Many snakes travel across LaRue Road. It is in Shawnee National Forest, in southern Illinois.
In spring, snakes move out of the forest. They slither into LaRue Swamp. In the fall, the snakes leave the swamp. They spend the winter by the bottom of limestone cliffs. The snakes like that it is dry there. This great animal movement is also called migration.
LaRue Road is between the cliffs and the swamp. It is also called Snake Road. LaRue Swamp is on the west side of the road. The swamp is part of the Mississippi River area. Animals such as the cottonmouth snake (Agkistrodon piscivorus) and the southern leopard frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus) live here. These animals are not usually seen so far north as Illinois.
The LaRue-Pine Hills are on the east side of the road. The LaRue-Pine Hills are famous for their beautiful limestone bluffs. The bluffs are 46 meters (150 feet tall). That is nearly as tall as the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy
The limestone forms ridges and caves. These are great homes for snakes. They can stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Crossing LaRue Road is dangerous for snakes. In the cool morning and evening hours, the road feels relatively warm. Snakes, frogs, toads, turtles and other creatures like to hang out on the warm road. That is why so many get hit by cars.
Scientist Rich Seigel studies snakes. He said cars have killed almost one in every four snakes. Millions of snakes have been killed by cars in the United States.
In 1972, the government decided to close LaRue Road for short periods. This way, snakes can travel safely. The closings happen for two months each year in spring and fall.
At first local citizens were not happy about closing the road, said Scott Ballard. He is a scientist. He studies animals for the Illinois government. Over time, people changed their minds. They support the road closing now, said Chad Deaton. He is a wildlife scientist with the Shawnee National Forest.
Cars are not allowed. Yet, people can still walk along Snake Road. Ballard and Deaton said the walk is not as scary as it might seem. You "won't see a great river of snakes washing across the road," said Ballard. "If you see 20 snakes while you're out here, that's a good day."
Many people are afraid of snakes. However, they are important to nature's balance. They can be good for humans.
Ballard said, "A single snake can eat nine pounds in one year." That's equal to an entire pillowcase full of mice. Without snakes, there would be too many rodents around.
Also, birds such as herons eat snakes. If snakes were lost, the birds would have less food.
Questions For Biologists On The Snake Road
Q: How did you become interested in snakes?
A: Scott Ballard explained, "As a kid I was very allergic to dogs and cats. My mother gave me a pet snake when I was 10. After that I was hooked."
Q: Have you ever been bitten by a snake?
A: "Many times," said Ballard. Still, he has "never been bitten by a venomous snake."
"Once I was looking for a rattlesnake species. I'd lain down, turned my head and found one five inches from my eyes. She just looked at me and I looked at her." Ballard then "slowly got up and moved away."
Q: What should someone do if they're near a snake in the woods?
A: Stop and slowly step back from the snake, said Chad Deaton. Scott Ballard adds, "Snakes are not mean. Snakes don't go out of their way to bite you. They only bite people when they are surprised or feel threatened."
Q: How many snakes are saved yearly when Snake Road is closed?
A: Ballard and Deaton said they weren't sure. Still, they see fewer snakes dead on the road. That is a good sign. It probably means more snakes are crossing safely.