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Is the South Florida Rainbow Snake Really Extinct?

A Georgia Rainbow Snake (courtesy D. Stevenson)

A few weeks ago I wrote about how the South Florida Rainbow Snake, of which there are only a handful of known specimens (and not to be confused with the “normal” Rainbow Snake), was officially declared extinct by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Not so fast, say the Center for Snake Conservation and the Center for Biological Diversity. These organizations claim that the USFWS made their official announcement before enough was done to confirm the snake’s absence. Ideally, the feds should have carried out multiple, intensive, surveys before concluding that the animal no longer existed, but they didn’t do that. If there are still some South Florida Rainbow Snakes left, the two conservation organizations argue, they deserve to be protected, not written off by being declared extinct before a rigorous search was even conducted. To encourage people to obtain evidence of the continued existence of the South Florida Rainbow Snake, the Center for Snake Conservation and the Center for Biological Diversity are offering a $500 reward for official documentation.

I completely agree that the USFWS should make sure that a species is truly extinct before officially declaring it as such, but I’m skeptical that the animal is going to turn up now. Finding any Rainbow Snake, let alone the group of Rainbow Snakes in South Florida, is like finding the Holy Grail of herpetology. Although there may not have been official surveys to find the snake in South Florida, amateur naturalists and field-herping enthusiasts have made many trips and spent countless hours searching for the animal and none have been found since 1952. For these die-hards snake-searchers, the value of the bragging rights that would be secured by finding a South Florida Rainbow Snake would greatly surpass $500.

Another Georgia Rainbow Snake

What happens if the South Florida Rainbow Snake is still around? Chances are, its long-term prognosis is not very good. If the animal is not extinct, it’s hard to believe that it still exists in any meaningful way. In other words, even if there are still a couple of animals left, it’s hard to believe that they are part of a population with enough individuals to sustain itself over the long-term.

Occasionally, species that were officially declared as extinct are found to still be around after all, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is the latest high-profile example. In fact, over the last 122 years, 351 “extinct” species have been rediscovered. These stories get a lot of press and people start to feel good and excited. But, even if a few individuals of a particular species still exist, that doesn’t mean that the species is in the clear. Often, it’s just a delay of the inevitable. As a recent study indicated, the vast majority of “rediscovered” species are still highly threatened and are likely to be truly extinct very soon, regardless of their official status.

I could be wrong, and I would happy if that were the case. Even where we know there are populations of Rainbow Snakes, they are extremely hard to find. This is likely because they spend most of their time under water and hidden among aquatic vegetation and tree roots. It is very possible there are still some swimming around and hunting for eels in the swamps of South Florida. So, everybody get outside with your camera and check out Fish-Eating Creek, you may end up winning $500 and rediscovering an “extinct” species. Even if you don’t find Rainbow Snakes you’re likely to find something worth seeing. I would be interested to hear of any attempts to find South Florida Rainbow Snakes, past or present, successful or not, and hear how the habitat looks.


Relevant Scientific Articles

Scheffers BR, Yong DL, Harris JB, Giam X, & Sodhi NS (2011). The world’s rediscovered species: back from the brink? PloS one, 6 (7) PMID: 21818334

Fitzpatrick, J. (2005). Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America Science, 308 (5727), 1460-1462 DOI: 10.1126/science.1114103

Dalton, R. (2006). Ivory-billed woodpecker extinct after all? news@nature DOI: 10.1038/news060313-14