Hurricane-induced population decrease in a Critically Endangered long-lived reptile
We estimated population densities of the red-bellied racer (Alsophis rufiventris) on the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius in 2011, 2018 and 2019 to determine the likely influence of hurricanes Irma and Maria (September 2017), in addition to evaluating abiotic parameters which may be correlated with its presence. Surveys were conducted at seven sites in 2011 prior to the hurricanes, and at 81 and 108 sites in 2018 and 2019 respectively posterior to the hurricanes. A total of 8.2 ha was surveyed in 2011, and 11.42 ha in 2018/2019. The pre-hurricane (2011) racer density estimate was 9.2/ha (min 7.3 - max 11.6); post-hurricane estimates were 4.6/ha (min 3.4 - max 6.0) in 2018 and 5.0/ha (min 3.8 - max 6.5) in 2019. The pre-hurricane encounter rate of individual racers was 16.0 snakes/hour compared to 0.34 snakes/hour in 2018 and 0.41 snakes/hour in 2019 (post-hurricane). The decrease in encounter rates between 2011 and 2019 implies a negative impact of the hurricanes on racer abundance. Based on calculations of detection probability (0.02 in 2018 and 0.03 in 2019), post-hurricane lambda estimates were 1.82 (95% CI 0.66 - 5.01) in 2018 and 1.60 (95% CI 0.39 - 6.65) snakes/ha in 2019. Given the current small size of the remaining population and the presence of invasive species across the snake’s range, this species could be at risk of local extirpation. We suggest conservation actions such as invasive species management and habitat restoration to enable further recovery.