Racing to Save Maine’s Black Racers

ArrayAugust 18, 2020 at 9:25 am

His leap was like something from a football playback, but instead of cradling a pigskin, he was lunging toward a flash of black rocketing through the tall grass, living up to its name, the black racer. I never expected catching snakes would require such agility, speed, and coordination. I used to catch snakes as a child, usually for my mom or step-mom who would burst out in a screech while gardening, yelling for me to remove it. I would gladly oblige, taking the time to check over the snake and bring it into the woods to be released. But I never had the speed nor the commitment to bound through the air, landing on my side, surely losing my breath after falling to the hard ground.

Derek Yorks, MDIFW reptile and amphibian biologist, stood with the large black snake in hand, never flinching as the snake bluffed and attempted to flee. He quickly realized, based on a pattern carefully clipped in several ventral scales to indicate the racer’s unique ID number, that this was a snake that had been fitted for a pit tag last year.

Derek, a couple of his crew, and myself had been walking around one of southern Maine’s WMA for hours in the hot sun looking for the State-Endangered Northern Black Racers. This WMA in particular is managed to provide habitat for specialists like the black racers (Coluber constrictor constrictor) and a number of grassland birds. The sandy soils support an uncommon sandplain grassland ecosystem – pitch pine and scrub oak woodlands, dry shrublands, and diverse range of other habitats with plenty of sun for these cold-blooded reptiles. In 2016, MDIFW biologists began a multi-year project seeking to confirm and document new or poorly-known areas of occupancy for black racers, and to establish a monitoring program at sites where black racer populations are known to occur. Tracking these snakes allows biologists to assess population abundance, habitat use, and movement, guiding future conservation for this species. On this particular field day, Derek and his crew returned three snakes after being surgically implanted with a tiny radio transmitter by a licensed vet and were seeking to obtain another few to be implanted.

As habitat continues to be developed, and encounters with people or their pets occur, population declines and local extinctions become more of a reality for these snakes. This year, in 2020, biologists are continuing to track another six individuals and continue unveiling habitat use and movement of these creatures to help better direct future habitat management to ensure the success of these animals.

Often earning a bad reputation, these snakes provide an important role in the ecosystem as a top predator in a declining ecosystem and often indicate the health of an ecosystem since so few places remain in Maine that can still support populations of this specie. Additionally, black racers are a food supply to a number of mammals and raptors and they provide rodent removal, limiting the spread of many diseases that can be transmitted by mice and other vermin. If you see a racer, or any other snake, give it space to flee and move out at their own pace. If you must remove a snake from your home, using a broom to coerce the snake into a trash barrel or some other large receptacle is a good way to safely remove it without injury or harm to the snake. If you’re walking a dog on conserved lands, leash your dog to minimize the potential for snakes to be injured or killed. If you’d like to maintain or enhance existing habitat for black racers and other snake species, let your grass grow longer, plant native shrubs and leave stick and rock piles for cover. Learn more about black racers and more of Maine’s reptiles and amphibians here.