by Whit Gibbons

June 5, 2005

Coachwhips are large southern snakes found from the Carolinas to New Mexico. Yet as far as I know no one has ever written a major scientific paper about their ecology. I found two last week that I added to our coachwhip study file at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. In addition to reminding me how little we know about the ecology of even common species, coachwhips also remind me that ecologists need to keep in touch with the lighter side of the profession. Some stories, therefore, are worth repeating--as reminders of that lighter side.

In herpetology, as in other professions, you must learn certain tricks of the trade to be proficient. One trick that surviving herpetologists learn is how to catch snakes without getting bitten. You can see how this would be important. However, as Morton, a former student discovered, learning is sometimes accomplished only by doing. Being told how is not always enough. The actual learning process may come later.

Herpetologists have many different ways to catch snakes ways that ensure they will never get hurt. Well, hardly ever. One method, called the sling technique, is excellent for capturing certain types of nonvenomous snakes. You grab the snake by the tail, sling it through your legs, and clamp your knees shut. Then, without a moment's hesitation, you pull it back between your legs and grab its neck, right behind the head, with your other hand. No problem; a simple recipe for how to catch a snake, but not one to be tried at home.

Professional herpetologists can do this with a big blacksnake or watersnake without getting bitten. When carried out properly, the whole process takes one second. In fact, if it takes more than a second, you may have a problem. You can't let a snake stay behind you too long after you sling it through your legs because some tend to bite anything that's handy.

I show the sling technique to students in my herpetology class, and when Morton took a job as an ecologist at a regional wildlife reserve, he had been shown the sling technique in class. But he had never practiced it himself. One spring day he was showing a group of school teachers through the wildlife reserve, when a seven-foot-long coachwhip snake came zipping across the path in front of the group.

Coachwhips look like a big thick piece of rope or bullwhip. And they might be considered mean snakes, as they bite at the slightest provocation. They are not venomous, but they will bite, with a big mouth full of teeth. Morton knew the snake was a coachwhip and nonvenomous, and he apparently felt he had to do something to distinguish himself from the screaming, scrambling bunch of teachers. So he decided to catch it. He thought he had learned the sling technique in herpetology class. As the snake went by, Morton grabbed its tail and slung the rest of the body through his legs.

This, as you might imagine, would be considered more than slight provocation by a coachwhip. Nonetheless, with proper execution of the sling technique there should be no problem. But there can be one. When you sling a seven-foot snake through your legs, you've got about six feet of it behind you. And any number of things might happen.

After Morton slung the snake through his legs, he made a mistake. He waited just a half second too long before executing the next part of the sling technique. When he tried to yank the coachwhip back through his legs, it had already come up behind Morton's head and grabbed him by the ear. One distinguishing feature of coachwhips is that they don't just bite and let go. They chew. So while Morton pulled on one end of the snake, the other end was hanging onto his ear.

That day provided several learning experiences. The school teachers learned a few words they didn't know were in an ecologist's vocabulary. Morton learned a little about the sling technique and about the difference between knowledge gained through observing and that gained from experience. He also learned that ecologists, like everyone else, should remember not to take themselves too seriously.

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