Thursday, August 30, 2012

Roadkill Recipes: Briar Rabbit Pot Pie

     For many people that live in cities or suburbia, the most likely place they will encounter wildlife is on the road. Even in rural Tennessee, where I spent this summer, I saw lots of creatures on my commute that I never, or rarely, saw elsewhere. These animals included Wild Turkey, Gray Fox, Corn Snakes, Garter Snakes, Eastern Meadowlarks, and White-tailed Deer, for some examples. But, one of the animals that really sticks out in my mind is the Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

    I must have seen a few of these animals every day. I'm not sure why they were so abundant. It could be that they just love to eat the greenery in everyone's backyards. It could be that their predators like coyotes, bobcats, fox, and owls were less likely to be found in the neighborhoods I drove through and the lack of predators allowed the rabbit population to skyrocket. In general, predators tend to be less abundant and reproduce slower than the animals they feed on. If you think about it, how would it work any other way? Any tasty little animal has got to reproduce quickly and in considerable numbers to continue the family line. A rare rabbit species that doesn't produce a lot of offspring is likely to have been eaten to extinction long ago.

   So, with all the rabbits hopping all over the road, it was only a matter of time...

   A co-worker of mine came into the house after a long day at work and mentioned he had just ran over a rabbit down the road from our house. A shame, I said, half to myself, we should eat it. I have high standards when it comes to my protein, I don't eat meat from factory farms and prefer to buy my meat locally, where I can see what the animals are fed and how they are treated. As a result, meat is a rare luxury and a fresh roadkill could be a fortuitous experience (although not for the animal that had been run over, I suppose). And before I knew what was happening, I had agreed to cook the animal if he skinned and gutted it. I was left standing in the kitchen, unsure if we had had a serious conversation, when he vanished into the night to retrieve the roadkill rabbit.

   I'll save you the gory details, but after a brief session outside, I was presented with a fresh rabbit corpse and these parting words: Rabbit Pot Pie.

  A day or so later. I went to work. Borrowing liberally from my various cookbooks, online recipes, and some personalized instruction from the mother of the rabbit-slayer (apparently famous for her pot pies), I first took stock of the vegetables I had recently purchased from a local farm and a nearby farmers market. 

Cubed potatoes and slices carrots went into a pot to steam and soften while onions, garlic, and turkey beans went into a pan liberally doused with butter. 

   At the same time, I coated the rabbit with oil and butter and threw on a ton of onions and garlic and various spices to bake in the oven.

  After the rabbit was baked through, I carved it and combined all the vegetables into some pie crusts (above) and threw it back in the oven.

The final product
   If I may say so myself, I think it turned out very well. Perhaps as well as the mustard-rubbed venison backstrap steaks I prepared from a roadkill deer a couple years ago. I believe that brings my roadkill recipe list up to three: rattlesnake, deer, and now rabbit.

  Have you eaten roadkill? Please share your recipes or experiences below.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Readers Write In: Safe to Eat Cottonmouth-bit Fish?

   I always enjoy receiving reader questions, not only because I feel I'm able to help solve various wildlife-related mysteries for people but also because I sometimes get truly interesting queries, including a few that I don't know how to answer. Like this one:

"Dear Dr. Steen:

I hope you can tell us if a snake-bit fish is safe to eat, even tho' said fish has been disposed of. My husband had a nice bass on the stringer, still alive and in the water, when a Cottonmouth swam up and bit the fish on the head. Then the snake swam away. Hubby thought it might still be safe to eat the fish. He even went to the trouble of cleaning it, but I persuaded him to throw it away. In the off chance that this happens again, it would be good to know so I can avoid the argument all over again. Thank you so much.

Bonnie S.
Crittenden County, Arkansas"

   What a good question. The best I could come up with was, "It's better safe than sorry." I could not say with certainty that the fish was safe to eat and I stressed that I would not want to risk it myself. But, I sympathized with the husband: I hate to waste food too, especially when I've gone to a lot of trouble to get it. 

