Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Readers Write In: Two Questions About Massasauga Rattlesnakes

One of my homes is in Georgina and the land is for game management including the rattlesnake and/or most other snakes as I believe they are vital to biodiversity. I have sighted two in last two weeks but my question is what are best practices for supporting the population? I think the best may be posting signs around the property "don't disturb the snakes" but thoughts or comments appreciated.

Thank you

John L.

Georgina, Ontario

   This question was an unusual one for me to receive. Usually I hear from people wanting to know how to make their property less appealing to snakes, not more!

   The only rattlesnake in Ontario is the Massasauga (Sisturus catenatus) and they are rare in the province and protected by Canada (they may be getting some federal protection soon in the United States as well). Ontario Nature provides some brief information here about how people can be good stewards of reptiles and amphibians but there is not a lot of detail.

   Fortunately, there is a lot of information in the habitat management guidelines produced by Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. I believe the version for the midwest region is applicable to Ontario and its Massasaugas. I suggest reading through those guidelines, but in general Massasaugas like open areas, such as meadows, and these areas can be maintained through prescribed burning. There are lots of other specific recommendations in the guidelines that you can use depending on what kind of habitats are available on your property.

    As far as signs around your property, here are some considerations. Some people think they are doing everyone a favor if they kill snakes. If you live by these folks you should probably tell them that their help is not wanted or appreciated. On the other hand, if your property is relatively isolated it is probably best not to bring attention to the fact that there are rare snakes there. This way, you won't attract poachers or snake-haters.

  Thanks for your interest in sharing your land with rattlesnakes!

*****

I really like your blog. It gives a lot of insight into the animals out and about. 

During a recent fishing trip at a farm pond a few miles out side of Rushsylvania, Ohio.  I was well doing my business, and noticed a almost all black snake looking right at me with a funky speckled dark pattern on its back. It almost did not move. I would not have noticed it if it was not for it flicking its tongue. It blended in quite quite well. I got a good look at it, and it hit me that I was face to face with a melanistic Massasagua. I must say, it was about 2-3 feet long. 4 tops. But man was it FAT! lol

What actually made me really go WOW was it's behavior. It was too calm. In my experience in the area, garter snake like to strike or they just run away FAST. The Northern water snakes in that area will give you a good scare. And the Hognoses will just play dead. This snake KNEW i was there and just waited for me to get lost. I left it be. I figured it did not want to harm me, why would I want to harm it. 

But my question is, how often do these snakes show up with that sort of coloring?  Is it rare, or did I just see something that happens a lot.

Thanks, 

Kurtis O.
Bellefontaine, Ohio

Melanistic and typical Massasauga, Photo by Greg Lipps.
    Kurtis notices something about rattlesnakes that we recently discussed in relation to an Alabama Timber Rattlesnake, they often rely on their camouflage to avoid conflict with people.

   But to the question at hand, these snakes are not typically melanistic (all black) but it is not unheard of either. I don't have a lot of firsthand experience with Massasauga populations, so I reached out to Greg Lipps, he replied:

"In some populations, melanistic Massasaugas appear to be quite common while in others they are rare or even nonexistent. For instance, at several sites in northern Ohio the percentage of this year's captures (75 total) that were melanistic ranged from 0 - 35%.

Interestingly, northwestern Ohio is also home to populations of melanistic Eastern Gartersnakes. Basically limited to the western basin of Lake Erie (from Sandusky to Toledo), melanistic individuals may make up to 50% of some populations. Research from Rich King's lab supports the theory that being all black is beneficial from a thermoregulatory standpoint, but the loss of stripes or bands has a cost in terms of increased predation risk. This apparently leads to a balancing selection."

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Readers Write In: Why Didn't This Rattlesnake Rattle at Me?

Good afternoon David,

I just came across this guy on a mushroom hunt. It's the fourth one I've seen on our property this year, and the fifth one in the area. It seems to be the year of the Timber Rattlesnake.

Why didn't he let me know he was there? I didn't notice him until my foot was about two feet from his tail. My wife and I have a bet going: my guess is it due to the temperature (low 70s), as it also didn't ever move while I was taking pictures.

Thanks, David!  As always I look forward to your wisdom if you have the time to share.

Ben M.
Loachapoka, Alabama

     Ben wants to know why this Timber Rattlesnake did not start rattling to warn him he was too close. The answer is that Timber Rattlesnakes, like just about any other snake, do not want to get into a confrontation with people. The rattlesnake was actually relying on its camouflage to make sure Ben never even noticed it. Once a snake starts rattling, then that snake is letting everyone nearby know that it is there. That is a risky behavior because at that point a confrontation has begun and it often ends with a dead snake.

   A rattle is basically a last resort to warn incoming predators that they should stay away. It is much better for the snake if things never escalate that much. When most snakes notice us, they either leave quickly or stay motionless and rely on their camouflage to avoid us. As a result, most of us walk right by snakes every day and we never even notice, it is only when a confrontation with a snake has begun that things seem scary. But, what we are actually seeing is a snake that thinks its life is in danger and must defend itself.

