Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Springtime is Snake time

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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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?
  9. 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.
  10. 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 live in the South (the Southeast that is), which is probably the "snakiest" region of the country. It may be one of the "snakiest" places in the world. The Southwest comes pretty close. Either way, if you live in northern latitudes you have far less chance of ever encountering a snake... unless you live in Manitoba where Red-sided Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) pour out of the ground by the thousands every spring... but that's another story.

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.


    1. Jay, Excellent post! Like you, my career is in biology (Lyme disease research) and I always enjoy reading and learning about the natural world (I'm not just an angler). Snakes, frogs, birds, dinosaurs, moose...it doesn't matter...learning about any of it can do nothing but enrich of lives. Other than an extremely close encounter (my face was 12" from a coiled copperhead once) one time I had with a snake I have always appreciated any encounter I have had with one.

    2. Thanks, Kiwi. I'm glad to have received some positive feedback. I expect a fair amount of negativity on this one... but maybe the post is too long for most naysayers to make it to the end. I was just a bit long-winded.
      By the way, your Copperhead encounter just goes to show that snakes aren't really out to get people. Even a rather small 2' Copperhead could probably have come pretty close to biting you within the distance of 12." "Mean as a Copperhead snake"? I've always thought of them as rather quiet and passive... "I'm camouflaged and I really don't want to be seen. Please don't notice me."

    3. i can't believe I read through the whole thing. LOL Great info! I used to live near island park and we had some cool snakes up there. Now I live in vegas and really have not checked what we have here. We used to see rattle snakes all the time in idaho

    4. Dustin, you've got all sorts of cool desert snakes in the Vegas area. Plenty of rattlesnakes I'm sure. Thanks for stopping by and toughing it out to the end.

    5. I skipped the pictures of the snakes, but read the content since I have an irrational fear of snakes. I've tried to overcome it by being around snakes more, but it just increases my fear. So silly.

      Serious question for you though; a couple weeks ago we talked in my Wildlife Ecology course about the decline in snake populations. This could have some scary consequences. What is your take on the environmental factors plaguing our serpent friends?


    6. Stephanie, wow, where do I begin?
      I could ramble on endlessly about the conservation concerns surrounding snakes.

      I think the biggest factor threatening snakes in the SE would have to be roads. Roads are a result of development in general, but cars on roads probably kill more snakes than any other factor. Snakes often have to cross roads to go about "snake business," but it can be a death sentence if they aren't lucky. I actually have a snake roadkill slideshow that I've been putting together for the last few years. It's sad to look at even if you're not a big fan of snakes.

      The second major issue in the SE is persecution by humans. I am a firm believer that the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake will be mostly extirpated in my lifetime. I think it already is in a lot of places.

      Consider this, an adult female EDB gives birth every other year if all goes well... maybe every three years. She may give birth to a dozen offspring. Maybe 20% will survive to adulthood if they can avoid the host of feathered and furred predators, and their kin- the Kingsnakes and Indigo Snakes (Indigos are quite rare- on the endangered list). If they survive to adulthood, they may not begin reproduction themselves until they are at least five years old- probably closer to ten for females.

      I think the odds are definitely in favor of the "flatbillies" (coastal hillbillies) and their shotguns.

      1. Just thought I would update my own comment about the fate of the Eastern Diamondback. It is currently being reviewed as a candidate for federal Endangered Species listing. I imagine it will be tough to get protection for a venomous snake, but hope something is done before this majestic symbol of the American South exists only in captivity.

    7. Interesting post.
      I have hunted, camped and walked a thousand miles of trout streams. I have seen a lot of the natural world. I respect it. But the two things I fear very much are snakes and wasps.

    8. Alan, there's nothing wrong with a healthy fear of animals that can legitimately hurt you. What bothers me is when people who are supposedly afraid of them make attempts to kill them. As long as your fear encourages you to leave them alone, you're okay in my book.
      Thanks for enduring such a long post and commenting. I hope you enjoyed some of it despite your fear.

