This week, we released the third group of head-started smooth green snakes into a Lake County Forest Preserve to help populations of this native snake recover.
Two smooth green snakes ready for release.
Head-starting the smooth green snakes—letting them hatch, grow and mature at Lincoln Park Zoo before release—has been very successful. We had great hatching success and phenomenal growth rates. Being larger at the time of release gives these little snakes a better chance of surviving changes in temperature—especially the cold Chicago winters.
With this last release of the summer, it was very exciting to watch snakes that I saw hatch last summer head out into nature to fend for themselves. Because smooth green snakes are so good at blending into their grassland environment, the moment I set them down on the ground, they quickly disappeared.
Now I will try to follow the snakes to see if they survive in the field. I have a few methods for locating these cryptic snakes after release. A passive method is placing cover objects, such as pieces of plywood, in the area of the release. Snakes use cover objects for shelter. In addition to the snakes I’m seeking, I typically find red-bellied snakes, common gartersnakes and plains gartersnakes beneath the cover objects.
Smooth green snakes are challenging to spot under the boards because they blend in with the plant roots and stems. You do occasionally find some surprises under the boards. This week, I found a newly metamorphosed tiger salamander making its way from a pond into the upland habitat!
A surprise sighting: a tiger salamander!
For active tracking, I use a telemetry receive to follow radio transmitters taped to the snakes. The transmitters emit signals that can be detected with a directional antenna and the receiver. Once I have the direction of the snake, I use the receiver alone to pinpoint its location. When I hear a strong pulse from the receiver with the volume turned low, I can identify the patch of grass where the snake is located. I then carefully sift through the dried grasses with my hands to catch the snakes.
When I find a snake, I weigh and measure it to examine changes in body condition, and to see if it is close to shedding. The transmitters will only stay on the snakes for about three weeks, or until the snake sheds. I look forward to following them during this time as they establish new homes!
Allison Sacerdote, Ph.D., is a reintroduction biologist with the zoo's Urban Wildlife Institute.