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
  common”

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.

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