Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Readers Write In: What are these Frog-eating, Cottonmouth-looking Snakes?

1) This is the snake (on right) that started my whole concern (a five-footer that was in our yard). I've been told it was a black ratsnake. Is it?...

My snake-obsessed little boy spotted a snake (second picture) on our evening walk tonight. We know it's not a copperhead or black rat snake or king snake—do you know what kind it is? It was thin and about 20 inches long. You would have been proud of me—I didn't freak out, not even a little bit!! 

Feel free to use on your blog! Thanks!

Holly A.
Atlanta, Georgia

2) Please let me know your thoughts. Thank you for educating us on our snakes in Ohio. I lived in Southen California as a teenager and seen plenty of small rattlesnakes. If you're telling me we have Timber Rattlesnakes in Ohio, I hope to never cross paths with one. Although I am not a fan of snakes I love your website and reading and seeing what others see in the world we live in. Great Job, thank you.

Diana M.

3) I am trying to identify this snake that was playing in the backyard with my kids!!  Pic is a little gruesome as my husband cut it open to see what was in its stomach - a giant frog. We are in Roswell, GA a suburb just north of Atlanta. It was in a mulch pile next to a wooded creek in our backyard. 


Caulie H.
Roswell, Georgia

4) Could you review the following pictures and identify this snake? We think it may be an Eastern cottonmouth.  My son was walking in his yard at dusk when he heard a hiss. If it had not been for this, he would have stepped on it. He lives in Northern Chesterfield in Virginia. He has a small creek adjacent to his property. 

Thanks for your time. Any information you can provide would be appreciated.

Vickie A.
Northern Chesterfield, Virginia

5) On an outing to a local state park the other day, this snake crawled onto the dirt road ahead of us.  The driver tried to avoid it but alas, did not. We are in southwestern Florida near the Myakka River. The area was pine flat woods alternating with swamp. This is not a species I'm familiar with but my tentative and uninformed ID is a Hog Nosed Snake.  It was 15" to 18" in length.  I'm pleased that the iPhone photo does show the interesting coloration on its underside.

I enjoy your blog and apologize that this is another picture of a dead snake.  At least I didn't do it in with a shovel as many seem to do.


Andy W.
Venice, Florida

Readers: What Are These Snakes?
Snake Identification Post Ground Rules

-Guesses are welcome and encouraged. Don't worry if you're not an expert, wrong guesses allow us to talk about how to distinguish between the various species and that's why I run these posts.

-If you can't explain why you think a snake is a particular species, go ahead and just say what you think it is. But otherwise please do let us all know how you identified the animal. If you're wrong, we can explain why. If you're right, this helps everyone learn how to identify snakes, which is the goal of these posts.

-You can safely assume that I know what kind of snake is in the picture, I run these posts because they are outreach opportunities. Please don't send me private e-mails with your guesses, include them below.

-Remember, the person that sent me the picture is probably reading your comments. Although it is frustrating to know that many of these snakes have been killed, these people do want to learn more about them. More snake knowledge will lead to fewer snakes being killed.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Rat Snake Freakout: Cottonmouth in an Alabama Toilet Edition

Sorry folks-that snake they fished out of an Alabama toilet was not a Cottonmouth.

     I'm very excited because Rat Snake Freakouts are one of my favorite topics to write about. If you're new to the blog, these freakouts occur when people see a Rat Snake (i.e., a very common snake on the East Coast of the United States in the Pantherophis genus) and freak.the.hell.out. Often, people freak when they see a large Rat Snake (they can reach over eight feet long) because they cannot believe that a snake that large could be part of our local snake fauna. Then, they say the snake must be a giant python, a yellow python, a boa constrictor, or even a black mamba, for some examples.

    Snakes get misidentified all the time though, and as much as I wish everyone could recognize the common wildlife around them, they can't. The real problem occurs when the crazy ideas that people come up with about perfectly normal Rat Snakes get repeated and sensationalized in the media.

    This bothers me for a few reasons: 1) articles repeating Rat Snake Freakouts promote the idea that snakes are something to freak out about, 2) reporters seldom bother to ask someone knowledgeable about snakes for a comment on their story, which does not advance our understanding of the story or of wildlife, and 3) people often tell me I'm wrong about something because they read something different in the newspaper; they don't realize that facts and reality aren't always a priority for these articles, a lot of clicks and readers are.