   A Cottonmouth, Agkistrodon piscivorus, is a pit-viper. In general, pit-vipers tend to have hemotoxic venom, which means that the venom attacks red-blood cells (in reality, this type of venom causes tissue damage as well). This is in contrast with neurotoxic venom (possessed by snakes within the Elapidae family, including coral snakes); neurotoxic venom attacks the nervous system. Recent work has shown that many species of venomous snakes actually have a mix of both hemotoxic and neurotoxic venom but it is still safe to say that Cottonmouth venom is primarily of the hemotoxic variety.

    When an animal is bitten by a venomous snake, most of the venom effects will be concentrated at the bite location. But, the circulatory system of a bitten animal will carry the venom throughout the body, causing blood clotting and organ damage. That's why I would be reluctant to eat a fish that had been bitten by a venomous snake: it's likely that there would be at least some venom throughout the animal, perhaps including the filets.

   How hungry would you need to be to eat a fish that had been bitten by a Cottonmouth?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Readers Write In: Is this an Indigo Snake?

   This summer I received an e-mail from a reader who, since he was a boy, has been fascinated with snakes, looking for them wherever he lived throughout the eastern United States. He told me about how his mother-in-law, in India, frequently spotted cobras around the house but he was disappointed to report that none ever revealed themselves during his visits.

    Having settled down into Venice, Florida, Andy W. told me of his plans to spend some time searching for Indigo Snakes, Drymarchon couperi. Indigo Snakes, as you might remember, are one of North America's largest snakes (although their real claim to fame is their taste for rattlesnakes). Andy told me he wasn't optimistic about his chances after reading about my failure to find the species in the Florida panhandle, but I reassured him that although this federally-protected species was once driven to extinction in Alabama and likely the Florida panhandle as well, they can still be found in peninsular Florida if one knows where to look.

   That said, I thought to myself, Indigo Snakes are rare, having been brought to the edge of extinction due to habitat loss and collection by poachers. I didn't expect to hear from Andy again.

   So, just a few days later, I was surprised to get this e-mail:

"I watched a snake with its head erect out of a gopher tortoise burrow for about ten minutes before it ducked back in.  I'll send photos later.  


   I didn't know what to think. Indigo Snakes and Gopher Tortoises, Gopherus polyphemus, have a close relationship and the snakes often use tortoise burrows for shelter. In addition, Jimmy and Sierra Stiles, tasked with monitoring the reintroduced population of Indigo Snakes in Alabama, had recently told me about how they had observed an Indigo Snake do just as Andy had described. We thought this was a way for the snakes to periscope and see what was going on from the relative safety of a tortoise burrow. When disturbed, the Alabama snake had also ducked back in, just as Andy had seen in Florida (they are a crafty species).

   So, was this a spotting of the federally-threatened Indigo Snake? A snake, I might add, that I have never seen in the wild? I kept hitting refresh on my e-mail until the pictures arrived.

   You tell me...Is this an Indigo Snake? Why or why not?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Friday Roundup Returns: Rattlesnakes in Alabama, Mississippi, and...Afghanistan?

Just Keep Going: Want to reduce your chances of being bit by a venomous snake? Don't go out of your way to catch, harass, or kill any. And if you get bit while you are at work, don't expect your employer to pay for your medical expenses. As an Alabama appellate recently stated in reference to a snakebit logger, "The snake on the roadway posed no risk - occupational or otherwise - ... so long as he (the individual in question) remained in the vehicle in which he was riding..."

A Tough Call: So many rattlesnakes are killed for no good reason. But, sometimes I at least understand where the people are coming from. An Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus adamanteus, was recently spotted in Hurley, Mississippi very close to a middle school, a high school, and a softball field. My suspicion is that if the snake was left alone, nobody would have ever seen it again. However, we will never know, because the snake was killed after being run over and then shot in a ditch (future potential snake killers, please see above). The newspaper reported that the rattlesnake (on the right) was five feet long. I don't think so and neither should you. 

This is unfortunate all-around. Although this species of rattlesnake once ranged through Mississippi to Louisiana, they are now very rare in both states and imperiled throughout their range.

