Snakes in a park? Not as much trouble as you’d expect

Usually, conservation efforts aimed at unpopular and feared species take place well away from areas where humans live. But don’t count our habitat out, even for species as reviled as venomous snakes, says a study recently published in the journal Biological Conservation.

Between 2006 and 2012, researchers cut down trees and encouraged the growth of shrubs in parts of a large suburban park adjacent to Le Mans, a city of about 320,000 people located in western France. The 450-hectare park, known as “Ark of Nature,” is mostly pine, chestnut, and oak forest, with a sprinkling of meadows and orchards throughout. About 70,000 schoolchildren and other visitors attend the park’s educational programs each year, and 50,000 more use its jogging and cycling trails, playgrounds, and other recreational facilities.

Spiny shrubs—mostly berry brambles, but also gorse, hawthorn, and dog-rose—soon colonized the areas where trees had been cut. People often perceive such shrubby, brambly habitats as messy and unkempt, the opposite of what they expect to see in a park. But these habitats are known to be good for snakes, which bask in the sunny spots and take cover—as well as hunt prey such as voles, field mice, and lizards—among the brambles.

And indeed, the researchers conducted field surveys and found more snakes in open areas than in the park’s forest. In the newly opened areas, snakes also increased over time. “Open habitats were more often occupied by snakes and, more importantly, opening the habitat triggered an increase in occupancy rate,” the researchers write.

The results suggest that relatively simple management activities can promote healthy populations of snakes, which are declining in many areas. However, the researchers say, continued maintenance may be necessary to keep trees from growing back and re-establishing the forest canopy.

Altogether the researchers found 774 snakes belonging to four different species, including grass snakes (Natrix natrix), smooth snakes (Coronella austriaca), and a handful of Aesculapian snakes (Zamenis longissima). The most abundant snake in the park, the European asp (Vipera aspis), is also venomous.

Yet people didn’t seem to mind having a poisonous snake in their midst. The researchers advertised their conservation efforts and conducted educational activities about snake ecology, and while the current study wasn’t designed to measure public attitudes about the presence of the snakes, they say there’s no evidence of much opposition. “Complaints from the public were absent, which demonstrates that management strategies that favor unpopular organisms are feasible, even in densely populated areas,” the researchers write. – Sarah DeWeerdt | 1 March 2016

Source: Bonnet X. et al. “Forest management bolsters native snake populations in urban parks.” Biological Conservation DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2015.11.001

Header image: A European asp (Vipera aspis) photographed in France. Credit: Bernard Dupont via Flickr.