Thursday, July 30, 2015

Readers Write in: A Snake Smorgasbord to Identify



Found this little guy in our living room this morning. We live on a lake in Roswell, GA. Thought it might be a red bellied water snake, but then I read that the babies have more pattern and are born in the fall. Head is darker than body and the orange belly is consistent, though pic doesn't show it. 

Thanks,
Shelley F.

Roswell, Georgia





Hi Dr. Steen,

My brother forwarded me these pics of a snake in southern Georgia. They were wondering if it was venomous. I don't recognize the pattern but the body shape looks like a Hognose. So I'm guessing southern Hognose, possibly shedding. Did I guess right?

Thanks,
Paul

Georgia

P.S. They did not dispatch the snake.




Hi,

My friend sent me a message with the attached pictures, asking what kind of snake she was looking at in her yard (Albemarle County, near Charlottesville, VA). I ventured corn snake or milk snake (maybe mole snake?) as possibilities...I know it's a busy weekend for you with the release of the Indigo snakes and the possible Gaboon Viper spotting). But if you have time, I would like to know what kind of snake my friend saw. Thanks! Appreciate the work you do . . . I try to do my part by being a cheerleader for these animals, and providing good information for my less than enthusiastic friends.

Best,


Laurel G.

Charlottesville, Virginia




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.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Bryan Hughes Tackles a Western Rattlesnake Mystery from Arizona

Hi Dr. Steen-

    I saw the Slate article about your website awhile ago and so when my husband and I found a few snakes around our house recently, I thought I'd send the pictures along. The first photo is of what I think is a Western Diamondback. It had the black and white stripe pattern above the rattles on the tail, but didn't seem to have to greenish tinge that the Internet mentioned of the Mojave rattlesnake. It was curled up right against the gate going into the backyard. My husband and dog might have walked right past it on the way out of the yard but my husband noticed it on the way back in. The dog has had snake training in the past but he didn't appear to notice the snake at all. 

    I didn't want to have to kill it so we used some gardening tools and hose to spray it away from the backyard. It was very angry-lots of rattling, but found a bush to crawl under a short distance away and I haven't seen it since. Any way to know if it was male or female? We live on the edge of Tucson, Arizona right up against Tucson Mountain Park-West, so we see all kinds of animals all the time. Javelinas, coyotes, bobcats, deer, great horned owl, roadrunners, scorpions, centipedes. A month or so ago we had a gila monster in the front yard.

    Anyways, the next picture is from this last week. The dog and I went out about midnight and found these 2 snakes knotted up under a rock. I put the dog away and went out for some pictures. The black striped one (a small king snake?) had the other snake's head in it's mouth. I couldn't figure out how the black snake was going to eat the other one since they seemed about the same size. I went to bed, got up on Wed. and both snakes were gone. Then, Thursday morning my dog was sniffing around and we found the lighter colored snake dead, apparently it hadn't been eaten. Unless it was a different snake completely. It had a body wound and was in a different part of the yard than when I had seen it Tuesday night. So I don't really know what happened. Was it too big to eat? Was the wound from being constricted by the other snake? 

   My husband took this picture of the dead one with the quarter to give a sense of scale. I don't have any idea what kind of snake the dead one was either, probably something harmless. 

    Thanks for all your help and have a great weekend!

Elizabeth A.
Tuscon Arizona

    What an incredible series of observations! I wanted someone more familiar with western species to tackle Elizabeth's interesting questions so I contacted Bryan Hughes. 

    Bryan Hughes is an avid herper and photographer in Arizona, field researcher, and a regular speaker at regional parks and reptile-related events in Arizona. His work can be seen on twitter (@rattlesnakeguy), and fieldherper.com, a photography-focused journal of snakes. He is also the owner/operator of a Rattlesnake Solutions, a rattlesnake-focused conservation and education business in Arizona. Here is his response:

Elizabeth,

    It sounds like you have an amazing yard! Many of us snake-nerds dream of a scenario where we could see a gila monster hanging out in the front yard. 

