Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Seven Foot Nine Inch Cottonmouth from Caldwell County, Kentucky

    All right folks, you know the drill. Man kills snake, hoists snake on stick, points it towards the camera, and multiple and outrageous lengths and locations follow. Today we are deviating a little from usual because the subject is not a rattlesnake. Also, although the length and the species identity are incorrect, I think the location is legitimate.

    Let's break down the text accompanying the photograph:

Here's a photo I got from a's a 7-9 foot Cottonmouth that was killed out in the Fryer area of Caldwell County Kentucky the other careful, these are deadly me this raises the question
"Is this actually the biggest snake out there in the county? Or are there others that are bigger?"

Ponder that next time you're in some tall weeds :)

 The man in the photo is (I've removed the name) and the photo was taken near the Fryer area of Caldwell...anyone who claims this is fake is an idiot.

    Well, I've been called worse. But really, as I've explained before, it's not that the picture is fake, it is the information about the picture that is wrong

    Let's get the reported size out of the way. This snake is not nearly eight feet long. It appears longer than it really is because the snake is on a long stick and held much closer to the camera than the man holding the stick. If this the first time you've visited this blog, you can read about this trick here. I'll estimate that the snake is about five feet long (more on that later).

    Let's move on to the identification. First: no Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) ever measured has reached over seven feet long (but you already knew that). Second: that's not a Cottonmouth. It's true that it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between Cottonmouths and non-venomous water snakes but in this case, the dark bands on the tail give it away as a Diamondback Watersnake (Nerodia rhombifer). The largest known Diamondback Watersnake was just shy of six feet long (my source for this length is Snakes of the United States and Canada by Ernst and Ernst). Like all snakes within the genus Nerodia, Diamondback Watersnakes are harmless to people and primarily eat fish and amphibians. Females reach larger sizes than males (you can read why here) so we can be fairly confident that the snake in the picture is an old girl. As you might expect, Diamondback Watersnakes are often confused for Cottonmouths and killed as a result. 

    Finally, both Diamondback Watersnakes and Cottonmouths can be found in western Kentucky, leaving us no reason to doubt the location. 


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Demystifying De-Extinction

The following article is a guest post by David Jachowski.  Dr. Jachowski is an instructor at Virginia Tech and conducts research in the United States, Africa and southeast Asia on the conservation and restoration of wildlife. You can find more information about his research on his website 

   So maybe genetically recreating the Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) is a bad idea.  Long extinct, the only chunks of DNA we are able to piece together to bring it back would have to be mixed into an Asian elephant. And over time, through a long process of trial and error, we could likely create a laboratory hybrid with the right combination of size, long hair, and cold tolerance genes expressed to at least visually recreate a Woolly Mammoth.  A geneticist's rendition of what a Woolly Mammoth should be like that in the end is a Frankenstein animal, no more realistic than the cartoons that artists render for our imaginations.  And maybe the other figurehead of de-extinction, the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), is the wrong way to go.  We have fresh specimens from the early 1900's, and technology from the poultry industry, but would need thousands if not millions of expensively engineered individuals to ever recover the enormous flocks that once flew over the eastern seaboard.

   Respected conservation biologists call de-extinction misguided, or at best a hobbyist branch of conservation biology.  They loudly cry that it will take money from existing conservation efforts, create invasive species and worst of all lead to the political and public disregard for extinction.  This last concern of disregarding extinction deserves more attention.  As a field that is based on conserving species from extinction, de-extinction potentially pulls the foundation out from under the entire conservation biology movement in one fell swoop.  If extinction is no longer forever, lobbyist and pro-development politicians should be licking their chops.

    Despite these objections, the consistent theme of the current National Geographic cover story and conference on de-extinction is one of hope.  Hope that will distract us from the more common and depressing story conservationists have been pedaling for over 20 years - that we are ruining the planet by causing a sixth major mass extinction event at an unprecedented pace.  Perhaps conservation biologists should look in the mirror and ask if what we are doing is working and if people are still listening.  Jurassic Park may be science fiction, but it was correct in one thing - there is public interest that can be generated by inspiring people’s imagination and curiosity.

