Before his career as a ski and travel writer, Whistler's Leslie Anthony was a herpetologist - a PhD-wielding zoologist and expert on reptiles and amphibians who travelled the world in search of rare and unique species.
But his find last week in his own backyard easily ranks as one of the highlights of his scientific career.
Anthony was helping out BioBlitz organizer Bob Brett by searching for interesting local species for children to look at. He found a large garter snake in Whistler, and went looking for a Rubber Boa and alligator lizards in Pemberton (species that exist in Whistler but are harder to find) when he came across something he never expected to see: a Sharp-tailed snake.
"It was a complete accident," he said. "I pulled up a piece of bark on a rotted log and there it was. I kind of thought it was a baby Rubber Boa at first because the babies are a little pinkish to start with, but there was way too much snout. I actually knew what it was immediately but I couldn't believe what I was looking at, so I started to think of what else it could be."
He captured the 30-centimetre snake and rushed back to his car, scared that the Sharp-tailed snake would evaporate in his hands.
The species is provincially listed as endangered, due to habitat destruction and development, as well as other factors like changes to climate that left populations of the snake divided. The only confirmed sightings in B.C. are on the eastern edge of Vancouver Island near Victoria and on a few of the gulf islands. On mainland B.C. there was one reported sighting in the interior going back to 1964, but since there were no photos and no specimen was collected that sighting was never confirmed.
The snake itself is secretive, said Anthony, preferring dry climates. It spends a lot of time underground or hiding in organic material on the forest floor, emerging only in the spring and fall - and even then you would never come upon one out in the open. It's a snake you have to go looking for.
"Because it was such a crappy summer it was still like spring to the snake - that's the only reason I can think of that I found it as easily as I did," said Anthony. "It's only been summer for a couple of weeks, and any later this thing would have been underground."
Anthony contacted the Ministry of the Environment, assisting in measuring and photographing the snake, and then returned it to its habitat with the ministry filming it. Later, the ministry will conduct a search for more snakes in the area to confirm the extent of the population.
Concerned about poachers and collectors - as well as over-enthusiastic herpetologists from all over - Anthony would only say he found the snake in the Pemberton area. However, in the future the ministry may take special measures to secure the area for the species.
"This one was an adult, so there was obviously a breeding population there," said Anthony.
"It's a fascinating little snake with a little spike on the edge of its tail - the final scale is almost like a rose thorn sticking out. What it does with that, I just found out, is it anchors itself to the ground so it can get leverage when pulling in slugs. It's a slug eater. What's hilarious is that the tail is prehensile and wraps around your finger, then digs in the little spike to anchor itself."
Anthony, who wrote a well-received book called Snakebit that chronicles his years as a herpetologist said the discovery was like a trip down memory lane.
"I'd say this was the third time in my life where I found a species somewhere it shouldn't have been, and two of them were very big - this one and one back east," he said.
"It's exciting. It's been many years since and I don't do this professionally, but all the excitement and discovery and adventure came back when I found this. It made me want to go out and start looking to see what else is out there."
Anthony has helped out with BioBlitz and the Whistler Biodiversity Project in the past, which has sought to catalog all of the species of plants and animals in the resort. A few years ago he made the first local discovery of red-legged frogs in Whistler, a provincially blue-listed species of concern in the province.
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