by Whit Gibbons

June 14, 2015

The subject line in the email read, "YIKES! Baby rattlesnake spotted in our neighborhood." I received the forwarded message from my friend John Byrd in Tennessee who said, "Another fine snake tale for your files." Turns out that an innocent and harmless snake was being erroneously indicted as being dangerous by someone who was clearly not familiar with what kinds of snakes might actually be in the vicinity.

The original message John received was replete with the paranoia and misinformation of which some people seem unable to rid themselves even in the age of electronic enlightenment. A downside of the open-information phenomenon is that anyone, however ignorant and uninformed, can use email and the Internet to transmit falsehoods. The old-fashioned encyclopedias of yesteryear had the upside of being written by professionals who usually knew their subject matter. Everyone had the option of going to an informed source about pretty much any topic. The Internet provides an easily accessible source - with absolutely no guarantee about the accuracy of the information.

The message John received had photographs of a beautiful, nonvenomous rat snake climbing in a bush. This warning accompanied the pictures: "Yesterday, a baby rattlesnake was photographed climbing on the forsythia by our kitchen window ... there are likely more ... you might want to be alert to the possibilities of rattlesnakes in the woods behind [your] houses ... The markings are similar to those of the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, which is so prevalent in the East Tennessee wilderness."

What is inaccurate or misleading about this email, and what is right? The plant does look like forsythia, so that seems to be correct. Also, being alert to the possibilities of encountering a venomous snake in the woods is always reasonable advice in that region of Tennessee where timber rattlesnakes and copperheads make a living. Being aware of your surroundings is common sense anytime you are outdoors.

The most significant error is misidentification of the snake. The snake in the photo is not a rattlesnake but a harmless rat snake, a common and widespread tree-climbing species. Timber rattlers do occasionally, although rarely, climb into bushes and trees. But eastern diamondback rattlers never climb into shrubs or trees anywhere in Tennessee, because they do not occur there! The call for caution seems a bit sensational, especially considering the warning is based on a harmless animal. The message, which is full of misinformation, promotes fear and paranoia. It's like advising people to run to the fire exits in a building that is not burning.

With the advent of email and phone-ready photography, I receive dozens of pictures of snakes for identification each year and am gratified with what they show for two reasons. First, most of the snakes are alive and being appreciated by someone who has an interest in the natural world and one of its most fascinating inhabitants. The second reason is that at least 19 out of 20 times I can respond that what they sent a photo of was nonvenomous. Of the photos I receive, rat snakes are by far the most common harmless species, followed by watersnakes and garter snakes (both of which have triangular-shaped heads when they are alarmed). Occasionally someone does send a photo of a copperhead, cottonmouth or rattlesnake, which is not surprising as these are all native species in various parts of the country.

Being observant is always a good plan; a venomous snake could be encountered in many habitats, including your backyard, under certain conditions. But the place where we should all be most vigilant is the Internet. Check to be sure that what you are reading is fact and not someone's paranoid, misguided or just plain malicious interpretation.

John Byrd ended his email message to me with, "I live in a dangerous place, but it is even more dangerous for the poor rat snakes."

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