Are Rattlesnakes Expanding Their Ranges...To Afghanistan? Last month a newspaper reported a story about a Canadian family hiking through the woods in Barrie, Ontario, when they heard an unmistakable rattling. Rattlesnakes rattle to alert others of their presence so conflict can be avoided but that doesn't make for a very good story. So, this article goes for the angle of the family dog fighting off an aggressive snake to save its family (we've heard that before). But that's not what got my attention. The article mentions that one of the family members had received training about dangerous animals before he was deployed to Afghanistan and apparently rattlesnakes were on the list. Huh? One of the things that make a rattlesnake encounter so amazing is that wild rattlesnakes are found only in North and South America. Finding a rattlesnake in Afghanistan would be like finding a panda in Alabama (or maybe an Anaconda). The article goes on to say that Afghanistan locals frequently cut the rattles off of rattlesnakes; many of these rattles were apparently shown to this Canadian dude while he was on active duty. I would love for someone to please explain to me what the heck is going on here.

Finally: I recently attended the World Congress of Herpetology in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and had the good fortune to meet and/or reconnect with several fellow bloggers, including Andrew Durso, Trailblazer, Melissa Amarello, David Steinberg, and Bree Putman (I didn't actually meet Bree but I enjoyed her presentation). Did I forget anybody? If you haven't already visited their blogs, please do so now.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

An 11' 4" Rattlesnake From Louisiana (or Arkansas)? No.

    In the last few days a couple readers (shout-outs to Jason R. and Cindy B.) have sent me the picture on the right, in which a large and dead rattlesnake is displayed. So far, the text that has accompanied this picture has claimed the rattlesnake was killed in either Poteau Mountain, Arkansas or Olla, Louisiana. Although the location may change, the size of the snake is apparently being consistently reported as 11 feet 4 inches and 59 pounds (with 28 rattles). 

    Let's start with what we know. The color and patterning of the snake give it away as a Timber Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus. This species is found throughout the eastern and central United States. Both Poteau Mountain (located within Ouachita National Forest) and Olla, Louisiana are within the natural range of this species (although Olla is borderline). Therefore, we can't rule out either of these potentials as the true location of the snake. However, check out the license plate on the truck. It seems as though there is a blue line at the top, which reminded me of Pennsylvania (or perhaps South Carolina?). Although the license plate looks like it's from Pennsylvania, I don't think that this is where the picture was taken. The pine trees in the background as well as the look of the snake make me think the photograph was taken in the southeastern United States. Timber Rattlesnakes do occur in Pennsylvania, but most specimens that I've seen from the Northeast U.S. are darker or even yellow and not dominated by a tan color like the snake in this picture. Perhaps someone has a copy of this photograph with better resolution and can zoom in on the license plate.

    So, we are unsure where the picture was taken. Let's evaluate the stated size of the animal. Eleven-feet long is roughly twice the size of what would be considered a huge Timber Rattlesnake. No Timber Rattlesnake ever recorded has come close to this length (and I'm confident that none ever will). A seven-foot Timber Rattlesnake is nearly unfathomable. An eleven-foot rattlesnake is completely unfathomable. It's not that long. Don't believe it.

    Why does it look so big then? Because the snake is hoisted onto a large branch that is shoved towards the camera. Although the snake looks relatively large compared to the man, the man is actually much farther away from the camera than the snake. It's an old trick called forced perspective that I explain many times in my mega-post about similar giant dead rattlesnake pictures (to which I've already added information about this particular photograph).

    The last "fact" we have about this animal is that it has 28 rattles. A rattlesnakes add a new rattle every time it sheds its skin (not necessarily once every year), and it's likely an adult rattlesnake has shed more than 28 times over the course of its life. So, it's possible that a rattlesnake could have 28 rattles. However, this would be extremely unusual because they break easily and a rattle with 28 segments would be very precarious and fragile. It certainly doesn't have 28 rattles in the picture. The resolution is too poor though, for me to see if the rattle has been hacked off for a souvenir. It doesn't look like it.

    My guess as to the real size of the rattlesnake is about four-feet (1.2 m) long and roughly 4.5 pounds (2 kilograms).

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Readers Write In: What Is This Snake? The Remix

There is a serpent marauding through the backyards of Greenville, Kentucky and the people of this town need our help to identify the creature.

