Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Giant Pile of Snakes on a Boat - Could This Photograph Be Real?

Hi there!

I have an unhealthy fear of snakes.  By unhealthy fear, I mean it has taken away one of my favorite hobbies as I used to love to garden!  My lawn backs up to a wooded area with a creek so I've had many snakes visit over the past couple of years.  I actually just sold what I thought would be my forever home because of this phobia.  I've sought out blogs like yours to keep from completely cementing my lawn and building a wall of moth balls to protect me!

I came across this picture tonight and I really need you to tell me it's photoshopped.  Because I love the lake and there's no way in the world I can go back if this kind of thing happens!

Thanks so much!

Heather M.

    It is real. 

   When I saw this picture I immediately suspected that this was a mess of (harmless) water snakes in the Nerodia genus. These animals tend to mass together in the mating season (I'm contractually obligated here to tell you that Cottonmouths do not do this, they have a different reproductive strategy).

    Because this looked like a big open lake and not some backwoods swamp I thought there was a good chance that these were Lake Erie Watersnakes (Nerodia sipedon insularum). But, I needed to consult an expert to make sure, so I e-mailed The Snake Lady. Dr. Kristin Stanford has worked very closely with this species (you may remember her from her snake-catching appearance on Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe) and I wanted to know if the picture looked familiar.

Hi Dave,

Yep... Very familiar! I think I've been tagged to it (on Facebook) a few dozen times already! Yes, they are LEWS (Lake Erie Water Snakes), but I can't confirm (when or where it was taken). It's not an unfamiliar scene this time of year though since they are just starting to form their mating balls. That's what I try and explain to people, that they will see large piles of snakes like this in the spring but by July they will be dispersed.


   These animals can only be found in a couple spots on Lake Erie and it actually used to be listed as a federally-threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The snake was in danger of going extinct because the few shorelines where they spent the winter were being rapidly lost to development. They were also frequently killed by people. Together with the protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act, an unlikely ally helped the animal recover. The Eurasian Round Goby (Neogobius melanostomus) invaded Lake Erie and became a valuable and abundant food source for Lake Erie Watersnakes, so much so that they started growing faster and bigger and this probably reduced their risk from predators while allowing them to reproduce earlier and produce more offspring. In 2011, the animal had bounced back so much that they no longer needed protection from the Endangered Species Act.


    So Heather, the "bad news" is that this photograph is real. The good news is that this is a harmless species, the sheer number of them make this a conservation success story, and the animal is unlikely to be seen by anyone outside of Ohio!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Animal Planet’s “Monster Croc Invasion”…What You Thought of the Show --Guest Post--

By Chris Murray

    I am a graduate student at Auburn University and my Ph.D. dissertation research focuses on the ecology and physiology of the American Crocodile in Costa Rica. I am interested in trying to figure out if and why there are more males reported in the population than females and whether this contributes to these animals having a bad reputation. For example, the dispersal of male crocs into encroaching agricultural or residential areas increases the potential for fear, if not confrontation. A year ago a talented crocodilian handler and TV personality, a production company, and Animal Planet approached me to film a documentary style piece on the situation and my research for national TV. At first, I was very conflicted about whether I should get involved.

    As many are aware, biologists often shy away from getting involved in television shows like this because they are plagued by misquotes and out-of-context clips and phrases, or include other tricks to manipulate the message and make the show more entertaining than educational. I think this has made biologists relatively inaccessible to the general public and has resulted in many people getting their information about the natural world from sources other than experts in their field. Myself, the cast, the research team and the production personnel agreed to the filming with three main goals in mind:

1) to expose the interesting issues that surround a system that we hold dear

2) to balance the scale between flashy action and natural education such that all action is real and used as a vehicle to deliver well-rounded depiction of the research and system, and

3) to humbly attempt to provide an unbiased perspective from the people doing biological research in that system.

    I have a lot of pride in what my research team had accomplished and I did not want our work to be diminished by being associated with a possibly sensational show. But, I thought it would be worth the risk if we could accomplish these goals. I believe the footage shot and detailed storyline paints a fair and accurate picture that is engaging, educational and accessible to the viewer… I hope I’m right.