Photo courtesy Hueytown Police Department
    Enter the "Cottonmouth in a Toilet" story. The short version is that someone in Hueytown, Alabama, found a Rat Snake in their bathroom. The police were called and they called it a Cottonmouth (which is a venomous and potentially dangerous species).

    Three people sent me a link to the article and I immediately contacted the author of the story to let her know that the animal was not a Cottonmouth.

"The snake in this story is clearly and unequivocally a harmless Ratsnake and not a Cottonmouth. Would you mind ensuring that the story is fixed? I can provide a more extensive quote if necessary. It is important that readers do not get confused between harmless and venomous animals. Please feel free to contact me in advance of future articles on wildlife in Alabama.



    In my e-mail I decided not to bring up the fact that the snake was referred to as a slimy situation (every child that attends a nature program about wildlife learns that snakes aren't slimy) and Cottonmouths are referred to as "poisonous" (they're not, they're venomous).

    I never heard back from the author but the next day there was a follow-up article about the snake. To my surprise and consternation, it was entitled, "Toilet snake's identity stirs up waves of questions: what did Hueytown police fish out?" I thought this was an odd choice for a title because there is no question about what this snake was. But it wasn't just an odd title, the article is written as if there actually is a debate about the snake's identity. 

     The police were sticking to their story about the animal being a Cottonmouth. As a counterpoint, the author contacted an individual at a pest removal company who correctly identified the snake as a Rat Snake but also said that Rat Snakes don't have fangs (the police said their snake did) and that he was no herpetologist. So I guess this is one big mystery, right? Wrong. To add insult to injury, the article had a picture of a different Rat Snake and a Cottonmouth side by side so that readers could see the difference but the labels were mixed up! 

    I took to Twitter to vent at the author.

    To her credit she quickly fixed this error. But, when it came to the "controversy" about the snake identification things got a little murkier.

     I pointed out that an appropriate an analogy would be to interview a police officer about a crime scene picture and then ask me, a snake expert, for my comment and say that both sides were represented. That doesn't make much sense because my opinion wouldn't be of much value in that case. Besides, there is no need for different viewpoints when reporting on a fact. Someone is going to be wrong when disagreeing about a fact and it's OK to point out what the truth is.

    It's too bad that this story, which as you might expect has caught widespread attention (like here on CNN), only promotes the idea that scary snakes might invade your home and their identities are a mystery that even experts can't figure out.

    Help stop this viral story in its tracks by sharing this link on social media.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Friday Roundup: The Week's Wildlife Links (June 20th, 2014)

I know I'm late. Thanks for noticing.

Want to know the difference between animal rights and wildlife conservation? Learn more about feral cats.

One-ton man-eating crocodile caught in Uganda, at least that's what the article says.

In wolf news: Saskatchewan is making it easier to kill them. For the first time in 89 years, a wolf appears in Iowa-is shot dead. In Europe, wolf spotted in Holland for first time in a century. If wolves come back elsewhere in the States, what will happen to the foxes and coyotes? Wandering Oregon wolf OR-7 may have found a companion. Watch Game of Thrones and ever wondered what Dire Wolves really were? Wonder no more.

Now to bears: Oil-soaked Grizzly found wandering around Banff. In Kootenay, a mother Black Bear overcomes a road-hurdle to help a cub. Sometimes, a short video clip is all that is needed to make you rethink our relationship with wildlife. Check out this casual Grizzly. People are starting to talk about reintroducing Grizzlies to California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Hunters after Black Bears in Idaho kill a Grizzly by mistake.

Meanwhile, up north Grizzlies are wandering closer and closer to Polar Bears and some concerning hybrids are starting to show upA warming climate is bad news for Polar Bears. What will they eat? Apparently, more starfish.

Students raise trout in the classroom-end up feeding them to bears.

Bears and wolves converge to feast on dead whale.

Tens of thousands of elephants are being killed each year by ivory poachers in Africa. Tens of thousands. Iconic and famous elephants are starting to fall. Civil war invades an elephant sanctuary in the Central African Republic. Mountain Bull, legendary Kenyan elephant, found dead. Shortly afterwards, Satao is found dead too. Another tribute to Satao here.

No, Lovebugs were not created by scientists.