    You’re correct in your identification of the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox, that you found in your yard. The tail-banding is one way to differentiate them from Mojave Rattlesnakes, Crotalus scutulatus, but that can get muddy in some parts of the Mojave’s range, where tail banding can look somewhat similar. Generally (as you may have read), the tail banding of a Western Diamondback is about 1:1 ratio of white to black, while the Mojave is more in the neighborhood of 2:1 white to black.

    Diamondbacks can be wonderfully variable in color, pattern, and size. They don’t tend to show much in the way of green coloration, however, especially in the Western end of their range. Mojaves also aren't green through much of their range. They certainly can be in some areas, like around Lake Havasu, or in the valleys East of you, near Elgin. In your area, most that I have seen are straw-colored or tan. 

    Something else you can use to differentiate between a Diamondback and a Mojave is the pattern. While the pattern of a Diamondback and a Mojave are superficially similar, the diamondback generally has a much more speckled, “dirty” appearance, as in the photo that you sent in. The diamonds (especially on older animals) tend to break apart and have varying degrees of black splotches or broken white outlines. A Mojave rattlesnake, in contrast, has a much more clean pattern with very little to no speckling. Most scales are generally one color.

    The area where you live is also a factor. Mojave rattlesnakes do live in the area. However, once you get into the rocky bajadas and hills along the side of the mountain, the likelihood of seeing a Mojave drop off dramatically. They much prefer the sandy, flat areas several miles to your West.

    It’s difficult to say whether your Diamondback is a male or female, without seeing more of the body and tail. Females generally have a body that remains wide until just before a short tail, with a short taper just before (or sometimes right at) the  start of the tail banding. Males have a much more gradual taper throughout the latter half of the body, which ends in a longer tail. With diamondbacks, the stripes make it easier to specify just how long is a tail on an animal that seems to be all tail. Generally (this could differ depending on where you are), in your area, fewer than 4 black bands will be a female, and 4 or more bands is a male. If I were to take a gut-guess based on body proportions and head-shape alone, after seeing thousands of them, I would say that your snake is a female. Of course, take that with a big grain of salt, and send in a photo of the tail if you happen to see her/him again.

    The two snakes in the second photo are, as you guessed, a young Desert Kingsnake, Lampropeltis splendida, and a Desert Nightsnake, Hypsiglena chlorophaea. Kingsnakes eat other snakes, and nightsnakes are on the menu. They can eat snakes that are up to about the same body size as they are, amazingly, so I have no doubt that this kingsnake finished its meal and went off to digest it somewhere. Also as you guessed, both are harmless.

    I would assume that the third snake, which is also a Desert Nightsnake, is a different snake that died of other causes. Life is tough this time of year and it’s not at all uncommon to find snakes that haven’t made it through the fore-summer for one reason or another. This one looks to be dried up and shows some wear and tear in the scales that wouldn’t be likely in the timeframe mentioned. 

    Thank you for sharing, and for your positive attitude with wildlife on your property. As someone that often deals with the other side of how these encounters often go, it’s refreshing to see and I very much appreciate it. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Gaboon Viper on the Loose in Georgia? **UPDATED**

David,

The Baldwin Co Sheriff's office here in GA released a photo and statement on FB today that a gaboon viper was spotted in town. I tried to tag you, but I seem to not be having the best electronics day. I'm attaching the photo for you as well. I thought your readers might be interested as well. According to the PSA, DNR identified the snake via photo.

I'm curious as to what your thoughts on all the usual- how, why, what do I need to know, etc.

Thanks!

Amy R.

Georgia

      By now you may have heard that various news outlets are reporting that a Gaboon Viper was spotted crossing the road a couple days ago in Milledgeville, Georgia. Gaboon Vipers are a large venomous snake and Georgia is far, far away from sub-Saharan Africa where the species is normally found.


Photo: Tim Vickers, Wikimedia Images
    The snake in this picture is indeed a Gaboon Viper. Its unique patterning and coloration look quite odd on the road, but it has exceptional camouflage in its native habitat (check out the photo on the right to see what I mean). The snake in the picture from Georgia does not look like any of the commercially-available Gaboon Viper models or toys that I can find. Further, I have not seen that picture before and can't find it elsewhere online. So, I have no evidence that this is a hoax. 

