Snakes are the latest animal to see a sudden decline in numbers, according to a scientific paper published by Britain's Royal Society journal, Biology Letters, on Wednesday. Researchers found that many snake populations nosedived at an “alarming” rate across a range of habitats between 1998 and 2002—some by as much as 90 percent.
“Our results show that, of 17 snake populations (eight species) from the U.K., France, Italy, Nigeria and Australia, 11 have declined sharply over the same relatively short period of time with five remaining stable and one showing signs of a marginal increase," the study’s authors write.
The smooth snake in the U.K., the asp viper of France and Italy, and Nigeria’s royal python are among the mysteriously plummeting species. Australia’s tiger snake population, meanwhile, is stable.
While not everyone will shed a tear for disappearing snakes, the scientists warn that the loss of such a crucial predator could have wide-reaching ecological impacts. Snakes eat rats and mice in rice paddies, wheat fields and sugar cane plantations. Without the reptile, farmers can anticipate battling an unrestrained pest population, which is particularly bad news in countries where farmers already struggle to feed rapidly growing populations.
The study suggests that snakes could be suffering from pollution, disease and a combined loss of habitat and prey. But climate change, they suspect, is the root cause.
As Richard Black writes for the BBC, the fact that the sharp fall in snake numbers began in 1998—a year that happened to be particularly freakish, weather-wise—may be the smoking gun incriminating climate change.
More research will need to be done to conclusively pinpoint the cause and the extent of the phenomenon, however. When scientists noticed in 1989 that frogs and amphibians were dying off, the culprit turned out to be a deadly fungus called chytridiomycosis.
Delegates from 97 countries are in South Korea this week to discuss an international body to monitor destruction of flora and fauna. Global cooperation would help scientists around the world more effectively solve puzzles such as the disappearing snakes.
With so many types of animals now facing extinction, worldwide teamwork can’t happen soon enough.