GRANT COUNTY, Wis. — The appearance of a rare type of subterranean snake in southwest Wisconsin could be indicative of the effects of climate change, according to an area educator.
John Peterson, an associate professor of herpetology and anatomy at University of Wisconsin-Platteville, said the presence of the western worm snake so far north suggests a potential for the proliferation of the species.
Scientists for years have warned of the potential for increases to the number of snakebites as the planet grows warmer, expanding the temperate zones in which it is possible for some snakes to live.
“You would think a lot of these southern and western species will creep north (due to) climate change,” Peterson said.
The threat is particularly severe in places such as Africa, where ongoing deforestation is compounding the issue by reducing the animals’ habitat.
Fortunately, the western worm snake is not dangerous. It is, however, pretty cool, according to Peterson.
“It’s one in Wisconsin that all the ‘herpers’ — the people who just love finding amphibians and reptiles — this is their dream animal to find,” Peterson said. “It’s like a trophy species for people who love snakes.”
Peterson’s students discovered the snake habitat along the bluffs of the Mississippi River in western Grant County. Peterson declined to be specific about the location as the reclusive animals require isolation to survive.
The snakes, which grow to be about 1 foot long, hunt worms in wooded areas throughout the summer before retreating to their rocky homes for the colder months.
“(The sun) actually keeps the ground warm enough for them not to freeze,” Peterson said. “That’s the only time you’ll really find these snakes is the late summer or early fall.”
Grant County is the only place in Wisconsin where worm snakes have been discovered. For now, the southern parts of the state are the “northern extent of their range.”
But the discovery suggests the snakes are thriving — or at least enduring — far away from their traditional habitat.
“We’ve found snakes that are small enough that they’re not adults, which would suggest that they’re reproducing at these sites,” Peterson said.
Caleb Cizauskas was one of the students who found the snakes. A recent UW-P graduate, Cizauskas is pursuing a conservation career in part because of the discovery, which he described as a “huge deal.”
“We were turning over rocks and I found the first one, and I believe it was the next day or the day after that we went back and I found another specimen,” he said.
Peterson said the nearest known worm snake habitat is about 100 miles south of Grant County in southern Iowa.
“It’s a pretty faraway population,” he said.