As I promised the River Damsel and a few others...
It's time for what may become my annual springtime post about snakes. I may do other posts about snakes from time to time, but spring is when snakes start emerging from their winter hibernacula... and scaring the bejesus out of outdoor enthusiasts. Whether you are a hunter, angler, hiker, mountain biker, bird watcher, camper... or just live in the South... you are bound to encounter a snake at some point when you venture out into the natural world.
I'm here to try... and I know some of you won't care to listen... but that doesn't deter me... I'm still going to try to set your minds at ease a bit about snakes. If you choose not to read on, that's okay. Ignorance is bliss... but I also believe ignorance is the root of most fears.
For those of you that I haven't offended... yet... and are brave enough to venture on, I welcome you to the wonderful world of snakes! We've got lots to discuss. If I offend you further on in this post, I apologize in advance. Before you try to tell me that I don't know what I'm talking about, I will also say this... I may just know more about this subject than you. I don't make this statement out of arrogance... only experience. Please read all of what I have written, and then comment below if you would like to discuss, argue, or just ask a question. I'll be happy to address any of your thoughts and inquiries.
First of all, why should you listen to me regarding snakes?
There are lots of folks out there in cyberspace who show off pictures of themselves holding venomous snakes and who attempt to tell you what type of snake is what (often incorrectly) in a blog post.
Why am I any different from the rest?
Well, I have a degree in biology. Whoopty frickin' doo! That's certainly not what makes me an expert.
I have owned many "pet" snakes over the years. I still have a few. Again, that don't mean $#*%!
I have worked at three zoos... as a reptile keeper at two of them, and as an educator at the other. Once again, that don't impress me, dawg.
I have attended several herpetology conferences... and I even took notes... and once I even made a presentation on snakes. So what? Who cares?
All of these things have contributed in some way to my knowledge of serpents, but they are only part of my experience. Learning about snakes is something to which I dedicated myself a long time ago. I have invested a lot of time into making myself a snake "expert."
Why am I snake "expert"? Well, I have spent countless hours searching for snakes in the field, both paid and unpaid... mostly unpaid actually... I do it for the love of it. I have been chasing snakes for nearly twenty years. I've put in what I believe Tom Brown, Jr. would refer to as "dirt time." I have read more about snakes than anybody you know... unless you already know someone like me... and there's a good chance I've read more than they have. Not only have I read a lot about snakes, I own the books. I go to my own personal library frequently for reference. Here's a sampling from my herpetology library...
This bookcase has two more shelves of herpetology books above... and that's just one bookcase. I just zoomed in close so you could actually read some titles if you enlarge the photo. How many people have a copy of Problem Snake Management sitting on their shelf? Just in case you're wondering, it's not a book for exterminators. It's just a bit more interesting than that.
I've worked with venomous snakes (note: I didn't say "poisonous," but we'll get into that more later) in the field, in a lab at a university, and in a zoo setting... and I've never been bitten. I've never even had a close call. Maybe one day I'll have an accident, but I've never believed the old idea that every good snake man gets bitten at some point in their life. I've always thought that demonstrates lack of good judgment and/or foolishness. Just because some clown has been bitten by a venomous snake... that certainly doesn't make them an expert either. If you were accidentally bitten by a venomous snake, I'm not talking about you... but honest "accidents" of this sort are quite rare (more about that later too).
Let's get to business... "snake business."
Snakes are without a doubt one of the most maligned and misunderstood group of animals on Earth. They're also one of the most fascinating groups of animals on our little blue planet. If you don't have an irrational fear of snakes yourself, you probably know someone who does. I have met people who can't even look at a picture of a snake without losing control of their heart rate. For this reason, I've saved the snake photos for further down the page in this post. I've never, and I mean never, used a snake to scare someone, and I don't plan to start today... not even with a photograph. I'm here to try and help people overcome fears, not promote them.
By the way, you won't ever see me walking around in the park with a snake around my neck trying to show everyone how macho I am. Those guys are clowns. Speaking of clowns... there's a group of guys down in Mississippi that go out and catch non-venomous (read "harmless") water snakes and make videos of it to show everybody how crazy (and of course, "brave") they are. They sell their videos and other paraphernalia online and at outdoors shows. Simply put, these big "tough guys," don't impress anyone that knows much about snakes. Kelly has done the exact same type of snake grabbin' these guys do, but she has better technique... seriously. I don't think Kelly will mind me saying it, whoopty frickin' doo!
|Girls can grab 'em too! Kelly "bravely" holds a harmless Midland Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon pleuralis). Yes, that's real blood, from a harmless snakebite.|
They would be far braver, and much more impressive, if they went out and grabbed feral house cats bare handed. Now that would be something truly crazy... and worth buying the DVD. Hey snake grabbin' fellas, y'all takin' notes?