"Dr. Steen,

...I found your site because I have been searching the internet for images of a snake we recently found in our backyard.  I live in western Kentucky.  A few mornings ago I went to fill up one of my birdfeeders and there it was.  It was about four feet long.  I've actually seen very few snakes in the wild and this was certainly the first that i've seen in our yard.  I am hoping it was a (deleted to maintain suspense) and about 50% of the people I've polled agree BUT the other half say they are not so sure. One person even mentioned a boa or a python...I haven't found any images that look exactly like the photos I took of it. The colors are certainly similar to a (more suspense), size matches up to what I've read, and they are in this area, however, the yellowish spots on its back go down its back vs across.  Are you able to help me ID this snake so I can stop freaking out over it?

Lynette L.
Greenville, KY"

In a follow-up e-mail, Lynette mentioned:

"Thank you again for your help.  It was very frustrating looking for pictures online that looked like my snake's markings.  If possible, could you perhaps address that point in your post. I left it alone and it slithered into my ivy.  Needless to say, I won't be gardening around that spot any time soon.  It was creepy but I respect that it serves an important part in nature."

Lynette touches upon a common frustration: it is often difficult to determine what species a snake is just by looking at pictures. When people encounter a snake, they often focus on certain features that are not useful for differentiating between species. For example, people will sometimes tell me that a snake they saw had yellow stripes or brown blotches. These stripes or blotches may seem distinctive to them but there are often many different species that share the same characteristics. In addition, even snakes that are the same species can look very different.

That's why the most reliable and accurate way to identify species is by using a dichotomous key (a good one, at least). A dichotomous key is basically a series of questions about the organism you're trying to identify. Here's a hypothetical example:

1. What color is your snake?
A. Blue...go to #2.
B. Red...go to #3.

2. Does your snake breathe fire out of its nose?
A. Yes...It's a Fire Serpent.
B. No...It's a Smokesnake.

3. Does your snake smell like pizza?
A. Yes...It's a Pepperonisnake.
B. No...It's a Waffleviper.

There are other, similar ways to identify snakes, like this series of questions developed by the Herpetology Lab at Davidson College. 

Most of the time I can just look at a snake and know the species but sometimes I have trouble differentiating between snakes that are closely related, in these cases my preferred method is to use Peterson's Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles (there is a link to this book on the sidebar) because this book makes it very clear which subtle differences I should look for when I'm trying to tell apart very similar species.

Lynette's question is timely. Last week I attended a herpetological conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, and saw a presentation by Living Alongside Wildlife contributor and frequent commenter Andrew Durso about this very topic. He notes that snake experts often tell laypeople to pay attention to very specific features and characteristics to figure out, step by step, which species of snake they are looking at. However, when these snake experts identify a snake themselves, they rarely have to rely on these features, they can just look at a snake and know the species, based on the overall look of the animal (except for those rare cases when two species are very closely related). For example, when I looked at the pictures of the snake we are being asked to identify, I didn't examine the shape or size of the animal, I didn't look at the patterning or at the patterns of scaling. I just looked at the picture, took the feel of the animal in, and knew what it was. I hope Andrew elaborates on this inconsistency below.

But, back to the original question. What is this snake? I expect many of you already know but please chime in and let us know the last time you saw one of these animals. In addition, if you have thoughts on how people should identify snakes, let us know those as well.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Readers Write In: What Is This Snake? No, It's Not Another Ratsnake!

Yesterday afternoon I received the following e-mail:

"Dr. Steen,

I was hoping you could help identify this snake. We found it in our kitchen, hopefully the cat brought it in. I had searched the web but was unable to identify, perhaps because it was a juvenile.

Photo attached: It was around 8” long, brownish in color with a red/orange stripe down its back. It had a yellow/gold belly and a black head. It had no other stripes.

Thank you for any response you may have.

Tim N.
Shelby County, Alabama"

Compared to most other identification requests I receive, there are two things that make this one unusual: 1) this snake is not a ratsnake and 2) it is not dead.

The identity of this animal may not be obvious because the coloration is somewhat atypical. But, I have the utmost confidence that you, the readership, will be able to provide the species name below. As before, please note how you identified the snake and add a personal anecdote or some interesting natural history information regarding the species.

In a follow-up e-mail, Tim noted that the snake moved like a sidewinder. Bonus points for anyone that can explain why. Hint: the answer relates to where it was found.

Have at it.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Are Rattlesnake Bites Really Becoming More Common?

