both federally and provincially, you would be correct.
Researchers at the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute (MTRI) in Kempt, Queens County have been trying to learn more about the rare snake.
Not only are there not many of them, according to researcher Lori Phinney the snakes are special because they are semi-aquatic, "while most species spend most of their time on land."
Eastern Ribbonsnakes can be found in the southwest interior of the province and are only known to occur in scattered wetlands of three watersheds – the Mersey, Medway, and LaHave Rivers. This isolation, restricted distribution, and apparently small population have resulted in the listing of the snake as threatened.
Under the Canadian Species at Risk Act (2002) a threatened species is defined as "a wildlife species that is likely to become an endangered species if nothing is done to reverse the factors leading to its extirpation or extinction." Whereas an endangered species is described as "a wildlife species that is facing imminent extirpation or extinction."
According to Phinneey, the researchers haven't known a lot about the snakes because they haven't had a way to track them.
"We have been going out and surveying habitats where we think they might be, and just confirming whether they are or have been present there or not," she explained. "What we've really wanted to do is track where they go for the winter. We kind of know where they live for the summer, but because they just go underground and hibernate for the winter, we haven't been able to find them."
Staff at MTRI had placed tracking devices on the snakes' backs previously, but with little success. Recently they discovered a more effective tactic is to duct tape a transmitter to the snakes' bellies.
"It was pretty surprising for us, because we just thought it would stay better by placing it on their back," said Phinney.
To put their size into perspective, the slender snakes weigh between 15 and 30 grams and may only get up to two feet in length. As such, they could be mistaken for a small garter snake.
Luckily for the researchers, "they are quite friendly and calm and they don't try to bite us," making tagging easier, said Phinney.
Recently Grade 11 and 12 biology students from North Queens Community School went out with MTRI staff to look for some of the ribbonsnakes, and they managed to find one.
"It was fun. We learned how the whole operation was done, and we learned a few things about the ribbonsnake as well," said Mason Crouse.
Shaylynn MacNutt agreed, and said the classmates would enjoy going out again.
MTRI staff members are now tracking four different ribbonsnakes that are spending most of the time underground. On warm days, however, the snakes can be seen popping up and going for a swim before returning to the warmth of their dens.
According to Phinney, staff can now take more action in protecting the snakes' winter habitat with the hope that their population will grow.
Phinney and her team at MTRI are asking anyone who comes across a ribbonsnake to call 1-866-727-3447 or contact them by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com. The public can also volunteer to conduct snake services with MTRI staff if interested.