   A rattle is a warning and a defensive behavior, it is not an advertisement.

   It is true that snakes are a little more sluggish when it is relatively cool out and low 70's F can feel quite chilly for Alabama, but the species has an extensive geographic range that includes the northeastern United States; they can be active at lower temperatures. I think that this rattlesnake would have started rattling if it felt threatened. Kudos to Ben for not pushing it to this point, it is the best way to avoid a bite!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Readers Write In: A New Species from Florida and Some Usual Suspects to Identify




We found this guy in our fire station on Longboat Key, Florida. We scared him off but couldn't decide on what type of snake he was. He doesn't look like any rat snake I've ever seen. We live near the mangroves and have a lot of Water Moccasins, one of the guys think he was a young water moccasin.

Kristen R.
Florida











Hi, my three year old daughter and I found this snake in central Maryland when walking home from school. She really would like to know what kind of snake it is and if it is a baby. I appreciate your expertise. 

Thank you. 

Barb
Maryland






My son brought it home from the creek. We live in Mount Juliet Tennessee.

Jennifer O.
Tennessee



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 point of these posts.

-This is not a pop quiz, any kind of research is encouraged and I hope you will engage with other commenters to try to figure these snakes out. I will eventually chime in with my thoughts.

-Assume 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. Don't hate, educate.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Readers Write In: Live Snakes To Identify from Virginia and Kentucky...Recognize Them?

My brother and I were hanging out in Hungry Mother Park (Marion, Va) and we saw this lil' guy gliding through the water. It's banding was all "wrong" for a cotton mouth, but it does have a nice eye stripe. So I was thinking rat snake, while my brother suggested northern water snake. Can you settle it for us? 

Ps. We simply observed him. We didn't want to interfere in his day-to-day business. Thank you in advance. 

Kindest regards,

Buck B.
Virginia


I found this snake swimming in my pool this morning. I live in Lexington, KY. While trying to determine what it is, I saw a similar picture on your website so I am hoping you can help me determine what it is, so I know how to remove it (safely). It's about 14" - 16" and the coloring may be more yellow than the picture shows. I got as close as I could, I'm terrified of snakes!

Thanks,

Sherri S.
Lexington, Kentucky




Hi David, :)

   Ran into this beauty walking the dog in Richmond. Would you please identify it?

Margaret M.
Virginia


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 point of these posts.

-This is not a pop quiz, any kind of research is encouraged and I hope you will engage with other commenters to try to figure these snakes out. I will eventually chime in with my thoughts.

-Assume 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. Don't hate, educate.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Readers Write In: A Blue Snake in North Carolina? And More...

Good afternoon,

I recently found the “Living Alongside Wildlife” page and have been enjoying reading the various articles and comments.  I wanted to ask you about a snake that my father found underneath his pet’s doghouse.  This was in Adams County, PA.  The snake’s head was not visible but the pattern on the scales is pretty clear in the photograph.  I judge the snake to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 feet long – we guessed perhaps an Eastern Milk Snake but have never gotten an identification from an expert.  Your thoughts?

Thanks,
Dave H.
Pennsylvania





Hi Dr. Steen-

Below please find a picture of a deceased snake I found on the side of the road while walking this morning.  I was struck by the blue color. The snake was pretty small, but probably 1.5' -2 ' long.  I am in the foothills of N.C.  (Burke County).  I did a quick search to identify and found a similar snake - a blue racer - but they are not indigenous to this area.
Thanks for any info you can impart!

Catherine T.
North Carolina





I think it is  a juvenile rate snake but everyone in my neighborhood is saying it is a copperhead.  We live in South Carolina in Charleston. 

Aaron P.
South Carolina

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 point of these posts.

-This is not a pop quiz, any kind of research is encouraged and I hope you will engage with other commenters to try to figure these snakes out. I will eventually chime in with my thoughts.

-Assume 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. Don't hate, educate.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Wildlife Biogeography of the New Jungle Book Movie Trailer

    The Jungle Book is a classic tale and, given the prominent role of wildlife, is one that has always interested me. So, I was intrigued yesterday when the trailer for a new Jungle Book movie was released. You can watch it below.



    I am fully aware that this story about talking and singing animals is a work of fiction, but it is a fact that many people learn about wildlife through pop culture. How many of you believe that a Tyrannosaurus Rex cannot see you if you stand still? So, I think it is important that movies at least try to get the science right. 

    Biogeography is the study of where species occur in space and over time. It is a fascinating subject to think about while considering how and why some animals occur in certain regions and not others. This body of knowledge and research reveals much about how and where species evolved as well as their current habitat needs. I kind of expected that The Jungle Book would throw biogeography out the window, particularly when the film wanted to incorporate animals other than the main characters. I was wrong.

    Let's take a closer look at the trailer. Remember, Rudyard Kipling's original story takes place in India.

    Other than Mowgli, the first animals appear at about 0:24 seconds in.




