Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Big Timber Rattlesnake on the Beach - Behind the Scenes Interviews!

Hi all, I hope you'll check out my latest on Earth Touch, about a giant Timber Rattlesnake spotted on the beach in Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.

I spoke with Sam Corlis, who spotted the snake, and Lindsay Keener-Eck, a graduate student and Timber Rattlesnake researcher, for the article but was not able to include everything; so here are the full exchanges.

Sam Corlis

What were you doing when you noticed the snake?

I have other pictures of "her" if you are interested. This was in mid-August at the North east tip of the island where there is an enclosure ( roped off area) for the birds to nest and hatch without human interference. I was walking along the beach, alone, looking for photo ops, shells, whatever, and picking up trash which is my habit.

How did you figure out what you were looking at and can you describe your reaction to realizing what you were sharing the beach with?

I believe it had rained the night before-the sand was hard packed. There were clumps of sea weed here and there but other than that, the beach was very clear and very smooth. I could see a good distance and I noticed about a hundred yards ahead of me , several sea gulls had congregated around another dark clump of what I thought , at first, was more sea weed-until it moved. I continued to walk towards it because I am always curious about what the ocean brings me, and ,after all, I was there for pictures.

I got within 30 yards or so and determined this was most likely a snake--interesting, but not that surprising, since there are plenty of snakes in the backwaters. But as the thing drew itself out, I realized that this was something quite a bit larger than anything I had seen before and it was quite beautifully illuminated by the evening sun.

My camera is a Canon XS 50 HS which has a wicked zoom, and I took advantage of that fact since ,being unfamiliar with the snakes of NC, I knew enough to stay out of range. I was enthralled. Then the creature must have seen me as it turned and began to approach me! I was not going to allow that and retreated just enough to keep about a 20 yd distance between us . I assume the snake determined that I was of no threat and it turned towards the water. All of this time I was taking pictures and videoing the best I could. The first video has some good parts but is very shaky. What I posted is the subsequent effort. I, in the flurry of photographing and zooming , noticed the tail and how it held the tip up at an angle. There was something familiar about that but I did not realize the significance of that posture until I zoomed in further and saw the rattles.

I mean, I THOUGHT this must be a rattle snake of some sort but, what was it doing, heading towards the ocean? Rattle snakes equate with arid desert scenes, not vast, open salt water!.

But as you see in the video, this beautiful but deadly creature took to the ocean like a pro- surfer with what seemed to me to be a specific goal in mind. I followed with my camera as far as I could. The rest, you can determine from the Facebook trail.

What is your general attitude and philosophy regarding snakes in the wild and in areas that are frequently used by people?

It has been very interesting to read the responses and reactions to the pictures. Some appreciate the beauty, and respect the right of that snake to exist. Others demand that it be killed. My feelings on the matter are that if the snake was indeed an actual threat at the time, then it should be captured and transported elsewhere or ,if that's not possible, killed. I don't wish to indiscriminately destroy God's creatures. And since this snake was on ITS turf and doing what nature told it to do, I was the one encroaching upon its territory and also I was there to observe and record. .

Have you ever seen a rattlesnake in the wild before?

I feel that I had an awesome experience in that this is not only the first rattle snake I have ever encountered, but that it was such a large and beautiful one doing something completely unexpected by most people's standards.

Is there anything about rattlesnakes or this encounter that you want people to know that nobody is talking about?

The snake, which I am told is a female, had come from within the confines of the roped off bird sanctuary which is a bone of contention for many visitors to the island and some locals, since it restricts us from accessing those areas for our own enjoyment. My thinking on that is that yes, it is frustrating to not be able to go to some of the best parts of the island, but that if we want to keep the very nature which draws us to the place to begin with, then we need to make a few , rather small, sacrifices. on behalf of that nature-and that, my friend, includes the parts we don't necessarily feel warm and fuzzy about!

Lindsay Keener-Eck

Are rattlesnakes good swimmers? Is it unusual to see a Timber Rattlesnake in the water?

To the best of my knowledge, rattlesnakes are good swimmers, but I have never seen one in the water. I would not say that it is common, but it does happen occasionally. My timber rattlesnake interactions have been only in Connecticut and Indiana, not near bodies of water, so someone else's experiences may be different.

Have you ever heard of a Timber Rattlesnake using saltwater habitats before?

This species generally uses rocky, forested habitat. Personally, I have never heard of a timber rattlesnake using a saltwater habitat. It certainly doesn't happen in the Northeastern US, I'm not as familiar with the populations down south.

What does it look like the Timber Rattlesnake is doing when it decides to enter the ocean? Is there anything about its behavior that you can interpret?

