Sunday, July 27, 2014

Friday Roundup: The Week's Wildlife Links (July 27th, 2014)

Living Alongside Wildlife is now on Facebook. You know what to do.

Did you catch this Slate story about why it's not a good idea to release snakes in your yard to reduce the number of Copperheads, featuring lots of input by yours truly

If that wasn't enough of me for you, check out this piece on Vet Street about why we shouldn't be so afraid of snakes.

Must see incredible pictures of leaping Thresher Shark. Not to be outdone, this Fin Whale gets some air too.

Genius: absurd newspaper headlines about sharks, adjusted for accuracy.

Fisher (i.e., the weasel) photographed in NYC. More here and a summary of recent research describing why the species is making a comeback on the East Coast.

d-Con will no longer be producing their super-toxic rat poison, a huge win for wildlife, like this curious bobcat.

You may remember that beavers recently returned to England after being absent for centuries. Now there is talk of catching them and putting them in zoos.

Do you know how the myth of the Jackalope emerged?

Oakland heron tragedy reminds us all to pay attention to what we're doing (NY Times coverage here).

News not news: snake handling pastor bit by snake.

One-million Scimitar-horned Oryx once roamed through Africa but they are now extinct in the wild. A captive colony might allow for a reintroduction-but where would they go?

Caviar poaching and the conservation of paddlefish in Oklahoma. Similarly, a review of the conservation issues surrounding another ancient fish, the sawfish. Here's a 300 kg sawfish that was just killed in Borneo. Not to be outdone, Atlantic Sturgeon are being killed in a Delaware nuclear power plant's intakes in "shocking numbers".

What's wrong with the puffin chicks in the Gulf of Maine?

Picture of a rattlesnake in southern newspaper makes news...because the snake is alive

Man fires gun at snake, shoots foot.

Did you know that there is a U.S. federal agency that killed two million native animals last year?

Payments to Florida ranchers may help save cougars in the state. Over in India, the government makes moves to prevent lions from being killed on train tracks. Dismal news for tiger populations.

Skunks are thriving in the suburbs.

National Zoo closes their invertebrate exhibit.

Black Bear sightings are increasing across Alabama. Meanwhile, they're getting run over in Alberta and Grizzlies are being spotted in Calgary backyards.

Barn Swallows learn to open automatic doors to get to their nests.

The American Chestnut may be set for its revival.

The deceptive ecology of Australia.

New York Times story on the value of predators in ecosystems.

Did I miss something interesting? Let me know below.


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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Readers Write In: What are these Frog-eating, Cottonmouth-looking Snakes?

1) This is the snake (on right) that started my whole concern (a five-footer that was in our yard). I've been told it was a black ratsnake. Is it?...

My snake-obsessed little boy spotted a snake (second picture) on our evening walk tonight. We know it's not a copperhead or black rat snake or king snake—do you know what kind it is? It was thin and about 20 inches long. You would have been proud of me—I didn't freak out, not even a little bit!! 

Feel free to use on your blog! Thanks!

Holly A.
Atlanta, Georgia

2) Please let me know your thoughts. Thank you for educating us on our snakes in Ohio. I lived in Southen California as a teenager and seen plenty of small rattlesnakes. If you're telling me we have Timber Rattlesnakes in Ohio, I hope to never cross paths with one. Although I am not a fan of snakes I love your website and reading and seeing what others see in the world we live in. Great Job, thank you.

Diana M.

3) I am trying to identify this snake that was playing in the backyard with my kids!!  Pic is a little gruesome as my husband cut it open to see what was in its stomach - a giant frog. We are in Roswell, GA a suburb just north of Atlanta. It was in a mulch pile next to a wooded creek in our backyard. 


Caulie H.
Roswell, Georgia

4) Could you review the following pictures and identify this snake? We think it may be an Eastern cottonmouth.  My son was walking in his yard at dusk when he heard a hiss. If it had not been for this, he would have stepped on it. He lives in Northern Chesterfield in Virginia. He has a small creek adjacent to his property. 

Thanks for your time. Any information you can provide would be appreciated.

Vickie A.
Northern Chesterfield, Virginia

5) On an outing to a local state park the other day, this snake crawled onto the dirt road ahead of us.  The driver tried to avoid it but alas, did not. We are in southwestern Florida near the Myakka River. The area was pine flat woods alternating with swamp. This is not a species I'm familiar with but my tentative and uninformed ID is a Hog Nosed Snake.  It was 15" to 18" in length.  I'm pleased that the iPhone photo does show the interesting coloration on its underside.

I enjoy your blog and apologize that this is another picture of a dead snake.  At least I didn't do it in with a shovel as many seem to do.