I think a list of the "Top Ten Things Outdoor Enthusiasts Should Know About Snakes" is in order.
- There are no "poisonous snakes"... but there certainly are venomous snakes. Poisonous refers to something you ingest... like a poisonous mushroom. Ever heard of anyone eating rattlesnake? Did they die from eating it? That's because rattlesnakes aren't poisonous, they're venomous. Venomous refers to the injection of venom through a bite or sting. Venom is primarily for prey control, and it's used for protection from predators secondarily. Snakes often tackle dangerous prey, but have no claws or talons to help safely capture and restrain them. Think a rat or a squirrel isn't dangerous? Try grabbing one bare handed sometime. Venomous snakes often quickly inject and release mammalian prey- only to track them down by scent trail after they have run off and died. Only then is it safe for a snake to swallow their mammalian prey head first. A snake who tries to eat a live rodent or rabbit without first controlling it through venom or constriction (in the case of non-venomous species) is likely to lose an eye or worse... a head. Venomous snakes have no desire to waste their venom on you... they'd much rather save it for that wascally wabbit. If you are bitten, don't make any attempts to suck out venom unless you have a Sawyer Extractor and know how to use it properly. The best equipment for dealing with a snake bite is a set of car keys and a cell phone. Get to a hospital as quickly as possible... call them and let them know you're on the way. Then you're in the doctors' hands... which is a can of worms in itself. I'll just say you would want to be in Arizona if you're ever envenomated.
- There is no foolproof method (or list of little rules) for identifying venomous vs. non-venomous snakes. Non-venomous species would love to have you believe they are venomous and often do a good job of convincing predators (and people who think they know more than they do) that they are indeed venomous. It's a survival mechanism... unfortunately, natural selection didn't plan for humans with hoes and shotguns. Unlike many other snake educators, I don't give out little sets of ID rules for venomous vs. non-venomous. There's always an exception to the rules... and all of it goes out the window when you leave American soil. One interesting thing to note here is that just because it "rattles" that doesn't mean it's a rattlesnake. Many snakes vibrate their tails when threatened to scare away potential predators... rattlesnakes have taken that behavior to the next level with special equipment for that purpose. Are non-venomous species actually trying to mimic rattlesnakes by vibrating their tails in the leaf litter? Hard to say... I've asked them, but they're not talking. Oh yeah... one other thing. Just because it has a forked tongue that doesn't mean it's venomous... that just means it's a snake. All snakes have forked tongues. I don't know how many times I've heard people who think they know a thing or two spout that stupid crap.
- Most snakes are harmless. Seriously, only 10-15% of snake species are venomous. The percentage might be slightly higher in Australia and Africa (20%), but it's safe to say around 80% of the time you encounter a snake- it's non-venomous. Don't go playing "Russian roulette" with snakes though... not smart. Very large constrictors (pythons and anacondas) may not be venomous, but can still be very dangerous. Just thought I'd mention that for anyone down in south Florida where pythons are taking up residence.
- Snakes are not out to attack people. They simply don't chase people down. They only defend themselves when they feel threatened- like any other wild animal. I know someone will argue with that, but the fact is only a very few species will even make maneuvers (other than a defensive strike) towards a person. If you want to argue about that, please... bring it on. You might be suffering from momentary memory lapse because you were so terrified from an encounter. I can assure you, the snake was more terrified. I don't blame you for thinking you were being chased, but listen to reason from someone who knows more than you. I have chased plenty of Racers (Coluber constrictor), but have never been truly chased by a Racer. They might make certain maneuvers, but they're not trying to chase you down and steal your first born. Got it?
- When people recount their encounters with snakes (sightings on the trail, in the yard, in the garage, etc.) to someone who may be able to help them identify what they saw, they usually get the details terribly wrong. The snake they imagine is often ten times as big, some color of green (very, very few snakes are actually green- especially in the U.S.), and far more menacing in behavior than any real snake has ever been. Fear causes people to exaggerate and distort things... see eyewitness reports from the scene of a crime.
