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? 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Pigeon Slayers of New York - Behind the Scenes Interview!

Last week I noticed a pretty cool picture on Twitter.

I wasn't the only one who noticed either; this tweet has been shared tens of thousands of times! I thought this was a good opportunity to write about how we share some of our urban landscapes with wildlife; I hope you'll check out my article on this, just out on Earth Touch.

I wanted to talk to someone that knew a lot about urban birds  to help put the observation in context, so I reached out to Jason Ward, birder, writer and educator with the Audubon Society. I wasn't able to include all of my conversation with Jason in the Earth Touch article, so I included everything here!

That's a Red-tailed Hawk and we hear often about Peregrine Falcons in New York City; what are some other birds that people be surprised to find out are using urban habitat near them?

Yes, definitely a Red-tailed Hawk, as evident by the unmarked white chest and streaky belly. Along with hawks and Peregrine Falcons, people tend to be shocked at how close they are to Bald Eagles! People usually associate them with the coast, but they can be found all over North America, typically close to water. Speaking of water, many people are shocked to find the four feet tall Great Blue Heron in their local parks and neighborhoods. Commonly misidentified as a "crane", this heron has a six feet wingspan and dines on a variety of prey. Fish, amphibians, small mammals, the occasional duckling or grebe are some of the items on the menu for this giant. 

Why can some birds like Peregrine Falcons and Red-tailed Hawks thrive in cities while others cannot?

The main factor here is food and how that food is obtained. Habitat loss can completely eliminate food sources and preferred habitat for most species and that usually spells doom. But Red-tailed Hawks are generalists. All they require is some open ground and high perches. You can find that in cities, woodlands, desert, mountains, grasslands etc. So it's no surprise that you'll find Red-tailed Hawks fitting in comfortably in all of those environments. The Peregrine Falcon is a different story. The fastest bird in the world requires a lot of open space and high cliffs to nest on. It just so happens that skyscrapers in large cities provide them with a nice alternative. They can use those tall buildings to survey their landscape and watch for passing birds. They've adapted to the changing world around them. 

What are some unique challenges facing birds in the city?

Cities create so many unique obstacles for birds. Tall buildings are definitely public enemy number one. Most migratory birds migrate at night, using the moon to orient them as they fly. When moonlight reflects off windows, birds can become disoriented. Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta is a good example of a "bird trap". It's a relatively small park, only 21 acres. But it's located right in the middle of the city, and it's surrounded by tall buildings on all sides. Birds land there at dawn to feed during migration. Once night falls, the birds are faced with a difficult task. As they look towards the sky to find the light of the moon, they see moonlight reflecting off windows and artificial lights from hundreds of hotel and business windows that remain illuminated throughout the night. Because of this, migratory birds wind up staying in this park months after migration ends. Becoming stuck in some kind of "migratory bird limbo". 

Are urban birds actually benefiting from living in the city are are they making the best of a bad situation?

Birds who thrive in urban environments are definitely making the best of a bad situation. Although city-living can mean more food for meat-eating birds, the risks outweigh the rewards. Chasing food in an urban environment often results in collisions with windows, cars, and overzealous home-owners who believe it's okay to chase hawks away from their backyard bird feeders. 

What do you recommend for people in urban landscapes that want to learn about and see the birds around them?

If you live in an urban environment and want to learn more about the birds in your area, I'd highly recommend looking up your local Audubon chapter. Attend a workshop sponsored by that Audubon chapter, attend a bird walk or a monthly meeting. Or, if you're more of an introvert, purchase a pair of binoculars and head out to your local park. Find a good, quiet area, and just wait. A couple moments of listening and observing will unlock the door to a world full of feathered ambassadors. You'll be hooked in no time! 

What can cities do to make their urban landscapes more bird-friendly?

Photo: Josh Henderson/Galveston Police Department
The absolute best thing cities can do is turn their lights off at night. I'm haunted by the image of 398 dead birds placed on a table in Galveston, Texas. Those birds all fell victim to one, 23-story building in the city on the Gulf Coast over the course of one night. Something as simple as shutting down those lights can make a huge impact. Recently, Atlanta Audubon played a large role in advising the City Hall building in Atlanta to install bird-friendly screens on the windows to prevent window collisions. Efforts like these are increasing in number.

Urban birds of prey are in the news relatively frequently; is there anything you think is missing from these stories? In other words, what would you like people to know about urban raptors that doesn't get enough attention?

We mean well, we really do. We're a very compassionate species. But that compassion can have adverse effects. Getting too close to a bird of prey who just caught a meal may seem like a good idea. After all, your followers are going to love the video, you'll probably get tons of likes and retweets. But you may also spook the bird of prey, and force it to abandon its meal. What we don't realize is that the mortality rate for birds of prey is incredibly high during their first year of life. So every single meal is an important one. We must give them their space. The same applies for the hawk who stalks your bird feeder. By putting up a bird feeder, you're not only feeding finches and chickadees. You're also feeding your local Cooper's Hawk (a bird of prey that eats other birds). It's an unwritten contract you signed upon hanging your bird feeder. Give birds their space, if one flies into your cab, take it to a rehab center immediately. Oh, and, keep your cats indoors.

Enjoy what you read and learn here? 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Why Are These Rattlesnakes Piled On Top of Each Other? ---Guest Post---

I recently received this e-mail from Dan G. in New Mexico and knew I had to pass this to Melissa Amarello to tackle in a guest post.