Living alongside lions in Kenya. Living with other wildlife can be challenging too. Chimpanzees are raiding farms in Rwanda. How technology can help reduce conflict with livestock-raiding Snow Leopards and how rapid response teams in Costa Rica are helping farmers dealing with Jaguars killing their pets and livestock.

Whooping Cranes are hatching in Wisconsin.

Northern Elephant Seals are making a comeback in a big way.

Rediscovering vanished snakes.

Despite poaching, rhinos in India are up.

Have you seen any dead cicadas lately? You can help out on some cool citizen science.

Sure, Africa has some impressive wildlife migrations, like these zebra traveling from Namibia to Botswana. But wildlife migrations happen in the States too, check out these Mule Deer.

Heron eats rabbit.

Large-scale habitat restoration in Tampa, Florida.

World's oldest Orca (103 years!) spotted off B.C.

Some invertebrates, like cockroaches, care after their young. Some even nurse them, kind of...fascinating stuff.

What's wrong with the moose of New England?

Traditionalists and technology collide in the bird-watching world.

The toxic brew in our yards.

Did I miss something interesting? Let me know below.


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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Readers Write In: We Were Trying to Enjoy The River But What's Up With All These Snakes? ---Guest Post---

While camping this week end in the Pigeon River country, mid-Michigan we encountered many snakes in the Pigeon River while the kids were swimming? We have been swimming there for many years and never seen a snake? It appeared to be a mating ritual? The water is very cold. The holiday was a week early and that may explain why we have missed this before. We were all amazed and wondered where we could find information. I googled it but it never mentioned any thing about mating habits? They were marked like rattlesnakes. We just couldn't place them in such cold water?



    It sounds like your family was enjoying a wonderful camping trip! One of my favorite pastimes is floating down Michigan rivers and observing wildlife along the way. I know you didn't ask me, but I will tell you in my opinion there is not a more relaxing or enjoyable thing to do on a warm sunny day. Unfortunately, I have not had the pleasure of exploring the Pigeon River yet, but it is on my list of rivers to make time for. There are too many miles of great paddling here in Michigan for one persons's lifetime. That being said, I spend enough hours on the water, and I have more than a slight interest in reptiles and amphibians, so I figure I should be able to try and help out by answering a few of your questions!

Baby Northern Watersnake
    Snakes can be tricky beasts for sure. Even though they are fairly common along Michigan rivers, they can be hard to see. They are secretive and very well camouflaged. If you don't look for them, you often don't see them! They are not the evil creatures people often take them for. They will usually remain motionless as you go by, or quickly flee the area. Both scenarios may occur without most people knowing the snake was ever in the area. I can't tell you how many times I am out looking for reptiles, and other people in a populated place are very surprised to find out there are snakes right in the area. 

    If you know a little about snakes and their habits, they can be easier to find. The spring is probably the best time of the year to try and observe them. It sounds like your day was one of those rare days where certain factors aligned, making for ideal conditions for snakes to be out and active. I don't need to remind you what a long and rough winter we had up here in the north. Our spring was very delayed because of this, and vegetation had a much later start than normal. The snakes were likely taking advantage of one of our first warm and sunny days after the long winter. They tend to be be active for longer periods of time basking, foraging for food and mating. The lower levels of vegetation might have made it easier for your family to notice them as well.

Northern Watersnake
    The snakes your family saw were most likely Northern Watersnakes (Nerodia sipedon) They are very common along and in our Michigan Rivers and are not deterred at all by the cold water. They spend much of their time basking along river banks, in over hanging bushes and shrubs, or on fallen trees and logs in the water. You may also find them hunting and swimming in the shallows. Sometimes, you may have already spooked the snake and you first noticed them swimming away in an effort to seek refuge in the water. Their diet consists of fish, frogs and insects and they pose no risk to your family. If grabbed or handled though, they will bite in defense, and often release foul smelling feces from their anal vent. It may go without saying, but catching a water snake by hand is rarely an enjoyable experience for both parties involved.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake
    Northern Watersnakes are variable in pattern, but tend to have a drab brown or grey base coloration with darker bands criss-crossing along their backs. They can grow to be quite sizeable, maybe even a few feet in length, and their pattern will often fade as they age. They are one of the most common Michigan snakes confused for the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus). The two species do have similar colors and patterns. The biggest giveaway is the presence or lack of a rattle at the end of the tail, but familiarizing yourself with the different species patterns and habits also makes it pretty easy to tell them apart. Massasaugas are common in wetlands, fens, wet prairies and even sometimes woods along our Michigan rivers, but will rarely actually be found swimming in a larger river such as the Pigeon. To my knowledge, they are common along the Pigeon River.

