by Whit Gibbons

September 4, 2011

Over the next month or so, more snakes will be present than at any other time of the year, which always prompts people to ask snake questions. Here are two I've received this year.

Q. I live in a rural area and each year around this time I see or hear of others seeing small snakes (I assume they are babies), but most of the rattlesnakes are big ones, usually crossing roads. Why the difference?

A. Most North American snakes are born between midsummer and early fall. Snakes are especially conspicuous in the spring when they first emerge from winter dormancy, but they actually reach their highest numbers in August and September. These include the hatchlings of snakes that lay eggs (such as kingsnakes, rat snakes, racers, and ringneck snakes) and those that hold their babies in the body and give live birth (for example, all rattlesnakes, copperheads, and watersnakes).

Due to natural mortality rates that affect any animal species, the actual population size of every snake species begins to decrease beginning in late summer or early fall. One reason for the prevalence of small snakes being sighted in the fall is that the recently born young, like the adults, begin searching for safe hiding places in which to spend the winter dormancy period. Some baby snakes make their debut in carports or on patios as they search for their first meal while it is still warm in early autumn. Because they are more active aboveground at this time of year than they are in summer or winter, they are more likely to be seen.

Some species, such as canebrake rattlesnakes (also called timber rattlers in the mountains), mate in the fall rather than in the spring when most snakes and lizards mate. Adult male canebrake rattlers get bigger on average than the females. The big rattlesnakes seen crossing roads or moving around in woods and fields at this time of year are generally males searching for females. If a female that is ready to mate crosses a road, she may leave a scent trail that can be recognized and followed by males. So for every female moving around aboveground, several males may be tracking her, which results in more males being seen on roads.

Q. Though I don't see many snakes around our house (we live in a suburban area with woods nearby), I do occasionally see one. I saw a fairly large one last week that stayed long enough for me to take a photo with my cell phone. How can I get the snake identified?

A. Attaching a photo to an email is a good way to get a snake identified by experts. Photo quality and whether key physical features are visible can make a difference, but a photo accompanied by pertinent information can lead to ready identification in most cases. Be sure to tell where you saw the snake, and if any behavioral observations seem noteworthy, you should mention them. Sending photos of the top of the animal, a side profile, a view of the belly, and a close-up of the head would be ideal. Most people, however, are lucky to get a single photo of a snake as it is leaving. Fortunately, that is usually sufficient.

To identify southeastern snakes, as well as other reptiles and amphibians, check the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory website www.uga.edu/srelherp/. If you are able to get a photo, email it to srelherp@gmail.com. If you didn't get a picture, send as good a description as possible of what you saw.

Finding out just what animal you saw passing through your yard can be gratifying. And in the case of the poor maligned snakes, familiarity may breed understanding rather than contempt. You are likely to find that the interesting creature living near you is nothing to worry about. Even in areas of the Southeast where snakes abound, only about one species in six is venomous. Most of the others couldn't hurt you if they tried.

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