    9. Awesome post Jay! Appreciate all the great info. I usually see a fair number of snakes every year on fishing and hiking trips, but I've only seen one venomous snake in more than two decades of tromping through the woods. It was a timber rattler on the trail above Elkmont in the Smokies. Even though it was small, maybe three feet at best, it was a very impressive animal.

    10. Well Jay, I not only got all the way through, but I looked at the photos as well. You know I'm not a snake or lizard fan, but do realize their importance. I think I only have to worry about prairie rattlers and we do have them around my house. Well and the bull and garder snakes. My lawn mower eats them although I've tried to get it to stop...

    11. Ty, you're lucky to have seen a Timber Rattler in the park. I haven't seen one there, but I know I haven't spent as much time there as you have. Three feet is adult size for a male, and if it was on the trail it may very well have been a male on the move. Female Timbers are pretty much homebodies.

      Cofisher, shame on your lawnmower... Bullsnakes are awesome. I wish I had them around my house. Prairie Rattlers are equally interesting. I've never gotten a chance to look for them in the wild, and the ones I've worked with in captivity have all had very unique personalities- some have been laid back while others are downright nasty. Thanks for reading my long-winded post.

    12. It was great Jay and I appreciate your love of all things natural.

    13. Dude, you're my friggin hero! And bravo to all the non-snake-lovers who took the time to read through this most-excellent and informative post. You're knowledge on snakes far outstrips my own, but I like the heck out of 'em and I'm sure we could swap a few stories. I've always shied away from writing such a diatribe for the very reasons you list at the top of the page. Good on ya for forging ahead anyway. Maybe a couple of snakes won't get whacked with a shovel, chewed by a lawnmower or driven over on the road this spring because of it.

    14. Jamie, thank you for the kind words. I've never been anyone's hero before. In the words of Charles Barkley, "I am not a role model." But, I will speak on behalf of the snakes... I have no problem being their Lorax. Glad to know there are at least a few snake fans other than Kelly and I out there.

    15. Great post Jay! There's not much cooler than stumbling upon a sweet snake when out on a hike. My wife hates it and won't touch me if I end up picking it up. It is a price I am willing to pay to interact with those beauties.

      You raise a great point which can be extrapolated to many other topics. Failure to understand a thing can result in foolish behavior. Way to educate!

    16. Oh yeah, if you pick up a snake and it puts some of that sweet musk on you, that may be why your lady won't touch you. Just a thought.

    17. That is exactly why she won't touch me. Oh that sweet musk.

    18. I've heard that it's a turn on for some people... and I admit I like the different odors (every species has their own unique aroma) because they remind me of good times catching snakes... but even I don't consider it to be an aphrodisiac.

    19. Obviously not a fan of snakes, but still bummed to hear your take. It never crossed my mind what a huge problem roads are, nor did I realize how little some species reproduce, and then figure in the survival rate of those offspring...yikes! The Eastern Diamondback really has some huge obstacles to overcome to make it. Snakes are such an important part of ecosystem balance (even if I don't like them), it is a bummer to hear how hard they struggle for life.

    20. WOW!!!! You are now declared the winner of having a "Snaking Problem" in the affirmative!!! Great post, even though I will not go looking for any snakes! Amazing library on the subject too...I know who to go to if I have future questions regarding the subject!! Thanks, Jay

    21. Hey Jay, interesting thing about that timber rattler in the Smokies is that it was a black phase rattler. It was deep black in color and its markings were barely visible. I had no idea that there was such a thing as black phase and thought they were all yellow phase until I did some research. Tell you what though, a coal black rattlesnake coiled up with the rattle going is one intimidating dude.

    22. A lot of the Timber Rattlesnakes in Appalachia are black phase. I think you're more likely to see that than yellow. I actually think males trend toward black, while females are more often lighter colored... but you won't read that in any book I know of. I imagine the darker pigmentation helps them warm up (thermoregulate) in a typically shady and cool environment. Timber Rattlesnakes will come out from their winter dens even when it's still cool as the big monoliths (that are often associated with dens) warm up in the sun. They can easily be 25-30 degrees warmer than the surrounding air temp, and being black probably helps the snakes gather even more of that solar energy.