    There have been Gaboon Viper scares on the East Coast before. Just last year a shed skin was found in South Carolina but an intensive search never revealed an actual Gaboon Viper. The jury is out as to whether this was a hoax. But five years ago a (dead) Gaboon Viper was found on a trail in Maine and you can't argue with an actual snake.

    How do Gaboon Vipers get to the United States? Well, there are some in zoos, of course, but when exotic snakes show up on the loose and nobody has any good answers why, it is almost surely an escaped or released pet (this truth is likely to upset some people). It is illegal to own non-native venomous snakes in many states without a permit, including Georgia, but these laws are occasionally broken.

    I have reached out to various people involved with the investigation of this report and will provide any updates here. I hope this post will serve as a comprehensive and non-sensational source of information on the Milledgeville, Georgia Gaboon Viper.

Update: 0950 CT

I reached out to Jason Clark of Southeastern Reptile Rescue and he responded:

     We've received a lot of questions about the Gaboon Viper reported to have been seen in Milledgeville, GA. Today, Wednesday July 22nd, we were contacted by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources in reference to this snake. We were the first to identify it as a Gaboon Viper. Since we are licensed for Gaboons and have experience with them and the fact that we've worked in cooperation with the state for many years, we were asked to assist. Before everyone jumps to conclusions, as is often the case with everything else reported in the media these days, let's wait until the facts all come out. Not every detail has been made public. Sure, this is an extremely dangerous animal. If it is true, I understand why people would be afraid. Fortunately, these highly venomous snakes with their extremely fast and accurate strike are not aggressive, high strung creatures. As with any other venomous snake in Georgia, watching where you put your hands and feet and never trying to kill or catch the snake are the simple rules that will keep everyone safe. We have been asked by the state to be on standby as we have done many times before and will gladly help in any way that will help remedy this situation....if there is one.

Update: 0956 CT

I'm receiving a lot of questions about this Gaboon Viper on Twitter.

    This is extremely unlikely (I want to tell you it's impossible but scientists have a hard time using that word). Gaboon Vipers are in the Bitis genus and no snakes native to North America are in that genus. So, even in the unlikely scenario that a Gaboon Viper finds a native snake and finds it attractive (or vice versa), they are not closely related so it would be really difficult biologically for all their bits to match up and result in babies.

Update: 1058 CT


    I contacted the folks at Zoo Atlanta to find out more about this and Dr. Joseph R. Mendelson, Director of Research, responded:

    "Zoo Atlanta, and many other AZA zoos (but not all), have stocks of antivenom for Gaboon Vipers..."

    Curator of Herpetology and veterinarian Brad Lock added:

    "We use and stock a polyvalent out of South Africa for Gaboon Vipers."

   So, that's good news. But, in any case, please don't get bitten by a Gaboon Viper.

Update 1210 CT

    This question came in from the Living Alongside Wildlife Facebook portal (have you liked it yet?):



    There is virtually no possible way that the snake observed in Milledgeville, Georgia two days ago is the same Gaboon Viper from South Carolina that people were worried about last year (if it ever truly existed in the first place). The Gaboon Viper would have had to accomplish two extraordinary things 1) travel a long distance in secret and 2) survive the winter of 2014/2015.

     Based on Google Earth, Milledgeville Georgia is about 200 straight-line miles from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Assuming the Mount Pleasant snake left South Carolina on April 5, 2014 and arrived in Milledgeville, Georgia on July 20th, 2015, it would have had 471 days to make the voyage. If the snake traveled in a straight line it would have to crawl at least roughly 0.4 miles a day to make that happen. Gaboon Vipers just don't usually move that much. In fact, a radio-telemetry study of six Gaboon Vipers in southern Africa (Linn et al. 2006. African Zoology) showed that the snakes never even moved at all on 75-95% of the days they were monitored! These snakes are big fat ambush predators and they probably just sit around a lot waiting for prey to come by.