    I hope you will tune in this Friday (May 22nd) at 9 pm EST to “Monster Croc Invasion,” a part of Animal Planet’s Monster Week. While the title itself seems to tip the scale in the favor of sheer entertainment, we hope you find that the content provides educational balance to some extent. I hope to hear from you regarding what you thought of the show, did it accomplish the goals that I wanted it to? Please leave your comments below and I will check back in as soon I can to respond and answer any questions you may have about the show or the crocodiles I study. I thank you in advance.



Readers Write In: Today's Snake Identification Challenges




Okay, I have one more for you, then I’ll leave you alone. I’m trying to redeem myself. This one was shared by a co-worker and fellow Boy Scout leader. They came across this guy while on a campout this weekend in St. Clair county. 

Larry W

Hoover, Alabama






Hi David,

I photographed this snake in the lake at Fort Yargo State Park in Barrow County, Georgia, on May 6th, 2015. I was setting up to photograph a landscape when I caught the motion as it swam into sight. I got one chance at a shot before it swam out of sight, and this is it. It's a young snake, probably about 2'6'' long, and beautifully patterned - much more striking than I was able to capture in this shot. I'm guessing it's a Northern Water Snake but I'd appreciate an expert opinion.

Regards,
Joan K.
Monroe, Georgia




Hi! Me again! Any clue on this one? He's pretty. 

Amanda L.
Loganville, Georgia




Readers: What Are These Animals?
-----

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, May 19, 2015

Readers Write In: Two Rattlesnakes Spotted During A Cat Walk, What Should I Do?


    We live in Surprise AZ alongside state lands. Yesterday and today about 5 pm on our walk with our pet cat we have come across (a Diamondback) in the yard, curled up and looks like sleeping. My cat was inches from it and it was not bothered, neither of them!

    Should we just leave them or take them out on the state lands a few thousand feet?

Thanks,

Jim T.
Surprise, Arizona

    Wow - talk about lucky. Check out these beautiful snakes that Jim found. The first snake is indeed a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) but the other is a Sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes)! How cool!

    Jim touches on some themes that we have tackled here on Living Alongside Wildlife before. Specifically, whether relocating rattlesnakes to a nearby area is a viable alternative to killing them. The answer, as I describe in this previous post, is that relocating rattlesnakes often causes them to move around more (probably either trying to get home or looking for something they recognize) and die at greater rates than rattlesnakes that were left alone. So, it's not an automatic death sentence, but it's not a great solution either.

    Relocating rattlesnakes may be bad for more than the snake. Handling venomous snakes is kind of dangerous, far more dangerous than leaving them alone, if you ask me. Plus, if you find a snake somewhere, it probably means that you are in good snake habitat. And, for every snake you see in good snake habitat there are probably ten you don't. So, I don't think it makes much sense to do this dangerous activity.

    So, the real question was what Jim should do. Jim, I am going to suggest that you stay vigilant (watch where you put your hands and feet), keep that cat from investigating any nooks and crannies, and continue to appreciate this incredible landscape that you're sharing with some amazing animals. Thanks for the e-mail and question!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Readers Write In: A Little Bit of Everything to ID





Oh, man! I was hoping for the Hog Nose. I’ve never seen a Rat Snake that light in color before. Most of the ones I’ve seen look the one (on right). My wife saved this one from the road in our neighborhood. I took him to Oak Mountain to keep him from running into one of my less snake friendly neighbors. This one is a Rat Snake too, correct? 

Larry W.
Hoover, Alabama






Found this beautiful but scary snake on our front step. I'm concerned about my 19 month old daughter, who often plays in the front yard.

I'm torn between safety for Lily and respect for the critters who were here first. I want to encourage my grandchild's curiosity about wildlife, including snakes. How can I nurture her enthusiasm but keep her safe?

I want her to appreciate and respect wildlife but I worry because it was found on an oft traveled path.

Thanks,
Teri CB






Can you help us possibly identify this snake in our pool? We are just curious as we don't want to kill a non-venomous snake.

Amanda L.