Andy W.
Venice, Florida

Readers: What Are These Snakes?
Snake Identification Post Ground Rules

-Guesses are welcome and encouraged. Don't worry if you're not an expert, wrong guesses allow us to talk about how to distinguish between the various species and that's why I run these posts.

-If you can't explain why you think a snake is a particular species, go ahead and just say what you think it is. But otherwise please do let us all know how you identified the animal. If you're wrong, we can explain why. If you're right, this helps everyone learn how to identify snakes, which is the goal of these posts.

-You can safely assume that I know what kind of snake is in the picture, I run these posts because they are outreach opportunities. Please don't send me private e-mails with your guesses, include them below.

-Remember, the person that sent me the picture is probably reading your comments. Although it is frustrating to know that many of these snakes have been killed, these people do want to learn more about them. More snake knowledge will lead to fewer snakes being killed.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Rat Snake Freakout: Cottonmouth in an Alabama Toilet Edition

Sorry folks-that snake they fished out of an Alabama toilet was not a Cottonmouth.

     I'm very excited because Rat Snake Freakouts are one of my favorite topics to write about. If you're new to the blog, these freakouts occur when people see a Rat Snake (i.e., a very common snake on the East Coast of the United States in the Pantherophis genus) and freak.the.hell.out. Often, people freak when they see a large Rat Snake (they can reach over eight feet long) because they cannot believe that a snake that large could be part of our local snake fauna. Then, they say the snake must be a giant python, a yellow python, a boa constrictor, or even a black mamba, for some examples.

    Snakes get misidentified all the time though, and as much as I wish everyone could recognize the common wildlife around them, they can't. The real problem occurs when the crazy ideas that people come up with about perfectly normal Rat Snakes get repeated and sensationalized in the media.

    This bothers me for a few reasons: 1) articles repeating Rat Snake Freakouts promote the idea that snakes are something to freak out about, 2) reporters seldom bother to ask someone knowledgeable about snakes for a comment on their story, which does not advance our understanding of the story or of wildlife, and 3) people often tell me I'm wrong about something because they read something different in the newspaper; they don't realize that facts and reality aren't always a priority for these articles, a lot of clicks and readers are.

Photo courtesy Hueytown Police Department
    Enter the "Cottonmouth in a Toilet" story. The short version is that someone in Hueytown, Alabama, found a Rat Snake in their bathroom. The police were called and they called it a Cottonmouth (which is a venomous and potentially dangerous species).

    Three people sent me a link to the article and I immediately contacted the author of the story to let her know that the animal was not a Cottonmouth.

"The snake in this story is clearly and unequivocally a harmless Ratsnake and not a Cottonmouth. Would you mind ensuring that the story is fixed? I can provide a more extensive quote if necessary. It is important that readers do not get confused between harmless and venomous animals. Please feel free to contact me in advance of future articles on wildlife in Alabama.



    In my e-mail I decided not to bring up the fact that the snake was referred to as a slimy situation (every child that attends a nature program about wildlife learns that snakes aren't slimy) and Cottonmouths are referred to as "poisonous" (they're not, they're venomous).

    I never heard back from the author but the next day there was a follow-up article about the snake. To my surprise and consternation, it was entitled, "Toilet snake's identity stirs up waves of questions: what did Hueytown police fish out?" I thought this was an odd choice for a title because there is no question about what this snake was. But it wasn't just an odd title, the article is written as if there actually is a debate about the snake's identity. 

     The police were sticking to their story about the animal being a Cottonmouth. As a counterpoint, the author contacted an individual at a pest removal company who correctly identified the snake as a Rat Snake but also said that Rat Snakes don't have fangs (the police said their snake did) and that he was no herpetologist. So I guess this is one big mystery, right? Wrong. To add insult to injury, the article had a picture of a different Rat Snake and a Cottonmouth side by side so that readers could see the difference but the labels were mixed up! 

    I took to Twitter to vent at the author.

    To her credit she quickly fixed this error. But, when it came to the "controversy" about the snake identification things got a little murkier.

     I pointed out that an appropriate an analogy would be to interview a police officer about a crime scene picture and then ask me, a snake expert, for my comment and say that both sides were represented. That doesn't make much sense because my opinion wouldn't be of much value in that case. Besides, there is no need for different viewpoints when reporting on a fact. Someone is going to be wrong when disagreeing about a fact and it's OK to point out what the truth is.

    It's too bad that this story, which as you might expect has caught widespread attention (like here on CNN), only promotes the idea that scary snakes might invade your home and their identities are a mystery that even experts can't figure out.

    Help stop this viral story in its tracks by sharing this link on social media.