   If this is the first you have heard of de-extinction, know that this is happening.  Even if you have deep reservations about genetically recreating species, there are no longer questions regarding whether we can do it. The train is leaving the station and we as conservationists need to be in front of it or on it, not be left behind.  As you read this, Australian scientists are watching the cells divide in a future, genetically re-engineered Gastric-brooding Frog (Rheobatrachus silus and/or vitellinus), bringing the extinct species back to life.  Thylacines (aka Tasmanian Tiger, Thylacinus cynocephalus) and mammoths will likely follow a few years later.  It is pointless to try to block this from happening, but what if we were to direct de-extinction so that it strategically focuses on the species we most carelessly let go.  We could direct the de-extinction train towards charismatic and ecologically important species we extirpated through simple overharvest like the giant oceanic island tortoises or Caribbean Monk Seals (Monachus tropicalus).  By bringing them back we would almost undoubtedly gain both species and ecosystem function.  It may not be the same ecosystem or even the exact same species, but it is a step forward in conserving biodiversity and a new, more popular, ecosystem. 

   Yes I said popular, because in the end, with over seven billion people and counting, conservationists needs to accept that preserving species is a popularity contest.  The Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) only wins against gas development if people like them and advocate for them.  For de-extinction, we could use the same branding that makes restoration ecology so attractive to the public (by selling hope that things can be restored) for conserving existing protected areas as well as neglected, novel ecosystems.  Look at the success of large herbivore and carnivore restoration in South Africa, or tourism demand to see wolves in Yellowstone.  There are certainly concerns to proceeding with de-extinction, but perhaps by embracing and defining the path of de-extinction, conservation biologists will not lose the foundation of their discipline, but gain another leg on their stool of support.

Want to Learn More? Check Out These Scientific Articles:

Hansen, D., Donlan, C., Griffiths, C., & Campbell, K. (2010). Ecological history and latent conservation potential: large and giant tortoises as a model for taxon substitutions Ecography DOI: 10.1111/j.1600-0587.2010.06305.x

Josh Donlan C, Berger J, Bock CE, Bock JH, Burney DA, Estes JA, Foreman D, Martin PS, Roemer GW, Smith FA, Soulé ME, & Greene HW (2006). Pleistocene rewilding: an optimistic agenda for twenty-first century conservation. The American Naturalist, 168 (5), 660-81 PMID: 17080364

Friday, March 22, 2013

Friday Roundup: This Week's Wildlife Links (March 23, 2013)

A wildlife population can sustain itself when at least one animal is born for every animal that dies. Conservation biologists generally have a rule of thumb regarding how many individual animals need to be in a population to make sure that population has a high chance of sticking around for over 100 years or so; conservation plans often try to boost troubled populations up to that magic number. For many animals, the magic number of individual animals needed to maintain a population is in the thousands. But, now a recent scientific paper says that for the highly imperiled Bog Turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) the magic number is actually a lot lower. Like, 40. The authors caution that their results shouldn't be used to say that we can let large populations decrease in size without worrying about them. Rather, we should not neglect small populations when making conservation plans, because even small populations are important for the long-term conservation of the Bog Turtle throughout its range.

Think you have the skillz to tell apart two Caribou (Rangifer tarandus)? Help a Canadian research group gauge people's abilities.

We hear a lot about how many species are declining because of human activity. But some are actually thriving. American Cliff Swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) used to have a hard time finding good spots to start nesting colonies but eventually found out that the space underneath bridges and overpasses suited them just fine. Turns out they are even more adaptable than we thought. One of the hazards associated with living under highways is that of being hit by cars. Scientists recently found out that birds with relatively long wings had a high chance of being killed by a car. Shorter wings, they say, make a bird more maneuverable and more likely to avoid oncoming traffic. Over time, the wing-lengths in the colonies they study are getting smaller and smaller. These birds may now be more likely to escape cars, but only time will tell if there are costs to this human-induced adaptation.

Snake venom is a complicated concoction of many chemicals, some of which have mysterious functions. Andrew Durso highlights some recent and surprising research that is beginning to tell us why.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a wildlife photographer that seemed to be bothering Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) for some pictures. Now he's being sued about it.

Want to Learn More? Check out these Articles:

Shoemaker KT, Breisch AR, Jaycox JW, & Gibbs JP (2013). Reexamining the Minimum Viable Population Concept for Long-Lived Species. Conservation biology : the journal of the Society for Conservation Biology PMID: 23458501

Brown, C., & Bomberger Brown, M. (2013). Where has all the road kill gone? Current Biology, 23 (6) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.02.023

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Are Cottonmouths Aggressive?