The snake's head is up and it's tongue is flickering, so my best guess is that it's trying to identify it's surroundings. The head is often raised like that when the snake is hunting, but timber rattlesnakes are ambush predators, meaning that they do not chase after food. They sit for hours, coiled and waiting for a meal to run by.

I can't say anything with certainty about this video, but my first guess was that the snake was disoriented. I cannot think of a good reason why it would intentionally swim into the ocean. It is also possible that it is attempting to flee, perhaps from the individual who is filming. A timber rattlesnake's first line of defense is to often stay still, in an attempt to go unnoticed. If that doesn't work, they will often leave the area. A bite is the final line of defense, as it is a huge energy expenditure.

However, it does seem quite purposeful and intentional, so perhaps I'm way off base.

What would you have done if you saw a Timber Rattlesnake in the ocean?

I would definitely keep an eye on it and if looked like it was struggling, I would stage a rescue attempt. I was concerned for that snake in the video, it seems that it could easily get pulled out to sea and drown. (But as I previously stated, I really don't know what's going on in this video, so maybe it's perfectly fine.)

What do you wish people knew about Timber Rattlesnakes?

They want as little to do with you as you probably do with them! This is a secretive species that spends summer days basking, hunting, and searching for mates (and generally avoiding people!). If you see one, just give it some space. It will most likely either stay coiled or head in the opposite direction. It certainly will not chase you!

Is there anything else you would like to say/share about this Timber Rattlesnakes or the species in general?

Many people are unaware that poaching of this species is a major concern for some timber rattlesnake populations. One of my thoughts while watching that video was that that snake could have also potentially been someone's escaped illicit pet.

Enjoy what you read and learn here? 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Snake Identification Challenge of the Week: Snakes in Green

Dear Snake Scientist:

Please identify our snake if you are able.


Lucille M.

Need to know what kind of snake this is it was in my sego palm tree by my front porch I live in north west Florida is it poisonous and are there more?

Deanne T.

Mr. Steen; I have looked at a couple of your websites. Would you mind if i sent you a picture of a snake and you tell me if it is a copperhead. If not what kind of a snake that you think it is. Thanks very much!

Willis R.

What kind of snake is this. Seen him around back yard 4 times now.

Dan S.

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.

Enjoy what you read and learn here? 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Javier and the Giant Snake

An examination of the details of the ceremony, particularly the secret rites in the kivas, can leave no doubt as to the purpose of the ritual. Each part carries with it some symbolism toward the bringing of rain.

—Lawrence M. Klauber, 1972, on the Hopi snake dance.

      In Mexico there are giant snakes that can eat an unwary vaquero. Care must be taken to avoid your horse’s tail falling into a creek, lest it turn into swarming horsehair worms, which are thought to be snakes. Snakes invade barns and drink cow’s milk from the udder, and sometimes sneak into homes to commit the same sin against nursing women. These stories are believed literally by ranchers in Chihuahua. When pressed for specifics about millksnakes, Pepe told us that his brother Lalo had seen it with his own eyes. Later we asked Lalo, and he told us that, while he had never seen it himself, an acquaintance over the yonder sierra had. Such mystical properties extend to more human spheres. Everyone in Chihuahua is convinced that the regions’ most famous drug lord Pablo Acosta is still alive. It was his double who died in the dramatic shootout with authorities at Santa Elena in 1987.  Likewise, a double was extradited to the United States in 2017, not El Chapo Guzman.
       I’m not saying these people are stupid. It’s just that in Mexico there is a thinner boundary between fact and myth, faith and knowledge. And that’s not even true. Ask an American whether they’ve seen a black panther and many have a story to tell. They tell tales of water moccasins chasing them. Many believe that Elvis or Tupac faked their own deaths and live on. Perhaps it’s just easier to spot a culture’s myths from the outside looking in.

            But a giant snake lives out behind the Rancho Amapolas. I saw it myself.

            We drove up to a white ranch house next to a pond, cottonwood grove, and the llano amapolas. The grassland was guarded on all sides by rocky volcanic hills. We were greeted by an old vaquero on horseback. He had worked there for decades. He was given an allowance for food and supplies but no salary, and when offered a salary he refused it. He was 83 years old, his face like rich leather, the color of a cherry wood table, with a downturned nose and underbitten mouth turned into a permanent grimace from getting kicked in the face by horses. We sat around the kitchen table in the cool of the old adobe upon which the ranch house was agglomerated. Pancho Villa used the place as his headquarters in 1914 before the sack of Ojinaga. He made some adjustments by knocking out several walls to use the house as stables. When Don Antonio found out what we were there for, he mentioned the giant snake.

