by Whit Gibbons

October 8, 2017

During autumn of most years, I get so many questions about snakes that I write a column explaining why they are more common in late summer and fall and why big rattlesnakes are being seen on roads.

The answer to the former question is that this is the season when all U.S. snakes are born, whether they hatch from eggs or are given birth by a live-bearing species. Timber, also known as canebrake, rattlesnakes mate in the fall, and the big males are out looking for females so are more likely to be seen on highways.

I have no fewer emails of this nature than in previous years, but some questions have been more intriguing. Here’s a sampling of questions with my answers.

Q: A friend from Alabama sent me a photograph from a book of two male cottonmouths fighting. Do they really fight, and how would someone distinguish it from mating behavior?

A: Yes, males of some snakes engage in combat, but the phenomenon has been observed so infrequently that a complete understanding of the process is lacking, as is a full inventory of which species engage in the behavior. Among U.S. snakes, fighting males have been observed in several larger species, including indigo snakes, rattlesnakes and cottonmouths.

Males in these species reach larger maximum sizes than females. The classic, vertical combat pose looks like a caduceus or arm wrestling contest. The snakes do not bite each other. The winner is the one that forces the loser to the ground by a combination of strength and dexterity.

An assumption is that the loser slinks away with his tail between his legs, although this would be odd, as snakes have no legs. But you get the point. The winner is further assumed to win the territorial dispute and the admiring female that awaits nearby to reward the champion. Or, sometimes two males may simply be fighting for prime territory in anticipation of future opportunities.

All mating among a male and female snake that I have ever observed or heard of has involved almost complete horizontal activity in which the male crawls on and over the female. Sometimes the male bites the female’s head or neck, although whether these are little love nibbles or some form of restraint has been debated. The snakes obviously know what they are doing with both combat and love making, and herpetologists are still trying to explain the nuances of both phenomena.

Q: How large an area does a typical rattlesnake cover in its lifetime? I live in a rural area in south Georgia and have never seen a rattlesnake on or near our property of about five acres. We also have a lake. Can rattlesnakes swim?

A: Some rattlesnakes have been documented to travel more than a mile and range more than 200 acres, but the variability is great among species and individuals, so any could be higher or lower. Even when snakes are in an area, most are very secretive, well camouflaged and do not call attention to themselves, so one could be around without you knowing it. All snakes, including rattlesnakes, can swim. Cottonmouths swim with their head elevated above the surface (almost with an air of confidence). Large watersnakes in the same habitat swim with their head level with the water’s surface.

Q: Can you identify this snake that a woman killed in Jackson County, Mississippi?

A: That is a common eastern gartersnake, which has several color variants other than the classic one with three yellow stripes. Some are checkered, and one from Florida has blue stripes. The one you sent a photograph of is a rare red phase known as the “flame gartersnake.” I showed the photo to a friend familiar with pet trade snakes. He knows someone who paid almost $1,000 for a flame gartersnake. Of course, they have to be alive, so it's a good opportunity to tell your friend she might not want to kill the next one.

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