            A few years ago I was walking alongside the edge of pond in the Florida panhandle when I was startled by some splashing noises in the water. I had accidentally gotten too close to a Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) and the snake was warning me away by vibrating its tail in the water and flashing its white mouth. It was obvious to me that the snake thought I was getting too close and it was warning me away before things got serious. Neither of us wanted to be involved in a venomous snakebite.

            One of the myths I hear most frequently about Cottonmouths is that they are aggressive. It seems that whenever I talk or write about the species, someone wants to tell me a story about how one of the snakes chased them around a swamp all the while menacing them with their fangs and the potential of a venomous bite. The Cottonmouth’s reputation is not helped by educational websites that say that the animals, “are aggressive snakes and bite when disturbed or provoked…” but also “generally secretive and are not aggressive, so bites are rare”.

            I’ve heard stories about aggressive Cottonmouths so many times that they are hard to discount. But I believe, as with so many other Cottonmouth myths, that normal snake behavior is being misinterpreted. For one thing, a Cottonmouth has nothing to gain by being aggressive towards large potential predators like people. In any case, after hearing this story one too many times, a couple researchers in South Carolina decided to test just how a Cottonmouth reacted when confronted by a human. In their words, “We examined defensive behavior of wild cottonmouths in response to a human aggressor by subjecting them to one or more of three different treatments. When we encountered a cottonmouth in the field, we approached the snake and either (1) stood beside it with a "snakeproof" boot touching its body, (2) stepped on the snake at midbody with enough force to restrain but not injure it, or (3) picked up the snake at midbody with a pair of 1-m snake tongs (Whitney Tongs) with a grasping handle that was modified to resemble a human arm and hand. A leather glove was fitted over the end of the tongs, with one extension covered by the thumb and the other by the middle finger. Hence, the glove could be closed around the snake's body. A padded shirt sleeve was used to cover the remainder of the rod up to the handle. Each treatment was carried out for 20 sec, and the behavior of each snake was recorded.”

            In other words, they walked up to Cottonmouths, stepped on Cottonmouths, and picked up Cottonmouths with fake arms and watched what happened. Who said science wasn’t entertaining? They ended up standing alongside 13, stepping on 22, and picking up 36 snakes. None of the snakes they stood beside tried to bite, one of the snakes they stepped on bit them and just 13 (36%) of the picked-up snakes bit the fake arm. Overall, most snakes either tried to escape or gave defensive displays to scare off the people without trying to bite. There are two primary lessons here: Cottonmouths aren’t eager to bite even when they are harassed and you shouldn’t try to pick up Cottonmouths (although if you are inclined to pick up venomous snakes then a scientific paper may not be enough to convince you to do otherwise).

            So what about all these stories of Cottonmouths chasing people? I have long argued that when a Cottonmouth is scared it will head right for the water and if you are in between the Cottonmouth and where that Cottonmouth wants to go, it will come right at you. Again, we can go to the scientific literature to find an experiment on the subject. A study was undertaken in Florida to evaluate how Cottonmouths behaved after you A) scared them into trying to escape and then B) stepped in front of them. As you might expect, the Cottonmouths were pissed off! From the study, Cottonmouths, “…exhibited several characteristic behaviors, including crawling rapidly toward me, raising the head and neck off the ground, expanding the jaws, flattening the body, vibrating the tail, tongue-flicking, lunging and striking forward, and rarely, musk-squirting. A great deal of variation exists in the intensity of these behaviors.”

        What’s the lesson here? When you see a Cottonmouth that looks like it is going somewhere…Let it go.

   The author concludes, “I believe that the, “...'aggressive bluffing' behavior I have witnessed…were elicited under the special circumstances of encountering the snakes in habitats familiar to them and by blocking their escape along a direction they had chosen.” 

     What do you conclude?

Want to learn more? Check out these scientific articles or read my previous posts on Cottonmouth myths.