             Gesturing with his worn old hands, he described a tan, eleven foot snake, and tried to make a circle with his fingers to demonstrate its girth, but failed to close it. He pointed out to the alamo and suggested we go have a look for it, and when we returned we’d have lunch. We returned an hour later having failed to find the snake. The house stunk of fish and we glanced worriedly at the open sardine cans on the counter. But the lunch—fish in a spicy sauce—was terrific.

            We returned to the Rancho Amapolas last summer with Javier Ramos, one of my students from Sul Ross State. Javier’s family owns the Rancho Amapolas. Javy is 20 years old, with a round face and close-cropped black hair. He smiles often and talks about things matter-of-factly while glancing away. He is a mariachi, quick with a tune and good at picking his guitar. Sometimes I find him out in the courtyard on campus singing Mexican folk songs. He is studying criminal justice and wants to be a border patrol agent. He grew up hearing Antonio’s stories about the giant snake. He first heard of it when he was just seven years old and mounted little expeditions to the cottonwood grove to find it. He once saw its giant tail disappear into the undergrowth before he could kill it.

            We first searched the corrals near the house, where Javier saw countless snakes over the years. The yards were enclosed by rock walls of varied ages and condition; some were more recent, neat, and mortared, but the older ones were simply partially collapsed rows of rocks. Javier started throwing rocks at rabbits. I asked him why he was throwing rocks, and he explained that he hated rabbits. I asked him why. Because they pissed him off. Javier was afflicted with that curious bloodlust typical of young men. I secretly hoped he would brain one of the rabbits so he’d have to explain himself to his concerned younger sister.

            We walked down the hill toward the big trees. In their shade we were transported from the surrounding desert hills into the dim of a forest. Past years’ yellow leaves crunched beneath our feet, and kingbirds conversed in the canopy where this year’s leaves did endless green revolutions. The forest floor had that cottonwood texture: gnarled roots forming caves and crannies, grey canyons of bark. And that cottonwood smell: sweet, dusty, stamped in the mind since that first grove in Utah years ago.

            We were soon out again, the grove only an acre of venerable trees. We searched the rock walls and knobs near the grove, walking the edge of small ponds. I made my way up the broken hills flanking the trees, which had a view of the ranch house, the alamo, the llano stretching like a yellow-green lake of grass, and a mushrooming afternoon thunderhead to the west.

            “Boys,” my buddy Laine said, waiting for us to look over. He pointed down at a shrub with both index fingers. “We’ve got business.”

            I walked over, wondering what he found, when I heard clicking. Just two or three notes. A rattler.

            Below the shrub, coiled tight on sticks and prickly pear pads, was one of the biggest rattlesnakes I’ve ever seen. The sticks and vegetation were the home of a wood rat. The snake was waiting for the rat to make its rounds, when it would spring its trap. I called for the snake tongs and worked the big snake out from under the shrub. It was a Western Diamondback, Crotalus atrox, one of those monsters you hear about. This is probably the commonest snake in the area, but I had only seen small ones up to about three feet. Additional feet add corresponding girth, so that snakes over four feet are impressively massive. This one was pushing four feet long, with the girth of my lower leg. I strained to hold it up for everyone to see. It now rattled continuously, a dry white noise.

            “That’s the snake,” said Javier, his eyes never leaving it, “We need to kill it.”


            He picked up a big rock. “I can’t let them know I didn’t kill it.”

            “Then we won’t tell anybody we found it. It’s just sitting here. It wants to eat that wood rat. It will never come near the house.”

            “It’s the snake. We need to kill it.”

            “I’m not letting you kill it. We’re just going to let it go.”
          We returned the snake to its ambush site. Despite its size, it vanished in seconds.  

            We talked about the giant snake on the way back to the ranch house. We used all the standard talking points: snakes aren’t dangerous if you leave them alone; snakes control rodent populations; snakes are part of nature; snakes give Mexico its character. But he looked for that snake his whole life. He was convinced it was the same snake Antonio told him about when he was a boy. The snake was decades old, an ancient enemy hiding in the cottonwood grove. He missed his chance to slay it. But he soon agreed that he was glad it would live on. Its legend would only grow.

            Back at the ranch house I was relaxing and enjoying an afternoon beer when the storm came.

            Hysterical lightning. Curtains of water pummeling the tin roof and surrounding country. A soupy haze of rain deep blue in all directions. A roiling brown-red creek formed in the driveway and rushed under the window. The hail started, hammering off the roof like the ricochets of a German machine-gunner. Marbles, then ping pong balls, then cue balls. It was 20 degrees cooler in the house.     
            A half hour later it was all over, the big thunderhead gliding off toward Coahuila. The pond grew acres as new streams flowed in. New arroyos that would never run again in anyone’s lifetime. The hail gathered in drifts. The Ramos family was all smiles, and the storm was the talk of the area for days. The green grass of the llano would grow greener still. Nobody could remember seeing anything like it.

