INTERNET CAN BE SCARIER THAN RATTLESNAKES
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
ended his email message to me with, "I live in a dangerous place,
but it is even more dangerous for the poor rat snakes."
you have an environmental question or comment, email