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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The St. Lucia Racer (Liophis ornatus)

Nicole La Force

The St. Lucia racer (Liophis ornatus) or kouwès in patois is one of the world’s rarest snakes and guess what? It’s endemic to St. Lucia. Wow, this is wonderful! Yet another treasure for us to boast about. Possibly the world’s rarest snake!!  I had to repeat myself for emphasis.

The sad thing is that it is critically endangered and sometimes only one or two may be spotted in a year. In fact, the exact population is not even known but is estimated to be much less than 200. Thankfully, the Forestry Department, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Fauna and Flora International (FFI) are planning a status assessment of this species later in 2011 so a conservation action plan can be developed. 

Sounds like we need a lot more conservationist out there, a great career possibility for sure. Think about it! Meanwhile we can all play our part by getting the word out there and doing whatever we can to protect and preserve our endemic species.

In the 1850’s the racer was considered the second commonest snake species on the island but now it makes its home on Maria Major, an islet in the south of the island. It is a small to medium non-venomous snake that grows up to about 1.24 m (4.06 ft). It is light brown with a dark brown stripe running from the neck to the tip of its tail and yellowish white on the underside. This snake has a blackened pointed snout with a scattering of yellow streaks and black bands behind its large eyes.

The racer is thought to be diurnal (active during the day), laying eggs instead of live young. Though it was popular at one time, even existing on the main land that is now history. Because of the introduction of the Asian mongoose (Herpestes javanicus), the population has dramatically declined, restricting the species to its present location. As a ground dwelling, diurnal snake, the Saint Lucia racer is particularly vulnerable to predation by mongooses.

The racer faces a real threat of extinction so its survival is greatly dependant on the implementation of major conservation measures. Thankfully, Maria Island where the snake now inhabits along with some other endemics is a nature reserve and was declared so in 1982 by the government of St. Lucia. It is vital that Maria island and all our other off shore islands  which serve as nature reserves be kept free of invasive predators like rats, mongooses, manicou (opossums) and stray dogs. This could ultimately be accomplished with the cooperation of the public especially those who frequent these islands.