A hidden casualty of the drought and heat that afflict northeast Indiana this summer is the snake population.
People aren't seeing many snakes this summer for two reasons, said Bruce Kingsbury, director of the Environmental Resources Center at IPFW. First, the cold-blooded animals are working to stay cool, instead of sunning themselves, and because they need to stay moist, they're more likely to be holed up in shaded places. Second, because many of the creatures snakes prey on depend on water for habitat, snakes are likely suffering a famine this summer, too.
Hard luck for snakes this year likely means a snake-scarce summer next year, too, he said.
“I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of them are dying,” he said. “This is a bad reproductive year for them.”
If they're scraping by on thin hunting this summer, they won't be able to store much energy to tide themselves over in hibernation.
“If they go into hibernation skinny this fall, they won't have much to work with,” Kingsbury said.
This jibes with what Superintendent Ron Zartman sees at Fox Island County Park.
“I've seen very few snakes. The ones we have seen are brown snakes and garter snakes,” Zartman said. A key reason for the drop in snake populations there, he said, is that the marsh in the park has dried up. That means no habitat for more water-dependent snakes and less prey, such as frogs.
Kingsbury noted that even in times of ideal weather, snakes face some considerable obstacles. Besides presenting opportunities to be run over by cars, roads divide the territory snakes cover in search of food. That territory is surprisingly large. Kingsbury said even the small, familiar snakes such as garter snakes may cover 10-20 acres as a territory.
And two predators that eat snakes do so with a lot of help from humans. House cats have bowls of food available at home to tide them over when they don't catch food, and raccoons are so adept at finding food in human environments – whether by dumping trash cans or raiding pet food – that they're also sustained by people. That's why he calls both cats and raccoons “subsidized predators.”