Elusive slug-eating snake found on San Juan Island

The underbelly of the elusive Sharp-tailed Snake, a slug eater and rare find on San Juan Island.    - Contributed photo /Land Bank
The underbelly of the elusive Sharp-tailed Snake, a slug eater and rare find on San Juan Island.
— image credit: Contributed photo /Land Bank

Submitted by San Juan County Land Bank

A San Juan Island couple, Maria Michaelson and Eben Shay, have recorded the first documented sighting of the Sharp-tailed Snake on San Juan Island.

Their cat brought it home on a Thursday evening.

“It was a totally lucky find,” Michaelson said. “We had just learned about the snakes the day before and we were determined to find one, but didn’t expect for it to happen so quickly and certainly not this way.”

Carefully collected, the snake will be donated to the University of Washington’s Burke Museum.

Sharp-tailed snakes are a small, secretive species that is presumed to be closely associated with Garry oak ecosystems. Less than five percent of Garry oak habitat remains from its historic extent, which account in part for why the snakes are so infrequently seen.

The sharp-tailed snake, which specialize in eating slugs, spends almost all of their time undercover, in rotting logs, and possibly underground. They are smoother in appearance than the resident garter snakes and have grey/brown/reddish coloration, with a sharp thorn-like scale at the end of their tale. Sharp-tailed snakes are non-venomous and very docile.

The first documented occurrence in San Juan County occurred in 2006 on Turtleback Mountain, as Land Bank stewards Ruthie Dougherty and Doug McCutchen discovered one under a rock while constructing a trail.

Like Michaelson, they recognized the snake as something different from the islands' regular garter snakes and snapped a photograph in order to identify it.

Washington State Fish and Wildlife officials confirmed it as the first sharp-tailed snake seen in western Washington since the 1950s, as well as a first in the San Juan Islands. The snakes are listed as an endangered species in Canada, where they are known to occur on just four of the Gulf Islands and in the outskirts of Victoria. They are more common in Oregon and California, the southern part of their range.

Since the original discovery, the Land Bank has been working closely with Fish and Wildlife to survey for the snakes, primarily on Orcas and San Juan islands. Two more snakes were found on Turtleback Mountain Preserve in 2013.

The Land Bank and WDFW are also collaborating with the University of Washington’s Conservation Canine program to use their trained “scent detection” dogs to try find more of the snakes.

“To find a previously unknown species on a well-populated, small island at this point in time is very exciting,” WDFW Biologist Ruth Milner said. “We are very interested in learning more about this snake and welcome any sightings people can report.”

The Land Bank and WDFW will hold an informational meeting later this summer or in the fall.

Contact Ruth Milner or Doug McCutchen if you are interested in helping survey your property for this elusive species, contact Milner or the Land Bank's Doug McCutchen. The Land Bank intends to search for the snakes throughout the archipelago and welcomes participation from home owners in all kinds of habitats, regardless of whether or not they are associated with Garry oak areas.


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