ARE MOST ABUNDANT IN THE FALL
by Whit Gibbons
October 9, 2005
spring, is snake season. I don’t remember the last time I wrote
about snakes in the fall. But based on the steady stream of recent emails
with questions about snakes, I haven’t done so recently enough.
the questions are “what is this snake?” and a digital photo
is often sent along with the question. Others are questions about snake
biology. The following questions were answered by J. D. Willson, a University
of Georgia graduate student who responds to most of the queries that come
from people visiting the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory herpetology
Web site, or by me.
Q. I recently
moved from Michigan, where we had one poisonous snake, to South Carolina,
where I have heard there are four. Is this true?
A. You are
correct that Michigan has only a single species of venomous snake, the
massasauga rattlesnake. By moving to the Southeast, you have won the lottery
on venomous snake diversity. Parts of every coastal state from Louisiana
to North Carolina have six species. One reason people often think only
four kinds of venomous snakes inhabit the South is that they include three
rattlesnake species in a single category. These include the largest U.S.
species, the eastern diamondback, and the smallest, the pygmy rattlesnake.
The third is the canebrake or timber rattlesnake, the most common large
species of rattler. The cottonmouth is a common resident around swamps,
lakes, and streams throughout many southern states, and the copperhead
is a more terrestrial species found throughout the Southeast, although
it is absent from most of Florida. The sixth venomous species is the rare
coral snake, a beautiful red-, yellow-, and black-ringed member of the
cobra family. To find out more about these species, check out the SREL
Web site (www.uga.edu/srelherp/).
point is that of the more than 50 different kinds of snakes native to
the eastern United States, only the seven species mentioned above are
venomous. Most of the southeastern states have more than 40 species of
snakes. If you decide to move to the Southwest, Arizona has more than
50 species, a dozen of them being rattlesnakes.
Q. Why do
I see more snakes in the fall than in the summer? In fact, it seems like
some snakes are as common now as they were in the spring.
are actually more common in the fall than in any other season because
most U.S. snakes are born between July and September. Baby snakes often
make their debut in carports or on patios in search of their first meal
in early fall. By the time springtime arrives, many young snakes have
already been consumed by predators, run over on roads, or died in other
of snake sightings in the fall is further increased as the adults move
around more in search of suitable hiding places prior to hibernation.
Hence, they are more likely to be seen. And some species, such as the
canebrake rattlesnake, mate in the fall. Big male rattlesnakes are seen
most commonly in autumn, crossing roads or wandering through woods and
fields searching for females.
Q. How long
do snakes live?
A. Zoo records
exist of snakes living more than 25 years, and 10 year records are quite
common. Although captive snakes can live for many years in a protective
environment, no one really knows how long they normally live in the wild.
One reason is that scientists have not discovered a way to tell the age
of a live snake unless it was caught as a baby.
Q. I was
told that snakes know when you are coming through the woods because they
can hear you talking. Do they have ears?
A. No. Snakes
do not hear the way most animals do. They do have a mechanism to sense
vibrations on the ground, such as an animal walking, but presumably snakes
cannot hear airborne sounds at all.
that snakes are a maligned group of animals is that most people know little
about their basic biology. Being unfamiliar with something you think could
hurt you can lead to distrust and ill feeling. Educating the public is
probably the single best step toward the conservation of snakes.
you have an environmental question or comment, email