I am on a social experiment to try and fully or partially self-fund a few research projects of mine via the proceeds from my artwork. Two of these projects have kicked off and the other is in the making.
Feeding ecology of the Erabu sea krait
Erabu or Chinese sea kraits (Laticauda semifasciata) are possibly the most aquatic of all sea kraits (different to true sea snakes), and live a nearly fully aquatic life except when laying eggs. They usually live in much deeper water than the other species of sea kraits. Random observations on this species have shown that they do very interesting ‘group hunts’ that are extremely rare among snakes. A group of us deep-diving certified scuba divers have started documenting these unique feeding ecology behaviours during recreational dives in deep waters (~40 m) off the southern coast of Lombok, Indonesia. Below is a video capturing some memories from our first trip and a scientific publication that was recently submitted based on the subject.
Somaweera, R., Udyawer, V., de Fresnes, J., Amarasinghe, T. and Catherall, J. and Molchanova, G. (submitted) Coordinated and communal hunting behaviours by Erabu sea krait Laticauda semifactiata. Oikos.
A Thousand Lives Saved: Restoring the Human-Snake Relationship
Sri Lanka’s wildlife is in crisis, significantly through human-wildlife conflict. The island nation, half the size of Virginia and even smaller than Tasmania, is shared by over 22 million humans and the most evolutionarily diverse community of snakes on the planet, including some of the most venomous snakes known. As a result, Sri Lankans, mostly farming communities, have one of the highest snake bite related deaths in the world: an estimated 1-2 people die every day in Sri Lanka due to snake bites. Many survivors of snakebites suffer from long-term effects impacting their jobs and livelihoods. For every snake bitten victim, many snakes are killed by humans due to fear and misunderstandings, threatening snake populations. Over 32% of the country’s unique snake fauna is classified as threatened. The Sri Lankan government spends over $10 million US/year treating snakebites and importing snake antivenom, draining funding from other medical and development issues.
Fortunately, this conflict can be significantly healed with an education-based solution. Through a thoughtfully crafted series of science-backed and creative educational programs at a national scale (TV and social media campaigns), rigorous data collection to evaluate success, and introduction of a snake gaiter suitable for farmers, we can save 100s of human and 1000s of snake lives each year. The audience will be the entire country.
This project is partially funded by the National Geographic Society.
Silva, A., de Alwis, T., Wijesekara, S. and Somaweera, R. 2023. Minimising misidentification of common medically important snakes of Sri Lanka in the hospital setting. Anuradhapura Medical Journal. 17(2):50-57 (Read here)
Goldstein, E., Erinjery, J., Martin, G., Kasturiratne, A., Ediriweera, D., Somaweera, R., de Silva, H.J., Diggle, P., Lalloo, D., Murray, K., & Iwamura, T. (2023) Climate change maladaptation for health: Agricultural practice against shifting seasonal rainfall affects snakebite risk for farmers in the tropics. iScience. 26 (2): 105946 (Read here)
Martín, G., Erinjery, J., Gumbs, R., Somaweera, R., Ediriweera, D., Diggle, P., Kasturiratne, A., de Silva, J., Lalloo, D., Iwamura, T. and Murray, K. 2021. Integrating snake distribution, abundance and expert-derived behavioural traits predicts snakebite risk. Journal of Applied Ecology. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.14081 (Read here).
Reconciling trade-offs between biodiversity conservation
& economic gain
The bycatch of one of the sea snake species, the Little File Snake (Acrochordus granulatus) in Sri Lanka’s commercial small-scale fisheries (SSF) is likely among the highest rates of undocumented by-catch of marine reptiles in the whole region. It is nationally listed as ‘Vulnerable’, which according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is a category for species that are likely to become endangered unless the circumstances that are threatening its survival and reproduction improve. Field observations made by us shows that over 120 snakes were caught in gill nets in a single day, among just 13 fishing boats at a single harbor in NW Sri Lanka, with a mortality rate of 32%. According to fishermen, by-catch of sea snakes is common throughout the year but numbers have reduced significantly.
These competing and often conflicting resource uses by humans and animals highlight the urgent need to develop effective solutions that ensure marine habitats and their components are protected without compromising pathways to economic growth and food security. Yet our ability to identify these environmental and economic win-win scenarios is currently hampered by a lack of data and tools needed to optimize natural resource extraction and conservation strategies across broad spatial scales. The unregulated system discussed above provides an amazing opportunity to not only study the ecology and environmental services of a poorly-known reptile, but also to use sea snakes as a model system to help understand the complex social, economic, and political factors that contribute to the by-catch problem, and illustrate ways in which bycatch can be reduced effectively without compromising the economic gain.
This project is at a planing stage and planned to kick off in mid 2023.