I asked, “Javy, you know why it rained?”

“Because we didn’t kill the snake?”

“That’s right. You think it was a coincidence? This is Mexico.”

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Two-headed Rattlesnake in Arkansas! Behind the Sciences Interview with Dr. Lori Neuman-Lee.

Courtesy Mark Young
   Hey all, two-headed rattlesnakes are real! I hope you'll check out my recent Earth Touch article about a two-headed Timber Rattlesnake that was recently found in Arkansas. After that, come back here and read my full interview with Dr. Lori Neuman-Lee, a new assistant professor at Arkansas State University and herpetology expert! Dr. Neuman-Lee is currently caring for the rattlesnake so I asked her a few questions about what is in store for this unique animal.

Basically, what are your plans for this snake?

     As of now, we hope to keep this snake alive and as an ambassador outreach animal. It is being kept in a locked cage in the time being, but, ultimately, we would hope that it could be on permanent display. It is a beautiful animal and the curiosity and wonder that it has generated, as well as a sense of excitement, speaks to its value as an outreach animal. As of now, the animal seems to be in generally good condition.

If you plan on keeping it alive, can you describe the care? How does the care of a two-headed rattlesnake differ from a regular animal?

     We will be keeping it in a large, locked enclosure with access to water and lots of places to hide. It is a neonate—it was born only in the last few weeks and thus hasn’t eaten. This isn’t uncommon for baby rattlesnakes because they have been given maternal provisions. We are weighing the snake on a weekly basis to monitor any drops in weight. Later this week, we intend to try feeding it using mice parts. We don’t know which head will want to eat—but we are going to try and offer the mouse to the more dominant (left) head first. Unfortunately, we don’t know the internal structure of the snake, so we don’t know if there is just one stomach and if only one esophagus leads to the stomach and digestive tract. We are going to do the best we can to let the snake make decisions! In the meantime, we will be giving him water and warmth so that he can adjust to his new environment. The differences in care arise mostly from the fact that we don’t know the internal structure, but we are going to care for it as we would any snake.

What scientific value does this snake present?

    This snake provides some truly unique opportunities for us to understand more about these cryptic and secretive animals. We are not planning on conducting any experiments on this snake, but we will be monitoring its behavior. Already it has been fascinating to watch as the left head has started to become more dominant and now leads the right head. We hope to understand more about what the ecological consequences might be for this individual. When this snake passes away, we will do dissections to understand its internal structure and may be able to examine how development occurred. On a broader level, however, this snake presents a value to the scientific community because it is shining light on this species that is imperiled and persecuted throughout much of its range in the eastern United States. While snake bites from Timber Rattlesnakes are extremely rare, many people still fear and kill them on-sight. This isn’t only putting the person in danger, it removes a valuable part of the ecosystem. If this snake can help to inspire people to appreciate these animals, I think that is its greatest contribution. And who knows, maybe a young person will be inspired to become a herpetologist!

Have you ever seen a two-headed rattlesnake before?

    I haven’t! I have only been in Arkansas for about 2 months—so this is a great welcome to the state and to Arkansas State University!

What would you do if you found a two-headed snake in the wild?

    It depends. If it was a neonate, such as this individual, I would probably remove it. Two-headed snakes rarely survive very long due to genetic problems, but also because they struggle to effectively hide/avoid predators and find food. I saw that with this snake in the first days. It was climbing on a log and it kept falling off because the heads were causing it to become unbalanced. I don’t think this little snake would have survived long in the wild. If I had found an adult, though, I would leave it. It clearly has figured out how to survive. However, I would urge members of the general public to use caution and to keep snakes in their wild habitat. Wild snakes can be very difficult to keep in captivity—especially two-headed snakes! There are lots of professionals that would be happy to help and answer questions.

Is there anything about the snakes of Arkansas that you want people to know that hasn’t appeared in other articles about this animal?

    In knowing your blog, I know that you will stress the importance of snakes in the ecosystem and the value that they provide to our environment. Rattlesnakes are a symbol of the United States and protecting and respecting them is something we should do as Americans! While this little snake is special, all snakes deserve to be respected. I urge individuals to consider snakes like an unknown dog that shows up in their yard—you wouldn’t approach an unknown dog and you certainly wouldn’t kill it! Snakes respect our space as long as we respect theirs. Snakes in general are so maligned and I am glad that this little special snake is allowing us to talk about how awesome these creatures are!

Enjoy what you read and learn here?