Campus News

Postdoc says growing snake range is indicative of larger issues

Charles van Rees, a postdoctoral associate in the Wenger Lab in the Odum School of Ecology, discussed yellow-bellied sea snakes with BestLife. Sea snakes, along with other species, perform a behavior known as dispersal where the species moves between environments.

“Unless people move them around, species show up in new places because of this behavior. Sometimes they have help, for example with favorable winds or ocean currents that move them farther or faster than they might travel on their own,” said van Rees. “As humans change the environment in various ways, we can also make some areas hospitable for animals where they couldn’t have lived before.”

Yellow-bellied sea snakes are one of those species. In the past decade, the snakes have shown up in new environments in Southern California, outside of their typical range.

“The yellow-bellied sea snake is the most wandering snake on Earth,” said van Rees. “They occur all across the Indian and Pacific oceans—that is, from Indonesia and Japan to the west coast of Central America—and are the only sea snake to be found around Hawaii, the most isolated island chain on the planet.”

The snakes are not a big threat to humans, despite being venomous, but their growing range is indicative of a larger issue facing the planet’s wanderers.

“The real problem here is ecological,” said van Rees. “Warming oceans don’t just mean that cool tropical animals will keep coming up to visit and croaking on our beaches. Warming waters mean that a lot about our oceans is already changing, and fast. This could mean harmful algal blooms, the disappearance of beloved wildlife, crashing fisheries or other problems. While these snakes are not going to harm anyone, they are a symptom of a much bigger change that will not do us any favors.”