Snake study sheds light on health of forests

The elusive adder, with a distinctive diamond pattern running down its back
The elusive adder, with a distinctive diamond pattern running down its back
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A STUDENT’s scientific study is striving to secure the safety of some superbly secretive serpents.

The adder is one of the world’s most studied snakes and can be found right on our doorstep, in the woods of the North York Moors, yet little is known about why the animal is becoming increasingly rarer.

Reptile expert James Stroud has been studying adders in local woodland

Reptile expert James Stroud has been studying adders in local woodland

Reptile expert James Stroud has been delving into the world of the adder in forests such as Dalby, Langdale and Harwood Dale and he said: “There is something intriguing and unknown about snakes.

“Very encouragingly, I found that there are quite a lot in local forests, but you need to know where to look.”

The adder is the only venomous snake found in the wild in the UK, but it is a very delicate animal and populations can be effectedly greatly by small changes to their habitat.

Mr Proud, who is studying for his Master’s Degree at the University of Hull’s Scarborough Campus, added: “Young forest plantations are an important refuge, offering a place to bask and with shelter from potential predators.

“My data suggests that linking together such areas could be a real help to adder populations.

“That would allow them to spread more easily and not become isolated by denser forestry.”

As part of the study Mr Stroud looked at factors such as the availability of food and the age of trees.

He also investigated the threat posed by predators such as birds of prey and crows by deploying 250 plastercine adders, some of which showed signs of being attacked.

What he found was that young conifer plantations were adder hotspots and the abundance of food seemed less important than the threat from potential foes in determining whether the creature frequented a forest haunt.

Brian Walker, wildlife officer with the Forestry Commission, said: “James’ work is really important as it reinforces the value of creating wildlife corridors throughout the forest, not just for snakes, but other animals too.

“Adder colonies are particularly vulnerable to becoming fragmented, which is bad news.

“They are cold-blooded and need to sun bathe to keep up their body temperature.

“That means they may find it hard to travel long distances under denser forest canopies which block out the sun’s warming rays.”

Forestry Commission design plans could be tailored to create adder corridors in woods were possible and breeding sites are already plotted on hi-tech mapping systems.

The university hopes to conduct more research and Dr Phil Wheeler, head of the centre for environmental and marine sciences, said: “James’ work has increased our understanding of adders.

“But there are many things we still don’t know about this elusive yet utterly fascinating creature.”

Mr Stroud has previously completed two years of reptile fieldwork in the forests of Sulawesi, Indonesia.

He has also worked with the London Zoological Society on breeding programs for endangered reptils and helped in the first recorded breeding of Komodo dragons through parthenogenesis - a natural phenomenom where eggs are self-fertilised by the female.