Climate change could send venomous snakes slithering north
By 2050, some American snakes could make their way as far north as Alberta, Quebec and southern Ontario.
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Climate change could see a new risk slithering into Canada: snakes.
New research has found that rising temperatures could drive several deadly species northward to new areas, bringing them across the U.S. border with Canada. By 2050, some snakes could make their way as far north as Alberta, Quebec and southern Ontario.
Researchers at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute used climate models to predict the ranges of more than 75 poisonous snake species across the Americas. Their research, published in the journal Climate Change, found that snakebite risk could increase in considerably in new areas, especially in remote, rural regions, as temperatures rise.
But the uninvited guests shouldn’t be cause for alarm, researchers caution.
Only a few snake species are likely to make it across the border — and the ones that do will not be the most deadly, said study co-author A. Townsend Peterson, a professor at the University of Kansas in the ecology and evolutionary biology department.
Though possessing deadly venom, the snakes that could spread north into parts of Canada are classified as low risk, he said.
Some snakes are venomous but they try hard to stay out of way, Peterson noted. Then there are others that are “aggressive” and always “looking for trouble.”
“We are not talking about those making their way into Canada,” he said.
For this study, researchers looked at different scenarios for each of the snake species — one in which the world cut down its dependency on carbon fuels and the other in which it didn’t and it continued to warm.
How far north the snakes will spread into Canada — or south into cooler regions of South America — will depend on how much the world is able to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the study says.
In the worst-case scenario, the study says the range of the venomous timber rattlesnake could grow into southern portions of Ontario and Quebec.
In the best case, that line creeps northward, “but barely,” by around 2050.
Snakebites are a health issue in many countries: in the Americas, some 300,000 people are bitten annually and between 650 to 3,500 die from the bites.
There are very few cases of snakebites in Canada — sometimes less than a dozen a year.
Another problem researchers found is that some snake species could struggle to reproduce, maintain their populations or even relocate as temperatures rise. Those species could be lost, said Peterson. “Will they be gone by 2050? We don’t know. It’s like being on death row.”
Climate change is forcing many species to adapt, forcing them to move to new habitats and alter their range. Some, like bumblebees, are already struggling to survive in a warming world; others are expected to go extinct.
For Jeremy Kerr, professor of biology at the University of Ottawa, snakes face greater risks from humans than vice-versa. “I’m way more worried about snakes than humans,” Kerr said. “A lot of our snakes and other reptiles are endangered and because people think snakes are icky or irrational.”
Like many other species, snakes are confronted with a changing environment, he pointed out.
“For snakes, much like other species, it is adapt or die,” he said.
For Kerr, the real message of this study is that “climate change is a dangerous experiment that creates real impacts in terms of biological diversity and we will be better off not changing climate than thinking about models of managing snake bite risks.”