Antiguan Racer Snake
The Antiguan racer, or Alsophis antiguae, is a snake found in Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean. They are found in four islands off the coast of Antigua: Great Bird Island, Rabbit Island, Green Island and York Island. It is one of the rarest snakes in the world, and until recently, was considered the rarest. The Antiguan racer is a rear-fanged grey-brown snake, that despite its name is quite slow. They hunt their prey, four endemic species of lizards, by waiting to be able to ambush them. These snakes’s coloration changes depending on their age and sex. Antiguan racers are harmless to humans and release a musky smell when frightened. Because of conservation measures, almost all the remaining Antiguan racers have microchip tags.
The Antiguan racer snake is an example of a conservation success story. They were once named the rarest snake in the world. In the 1800s, this species suffered a sharp decline, and in 1936 it was declared extinct - mistakenly. By 1995 there were only about 50 snakes left, consolidated on a single island. They were declared extinct again in 2009, but intense conservation measures have brought their numbers up to more than 1,100. Now they are no longer the rarest snake in the world, a title that has unfortunately been taken by the Saint Lucia racer.
The main reason the Antiguan racer snake is endangered is invasive species. In the 1800s, invasive black rats were breaking and damaging sugar cane plantations in Antigua. To stop this, plantation owners introduced small Asian mongooses to kill the rats. They largely ignored the rats and instead preyed on the native species, including the Antiguan racer. This decimated the population until only one group was left on Great Bird Island, a small cay without mongooses.
Image courtesy of Fauna & Flora International
Conservation measures have succeeded in getting rid of the invasive rats and mongooses from 14 islands around Antigua, allowing Antiguan racers to return to three other islands: Rabbit, Green, and York. The Antiguan racer snake’s population has risen to about 1,100 individuals. Other conservation methods include habitat restoration, breeding, education and research by Fauna & Flora International and the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project. This work has also helped many other native species, including birds who had been preyed on by invasive predator species. The West Indian whistling duck and the Caribbean brown pelican’s population has increased a lot.
Unfortunately, the Antiguan racer snake is not out of danger quite yet. It’s habitat is still threatened by visitors visiting their hospital, as well as urban development and invasive species. Snakes are also difficult to raise awareness for their conservation because of prejudice, but the Antiguan racer has become a mascot species for conservation in Antigua and Barbuda.
Antiguan Racer. (n.d.). Retrieved April 23, 2021, from https://www.fauna-flora.org/species/antiguan-racer
Whitley Fund, F. (2020, January 03). “The Antiguan Racer Snake Conservation Project”. Retrieved April 23, 2021, from https://whitleyaward.org/winners/antiguan-racer-snake-conservation-project/
Cover Image courtesy of The Antiguan Racer Snake Conservation Project.