Northern Watersnake
    Finally, you mentioned that they appeared to have been mating. Similar to humans, some species of snakes also partake in intricate and confusing mating rituals. Garter snakes and water snakes (but not Cottonmouths) are well known to form "mating balls". Typically a female or two will be basking and she will attract the attention of a number of males. The snakes end up intertwined and almost "balled up" for a significant amount of time. The males will fight for position and the ability to mate with the females. This may sound very similar to you, as it is often also seen on a Friday or Saturday night right here in the metro Detroit area! I haven't personally seen this in water snakes, but it is well documented in the literature. If you search google for "Northern Watersnake mating ball",  there are a number of good Youtube videos showing this.

    Your family obviously has a wonderful interest in nature and the outdoors. If you would like more information regarding reptiles and amphibians in Michigan there are a number of wonderful local resources available to you. My favorite books would have to include, The Amphibians and Reptiles of Michigan, by J. Alan HolmanAmphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region, by James H. Harding, and the more general Peterson Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. Many of the local parks with nature centers have knowledgable naturalists who often hold "herp" programs which provide you a controlled opportunity to often search for these animals on guided hikes. Lastly, there are a number of excellent reptile and amphibian enthusiasts, researchers and photographers in Michigan who are active on the web with blogs, photography websites and even twitterfeeds. Finally, if you do get more interested, I would encourage you to try and take pictures of your finds and contribute them to the Michigan Reptile and Amphibian Atlas. It is great effort to document observations of reptiles and amphibians all over the state to try and learn more about their occurrences. It also provides a chance for the casual citizen scientist to contribute their observations.

As always, if you have any more questions, feel free to ask!

About the Author, Jason Folt

I grew up in the midwest, splitting time between Ohio and Michigan, and I have not been able to leave. I fell in love with the southeastern Ohio hills, and now the northern Michigan rivers. As my night job I am an emergency physician who practices in the metropolitan Detroit area, and I am involved in the training of medical students and residents. My interests lie in airway management, envenomations and medical photography. By day, I enjoy spending my time outdoors when possible, searching for opportunities to photograph wildlife. I am a herp generalist, but in Michigan I find myself spending most of my free time searching for turtles.  I travel with my kayak when I can and am always trying to explore new sections of rivers looking for wood turtles. I keep observational herp records which are contributed to state officials, and I try to volunteer with formal surveys when invited. I also enjoy diving, and recently entered the world of underwater photography.

I try to share my various outdoor adventures on my blog, I also spend a little time on twitter: @jasonfolt. Feel free to connect with me at any time!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Readers Write In: This Snake Bit Me, What is it? And More...

1) This picture of what I think is either mating green snakes or yellow rat snakes was taken on the deck of our beach cottage on Seabrook Island, SC. Thought you'd find the "intertwined" snakes interesting. Can you identify and confirm this is a mating ritual?

Vincent S.
ok, South Carolina

2) Wondering what kind of snake this is. It was found in Springfield, Il. We have a built-in pool in the back yard and a wooded back lot behind our house. We put the snake out in the field and it came back twice. He was placed probably 40 feet from where we found him. Should we be concerned?

Steven D.
Springfield, Illinois


3) Could you help to identify the attached snake? We had a friend just bit by this one.


Mark A.
Cullman, Alabama

4) What kind of snake is this?


Readers: What Are These Snakes?

Snake Identification Post Ground Rules

-Guesses are welcome and encouraged. Don't worry if you're not an expert, wrong guesses allow us to talk about how to distinguish between the various species and that's why I run these posts.

-If you can't explain why you think a snake is a particular species, go ahead and just say what you think it is. But otherwise please do let us all know how you identified the animal. If you're wrong, we can explain why. If you're right, this helps everyone learn how to identify snakes, which is the goal of these posts.

-You can safely assume that I know what kind of snake is in the picture, I run these posts because they are outreach opportunities. Please don't send me private e-mails with your guesses, include them below.

-Remember, the person that sent me the picture is probably reading your comments. Although it is frustrating to know that many of these snakes have been killed, these people do want to learn more about them. More snake knowledge will lead to fewer snakes being killed.