SNAKES ARE MUCH MALIGNED
May 6, 2002
Sea turtles and most birds have a nice time of it from a conservation
standpoint because everyone likes to know they are doing well environmentally.
Snakes face a different situation. At this time of year people start
telling tales about the hazards of snakes, especially water moccasins,
aka cottonmouths, even in regions of the country where cottonmouths
do not live. In some stories they fall out of trees into boats; sometimes
they crawl into boats; and often they get shot from boats, along riverbanks
or around lakes. And the wildest yarn of all is that they actually
have chased someone.
In tales about water moccasins one of the most intriguing aspects
is that the snakes being referred to are most often harmless water
snakes. They may look mean and have diamond shaped heads, but they
are non venomous creatures that cause no harm.
Of the more than one dozen different species of U.S. water snakes,
at least one kind is found in 38 of the 50 states. Florida and Alabama
have the most different kinds. Many water snakes look like venomous
cottonmouths. As a result, the harmless water snakes, the impersonators,
die by the hundreds each year because people, perhaps with good intentions,
think they are killing a dangerous snake when they are not.
Considering the advent of more enlightened attitudes about our native
wildlife, environmental education about water snakes would seem to
be in order. In the case of cottonmouth versus water snake, people
will benefit from knowing they have nothing to fear from a water snake
the snakes, of course, will also benefit. For that matter, you have
no need to fear cottonmouths; if you keep your distance, they will
not attack you. With a water snake, your greatest danger is fear itself.
One group is the banded water snakes, which can inhabit almost any
body of freshwater in the eastern United States. They vary in subtle
ways across regions, but are generally similar in appearance: usually
reddish to brown crossbands across a brown, gray, or tan body. Because
of their color pattern, banded water snakes are often confused with
venomous species. Countless banded water snakes have been killed,
with someone returning as a hero, having supposedly rid the world
of a copperhead or cottonmouth even in regions where the venomous
species do not occur.
Calling a water snake harmless needs qualification. Pick up any big
water snake improperly, and you'll get snakebit for sure, and probably
bleed. But the rows of tiny teeth really do little more than scratch.
And I doubt anyone has ever been bitten by a water snake, or any other
non venomous species, without first picking up or otherwise harassing
the snake. Stories of someone being bitten by a non venomous snake
without picking it up are highly suspect.
A pair of southern species, the brown water snake to the east and
the diamond back water snake (not the rattler) to the west, are common
along big rivers and reservoirs. Both are ugly customers if picked
up, biting at one end and spraying a foul smelling musk from the other.
Unpleasant, yes; venomous, no. Brown water snakes eat mostly catfish.
A snake will hang underwater with its tail wrapped around a limb,
dangling like a vine. Eventually it will come to the surface with
a catfish in its mouth. Amazingly, these snakes maneuver their mouths
around huge, venomous catfish spines and swallow the fish whole.
Water snakes can be enormous. In some species, females get twice the
size of males. A pregnant brown water snake can be more than five
feet long and as big around as a softball. Water snakes do not lay
eggs; the babies are liveborn in the early fall. Once born, the young
are on their own in protecting themselves and obtaining food, which
for brown water snakes means catching catfish.
Next time you see a snake near the water, take time to observe it.
If you live in a southern state, it may indeed be a cottonmouth, but
chances are it will be a harmless water snake. In either case, if
you don't bother it, it won't bother you. And it is as important a
part of our natural environment as a Carolina wren or a loggerhead
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