As an alumnus of the University of Oregon (Ducks), I couldn’t help smirking upon learning that Oregon State University (Beavers) is home to 26,000 garter snakes. Not slithering, though. The snakes, accumulated over three decades, are brined in alcohol and stored in glass jars.
I’m not smirking any more. The specimens are useful in studying the effects of earth’s changing climate. Snakes are cold-blooded reptiles. They cannot regulate their internal body temperature and so are more quickly susceptible to their environment. As one OSU researcher put it, they “evolve rapidly in response to climate change.”
With specimens spanning decades and records of where the snakes were collected, scientists can measure how the reptiles have adapted to a warming climate. Snakes from drier areas have larger scales, but fewer of them, a response to the stress of dehydration. Larger scales retain moisture better than smaller scales. Scientists also track changes in immune system over the years.
This information is useful to humans, because, according to the scientists, “We actually share more in common with reptiles than we have that’s dissimilar.”
Meanwhile, in a refuge near the San Francisco International Airport, garter snakes are so far winning their battle for survival. The protected 180-acre site in this dense urban area, is home to 1,300 snakes and increasing numbers of deer, foxes and birds, along with thousands of invertebrates. SFO is improving its infrastructure to protect the airport from rising sea level. Wildlife in the adjacent refuge are also susceptible to encroaching salt water, which would be fatal to the California red-legged frog, a mainstay of the garter snake’s diet.
And unlike birds, the snakes do not pose a danger to aircraft taking off.