   That said, the Gaboon Vipers did sometimes go crawling around, but daily movements over about 0.3 miles were rare. So, it's a stretch to think a Gaboon Viper would travel further than that every day for 471 days in a row (and when would it have stopped to ambush prey?). If it made the trip in less time, its daily movements would have had to be even longer.

   Regardless of the travel, Gaboon Vipers are from sub-Saharan Africa and are not physiologically equipped to deal with our winters. We do not know for a fact that it could not survive, but I do not think it's possible. Maybe it could have survived if it hid in someone's heated basement, but then it would not have had time to travel to Georgia. Verdict: not the same snake.

Update July 24 1652 CT

    In addition to the first article that caught my attention (Venomous snake possibly sighted in Milledgeville), a few more articles have been published about this Gaboon Viper sighting, although none provide much in the way of new information.

Highly poisonous snake spotted in Milledgeville, Georgia. A rehash of previously published information with a Gaboon Viper description pasted from elsewhere. Notice how this headline does not indicate any doubt about whether there actually was a Gaboon Viper sighted and calls it poisonous (actually, it would be venomous).

Legally owning snakes in Georgia. An interview with folks at a pet store. Provides contradictory information about what it takes to legally own venomous snakes in Georgia.

Update July 25 1133 CT




    I agree that it is unlikely that the one exotic snake out there would just so happen to be spotted. In fact, in the great majority of cases, when an exotic animal is released or escapes into the wild, the animal ends up dying a lonely death in the woods without anyone ever knowing about it. 

    That said, I do not think this is evidence of a reproducing population of Gaboon Vipers. A lot of snakes would have had to have been released in the same area at the same time (remember, Gaboon Vipers don't move around much to find mates) and they would have had to survive the winter. I do not think this sub-Saharan animal would be able to make it in central Georgia (which actually can get quite cold). As you can see here, average low temperatures hover around freezing in January and February for Milledgeville, Georgia.

Update 1533 CT

    Doubtful News is now covering the case: Evidence of deadly viper loose in Georgia.

  Update July 27 0952 CT

    News of the Gaboon Viper has now gone national. USA Today pretty much repeats a lot of the information we already know and they also report that A) Gaboon Vipers are from South Africa (true, but they are actually from sub-Saharan Africa and that includes portions of South Africa) B) Gaboon Vipers bite and do not let go (I've never heard of that before) and C) people have 15 minutes to get medical attention after a bite (How would somebody know this? What is this "fact" based on what and under what conditions is it true? And, what happens after 15 minutes?). Gaboon Vipers do have a dangerous bite but facts like these are usually bogus. You should get medical attention as soon as possible after any bite from a venomous snake.

Update 1058 CT

    John Jensen, herpetologist and senior biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), has responded to my request for comment on the reported Gaboon Viper in Milledgeville, Georgia:

"Snake does not look to be in a position (tail curled back toward head) where it is crawling across a road, as reported.  Looks to have been set down, or is dead, in my opinion. I can’t positively rule out it is a live, escaped (or released) previously-captive Gaboon Viper, but I think it is highly suspect."

    A few of you have mentioned in the Comments that you are skeptical that this is a real, live snake and it looks like at least one Georgia DNR biologist agrees with you.

Update July 28 0856 CT

    Some more news about the snake has come out, this article from the Thomasville Times-Enterprise indicates a growing skepticism about the Gaboon Viper.

   This news story reveals that that the Georgia DNR is conducting two-three patrols a day looking for the snake (I'm not sure what exactly a patrol entails).

    Someone has reported to me that some people are circulating this story saying it takes place in Baldwin County, Alabama. It does not, the Gaboon Viper was allegedly spotted in Milledgeville, Baldwin County, Georgia.

Update July 29 1145 CT

   NBC affiliate WYFF now has a news story with a lot of the same information we already know. They report that the search is still ongoing.

Update August 3 1856 CT

    More news, from WSB-TV2 in Atlanta, no new information.

Update August 4 1332 CT

   The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is getting in on the action. So is Mundo Hispanico.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Readers Write In: Let's Cut To The Chase - What Are These Snakes?

I'm in southwest Louisiana in Deridder.

