Racing Towards Revival: Antiguan Racer Snake

by Rory Hallowell '20, Milton Academy

The source of this particular snake’s misfortune can be traced back to the late fifteenth century, coinciding with the arrival of slaves on the island of Antigua in the Caribbean. The slaves arrived in crowded and dirty ships that were usually home to rats. After arriving on the island, the rats ran loose and the slaves cut down the forests in order to make room for the plantations they would soon be working on. While the slave owners profited greatly from the plantations, in order to reach maximum profit, they needed to eradicate the rats. The rats that crossed the Atlantic on slave ships bred and bred and bred, all while feasting on plantations crops. In an effort to eradicate the everpresent nuisance that came with these rats, the Europeans introduced Asian mongooses to the island, thinking they would eat the rats. This move was a massive error on their part, as the black rat is mostly nocturnal and mongooses prefer hunting during the day. The mongooses decimated the native animal population, hurting some species more than others. The Antiguan racer snake was completely eradicated from the main island and the majority of the smaller offshore islands (1).

Rediscovered in 1995, the entire population of the Antiguan racer snake, comprising of a mere fifty specimens, had been confined to Great Bird Island for approximately five hundred years (2). Great Bird Island is a small island off the northeast coast of Antigua that has an area of only 8.4 hectares. The island was home to a multitude of birds, iguanas and rats, creating a sufficient and continuous food source for the snakes. Though food was not a danger for the snakes, hurricanes certainly were and still are. Antigua is in the West Indies, a portion of the Caribbean greatly affected by hurricanes. If it weren’t for the conservationist’s early actions to preserve the snake, and a little luck, the snakes could have easily perished this last hurricane season. Barbuda, an island governed by nearby Antigua, was completely evacuated during Hurricane Irma, and ninety percent of all buildings were damaged in the storm (3). Antigua, on the other hand, though close by, was barely affected by the storm winds at all. Still, it truly is a miracle that the Antiguan racer snake was able to survive solely on a small island for approximately five hundred years without being killed off by a hurricane.  

Once rediscovered in 1995, conservationists put much time and work into conserving the snake. In fact, the conservation efforts were so successful that Antiguan racer population rocketed to more than 500 by 2010, not to mention the increased population of White-Crowned pigeons and sea turtles. The snake has since been reintroduced to Green, York, and Rabbit Island (4). The story of the Antiguan racer has been credited by many as one of the most successful conservation efforts ever.

References: 

1) “History of the Antiguan Racer.” The Antiguan Racer Conservation Project, The Wildscreen Trust, 2001, www.antiguanracer.org/html/racer/history.htm.

2) “World’s rarest snake back from the brink of extinction.” The Environmental Awareness Group of Antigua and Barbuda, EAG, 2010, http://www.eagantigua.org/page594.html. 

3) Lyons, Kate. “The night Barbuda died: how Hurricane Irma created a Caribbean ghost town.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/nov/20/the-night-barbuda-died-how-hurricane-irma-created-a-caribbean-ghost-town. 

4) “World's rarest snake fights back from brink of extinction.” Mail Online, The Daily Mail, 2010, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1325890/Worlds-rarest-snake-fights-wiped-out.html.