12/2/10 This tale has been confirmed as true by the parties involved, I include an update and additional photos below the original post. Here's the story, in which yours truly is quoted. The story has been picked up by numerous news outlets and is now being widely disseminated. In all of them, I'm incorrectly identified as a "Florida graduate student". Sacrilege! War Eagle!
From an e-mail I received yesterday:
From an e-mail I received yesterday:
"Do you hang a wreath on your door?
(this was sent from someone in Slidell, La.):This is an unbelievable story!!! I opened my front door today to receive a FedEx package and as I shut the door I thought the wreath stuck me in the head. After I shut the door I looked through the glass to see what it was that stuck me and was looking face to face with a 5’ snake. You can’t even see it as you walk up to the door. The wreath is over 5’ from the ground. Still can’t figure out how it got up there??"
Perhaps you've also recently received this tale of holiday mirth and terror. Unless you're a snake handler, this is probably not how you would prefer to celebrate Christmas.
In contrast to many "unbelievable" stories I receive via e-mail, I actually believe this one. Perhaps I should clarify that I find the story feasible, I've grown far too skeptical to say with confidence that the described event actually happened. Let's put aside the questionable physics of opening a door and being bit by a snake on the other side and evaluate the biology, a topic closer to my area of expertise.
The snake in the photographs is a Ratsnake (AKA chicken snake) of the genus Pantherophis (until recently it was considered Elaphe). Those readers from the east coast may furrow their brow at this identification. Although the snake looks superficially similar to the Black Ratsnakes (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) that reside north of Alabama and central Georgia and also similar to the Gray Ratsnakes (Pantherophis spiloides) that live south of this border, something seems off. You're right.
You may notice that the blotches along this snake don't follow the same pattern observed in the above mentioned species. In addition, although color is often a poor method of distinguishing closely related species (a single species of snake may have a lot of variation in color), the orangeish, light brown color of this Christmas snake is unique. It's a Texas Ratsnake, (Pantherophis obsoletus). Sometimes there are questions about where Ratsnakes can be found, but not in this case. Despite its name, the Texas Ratsnake is found not only in Texas but also through Louisiana (including Slidell)
Texas Ratsnakes, like all their Ratsnake brethren, are exceptional climbers. They can easily navigate their way up and through the trees searching for potential prey, which include nestling birds or eggs or even perhaps the occasional lackadaisical squirrel. Climbing a door, with its convenient window panes, would be no trouble at all.
The dumbfounded e-mail also exclaims this reptilian caller was five feet long (about 1.5 meters). This is also well within reason. Ratsnakes may reach considerable lengths, a snake over seven feet long (about 2.2 meters) would be a very large individual, but they're out there.
Perhaps the most questionable portion of the e-mail is the attack, which appears to have been unprovoked. After handling many dozens of Ratsnakes, I've found that the species varies considerably in temperament. When captured, some defend themselves vigorously with their mouth (their only weapon) while others seem perfectly content to be handled. Although unlikely, I concede it's possible for an undetected Ratsnake to feel threatened by a human that gets too close, and then attempt to defend itself by striking. Fortunately the species is not venomous and the resulting wound would be little more than a scratch.
From the fancy footwork and "bite proof" glove displayed below (as well as the live snake), I assume the author of the e-mail had a relatively casual attitude about his visitor. Perhaps he recognized the value of having a rodent-eating Ratsnake around and released the animal into the nearby woods. Let's hope so.
12/2/10 Today I received an e-mail from the wife of the man in the pictures. She notes the story is true and her husband was bitten by the snake as he sidestepped their incoming dog after going outside to receive the package. Some additional photos are below. We also have an answer as to the fate of this rat snake; I'm afraid it's not a happy ending. Again, here's the official story, which as I note, confirms the e-mail.