Readers: What Are These Animals?
-----

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, May 12, 2015

Readers Write In: I Ran Over A Large Rattlesnake (But It's the Last One)

   If you have checked out past Readers Write In snake identification challenges or follow me on Twitter, you know that I often tell people that if you are upset at someone who has just killed a snake, the worst thing you can do is berate or insult them. Otherwise, you're not helping change the outcome of future interactions to something more harmonious. In fact, I often see people get defensive or angry when they are attacked for killing a snake, even going so far as to promise to kill every snake they see for the rest of their life! If seeing a snake killed makes you angry, don't hate, educate. Otherwise, find some other way to vent. I have had to block folks from following me on Twitter because they interject with aggressive comments and sabotage my science communication efforts when I'm trying to engage with people. Why do I care about that? Because many people that I have interacted with after they killed a snake now follow me on Twitter or visit this blog and help identify snakes for other people. They would not do that if I was mean to them.

 I have recently been getting a lot of good feedback about my strategy, but wanted to share this specific e-mail exchange from yesterday in case you needed some convincing.

    I am a home inspector north of Birmingham, AL (40 miles north). There are 2 high ridges perpendicular to I65, that runs north and south through the middle of the state. Driving to the house to inspect today, this snake was crossing the road and he was every bit of 6 feet, possibly 7.  I ran over it, but didn't get to apply the hand brake and kill it - I probably shouldn't kill such a majestic snake, but I have friends that live within a mile of where this snake was and they have children and pets and I just always feel like I'm helping a human by killing a poisonous snake.

    Anyway, these 2 ridges have many rattlesnakes - my friend has seen many in their "backyard", which is about a mile of steep ridge filled with rocks where the snakes like to live.  I live 5 miles north of the ridges, along the Mulberry River, but we only see copperheads mostly, rarely a water moccasin and never have seen a rattler.

I zoomed the pic and counted 8 buds on the rattle - I know that doesn't determine the age of the snake but I think this snake has to be a mature one just from its size alone.  This picture has only the back half of the snake showing and there was at least the same length or more hidden as it crawled slowly into the ditch.  I hope it lives if I just wounded it, and I hope it doesn't suffer if I did.

I would like to know the type if you wouldn't mind indicating that.  Thank you in advance for your help and I really like your website and appreciate all who have dedicated their time to learn the knowledge of the outdoors and its inhabitants.

Best,

Russell P.

Alabama


Hi Russell,

   That is a Timber Rattlesnake, you can tell by the color and chevron patterns and it's the only large rattlesnake in that region. Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes also get that large (and bigger) but they are only in the coastal plain regions. I understand why there is an impulse to kill a large venomous snake, but it is not the only one there, there are hundreds if not thousands in the area, and they've lived next to people this whole time with little problem. The reason I think this really matters is because I think killing venomous snakes is more dangerous to people than leaving them alone. Whether you're getting too close to it and injuring it or perhaps swerving to hit one, I think that is often a greater risk then each of you going the other way. Anyway, that's just my 0.02 cents, like I said I understand the impulse.

  Thanks for your e-mail, I'm glad you found the blog. I'll include this in an upcoming snake ID blog post (all blog readers are instructed not to give people a hard time for killing snakes).

Cheers,

Dave


Great info, thanks.  And since you calmly gave me an excellent reason for not killing poisonous snakes and didn’t rant at me, I’m going to leave them alone from now on – thank you for helping me see it another way.  You can include in your blog that I have seen the light and will leave future snakes alone on the road.

I can’t promise to fully follow this if I find one in my yard or front porch, but I can tell you that I don’t kill any that I see when I am wading the Mulberry River to fish – I leave them alone in the hopes they we will “go our separate ways”.   I was wading once and a 3 or 4 foot long 2 inch thick copperhead swim underwater right past my leg – I had polarized glasses on and saw him/her clearly and it left me alone and I didn’t even flinch then.  But I am pretty afraid of them, but only those I don’t see in time. 

Thank again very much for your time and I will forward your info to several of my friends who are now asking what kind of snake it was.  Kudos to your knowledge.

Best,

Russell P.