Smooth greensnakes occupy a wide range of habitats, though they depend on moist, grassy areas in prairies, marshes, or near lakes. This species is declining due to habitat destruction and limitations to their insect prey base from insecticides. Some populations have been completely eradicated. The Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is raising juvenile snakes for eventual release into the wild, and studying the best techniques to help the greensnake population recover.
About the Smooth Greensnake
Smooth greensnakes are small snakes that live in the prairies of Northeastern Illinois. If you’re lucky, you may see the flash of green moving through the grass as these snakes slither to and from nesting sites and bask in the summer sun. Unfortunately, these emerald flashes are becoming rarer in Illinois. Like many of the animals that rely on Illinois’ once vast prairie land, their habitat is now threatened by human development and changing climate conditions. That is why Dr. Allison Sacerdote-Velat and her team at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum are working to save them.
What is the Nature Museum Doing to Help?
The team at the Nature Museum is working to save the smooth greensnake Illinois population by monitoring existing populations, surveying the areas that could support a population and headstarting young snakes from eggs of wild adults and supplementing them back into their parents’ site in the wild. By incubating and hatching eggs, this program is able to overcome the most vulnerable time in a snake’s lifecycle. The Museum is currently operating programs in DuPage and Lake County.
In late April/early May, the Nature Museum team typically begins surveys of the prairielands to find adult snakes that will lay eggs. The snakes tend to start nesting in the third or fourth week of June. Hatching generally starts in the third week of July and continues into mid-August. This is a very busy time for researchers, because nesting and hatching can occur throughout the time period. Researchers monitor wild nests every two to three days until the activity slows down in October.
The Museum has incubated eggs with 93% hatching success. In 2017, the team released 90 uniquely marked hatchlings in DuPage County for future identification and estimation of first-year survival.
Smooth greensnakes protect the prairies by feeding on small leaf-eating insects, such as crickets and grasshoppers. By keeping these populations in balance, plants are healthier and thrive in the prairie. Other species in the ecosystem, including birds, rely on the smooth greensnake population as a food source.
The snakes are, however, very picky about their weather and land conditions. As a result, land management for the species is a significant challenge. If conditions become too dry during nesting, eggs will shrivel up. If too large an area is burned at once, it may leave snakes with insufficient cover from predators. If an area becomes too overgrown with plants, basking and nesting sites become too shaded for the snakes. One technique conservationists use to maintain this balance is through controlled burns of prairie areas in a mosaic rotation.
Meet the Expert
“Smooth greensnakes are an umbrella species for grassland conservation. This means by addressing conservation threats in the prairies, we help other species that share these habitats.“
Dr. Allison Sacerdote-Velat
Dr. Allison Sacerdote-Velat is the Curator of Herpetology at Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, conducting research focused on conservation and restoration of local reptiles and amphibians including the smooth greensnake and wood frog. Allison coordinates the Calling Frog Survey, a community science program that monitors amphibians across the Illinois region.
Funders and partners include: Lake County Forest Preserve District and Citizens for Conservation
Partners include: Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Fermilab, McHenry County Conservation District and DeKalb Forest Preserve District
Banner photos courtesy of Martha Dol. (CC BY-SA 2.0), HediBougghanmi2015 (CC BY-SA 3.0).