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Nature Watch: Determined ‘Island Snake Lady’ helps save threatened species

Kristin Stanford is every bit as attractive as she is knowledgeable. I stood next to her as she explained her work to a group of us outdoor writers at Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory near Toledo, where she is education and outreach coordinator.

We had spent a long day visiting a variety of lab settings and listening to a series of senior scientists explain their work. By now we were all tired and our attention was flagging, but Stanford brought us all back to life as she explained an important component of her work. A major reason for our attention: As she talked to us, a small snake wound itself around her fingers, her hands playing cat’s cradle with it.

Stanford may not be one of a kind, but she is certainly one of a very few. She is an herpetologist, a zoologist who specializes in reptiles and amphibians. Her work demonstrates once again how a young woman can compete successfully in a field formerly dominated by men.

Stanford was talking to us about the Lake Erie water snake, a common resident of our marshes, lakes and streams. Anglers know them all too well because they are very aggressive. Mike Galas showed me where he had received a line of stitch marks on his arm. The water snake he tried to hold had bitten him “bang, bang, bang, bang,” one bite right after another. Fortunately, although their tiny teeth draw blood, the wound hardly hurts and is quite harmless. Unlike the water moccasin of the South, these are not poisonous.

The range map in my Peterson Guide to Eastern Reptiles and Amphibians shows the Lake Erie water snake, a subspecies of the northern water snake, as inhabiting only a small dot near the west end of Lake Erie. In fact, it is found only around the islands and nearby shore of Put-in-Bay.

This led inevitably to the near extirpation of the Lake Erie water snake, commonly abbreviated LEWS. Locals tell how the snakes had served as rifle targets and, worse, how mating tangles of the snakes were thrown into bonfires. By the turn of the century, the population was about 2,000 and it was listed as threatened by federal authorities and as endangered in Ohio.

Enter Stanford. In 2003, she was a graduate student at Northern Illinois University studying small mammals, when her adviser suggested that she replace a classmate who left a LEWS recovery project. She did so and soon became famous as the Island Snake Lady.

She initiated an aggressive public relations campaign for the snake, speaking up for it in public forums, mailing information to residents, writing a local newspaper column titled “Ask the Snake Lady,” mounting signs proclaiming, “Water Snakes Welcome Here,” and even appearing on a Discovery Channel “Dirty Jobs” program. Her enthusiasm for the snakes recharacterized them from pests to welcome neighbors.

Meanwhile, she studied the snakes, capturing and tagging thousands of them as their population increased. Last year she completed her doctorate, with LEWS her thesis subject.

One of Stanford’s findings added to its acceptance. Our Great Lakes waters have become infested with the round goby, an alien fish brought here in the ballast tanks of cargo ships from the Caspian Sea. As the population of these invaders has increased, it has become the LEWS’ primary diet.

The result of her work: her project far exceeded its goals and this snake subspecies was removed from the national threatened list in 2011.