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Ecologist finds dire devastation of snake species following floods of '93, '95

In science, its best to be good, but sometimes its better to be lucky.

Ecologist Owen Sexton, professor emeritus of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, had just completed a census of snakes at a conservation preserve northwest of St. Louis, when the great flood of 1993 deluged the area, putting the preserve at least 15 feet under water.

The flood provided Sexton with a rare opportunity: His collected data and the flood would combine to make the perfect study of how an area rebounds from natural disaster.

He went back the following year and found that the flood had displaced or killed 70 percent of the pre-flood population of five snake species, and either eliminated the populations of three other species found there, or left the populations so low that they could not be detected.

Key to survival" Size. It matters to a snake when floodwaters roar through the environment. The bigger the snake, the better chance for survival, Sexton found, and arboreal species those that hang out in trees fared better than (surprise) aquatic ones.

Creating a natural lifeboat

Sexton proposes that islands of displaced soil be constructed at various locales in the conservation area that would serve as sanctuaries during subsequent floods. Such a natural lifeboat would serve as a temporary shelter for members of resident species of snakes and other fauna, as well as a landfall for resident and non-resident species swept down from upstream.

Sextons findings were published in the Natural Areas Journal, Vo. 27 (2), 2007. The work was supported by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Often forgotten is that the flood of 1995 also involved both the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The flood halted Sextons pursuit of data, but he went back in 1996 and gathered data, and also in 2000.

Tale of three serendipities

Marais Temps Clair, in St. Charles County, Mo., is a

Contact: Tony Fitzpatrick
Washington University in St. Louis

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