The recent sighting of a sharp-tailed snake near Pemberton has biologists buzzing as it was the first documentation of the endangered species anywhere on the Canadian mainland.
Whistler-based snake expert Leslie Anthony made the find on Saturday (Aug. 6) in the Pemberton Valley while looking instead for rubber boas. He said he was "totally shocked" by the discovery.
"It was in Pemberton where it shouldn't be," laughed Anthony. "This snake is only known from some of the Gulf Islands and (around) Victoria. It had never been confirmed on the mainland of British Columbia before so it's a big deal."
The sharp-tailed snake is on the B.C. Ministry of Environment's endangered species red list, the highest at-risk category. They are distinguished by a thorn-like, pointed tail and a red- or grey-brown colour and are about 30 centimetres long when fully grown.
"I pulled up a piece of bark and saw this thing with a pinkish hue and thought it was a baby rubber boa," recalled Leslie. "But then I looked closer and thought, 'Wait a minute, there's way too much snake here to be a baby.' I knew what it was immediately, but I was stunned because they've never been recorded here."
Anthony kept the snake to display during Whistler BioBlitz this weekend and released the lizard back into the wild on Monday (Aug. 8) where he found it.
Dozens of biologists specializing in different fields were at the BioBlitz event and Anthony said their reaction to seeing the sharp-tailed snake was similar to his own.
"Every single person was stunned," he said. "This thing is so rare that even the botanists, the mushroom people and the bat people - everyone knew. They were just like 'Are you kidding me? A sharp-tailed? That's impossible.' We were all pretty over the moon."
Anthony said that sharp-tailed snakes are already tough to find because they are "burrowing snakes" that like to stay under cover and avoid light. He added that discovering one in the summer was rare in itself because the species is known to limit activity during the hottest months of the year.
"Probably the fact that we've had such a crappy, wet summer up until now is responsible for me finding it in August," he said.
The Ministry of Environment has a recovery team in place with the objective of protecting sharp-tailed snake habitats and population. Christian Engelstoft, a Victoria-based biologist that has worked as a consultant to the recovery team, said the discovery of a new population is "exciting" and could show that the "secretive" snake is occupying other parts of the province.
"You can't find just one snake, it comes with a whole population of snakes - unless someone had dropped it off yesterday," he laughed. "If you can find it in that valley, why not in the next one over?
"If it's there, we should probably start to look in other places."
For example, previous specimens were reported near Chase at McGillivray Lake in the 1960s but most in the scientific community have dismissed it as an error. Engelstoft said Anthony's discovery may now bring some legitimacy to the nearly 50-year-old sighting well west of the Pemberton Valley.
The Committee of the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada also lists the species as endangered and notes human development as its biggest threat in a 2009 assessment summary. The snake can also be found in Washington, Oregon and California and is considered of "least concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature on its annual red list.
The sharp-tailed snake is now one of five identified snake species living in the Pemberton region. None are venomous.
"This makes the Pemberton Valley a centre of reptile and amphibian biodiversity in this province. It's got quite a mix of species certain species that are more characteristic of the interior and certain species like this one that are characteristic of the coast," said Anthony.
"It's an eye-opener all-around in terms of us not knowing what's out there and also making sure we don't destroy all habitat before we find out what's out there."