Dear EarthTalk: How are the world’s reptile species faring in terms of population numbers and endangered status? What’s being done, if anything, to help them?
— Vicky Desmond, Troy, NY
The world’s reptiles—turtles, snakes, lizards, alligators and crocodiles—are indeed in trouble. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which publishes an annual global roster of threatened and endangered species called the Red List, considers some 664 species of reptiles—representing more than 20 percent of known reptile species worldwide—as endangered or facing extinction. Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service considers about 10 percent of American reptiles threatened or endangered.
Why care? The non-profit Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) considers reptiles “amazing creatures” with clever adaptations that have helped them survive for millions of years. CBD also points out that reptiles are valuable indicators of wider ecological health. “Because many reptile species are long-lived and relatively slow-moving, they suffer from disturbances like habitat loss or pollution for extended periods,” the group reports, adding that a diverse community of reptiles living in a given area is evidence of a healthy ecosystem that can support the plant and animal life they and other species need for food and cover.
So what’s causing the reptiles’ decline? “While habitat loss is the most obvious cause of endangerment, declines are even even occurring in pristine areas from threats such as disease, UV radiation and climate change,” reports CBD. Overcollecting and unregulated hunting also are taking a toll on reptile populations.
In order to help stem the tide of reptile loss, CBD leverages the court system to pressure the federal government to protect at-risk species. For instance, back in 2004 the group worked with the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection in filing a petition to add the Tucson shovel-nosed snake, which dwells in the quickly disappearing wild desert around fast-growing cities like Tucson and Phoenix, to the federal list of endangered species. Finally in 2011 the federal government agreed that it would add the snake to its list of endangered species which will help it get the habitat protection needed to ensure long term survival.
CBD also works on other fronts for reptiles. The group’s campaign to outlaw “rattlesnake round-ups”—contests whereby hunters collect and kill as many snakes as they can in a year—has helped stem population declines of eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. And CBD’s efforts to educate the public about the plight of freshwater turtles, which are “overcollected” for food and the pet trade in the southern and midwestern parts of the U.S., helped convince several states for the first time to regulate turtle harvests.
One way everyone can help reptile species in decline is to make our backyards friendly to them. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center offers tips on what to plant and how to arrange a landscape to encourage reptiles and other wildlife. Landowners that take these steps may be rewarded with fewer pests, given reptiles taste for large numbers of mosquitoes and other insects as well as small rodents. Other pro-reptile tips include driving carefully (road mortality is a big issue for snakes, turtles and other species) and keeping outside areas around your property free of garbage that might attract raccoons, crows and other pests that also prey on reptiles.