by Whit Gibbons

April 11, 2010

The advent of spring weather always brings questions about snake sightings. Following are questions I have received within the last week.

Q: I was hoping you could help me ID a snake I found by my mailbox in a rural area between Columbia and Charleston, S.C. It was a moderate-size black snake. When I got out to look, it flattened its neck area (about four inches wide) and turned back toward me. It took off toward the ditch as I scurried back into the car. It did not open its mouth and I didn't hear any rattling. I've seen pictures of indigo snakes and information about them that seems to fit very well, but the geographic range doesn't seem right. Is there another snake that flattens out its head/neck in defense and is all black?

A: Many snakes flatten their heads to some degree, but what you saw was almost surely an adult hognose snake, which is often solid black in South Carolina. This is a completely harmless species but one with an impressive display. Sometimes they will open their mouth, but they do not bite humans. They may strike toward a person with their mouth closed and will hiss. They come in a variety of different color patterns that can include green, yellow, orange, red, or gray, and some keep their color as adults. Note that another species, the southern hognose, is closely related, but does not become black as an adult.

As far as the eastern indigo snake, you are correct that South Carolina is not included in its native range. A famous herpetologist named Raymond Ditmars stated in the 1930s that they did occur in the state, but no one has ever documented this. Today they are a federally threatened species known from Florida and Georgia; they were once reported from Alabama and Mississippi.

Q: I have termites in a house I own, but I also have a six-foot-long rat snake that we have seen in the attic, the basement, and around the grounds. We need pest control treatment for the termites, but I do not want to do something that will harm the snake. Will the pesticides be a problem for it?

A: It is always refreshing to hear of someone who appreciates the value of a large harmless snake that will rid a house of rats, mice, and flying squirrels. Unfortunately, the snakes do not eat termites, but they will take care of any house sparrows, starlings, or pigeons that think the eaves are a fine place to roost or nest. I doubt if the pesticides used (if they are specific for termites) will cause a problem for the snake. Probably the greatest threat to the snake's well-being is the possibility that the pest control people themselves will kill the snake. I suggest you inform them that it is nonvenomous and instruct them not to harm it.
Q: Is it true that compost piles attract snakes? I can see that if rats were in the compost, snakes would be there, too. However, I thought a properly tended compost pile would heat up enough to deter snakes.

A: I doubt if a compost pile per se anywhere in the United States would attract any snakes that could be harmful (such as rattlesnakes, copperheads, or cottonmouths). As long as the area is not covered by wood or tin that snakes or rodents could hide under, the decaying organic materials themselves should not be a problem. Sometimes compost piles have earthworms and slugs that some common suburban species like garter snakes, earth snakes, or red-bellied snakes might eat, but if those snakes stayed in the area they would not be a problem.

For information about any of the snake species mentioned above, go to www.uga.edu/srelherp and click on the "snakes" link under Reptiles and Amphibians of South Carolina and Georgia.

Next week the following question will be answered: How many species of venomous snakes are there in the Southeast and what should I do if I encounter one or get bitten?

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