Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Coming Soon to Your Town-A Giant Dead Snake

Note: This is my original column on exaggerated snake photos.  If you want to read the comprehensive discussion including all photographs of which I am aware, click here.

Perhaps you’ve seen this picture before.

I sure have. Every once in a while it will make the rounds through people’s inboxes. Knowing of my interest in maligned creatures, many are eager to know my thoughts on the giant snake that had been killed in the town next to theirs.

It’s odd though, how the snake has been killed in a different town each time I receive the picture and how its size, although always larger than any rattlesnake on record, fluctuates perceptibly over the years.

You likely realize what I’m getting at; this picture is one of many e-mail ruses that boast of various killer reptiles that were killed themselves just in the nick of time, often before delivering a fatal deathblow to some unwitting yet fine and upstanding citizen.

Recently upon having a casual conversation with a salesman at a local business and after revealing myself as a wildlife biologist, the man asked if I had heard about the giant diamondback rattlesnake that had just been killed in Enterprise, Alabama. Already knowing where this conversation was going, I feigned ignorance to hear the latest iteration of the Southeast’s giant dead snake. I was enthusiastically led over to a nearby counter where I saw the above picture printed out for all patrons to see. Sure enough, the attached text described how the 97 pound eastern diamondback rattlesnake had been killed in Alabama.

Diplomatically, I casually pointed out the black and white tail of the snake, reminiscent of a raccoon, and I noted how this feature reveals the snake to be a western diamondback. Although a close relative to our native eastern diamondback, the western is found no further east than Arkansas, far from Alabama, Georgia, or Florida. I continued by noting how that the snake is being held aloft toward the camera with a pair of snake tongs. For emphasis, I ran to my truck and returned with my nearly four foot long pair. I inquired how much larger a snake might appear if it was four feet closer to the camera than the man holding it. I mentioned how some fisherman may know this trick all too well.

(Side note: there’s only so much camera trickery that can be done, the fish in question should have some girth to start with for maximum effect).

Check out Mark Bailey's blog for another example and follow the links for a demonstration.

I could see that I was winning over my audience, now a few interested people crowded around the photograph, eager to hear about large rattlesnakes. One of them noted that the man in the picture didn’t seem to be struggling much for holding up a 97 pound rattlesnake. One astute individual noted dubiously, “That’s like holding two bags of fertilizer”.

I took the opportunity to talk about how although I’ve handled a number of large snakes, including four and five foot rattlesnakes, none of them surpassed ten pounds. A rattlesnake approaching one hundred pounds does not approach the realm of possibility.

As conversations of this type often do, the talk drifted to large rattlesnakes seen and killed by those present. I’ve heard of rattlesnakes reaching six feet long that are now skinned and displayed in the den, of snakes writhing on the road after being purposefully run over, et cetera, ad nauseum.

Mustering my best old-timer persona, I’ll typically mention,
“You just don’t find snakes that large anymore much, do you?”

Encouragingly, sometimes this prompts some thoughtful head-nodding. On the other hand, occasionally it triggers an individual to share yet another tale of a snake being heroically vanquished and destroyed.

After hearing a couple of such stories today, one of the men noted although he’s lived in the area his entire life and come across many diamondback rattlesnakes, every last one was more interested in escaping notice or fleeing than being aggressive. Immediately, the heroic snake killing tales were put into another perspective.

I nodded slowly in agreement, “That’s been my experience too”.


Charles said...

Snakes and many other animals seem to be maligned by silly stories or myths. We need people who are willing to educate others about the truths behind the myths.

Kerry said...

I just had to debunk this very same picture a few weeks ago. It's definitely a tightrope walk between educating people while simultaneously not being obviously condescending. Someone sent a link a few days ago to a website that had collected most of the various "giant snake" photos floating around out there and gave a point by point explanation of why they were wildly exaggerated...unfortunately, I forgot to save the link, but it would have been a good resource to have.

David Steen said...

Thanks Charles, the myths are usually somewhat entertaining, as long as the take-home message isn't, "so you should kill all the snakes you see."

Kerry, it's making the rounds again. Just since I posted this blog days ago, I've received a couple dozen redirects from google searches for keywords including, "giant rattlesnake ga" or "97 pound rattlesnake killed alabama".

I'd be interested in the site you mention if you come across it again.


Charles said...

David, you will not believe what I saw today. I got to see my first Blanding's turtle. Talk about cool! They are actually endangered here in Indiana.

David Steen said...


What a great find, my favorite turtle. I've only found one, basking in a beaver pond under a powerline corridor in New Hampshire.

Congrats on your lifer.


billco said...

I got close enough to a big rattlesnake last month to get rattled for the first time. When I told the story, almost everybody was surprised that I didn't kill it.

David Steen said...

That's good to hear Bill. It's time for others to realize that choosing not to kill an animal isn't the irrational response to an encounter.