Gibbons, J., & Dorcas, M. (2002). Defensive Behavior of Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) toward Humans Copeia, 2002 (1), 195-198 DOI: 10.1643/0045-8511(2002)002[0195:DBOCAP]2.0.CO;2

D. B. Means (2010). Blocked-flight aggressive behavior in snakes IRCF Reptiles and Amphibians, 17 (2)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Friday Roundup: This Week's Wildlife Links (March 16, 2013)

If I asked someone today to describe a forest on the east coast of the United States, I would get a very different answer from them than I would from someone that had strolled through the region 100 years ago. Over the last century, the American Chestnut tree has virtually disappeared from the country's eastern forested regions even though the species used to represent about 25% of all the trees. The massive trees provided food for a wide variety of wildlife and it's hard to imagine how the ecosystem has changed after their disappearance. Carl Zimmer provides an excellent summary of the mysterious disease that wiped out the trees and some promising research advances that may soon resurrect the American Chestnut in the U.S. Maybe the Passenger Pigeon is next.

White-nosed syndrome, a disease that has been devastating bat populations throughout the eastern United States, is making its way south.

Help is needed to relocate the increasingly rare Siamese Crocodiles that currently live in a wetland that will be destroyed by the construction of a new hydropower dam in Cambodia.

NPR remembers the father of wildlife management and environmental philosopher Aldo Leopold.

Various governments train marine mammals like dolphins to kill people. Just a heads-up, some may have recently escaped.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Showmanship vs. Reality on Reality TV Wild Animal Shows

Photo Courtesy of National Geographic

The following is a guest post by Bill Lamar. Bill got his degrees from Rhodes and The University of Texas, packed up and headed south.  He has spent 37 years living or working in eleven countries in Central- and South America, especially in the Orinoco and Amazon Basins.  He has written or co-authored several popular and reference books including The Venomous Reptiles of Latin America and The Venomous Reptiles of the Western Hemisphere.  Aside from research interests, which include systematics and natural history of tropical reptiles and amphibians, Lamar guides wildlife trips for GreenTracks, Inc. (, and does wildlife film fixing for the BBC, National Geographic, Discovery/Animal Planet, and others.  He is an Adjunct Professor at The University of Texas at Tyler and a Research Associate of the University of Texas at Arlington Collection of Vertebrates, The Museum of Natural History at the University of Kansas, and the National Serpentarium of Costa Rica. Currently he spends most of his time in the Peruvian Amazon or in Chile where he collaborates on a Darwins' Frog conservation project.  His philosophy is that there is much to celebrate in Nature and the time to see it is now.

    The abundance of nature oriented television shows is a blessing and a curse. After an auspicious beginning with properly researched and well-filmed documentaries, ratings—largely a function of the preferences of the sofa-set—began to change their direction. One can see the transition from inspired work such as the films by Sir David Attenborough to features that showcase sweating pseudo-Tarzans spewing words like “jungle,” “aggressive,” “survival,” etc. They have devolved into tired depictions of Man vs. Nature that inevitably cast the natural world as something dangerous and in need of conquering….and, of course, they showcase anything with blood. What was a lofty and necessary pursuit has degenerated into cheap thrills.

    Television programs are stories and making them is tedious, unromantic, difficult, and expensive. The teams who actually do the filming are marvelously talented and dedicated to their craft. Not surprisingly, the home office is replete with “suits” who live in fear of irate advertisers, the internet, and who cast a dry and often timid eye on the programming choices. Placing a team in the field is, in fact, so costly that time is at a premium, so naturally most animals are procured in advance and wrangled for the scenes. This is perfectly reasonable as long as it is performed by experts who understand the ecology and natural history of their subjects and as long as the research, writing, and editing is rigorously pursued. While all of this is integral to wonderful films produced by and for BBC, Nature, and Nova, it is increasingly rare among the other networks, big names notwithstanding.

    The problem arises owing to the innocence of the viewing public. Networks, ever wary of the bottom line, have realized that many, perhaps most, viewers are ill-equipped to distinguish between films featuring solid science and those that stress hyperbole and exaggeration. Risk analysis, a fine science that we use in nearly all aspects of our daily lives, is woefully lacking when it comes to our concepts of wildlife. In brief, the ceiling above you could fall down. That is a hazard. But what is the risk factor, the likelihood that it will happen? While we have a fairly accurate idea as to how high this is, lay-people inappropriately assign high risk factors to all animal hazards. This silliness remains essentially unchanged since the dawn of civilization. And it permits huge liberties to be taken by showmen who know the risks are usually low.

