Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Latest Rat Snake Freakout

Those of you who have following my blog for a while know that there are several recurring themes, (besides snakes, turtles, salamanders and other amphibians and reptiles in general). One common and popular topic relates to the tendency to grossly exaggerate the size of dead rattlesnakes. However, another topic that rarely rears its head (but is perhaps more darkly amusing) is when people absolutely and positively freak out when they encounter common native wildlife.

And, what kind of animal are people simultaneously unfamiliar with and terribly frightened by? Snakes of course.

Rat Snakes in particular inspire some incredible stories. This species (and I’m referring to Elaphe obsoleta AKA, more recently, Pantherophis alleghaniensis) ranges throughout the eastern and central United States and can be quite common in suitable habitats, which include hardwood forests and abandoned farms and barns. Rat snakes often can be often around these abandoned buildings because they are great places to find their favorite prey, which, you guessed it, tend to be small mammals like rats.

Although rat snakes can be found frequently in the southeastern United States (here I’m considering Black Rat Snakes and Gray Rat Snakes the same animal, although there is some recent genetic evidence suggesting we should treat them as separate species), their appearance often attracts a lot of commotion elsewhere. To be fair, they can be a large animal (the biggest specimens could reach seven or eight feet long) but they can hardly be considered exotic. Yet, when these snakes show up, perhaps crawling down from their usual tree hiding spots to find mates in the breeding season or food when they’re hungry, their arrival is generally not appreciated.

For example, when a Black Rat Snake was noticed in a Delaware neighborhood, local officials warned citizens to keep their pets and children under a close watch while the leviathan (which they claimed was likely an escaped python) was on the loose.

Less than a year later, we heard of an escaped mamba in Minnesota. The snake, which I’m sure you realize was a Black Rat Snake, was killed by frantic people who claim they feared for their lives.

This winter, we learned of a snake spotted in some Christmas decorations that made the mistake of revealing its presence to some individuals who weren’t filled with holiday cheer when greeting their guest.

And today, we learned of a boa constrictor or python that’s terrorizing a neighborhood in Illinois (caution: hyperlink leads to a picture some of you may find unpleasant). You can probably guess where I’m going with this.

Black Rat Snakes are common around southern Illinois, yet once again we hear of a monster snake from South America threatening pets and children.  We are provided with some pics of the culprit, which can be clearly identified by its color patterning. The picture was taken after the snake was stabbed with a board with a nail sticking out of it. Fortunately for the snake, it was able to escape. Unfortunately for the man who stabbed it, it is hard to verify his claim that it was 12 feet long.

A polite police chief checked out the area and, after finding a snake, diplomatically stated that, "The snake I saw was not a python, was not an anaconda, was not a boa constrictor”. The snake is a Black Rat Snake and hopefully it will not be spotted by anyone else in the neighborhood who panics at the sight of him.

Experts were consulted and they correctly identified the snake in the picture. Based on the article, one mentioned that even if the snake in question was a python there is no reason to fear for the neighborhood pets, because dogs and cats are too big for them to eat. After watching the embedded video, I believe she was misquoted (she was referring to Black Rat Snakes, not pythons, being too small to eat your dog).

Although it is possible that there are boa constrictors or pythons on the loose, the snake in the pictures (which is claimed to be the subject of the panic described here) is not one of them. Perhaps the residents of Bush, Illinois will take this opportunity to learn more about the fascinating wildlife in their own backyards.

A great resource for information about Illinois amphibians and reptiles can be found here, the site includes a straightforward way of identifying snakes here (remember not to handle animals you can't identify).

1 comment:

ScottT said...

The thing I have never been able to figure out in my 48 years, is why can't people understand that in the first place the snake is far more scared of them than they are of it.
Secondly, if you leave the snake alone it is not going to bother you and more than likely will vacate the high traffic area it has stumbled into.
Oh, I guess third that snakes are actually our friend, they are a major help in controlling rodent populations which if left unchecked can have nasty consequences.