An Uninvited Guest
- March 31st, 2012
- in Yachting
An Uninvited Guest Slides into the Virgin Islands
On a bright and sunny morning a quarter century ago, workers began unloading cargo from a ship docked at the Sub-Base container port in St Thomas. Quietly and unnoticed, a small red and orange snake slithered out of the stacks of lumber and disappeared into the bushes of its new-found home. Thus, another exotic animal became established in the Virgin Islands.
While we can’t be certain it happened exactly like this, we do know that the new snake was first noticed about 1990 in the Sub-Base vicinity. When captured, it was identified as a corn snake, also known as the red rat snake. Native to Florida and the southeastern United States, they prefer woods, brushy fields and old buildings where they can search for their favorite prey, rats. That behavior makes them an ideal candidate for a stowaway on a ship.
As most snakes, these little fellows are not only harmless—they are very beneficial. In fact, they are called corn snakes because farmers often see them around stored grain and corn where they hunt rats and mice.
Corn snakes are colorful and easily identified by the orange and reddish blotches on the back. The colors can vary quite a bit from pale orange to dark browns to almost black. Such attractive colors, combined with a docile disposition and an average size of only four to five feet, have made them popular in the pet trade. Since they adapt well to captivity and are easy to breed, hobbyists now produce several colorful varieties.
So, that brings us around to the same question we often ask about invasive plants and animals: Why should we worry about this little snake or care that it is established in our islands? After all, it is a pretty little creature, isn’t dangerous and eats rats and mice. That seems to make it good to have around. Unfortunately, we just don’t know what affect these animals will have on our wildlife and our fragile island ecosystems.
As small, tropical islands, the Virgins possess a climate and environment that is ideal for the establishment of exotic wildlife. Our plants and animals have spent millennia adapting to each other and to the physical environment. It’s a delicate balance and one that is easily disturbed. The same is true of small tropical islands throughout the world. There are plenty of stories about introductions that have gone horribly wrong. Exotic animals can wreak havoc on native species. The rat and mongoose are perfect examples of such destructive critters. The simple fact is that we just don’t know what the corn snake may do once established. Of course, by then it will be too late to do much about it. So, the safe bet is to not take chances where we don’t know the risks.
This is what we do know. Corn snakes are probably here to stay. Since they were first reported in about 1990, most sightings have occurred on St Thomas in the Sub-Base area near Crown Bay, Nisky and environs. Babies have been found so that seems to indicate successful breeding. Females can lay 12 to 24 eggs at a time so it wouldn’t take long to build up a good population. We’re not sure how far they have spread, but individuals have been found on Tortola at Port Purcell and on Peter Island. It seems reasonable they were stowaways in cargo from St Thomas. Since they appear to be good at hitching a ride on ships, it is likely individuals have arrived more than once. Who knows what else has arrived, or will arrive, the same way?
Once established, they may be hard to eradicate. As constrictors they are good climbers and capable of taking a variety of prey. More importantly, they may compete with our indigenous snakes, especially the endangered Virgin Islands tree boa. We already have a pretty efficient rat and mouse catcher that gets along well with our native wildlife. Why risk upsetting the balance and possibly creating a much bigger problem. If this is indeed a problem, what should we do about it?
First, both government and we as individuals must be more careful about what we import. Containers and other cargo should be checked for stowaways. There are well known techniques and procedures to accomplish this. If you have exotic pets, never release them into the wild. Rather than doing a good deed by setting them free, you are more likely dooming them to starvation or capture by predators. Worse still, you may introduce a creature that will do serious harm to our native wildlife. Keep your pets or find them a good home. Be alert for unusual looking wildlife. Our native snakes tend to be either plain brownish or patterned with grey and brown markings. If it has bright colors, it is definitely not native. Unless you are an expert on snake identification and handling, it is best to call the US Fish & Wildlife office in the USVI or the Conservation & Fisheries Department in the BVI. Let’s all work together to protect our native ecosystems and keep the invasives out.