    Thus we are now pained to view competent fishermen gasping for breath and trying to portray powerful but essentially harmless fishes as something to be feared; folks molesting terrified snakes while calling them “aggressive,” and “jungles” depicted as places to be subdued. Ditto that for the hokey survivalists, pest controllers, etc. There have been a few legitimate authorities who have presented programs for television, but the majority is anything but that. Additionally, one has the constant problems of animal management. A short scene will often require considerable preparation time for lighting and equipment, yet wild animals are not built to go five rounds. Their reactions—be they defensive or feeding responses—are sudden and of short duration. So by the time the hero hurls himself on top of the anaconda, the snake has long since grown accustomed to being held in readiness off-camera. For those familiar with wild animals, the machinations (not to mention bad acting!) that accompany such staged scenes are ludicrous. Yet the public does not realize this at all.

    The film industry has a strict and frequently unrealistic code of ethics when it comes to handling animals and to their credit they try mightily to adhere to it. Yet paradoxically the new genre of so-called survival shows is routinely allowed to violate these rules. I have seen one situation in which the couple who starred in the show, while “lost” deep in the Amazon forest, “found and captured” a large non-venomous snake which they then dispatched, cooked and ate. The scene was filmed behind the comfy lodge where everyone was staying and the hapless snake was purchased at a local market. And all of this in contrast to standard wildlife films where one cannot even set up a natural feeding sequence with, say, a mouse and a snake. A strange business, to be sure!

    Films about the natural world are crucially important education tools and the public needs them now more than ever. Habitats are imperiled and shrinking. Unless attitudes toward our fellow creatures and the places they inhabit become attuned to modern realities, the future will not be a bright one. We need excellent documentaries; if only we could convince the networks of that.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Friday Roundup: This Week's Wildlife Links

On this blog, I answer a lot of questions about where reptiles can and cannot be found. Here's a discussion about why the answers might be changing. Could climate change lead to alligators in Virginia? Maybe Cottonmouths will soon be found statewide after all.

Speaking of climate change, how will it affect Red Wolf conservation? And is climate change a bigger problem than people just shooting them?

A controversial take on what we should do about all the house cats that are killing local wildlife.

This rattlesnake photo hoax really did the rounds (even though I posted a description of why it was bogus just two months ago, it is now the eighth-most viewed post on this blog). Here's a summary of an unimpressive response in Texas. 

And, a reminder that big rattlesnakes aren't the only thing people like to kill and present as trophies. New estimates suggest up to 273 million sharks are killed each year.

Baby Siamese crocodiles released into the wild in Lao PDR (Laos) to bolster a critically endangered population. HT to John Murphy.

Turtle research in New England isn't just for the spring and summer anymore.

Curious about how the wild python hunt in the Everglades went? 68 pythons captured.

An essay on the consequences of losing our top ecological predators.

What's the future of the world's largest turtle? Bleak. Just ask The Onion.

The yin-yang of feeding swans.

The only wild bear in Switzerland was just killed.

Why are Pygmy Elephants in Borneo being poisoned and why you should avoid palm oil products.

More shots of ocean predation in action.

A Chinese village's economy is based on snake farms.

So long, Lolong. The world's largest captive crocodile passes away.

There are Cheetahs in Iran? For now.

Remember the search for the Black Mamba that bit a man in Georgia in 2011? Turns out it was a hoax.

Why are dead mice being dropped out of helicopters in Guam? To kill exotic snakes of course.

The Endangered Species Act will be making some noise soon.

Bad science: proof that Bigfoot exists.

New species of owl discovered in Indonesia...its unusual-sounding call gave it away.

If you find that 5.9 million metric tons of any wild animal is being shipped for consumption, there's a good chance that animal is facing some serious threats: a summary of international Pangolin conservation

Camera-trapping Bobcats in the snow, wolves loping through the forest, and minks everywhere.

Conservation of a truly unique fish: sawfish off western Africa.

If you haven't visited Claxton's rattlesnake festival yet this weekend, it's not too late. This event is a reformed roundup. I'm glad they realized the importance of reptile conservation. On the other hand, Opp Alabama is off to a slow start rounding up rattlesnakes for their rodeo. I'm sure it's just the weather...