- Snakes are vital parts of healthy ecosystems. Think snakes are hurting your hunting and fishing? Think again. Snakes typically pick off weak, injured, or otherwise unhealthy individuals. Snakes, like all other predators, are agents of natural selection that help make prey species stronger and prey populations healthier.
- Snakes control rodent populations- even in developed areas. Many species of snakes are known as "the farmer's friend" as a testament to their rodent eating nature. I personally believe all snakes are our friends... even if they're venomous. (See list item #6.) Regardless of what they eat or how they kill their prey, snakes have jobs to do in nature (around the farm and in suburbia too), and their "snake business" has little to do with us. Let them do their jobs... we'll have fewer rats and mice to deal with if you do.
- If you leave snakes alone, they'll leave you alone. (Review list item #4.) Don't try to kill snakes. Just simply leave them alone. To emphasize this point, most of the individuals who are bitten by venomous snakes are simply messin' with 'em... tryin' to kill 'em. The statistics show that it's usually adult males tryin' to be macho... messin' with 'em... tryin' to kill 'em. Adult males are often bitten on hands and arms. Women and young children (who are bitten far less than adult males) are typically bitten on the feet, ankles, or the lower leg. What does that tell you?
- Learn about the snakes in your area. When are they most active? What dangerous species live in your woods? Most areas of the U.S. only have a few (3 or 4) venomous species. Learn how to recognize them and keep a safe distance. I'm a big fan of going to books for information, but there is a ton of great information available online too. Try to find websites associated with universities or nature centers for reliable information. You can also e-mail me if you want some good reliable information.
- Zoos and nature centers are great places to learn about snakes. Visit your local zoo. Look for a display in the reptile house of native snake species. Books and online photos are great, but there is no substitute for seeing the real deal... live and in person... behind glass of course. Most zoos have really good exhibits that display the native venomous snakes of their respective areas. Rarely do you see many native non-venomous species displayed. Seeing various species in person lets you see natural variation among individuals and roughly how large they are... but beware the zoo Copperhead... they tend to be bigger in zoos than you will ever see in the wild... zoo snake keepers like to see how big they can grow them. They feed them like they're mouse eating Sumo wrestlers. It's a game... I think. I admit, I've played it before.
I don't have enough space here to show every species of snake, and there are already plenty of good online resources for that sort of thing. No need to reinvent the wheel, but I will show you the two most common species of venomous snakes in the Southeast: the Cottonmouth (or Water Moccasin) and the Copperhead. These two species are also the most likely to be encountered by most outdoor enthusiasts. I will also show one of the "mimics" of the Cottonmouth, the Yellowbelly Water Snake. There are several other "mimics," but this photo is the best I have that shows one displaying defensively in a way that makes it look dangerous.
|VENOMOUS: Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)|
|VENOMOUS: Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)|
|VENOMOUS: Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)|
|VENOMOUS: Copperhead (A. contortrix)|
|VENOMOUS: Copperhead (A. contortrix)|
|Yellowbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster flavigaster)- often mistaken for the Cottonmouth|
Well, that's probably enough of that. Maybe you have learned something about snakes, and I hope I didn't offend too many of you. I'm just trying to share good solid factual information. The best resources for good information are books. If I could recommend one book to outdoor enthusiasts and sportsmen across the country, it would be this one:
It's probably the best guide out there that is geared towards outdoor enthusiasts that covers the whole U.S. Actually, it's a one of a kind sort of book. Unlike most field guides that organize species taxonomically, this book shows the venomous snakes alongside the non-venomous snakes that are considered their mimics. It's a very unique perspective among snake books.
If you live in my part of the country and want to learn more, this is your book:
If you ever have any snake questions, please don't hesitate to ask. I love playing the ID game, but photos are essential. As I mentioned previously, the details often get a little fuzzy after an encounter. The photos don't even have to be that great. I actually got my first one of the season from my friend Jason a few days ago. He thought it might be a Copperhead, but was relieved when I let him know it was a Rat Snake. Here is the pic he took with his phone and sent to me for ID...
|I can't even see the head, but I can see enough to tell you what it is.|
Jason's photo was part of what inspired this post. That and the fact that I'm not only a fly fishing naturalist, but a snake wrangling one as well.
|One of the many snakes I've picked up on a failed fishing trip- a large female Diamondback Water Snake (N. rhombifer), another species often mistaken for a Cottonmouth.|
My name is Jay, and I have a snaking problem.