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© Pete Saloutos/Panoramic Images (Washington Title Image Large)

Striped Whipsnake Surveys in Washington

The Striped Whipsnake (Masticophis taeniatus) reaches the northern extent of its geographic range in Washington State. Until 2004, it had been documented only 26 times since first described as a Washington species in 1941. The species is limited to the central Columbia Basin in lands formed by geological forces of Miocene basalt lava flows, Spokane Floods and Columbia River sand deposits. Unique to Washington, the resulting scablands are composed of basalt outcrops that range from tall columnar basalt walls to mound-like basalt formation. The vegetation is shrubland with grasses.

In 2005, a study was initiated at the only Washington site where Striped Whipsnakes had been found in the last decade. The goal was to learn about habitat use and behavior in hopes that this information would increase inventory success at other Washington sites. Initial survey work was successful in finding individual snakes, but the detection rate was painfully slow with about one snake found for every 8-10 hours spent searching.

A radio-telemetry study of seven snakes produced much more information. One aspect of the study was especially useful for inventory work. The study snakes radio-tracked in the fall moved to multiple locations where freshly shed Striped Whipsnake skins were present. Searching for shed skins was much more efficient; on average a shed Striped Whipsnake shed took less than three hours to find.

With this new information, all non-converted historical Washington sites were surveyed for shed snake skins in late October 2006 and 2007. Only one additional historical site was found to have Striped Whipsnake shed skins present during the surveys. Conservation efforts are now underway to protect these two Striped Whipsnake sites and inventory efforts will be expanded to non-historical sites in hopes of finding more populations.

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