Aug. 30, 2008 by Judy
Snakes: Yes and No.
I'm thinking that somebody has already told you or you have already overheard the following: "Fortunately, here in Hawaii we don't have snakes."
We do have them, a lot of very small ones of a single species...but like every single herpetological specimen found from the western edge of Kure Atoll to the eastern point of the Big Island, THEY'RE NOT FROM HERE.
Herpetological specimen? Snakes and lizards, in our case. (Turtles too, but clearly the sea turtles belong here, and land turtles we no got.)
Before I get warmed up here, let me just be very clear that I think snakes are da bomb. I dig them muchly. I have had many, in my younger days on the mainland, and when I go home to visit my parents in Texas I always go see the snake collector guy. The last time I saw him he handed me a gorgeous young rattlesnake (don't remember which variety, sorry) curled up quite contentedly in a peanut butter jar. I sat with Little Mr. Snoozysnake in my lap while the collector told me tales of rare snakes found in remote places, and I was quite happy there.
Snakes, in their niche, are a fine thing. Amazing, too, just in terms of their design. If you don't think so, I invite you to locate, subdue, and eat your next week's meals while lying on your stomach and not using your hands. Snakes rock, snakes rule, snakes are under-appreciated on a massive scale.
That being said, snakes never made it to Hawaii on their own. The extreme isolation of this mid-Pacific archipelago is one of the finest migratory bottlenecks on the planet. The sheer distance and strain of rafting here (much less swimming, oy) made short work of any adventurous, or unlucky, sea faring land snakes.
Sea snakes, yes, we've got those, though very very few in number and only one type: The Yellow-bellied Sea Snake (yes, it exists). I've known precisely two people here to have seen one, and they are both marine scientists of excellent pedigree and a gazillion hours in the ocean looking at stuff. I don't expect to see one, me being not all that observant comparatively.
The Hawaiian archipelago was a snakeless world until recently. This is precisely the condition in which you want a mid-Pacific island that used to function as a massive seabird colony. Eggs and chicks on the ground are easy pickings. For that matter, non-seabird eggs and chicks up in trees are only slightly harder pickings, if you are an agile and bendy hunter with lots of patience and stealth (this latter can also be applied to rats and humans, both of which arrived on boats and ships).
So, snakes, we no need. Our birds have got enough to deal with, what with the introduction of rats, cats, dogs, humans, mongooses, bird diseases brought in by imported birds, degradation of habitat, and so on.
And indeed, at the moment and as far as we can tell, we've got nothing major to worry about. Snake sightings happen periodically, and sometimes these animals can be found and collected and sometimes they can't (unlike me, the reaction of most islanders to the sight of a snake is not to try to pick it up and look at it, but to scream and run away - that makes it hard to find again later). And although we worry A LOT about the accidental introduction of the apparently voracious and fast-breeding brown tree snake as overlooked cargo on planes and ships from Guam...so far so good. We think.
What we have got, and what you are unlikely to see unless you do a lot of gardening, is the Blind Snake, called the Brahminy Blind Snake by some, and the Philippine Blind Snake by others.
Scientific name: Rampholtyphlops braminus
Here's an image site: http://www.botany.hawaii.edu
Accidentally introduced in potting soil, it seems likely to speculate, this little black cutie has gotten quite comfortable in Hawaiian soil. Debate rages about the introduction date, but I think it's safe to say it was sometime after 1950. At about 5 inches long it is hardly intimidating, and most people mistake it for a worm. Here's the coolest part and the part that will help you understand how this animal could have so easily colonized a far-away land: they're ALL FEMALES. Yup. Parthenogenic. They basically give birth to clones. That makes it pretty easy to start up in new territory, no? Quite a few reptiles have this reproductive strategy, and what it loses in genetic diversity it makes up for in speed. No need to go find, or hang around waiting for, a mate. Just reproduce when you're ready.
Blind snakes live in the soil and moist leaf litter, cruising around looking for nice fat developing grubs and easily mouthed insects. They are in fact blind, their teeth are nothing to note, and they are shy. So, while it is certainly tempting to not worry about them in terms of their overall impact, the jury is still out on whether they are a hindrance (taking up space that something native needs, or eating native insects, or otherwise somehow throwing something off by being where no being had been before) or not. I don't know of anyone who is studying the question, but if I find out I'll let you know right away. Promise.
Coming up next: Skinks, Anoles and Geckos: immigrants, the whole lot of 'em.