Conservation Conversations: Snake ID (Episode 1)

Conservation Conversations: Snake ID (Episode 1)


Hi my name is Jeff Hall. I work with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. I’m the Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Biologist and this is Conservation Conversations. I’d like to talk with you about snakes today. In North Carolina, we have 38 species of native species of snakes. Of those 38, only six are venomous and only one of those venomous is found statewide and that’s the copperhead. The other five species three of those are rattlesnakes- the timber rattlesnake, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, and the pygmy rattlesnake, the cottonmouth, and the eastern coral snake. Of those species, principally those five are found in the coastal plain, although the timber rattlesnake also has populations in the Piedmont, a couple small ones, and as populations in the mountains. People often have interactions with snakes. Many of them are very positive. Sometimes people have interactions that feel like they’re not so positive and one of the things people always want to know is well how do i know if it’s venomous or not. Again, we have many more non-venomous species than venomous so you’re more likely to encounter a non-venomous species in most times but there are times when you may encounter a copperhead or even one of the other species if you live in the coastal plain. So common ways that people think they can use to identify venomous snakes are looking at elliptical pupils in their eyes which works for five of our six species. But if you have to get close enough to the snake to see its eyes that may be too close you might not be able to really use that. Another identification tool that’s commonly been used is does the snake have a triangular shaped head. Many times, non-venomous snakes when they’re threatened, such as this eastern king snake that I have here, when they’re threatened they’ll actually sort of flatten their head and I’m just gonna mash his head just a little bit so you can see that. You can notice that his head actually becomes trying to learn just a little bit and so that can happen with rat snakes, corn snakes, king snakes, lots of other species. So triangular head is not necessarily a good trait to go by. Really learning the banding patterns of the species is really the way to go. And for the two that people are more likely to encounter really one the copperhead they do have bands so they have a piece of coloration that goes all the way around the body rather than blotches such as some species have which maybe we’ll look at later, a corn snake that has blotches. But many species have blotches so that band doesn’t go all the way around. In the case of the copperhead, it’s a wide band on the side and narrow at the top. So when you’re viewing it from, the top you can actually see an hourglass pattern. If you look at it from the side, I’ve heard people describe it as it looks like a row of Hershey’s kisses on the side. So those are good ways to think about looking at the bands if it might be a copperhead. If you have a snake and you see blotches, you can know right off the bat it is definitely not a copperhead. So that can be a helpful identification tool. I have a corn snake here. Corn snakes are found across North Carolina. Not quite getting into the far western part of the mountains but pretty much everywhere else in the state. They’re found wherever good populations of rodents are found. Mice and rates being their principle prey. Although they are also good climbers, so they will eat birds and bird eggs. So one of the things you can notice about this species is that it has blotches across its back. This is different from what we see from the copperhead. Copperheads have bands again that go all the way around the body and would look like an hourglass pattern. So if we see a snake like this that has these blotches, these blotches of pigment basically, they go down the back, I can know pretty quickly that it’s not a copperhead that I’m looking at. So then I don’t really need to be worried about whether venomous or non-venomous. I can just go about my business. Most of the time when we see snakes, if we leave them alone, they’ll leave us alone. Many times people that are actually bitten by snakes, they are actually in the process of trying to do something with that snake. Manipulate it, move it, kill it, whatever that is. So if you just leave snakes alone, typically they’ll leave you alone. Another consideration when trying to determine what snake you’re looking at is to think about the different species we have. So again, we have 38 species in the state, 32 of them are non-venomous. We’ve talked a little bit about some of the venomous species but in the case of non-venomous, we have many species that are actually small, so sometimes people will see small snakes, 8 to 10 inches, and think that they have a baby snake when in fact we have about 15 species or so that actually stay fairly small you know roughly 18 to 20 inches as a large adult. So many of those species are ones that people see in their garden things like worm snakes or ringneck snakes brown snakes smooth earth snakes. All of these are species that stay relatively small. The other thing to consier is that sometimes species of snakes may look different as juveniles or hatchlings than they do as adults. Good examples of these include the rat snake and black racer. Both of those species have examples as juveniles where they are blotched which generally is probably a little bit better camouflage pattern and then when they’re adults they look different so an adult black racer is solid black and sort of shiny looking and adult rat snakes in the Piedmont and mountains are mostly all black and ones in the coastal plain are sort of a greenish color with black lines that go down the length of the body. But in both cases the adults look quite different than the juveniles. Behaviors of snakes are really heavily dependent upon weather conditions so we have to remember that snakes are reptiles and so their ectothermic which means that their body temperatures are regulated by external sources. So if it is a warm day, a snake is going to be warm. If it’s a cold day, the snake may be cool and not really have a lot of energy. So on a warm day it may be moving around just nicely like this corn snake is. It might be able to move about at will. On a cooler day, the snake may just have to be sitting in a patch of sunlight or something like that so it may not be able to just wiggle quickly away from you if you happen to encounter one. One snake type of encounter that sometimes people have that they’re not so sure about are water snakes. Sometimes you might actually incur one of our four species of water snake, they’re found across the state. Or it could actually be a cottonmouth. People have questions and concerns about how to tell the differences. First off, cottonmouths really would be helpful to look at a range map so that you can see where they occur in North Carolina. Cottonmouths are only found in the coastal plain and the Sandhills region of the state. They aren’t found in the western Piedmont or in the mountains. So if you live in one of those counties, you don’t have cottonmouths. We do have four species of water snake: the northern water snake, banded water snake, red-belly water snake, and brown water snake. Most of those species, they have overlapping range maps. The banded water snake is principally found in the coastal plain, replaced with the northern water snake for the rest of the state. Brown water snake and red-bellied water snake both have mostly coastal plain distribution, but they go into the far western Piedmont. So knowing where you are on planet earth, or in this case the state of North Carolina, can help you know which species of snake that you might see in or around the water. But it’s important to know the cottonmouths are not found all across the state and every snake that’s in the water is not necessarily a cottonmouth. People have different opinions about snakes. Some people love snakes, some people aren’t as fond of snakes. So sometimes people ask, well what are different things that I can do to either attract or unattract snakes from my yard. So I’ll start with the attract side. Certainly having different types of debris in your yard or some sorts of structures that they might be able to use or hide under like large pieces of plywood or pieces of tin are things that you can put out and actually attract snakes so that you can actually see them in your yard. Conversely, if you’re trying to eliminate possibilities for snakes in your yard, you want to try and clean up as many debris piles as you can. Probably keep your yard mowed really really short height and try to make sure you don’t have significant bushes or shrubs or things like that right up next to your house. The more hiding places you have, the more opportunities that there might be for snakes to be living in around your yard. If you find that you have more questions about snakes, you can go to our website www.ncwildlife.org to learn more. Or feel free to call our wildlife helpline at 1-866-318-2401. I’m Jeff Hall and this has been Conservation Conversations.

Randy Schultz

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2 thoughts on “Conservation Conversations: Snake ID (Episode 1)

  1. HerpersGuide says:

    Great job

  2. Nicholas Worrell says:

    Every snake I ever met died suddenly…

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