Slow spring, fast snakes: An update on blue racer spring surveys
Posted onJuly 13, 2022by|, ,
Here I am marveling at a lovely adult racer. Seeing them up close never gets old!
If you have ever been lucky enough to see a blue racer in person, you’ll know just how impressive these snakes are. Blue racers are smooth, large-bodied snakes, with typical colouration consisting of blue-grey dorsal (back) scales, white ventral (belly) scales and upper lip, a black mask over their eyes, and a tan-coloured snout. As their name suggests, blue racers are fast, and are estimated to be capable of travelling at speeds up to 7 km/hr. Though historically found at several locations across Southwestern Ontario, blue racers were extirpated from the mainland almost 3 decades ago, largely due to habitat destruction and fragmentation. Only one population remains in Canada and is restricted solely to Pelee Island on Lake Erie.
Blue racers are one of Canada’s most endangered snake species.
Close up of a blue racer, in hand before being released.
One of the many ongoing projects to conserve the remaining blue racer population in Canada includes the calculation of an updated population estimate for the species, lead by Ryan Wolfe.
The population size for blue racers on Pelee Island has not been assessed for 20 years, and so an updated estimation will provide insight on how the population has been doing since then, and will inform conversation and management efforts. This is the third and final year of blue racer surveys, contributing to the updated population estimate.
Blue racer surveys in early spring are focused around their hibernacula, which are typically holes in exposed rock that allow them to go underground for the winter. As ectotherms, blue racers rely on the warmth of the sun to speed up their metabolic rate and provide them with energy. They wait until spring temperatures are consistently warm before they emerge from hibernation and are often found basking in the sun nearby.
As a new member to the snake research team, this spring was my first time visiting Pelee Island, and my first time ever seeing blue racers in the wild. During the past two spring surveys, the team had observed blue racers on the same day that they arrived at the island, and so I was ready to see my lifer blue racer as soon as we docked! However, this year spring began on Pelee Island with a long stretch of cold, overcast, and rainy days. Without the warmth of the sun, blue racers remained hidden in their hibernacula for a little longer than usual. Each day, we eagerly surveyed hibernation sites, desperate to catch a glimpse of a racer poking out to soak up some warmth.
Finally, after over a week of anticipation, the island graced us with some warm weather and our teams observed the first racers of the year on April 10!
One of the first blue racers of the year being measured by long-time member of the project, Taylor Kennedy. Data collected from each snake includes body length, weight, pit tag number, and notes on their appearance.
Following the slow start, the remaining four weeks of surveys were a great success. The weather remained unpredictable, but this actually proved beneficial, with many snakes taking advantage of the good-weather days to spend their time out in the open. Numerous blue racers were observed this spring, including both previously captured snakes and new individuals across a wide age range, from juveniles to large adults.
My personal first racer capture: a small male that I named in honour of my dog, Sully.
While calculations are not yet complete, using all three years of survey data, preliminary results based on the first two years have shown that the population may not be declining as quickly as expected.
For the official population estimate of Canada’s remaining blue racers, stay tuned!