"...I know what they both are, but I'm curious about what it is they're doing, and why, despite being the same species (or maybe they're not!) they're so different in color and size. (The smaller appears to have only one less rattle than the big guy).  They're in the driveway, presumably gathering the last bit of warmth from the rocks. A bit cooler today (a relative term in the desert, I know) The second picture is the smaller snake from two days ago. It had scooped out all the rocks and made a nice depression in the earth.. this time to stay cool.  Anyway, I've never seen them pile on like this before, so I'm curious.

OH! I'm positive the big one is a Western Diamondback, and since the tail markings are the same on the smaller snake, I presume it is, too, but maybe you, or someone else will know better.

Dan G.
Chihuahuan Desert, New Mexico

    Indeed, these are western diamond-backed rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox). Like most rattlesnakes, western diamondbacks are sexually dimorphic: males and females look different. Males are bigger, with relatively wider heads and longer tails than females. Adulthood (i.e., sexually maturity) is determined by size, not age, in rattlesnakes. Adult females allocate their resources to reproduction rather than growth, while male rattlesnakes continue to grow and thus reach larger sizes. So the smaller snake in this photo is an adult female and the big guy is an adult male.

Left: a still-growing young Western Diamondback
Right: Old adult that's been same size for many years
How do we know the smaller snake isn’t a juvenile? 

    Rattlesnakes add a new segment to their rattle each time they shed their skin, which may happen one or more times per year. The width of each segment is correlated to the snake’s body length, so a young snake that is still growing will have a strong taper to their rattle while an adult snake will have segments of similar width. The most recent segments of both snakes’ rattles are fairly similar in width, indicating that they are both adults who are about as big as they’re going to get.

Are male and female western diamondbacks different colors too? 

Rattlesnakes can vary a lot in color and pattern, 
even if they are the same species! 
These are all Arizona Black Rattlesnakes.
    Although I have seen this idea discussed by snake enthusiasts, to my knowledge it has not been quantified (color measured and compared between the sexes). Snakes can vary dramatically in color and pattern, even within the same species in the same area, which is why they can be so hard to identify. Unlike birds, the snake you encounter in the wild is unlikely to look exactly like the one in the field guide. The color differences here are a perfect example of the variety of colors common within a population of western diamondbacks.

What are these two rattlesnakes doing and why? 

    Rattlesnakes are great romantics. Once a male finds a female, he may stay with her for days or even weeks


    Females can be hard to find or may not be immediately receptive, and there are incentives to keeping other males from mating with her. This prolonged courtship may include accompaniment (hanging out with and following her if she moves), mate-guarding, male-male combat, chin-rubbing and tail-searching, and finally (if he’s lucky) mating. Mating is not necessarily the end of their time together though. Males will often accompany, guard, and engage in combat with other suitors after they’ve mated. Multiple paternity is apparently common in western diamondbacks, so mating doesn’t guarantee he’ll be the only or even one of the fathers of her litter next year. Litters may have 1-3 fathers, which may not include all males observed mating with the mother. How the father or fathers are determined post-mating is something we know little about, but it is probably beneficial to decrease the competition via guarding and combat.

How many Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes can you see?
    So back to the photo – what’s happening here? The male’s tail is clearly visible and unattached to the female’s so they are not mating. He also isn’t in the right posture for chin-rubbing and tail-searching. Their posture most closely resembles a form of mate-guarding called stacking, which is exactly what you’d guess: a male coiled and stacked on top of a female, sometimes so perfectly that it’s difficult to see that there are two snakes.

    If you’ve observed any of these courtship behaviors in your yard and are worried about being overrun with baby snakes – don’t be. Most rattlesnakes in the southwestern US mate in the late summer to early fall (our summer rainy season or monsoon) and give birth the following year during the same season (some species a bit earlier in the summer). So their nest sites are often far away from and in very different habitat than where they court and mate. Western diamondbacks add a little twist to this story in that they also court and mate at their winter dens soon after emerging in the spring, perhaps to add or replace a father of that year’s litter.

    There are surprisingly few photographs of stacking, so thanks for sharing this with us! Scientists don’t often get funding for natural history research, so we depend on everyone to document and share interesting observations like this one. And thanks for moving these snakes only a short distance, out of harm’s way; backyard courtships often lead to unhappy endings for rattlesnakes.

About the Author: Melissa Amarello, Co-founder, Advocates for Snake Preservation 

    Melissa’s lifelong fascination with snakes led her to work on a variety of projects on natural history and conservation of reptiles in Arizona, California, and Mexico. After witnessing how negative attitudes can stifle conservation efforts, she incorporated education and outreach into her research to foster appreciation for snakes by sharing stories and videos of their behavior in the field. In the spring of 2014 she co-founded Advocates for Snake Preservation (ASP) with Jeff Smith, to change how people view and treat snakes. In 2017 they received the Jarchow Conservation Award for commitment and creativity in studying snake behaviors and tireless and continuous efforts to use scientific knowledge to advocate for snake conservation through outreach and social activism. Melissa received her B.S. in wildlife, watershed, and rangeland resources at the University of Arizona and her M.S. in biology at Arizona State University, where she studied rattlesnake social behavior.

Relevant Scientific References:

Taylor, E. N. and D. F. DeNardo. 2005. Sexual size dimorphism and growth plasticity in snakes: an experiment on the Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox). Journal of Experimental Zoology 303A:598–607.