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article imageStudy shows snake populations in alarming decline

By Paris Franz     Jun 9, 2010 in Environment
Snake populations around the world have declined markedly in recent years, according to a study published in the journal Biology Letters. The researchers describe the findings as alarming.
Researchers examined records for 17 snake populations covering eight species in the UK, France, Italy, Nigeria and Australia over the last few decades, the BBC reports. For reasons that are not entirely clear, some populations shrank in number abruptly around 1998.
"This is the first time that data has been analysed in this way, and what we've shown is that in different parts of the world we seem to have this steep decline in a short period," said project leader Dr Chris Reading, of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. "It surprised us when we realised what we were looking at.”
The widespread disappearance of snakes will be one impact of climate change that some people may find it hard to regret. But as vital predators in sensitive habitats such as rice fields, their decline will have wider ecological consequence, the Guardian reports.
Long-term studies have previously revealed population declines in fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Many of these declines are a global phenomenon whose causes may vary but are often unclear. Among reptiles, snakes are top predators and therefore a decline in their numbers may have serious consequences for the functioning of many ecosystems.
The paper reports 11 of the population groups have "declined sharply", while five remained stable, and one showed a very weak sign of increase. Many of the researchers also found evidence of "population crashes" – a sudden decline followed by no sign of recovery – a trend which would make the survivors more vulnerable to being wiped out by further pressures.
"All the declines occurred during the same relatively short period of time and over a wide geographical area that included temperate, Mediterranean and tropical climates," write the authors. "We suggest that, for these reasons alone, there is likely to be a common cause at the root of the declines and that this indicates a more widespread phenomenon."
The year when many of the snake declines began, 1998, raises the question of whether climatic factors might be involved, as very strong El Nino conditions contributed to making it the hottest year recorded in modern times.
Dr Reading's research group suggests many causes might be involved, and is appealing to other researchers to come forward with any more long-term datasets that might broaden the picture.
"The purpose of this paper was to say 'this is what we've found', and to say to other herpetologists 'now go and look at your own data'," he told the BBC. "But I think that with so many populations in different places showing decline, it's more than co-incidence."
More about Snake decline, Environmental degradation, Species decline
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