         I never would have expected some of the statements on this blog to become highly controversial, such as my position that there is no such thing as a ten-foot rattlesnake. But...the blog posts I write do sometimes inspire some heated reactions. I try to take every criticism seriously but I can’t help but chuckle whenever I am told that I should have looked at a certain newspaper article to check my facts before making some bold (and, depending on your perspective, inaccurate) claim. If the newspaper said a dead rattlesnake was nine feet long (or whatever), then surely it must be true, right?

         If you have ever read a newspaper article written about you or about anything else that you are reasonably familiar with, then I am fairly confident in saying there’s a very good chance you noticed an error. There are many excellent and responsible journalists; however, newspaper articles, in general, are poor sources of accurate information.
So, when I noticed a recent newspaper article indicating that rattlesnake bites were becoming more common in southern Alabama, I was immediately skeptical. This particular newspaper often runs newspaper articles supportive of the rattlesnake-killing festival in Opp, Alabama (here’s one example, and a counter-example by Mark Bailey). Also of relevance is their coverage of the rattlesnake bounty debacle last year (see bounty announcement* and bounty retraction).

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus) are being considered for federal protection (despite what this article, summarizing the admittedly-complicated process, says). Because federal protection would effectively shut down the rattlesnake collecting and killing component of any rattlesnake-themed event, I am always keeping an eye out for examples of articles that damage the already poor public-image of rattlesnakes. If people think that rattlesnakes are vicious biting-machines that are actually increasing in abundance (and not decreasing, like most rattlesnake biologists suspect), there will be little public support for protecting these fascinating animals.

I did not have to dig far to find the source of the statement that rattlesnake bites were becoming more common: Mark Hainds of the Longleaf Alliance. Curious about how and why Mark felt comfortable making that claim, I sent him an e-mail and asked. Mark quickly replied that he didn’t recall ever saying that snakebites were becoming more common and in fact, has, “no reason to believe that is the case.”

So, to summarize: the article is entitled:

 “Hainds: Rattlesnake bites becoming more common"

But it should actually be entitled:

“Hainds: No reason to believe rattlesnake bites becoming more

Apparently there had been two recent rattlesnake bites in the region prior to the appearance of this newspaper article. These are unfortunate tragedies, but they are not new phenomena and, like Mark, I know of no reason to think they are becoming, “more common”. I suppose it could be argued that two snakebites in one week is more than no snakebites the week before, but this is obviously not the time-frame of relevance to the article, which also refers to a snakebite that happened fifteen years ago.

Mark also wanted to clarify another quote attributed him in the article.** Although he is quoted as saying, “…we have more snakes in the woods than ever…” Mark told me he was not speaking of snakes in general, he was talking specifically of copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix) and certainly not Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes or any of the other snakes that are declining or disappearing in southern Alabama.***

         So, there is really no apparent support for the take-home message of this newspaper article and no apparent support for some of the main statements within it.

So where do these stories come from? I don’t know. Maybe I will be enlightened by this article written by the same individual last year: “Snake bites in pets currently on the rise

*This article states that in the past, rattlesnakes from the Opp Rattlesnake-killing Festival have gone to Auburn University as a component of a lung-parasite study. If this is true, nobody I’ve spoken to at Auburn University knows anything about it. On a related note, there is a persistent myth in central Alabama that Auburn buys rattlesnakes for venom research. While I was at Auburn, I personally fielded calls from people asking how much they could expect for a rattlesnake they recently captured. They were disappointed to hear that the answer is nothing. Just like with the parasite study, nobody I’ve spoken to Auburn knows how this myth originated. Catching rattlesnakes is dangerous. Don’t do it. And if you do, Auburn University certainly won’t pay you for it.

**Before I posted this article, I sent an earlier version to Mark to ensure that I accurately represented his views, quotes, and positions. It is a quick and easy thing to do; why don't newspapers do it?

***Interestingly, two species of snakes that were once thought to prey heavily on copperheads, including the Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula) and Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi), are now virtually absent in south Alabama (although Indigo Snakes have been reintroduced to Conecuh National Forest). Some people have suggested that the decline of these two snake-predators has resulted in an increase in copperheads. Although I was initially skeptical of this claim, a recent analysis I completed with some collaborators actually supports it.