Feb. 28, 2005 — Renata Platenberg, PhD wildlife biologist, reaches into a nest of dried leaves and twigs. A moment later she pulls a three-foot tree boa out of his coiled morning reverie. Tree boas are nocturnal, and though it's a cloudy day on the island, there is still more sunshine than this guy is accustomed to. Immediately the snake's self preservation instincts kick in, and he releases a sticky, foul smelling, yellow fluid.
"That's what they do to encourage anything bothering them to stop," says Platenberg, who isn't deterred.
As soon as the snake stops the discharge and resigns himself to his fate, he gets comfortable with Platenberg, sliding through her hands and over her arms. He is harmless.
For now this tree boa has temporary residence in a tank in Platenberg's office. He was brought in by someone who saved him from harm's way near the side of the road. Part of Platenberg's job is to find a safe spot to release the snake, which is federally protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Platenberg is a wildlife biologist, more specifically a reptile ecologist, who works with the Department of Planning and Natural Resource's Bureau of Wildlife. She's been working with lizards and snakes for 10 years. Since moving to St. Thomas a year ago, she's taken on the tree boa as one of her projects.
"People seem to really like these snakes," says Platenberg. "They usually bring the snakes in when they find them in dangerous places. Most tree boas are found sitting on roads or on properties."
Sightings of the Virgin Islands tree boa have been collected since 1982. Since then there have been 102 sightings reported, 78 of them since the year 2000. The snake was pushed into the public's attention after Hurricane Marilyn, when emergency housing was erected in the middle of what was believed to be prime tree boa habitat.
A lawsuit was filed Sept. 22, 1997 in the United States Court of Appeals by plaintiffs who included the endangered Virgin Islands tree boa, and also "a number of individuals who own real property and reside in the vicinity of Vessup Bay in the east end of St. Thomas" (the habitat of these species). The suit was filed to stop the construction of a temporary housing project in nearby Estate Nazareth. The plaintiffs said "The project was a hurried response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Marilyn, which struck St. Thomas in December 1995 and displaced many people from their homes." On this issue, the court decided against them and the housing was erected.
These days, DPNR is trying to get people to keep the tree boa in mind.
"I want to know when they've seen them, time of day, location, location, location," says Platenberg. "Then I can go out and look at habitat and learn about what the tree boa needs. We'd rather people left them if there's no danger. We just want to know where they are."
Even with all the publicity the tree boa has received in the past, the snake remains a mystery on St. Thomas. They're small, usually about one to two feet long and no wider than a finger. They have a zigzag pattern of dark brown rings around their bodies, and they look iridescent in the sun. The tree boa sleeps on the ground, under debris, in abandoned termite nests, rock burrows, and in interlocking tree canopy. No one knows how many tree boas live on St. Thomas.
"That's what I'm trying to do," says Platenberg. "The better understanding of where they are and how many, the better we can advise developers."
The habitat for the Tree Boa is the entire east end of St. Thomas: Water Point, Point Pleasant, Bolongo, Frenchman's Bay, Nadir Hill, Smith Bay — wherever there is woodland. Most of the sightings come from Ridge Road.
Lack of funding and the snake's nocturnal nature have kept biologists from studying the tree boa more in depth. Platenberg sometimes goes out looking for them at night, just before sunset until about eight or nine in the evening.
"I wear headlamps and I tend to stick to private properties where they know me." She looks in branches of trees which should be moving if a tree boa is present. Her aim is to gather data and note the locations of the snakes but "I have to say I've never seen one of them."
But the general public has seen them. More development and more houses in tree boa habitat add up to more encounters.
"It's hard to give a reason for the value of these snakes — because they don't eat agricultural pests. They don't eat mice or rats. But it's a beautiful snake," says Platenberg. "I think humans have a moral obligation to look after what's here so it's still here for future generations to enjoy."
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