Friday, April 11, 2008

Ancistrodon cochlearis mortifera

Beaked Snake Species Hope for Plague Rodent Cull

Marthel Ivgrin at Eldorado Springs, Colorado
for National Geographic News
April 8, 2008

This is the fourth story in a continuing series on the Limbless Predators Project.

“The Platypus of the Prairies” is the joking moniker given by US Fish and Wildlife officials to this pitviper, one of the planet’s few beaked Ophidians. The joke is that the spoonbilled copperhead (Ancistrodon cochlearis mortifera) is naturally a desert dweller—although many desire its presence in the grassier parts of America’s heartland.

With its appetite limited to rodents, the spoonbilled copperhead has an advantage over other snakes when raiding the burrows and warrens of its prey: its seven to nine inch-long, tong-like bill, impervious to claws and teeth, can grasp the fiercest quarry with little or no hazard to the assailant. Once the victim is adequately clamped in the broad front sections of the mandibles (the “spoons”) so that it can no longer struggle, the snake’s thick, strong tongue lashes out, snaring the rodent like a lasso and dragging it toward the mouth. Only then do the waiting fangs envenom the prey.

The venom is the weakest of any copperhead’s, but it can still cause hemorrhaging, swelling, nausea, gangrene, and possibly, if untreated, death.

Many experts see the spoonbilled copperhead as the ultimate solution to the recurring problem of bubonic plague-infected prairie dogs in Colorado, Kansas and other Midwestern states. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has already approved a plan to relocate several spoonbilled copperhead families to the next confirmed prairie dog plague zone. “They’re so specialized in their feeding habits,” says Shelly Ditmars, an environmental specialist for the Boulder County Health Department. “That’s what’s so great about them. If we put a batch of spoonbilled copperhead in the direct vicinity of the prairie dog burrows, they’ll go right to work.” What’s more, these snakes are immune to the bubonic plague and will not spread it to other animals. Nor will their presence cause a perilous drop in the prairie dog population, which renews itself quickly.

Needless to say, residents, hikers and tourists visiting these designated areas will be cautioned not to allow their pets to run free, and very small pets will be prohibited altogether.