For more on copperbelly water snakes, go to:
•IPFW Environmental Resources Center, http://herpcenter.ipfw.edu/copperbelly/CopperbellyFactSheet.pdf
•U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fact sheet, www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered/reptiles/cws/cwsFactSht.html
It looked like a tangle of fallen branches and roots near the water's edge.
But the sheen of a couple of the “branches” tipped off experts in the group that we had come upon two copperbelly water snakes basking in the sun.
As people maneuvered around slowly to get a better view without scaring away the snakes, they discovered three more copperbellys in the grass farther up the bank.
“That is a bunch of males probably all looking for a female,” Bruce Kingsbury, a biology professor at IPFW and director of the university's Environmental Resources Center, said of the gathering.
But it was a great start to a day spent hiking through woods and around wetlands to survey the copperbelly population, which is slithering toward extinction in the Tri-state area.
The population survey May 22, which was organized by The Nature Conservancy's Western Lake Erie Basin office in Angola, took place in and around the Lake La Su An Wildlife Area in northwest Ohio.
Kingsbury, a copperbelly expert, estimates a combined total of about 100 copperbellys still may live in isolated patches of forested wetlands where the borders of Indiana, Ohio and Michigan intersect northeast of Angola.
The snakes, which have a black or dark-colored back and orange-red belly, can grow to about 4 feet long, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports at www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered/reptiles/cws.
The northern population of copperbellys has been listed since January 1997 as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported.
The southern population of copperbellys, which federal officials don't consider threatened, lives in southern Indiana, southern Illinois and Kentucky, Kingsbury said. However, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan list the snake as an endangered species in their states.
Historical records indicate the northern population of copperbellys once lived from the South Bend and Elkhart areas through their current range and down toward Columbus, Ohio, said Kingsbury, who has studied the snakes since the early 1990s. Today, he and other researchers believe the northern copperbellys survive in only a few pockets in and around Lake La Su An Wildlife Area.
The five snakes spotted early in last week's survey were the only ones the group saw that day.
Northern copperbellys face three main threats — loss of habitat, capture by collectors and death by predators, such as raccoons, skunks, raptors and snapping turtles.
Unlike many other snakes, which may spend their lives in the same small area, copperbelly water snakes need a large mosaic of wetlands and forest, Kingsbury said.
Copperbellys eat mainly frogs and tadpoles, so they travel around to shallow wetlands where they can find food, he said. The snakes may travel up to 50 meters in a day.
The travel information comes from a study in which he surgically inserted tiny radio transmitters in copperbellys and two of his former IPFW graduate students tracked the snakes' movements.
During that study, they also learned copperbellys rarely cross roads, effectively isolating the existing northern populations from each other. Through testing, however, Kingsbury and his students learned installing culverts — large drainage pipes — under roads provides tunnels the snakes will use to cross to the other side.
To continue monitoring the northern copperbelly population, one of Kingsbury's current IPFW master's degree students, Lauren Hall of Rochester Hills, Mich., recently began testing whether researchers can use motion-activated cameras to detect copperbelly water snakes.
Hall has set up basking platforms in shallow water where copperbellys have been seen in the Lake La Su An area. If snakes use them, she said, she will set up similar platforms and cameras in locations where the habitat is suitable for copperbellys but where none have been seen.
“If they actually use them, it will help the copperbelly,” she said of the basking platforms. “We can monitor them.”
As of late last week, the cameras had captured images only of raccoons, frogs, a turtle and a different species of snake, she said.
The Nature Conservancy's work to save wetlands and forests in the Tri-state area also has been a big help to copperbellys, Kingsbury said.
“They have funded research on a variety of species and have considered and acted on recommendations from that and other projects to guide decisions about property management and land acquisition,” he said.
The Nature Conservancy's nearly 1,200-acre Douglas Woods Nature Preserve near Hamilton has habitat suitable for copperbellys and could become a site where the snakes are reintroduced, Kingsbury said.
However, there's more at stake than just saving a threatened snake, Kingsbury noted. Copperbellys are an indicator species.
“If you can succeed in protecting … (it),” he said, “that's telling you that you have a healthy landscape for a whole lot of other things.”