    The animals in the foreground are pretty clearly Blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) and these animals are native to India. This is a good start. There are a few other creatures in this shot, perhaps including some kind of cat (Shere Khan?), some cattle and a large bird. They are too far away or blurry for me to identify here, but perhaps you can make some guesses. I will say that the bird call they play at 0:24 sounds suspiciously like a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), which are from North America. Also, an observant reader noted in the Comments that we can hear a Chorus Frog (Pseudacris genus) at 0:16, another North American animal.

   A few seconds later we get our first good look at a tiger, presumably this is Shere Khan.



   There are tigers in India, in fact, this country contains more of the world's remaining tigers than anywhere else. They are still of great conservation concern though. Tigers in India are considered Bengal Tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) and the animal in the trailer looks spot on.

   At 0:31 we get a quick look at two animals which are likely Baloo and Bagheera. There are clearer visuals later so I'll hold off for now.

   We get a good look at a Black Panther at 0:37 (surely this is Bagheera). The term "Black Panther" is used to refer to leopards or jaguars that are melanistic (basically the opposite of albinism). There are leopards (Panthera padrus) in India so we are still doing really well.



    I am not quite sure what to make of what we see at 0:41. We are clearly looking at some kind of primate.



    They could be gibbons. Hoolock Gibbons (two different species in the Hoolock genus) occur in northeastern India but they tend to be black or tan when adults (depending on whether they are male or female). Also, it kind of sounds like I am hearing some stock footage of chimpanzees screaming, and these animals are from Africa. 

    Okay, here's Baloo.



    I don't know about you, but I think that Baloo looks a lot like a Brown Bear (Ursus arctos). In researching this post, I was surprised to find out that Brown Bears actually do occur in India. The Himalayan Brown Bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus) can be found in the mountains of northern India. But wait a minute...this is the Jungle Book we are talking about, not the Mountain Book. So, I think they should have went with a different species of bear to be completely accurate. Specifically, the Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus) is a good candidate, although they are little scruffier and smaller than Brown Bears.

    The animals are really coming in fast and furious now. At 0:42 we got a look at some elephants. 



    I was pleased to see that they are indeed Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) and not their more recognizable cousins, the African Elephants (there are technically two elephant species in Africa, both in the Loxodonta genus). Asian Elephants can be distinguished from African Elephants by their relatively small ears and the high points on their head.

    King Louie, the orangutan made famous in the 1967 Disney adaptation of The Jungle Book, presents a problem. King Louie was not actually in Rudyard Kipling's original story. This makes sense because Orangutans (two species in the Pongo genus) are native to southeastern Asia and not India.



    But, I imagine lots of viewers would be disappointed not to see this major character in the new movie. So, I chalked this one up to artistic license.

     However....

    When I vented on Twitter about this potential discrepancy, a couple of my clever followers suggested that perhaps King Louie is not actually an Orangutan at all. In fact, maybe he is an extinct species of primate, like Sivapethecus, that once occurred in India (about 2.2 million years ago). But someone else pointed out that King Louie looks gigantic, so maybe he is actually a Gigantopithecus, another extinct ape that could reach ten feet tall.

    I chuckled and moved on, but this morning I was made aware of this interview with director Jon Favreau, in which he states that King Louie is in fact a Gigantopithecus. And the reason for making King Louie this extinct species of ape is indeed because Orangutans do not occur in India. I am impressed!

    We don't see any new creatures until a little after minute one, when we get our first glimpse of Kaa the python.



    Kaa is supposed to be an Indian Rock Python (Python molorus) and the markings look pretty accurate to me. That said, it is kind of difficult for heavy-bodied snakes like pythons to pick their head up like a cobra and look around ominously....

    At 1:18 we see Baloo facing off against a bunch of monkeys.



    I can't make out these creatures too well but they look like they could be macaques (Macaca genus) although the relatively long tails are throwing me off.

    We get an intriguing look at a couple more primates at about 1:18.



    The creature that is giving Mowgli a ride is definitely a gibbon and as I mentioned earlier Hoolock Gibbons do occur in India. The other primate initially fooled me. I thought it was a Saki Monkey (Pithecia pithecia) and I was quick to point out on Twitter that these animals occur in South America. However, I was taken to task and informed that this animal is probably actually a Lion-tailed Macaque (Macaca silenus) and these animals do live in India, along the southwestern coast. Fair enough!

   At 1:21 we get a very quick look at some stampeding cattle, perhaps they were scared by the menacing Shere Khan looking on in the background.



    Check out these wide sloping horns. This makes me confident that they are not Gaur (Bos gaurus) which are a large species native to India. These animals are probably supposed to be Wild Water Buffalo (Bubalus arnee), although I kind of think they look more like Banteng (Bos javanicus), which are found east of India. I think these are the last "new" species we see in the trailer.

    Overall, the Jungle Book trailer does a good job in portraying animals we would actually expect to see in India, where the story takes place. This is no accident and it is very clear to me that the makers of the Jungle Book took great pains to make sure the animals we see in the movie are biologically accurate. That said, I don't think they paid as much attention to the audio. But, in general: nicely done!

   But, you can't please everyone.


   Update: So, this just happened. Director Jon Favreau has retweeted a link to this post, presumably he finds it a fair assessment!