Ronald C.

Southwest Louisiana in Deridder










Saw this on my back patio twice yesterday. There is stream 
nearby and woods too.

Gina S.
Bedford, New York








I saw this guy on a trail in East Texas on the verge of a mixed 
forest, near a creek. My guess is a coachwhip snake. 

Timothy A.
Houston, Texas


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.

Monday, July 20, 2015

What's the Best Bird You've Seen While on the Toilet?


    For many wildlife biologists, summer break isn’t a break at all. Instead, it’s the busiest time of the year, when they head into the bush for weeks or months at a time to collect data, giving up many modern conveniences—internet access, pants chosen for fit instead of number of pockets, even indoor plumbing—in the name of science.

    It seems like every field biologist has a favorite crazy bathroom story. I recently “eavesdropped” on two biologists on Twitter as they swapped stories about the facilities (or lack thereof) at their research sites in Africa, Siberia, and Alaska. When I emailed David with the idea for this post, he told me that he and his friends regularly toy with the idea of putting together a coffee table book of “bathroom frog” photos, documenting the amphibians they’ve encountered in showers and toilets while doing field work in the tropics. I once spent three months as a field assistant on bird research in the Australian Outback, staying at a sheep station where the bathrooms were all infested with huntsmen, fast-moving spiders the size of your hand. But by far my favorite field station bathroom is at the very tip of Long Point, a long, sandy spit of land jutting out into Lake Erie from Ontario.

    It was my very first summer field season. I’d just finished my sophomore year of college and had found a volunteer position monitoring Tree Swallow nest boxes for the Long Point Bird Observatory in exchange for room and board. Most of my time was spent on the “mainland,” staying at the main field house and going on daily walks around in the Ontario countryside to record the progress of growing swallow chicks. However, everyone had to do a couple week-long rotations at the tip of the Point, which can only be reached by boat. While I was there, I stayed in a cabin with no running water or electricity, overlooking the field where the Tree Swallow boxes were erected in a neat grid. Next to the cabin, a little up the slope, was the outhouse—the birdiest outhouse I have ever encountered.

    In the wooden door of the outhouse were several bird-shaped cutouts so that you could look out over the field, but that wasn’t what made it special. You may be familiar with the fact that bird people like to keep lists of the birds they’ve seen: life lists, year lists, state lists, county lists, yard lists. Well, tacked up on the wall was the outhouse bird list, a running list of species visitors to the cabin had observed while doing their business.

    This was eight years ago, and I don’t really remember anymore what additions I may have made to the list (though I do remember that nights in that cabin were the first time in my life I heard calling Whip-poor-wills). However, trying to confirm I hadn’t just made the whole thing up, I did some Googling and found a rare bird report of a Sage Thrasher sighting at the Tip that describes it as “the best bird on my outhouse list so far”:In any case, there are two points to this story. One, field biologists go to the bathroom in some interesting places, and two, birders are strange.

    Wildlife people: what’s your best bathroom story from your own field work? Everyone else: does this make you more interested in becoming a wildlife biologist… or less?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Readers Write In: Wrestling Copperheads (?) and more to ID



Morning Dr Steen.

Thank you for the work you do. Sadly, I did not have a great introduction to snakes: people chased me with them when I was young, my mom was very afraid of them....I found this fellow yesterday when I was in my yard, moving soil. He unfolded from the dirt pile. Interestingly, he was blue when he was perturbed and a paler tan/grey when he was not so. 

I looked at a couple of photos to see if I could find out what he is.... and am wondering if he's a baby black racer ?

Take care - and thanks for sharing your expertise.

Susan B.
Pennsylvania 

Today's excitement was finding this little fellow wandering around in the house. It made strenuous efforts to hide under the drier, but I managed to toss him out by lifting him on a wad of checks I happened to have in my hand when I encountered him. There must be a joke in there somewhere!

He was rather aggressive, particularly given his diminutive stature.

Regards,

Norman R.
Houston, Texas

Almost ran over this happy couple yesterday. Copperheads?


David L. and Larry W.
Vicksburg, Mississippi


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.