Thursday, September 24, 2009

Big Snake in Newark, Delaware

Each morning I get sent recent articles pertaining to snakes, turtles, and similar creatures in the news. Some reflect just how detached we've become from the flora and fauna that surround us.

Although this blog generally pertains to southeastern wildlife, I can't resist commenting on an article I received about a giant snake on the loose in Newark, Delaware. On Friday afternoon, a couple kids took a picture of a large snake crawling in a tree near their house. Later they told their mom that they had seen a "black snake", this is one of the common names generally used for the Eastern Rat Snake (formerly Black Rat Snake), Pantherophis alleghaniensis. Here in the southeast, we have a closely related species, the Gray Rat Snake, Pantherophis spiloides.

In any case, that should have been the end of it.

The mother, amazed at how large the snake looked in the pictures, proclaimed that this could be no native snake. Local officials "confirmed" that this was likely an escaped python or boa constrictor, perhaps 8-10 feet long. Neighbors were warned of the potentially dangerous animals roaming their streets and backyards and were encouraged to keep their children and pets under close supervision.

The kids were correct. This is not an exotic snake. This is not a dangerous animal. What they saw was a rat snake. Granted, a large individual can surely be a shock to the system as it's true that some can reach in excess of eight feet. This makes them one of the largest snakes native to North America, but they are harmless, unless you're a squirrel or rat.

Rat snakes have well-developed climbing abilities and are often found crawling through tree branches in search of birds or a secluded place to rest. Given that fall is advancing, it's possible that this snake was looking for somewhere safe to spend the winter, or maybe a final meal before it commences hibernation. These snakes can be common in suitable conditions, but not necessarily frequently encountered. This may explain the odd behavior exhibited by the adults involved in its identification and subsequent warnings. I'll grant them that it may not be easy to identify the snake from the one available picture given that only its underbelly is visible, but a quick internet search reveals important clues.

For some reason, many are inclined to exaggerate the size and associated danger of our native snakes. The provided article, and the embedded quotations, are no exception. I suspect they only encourage others to kill snakes because they fear their safety and well-being are in jeopardy, when nothing could be further from the truth.

A large Gray Rat Snake captured in southwestern Georgia

Update: The newspaper in question has published a correction to their story. Within this correction, a Delaware biologist identifies the snake as a rat snake. But then, states that only experts can identify snakes. Do you think this is true, considering the initial reaction of the 13-year old who first spotted the animal?


Paul said...

Hopefully that biologist wasn't serious (maybe had his words twisted a little by the reporter?). With all the books, internet resources, etc. available today it's relatively easy to identify the snake in this picture as much more likely to be a black rat snake than anything else. The more interesting news article would be on how people get blinded by their own fears and don't do something as simple as go out and measure or look at the tree branches where the photo was taken ;)

David Steen said...

"The more interesting news article would be on how people get blinded by their own fears and don't do something as simple as go out and measure or look at the tree branches where the photo was taken ;)"

True. For some reason common sense often takes a backseat when we're talking about snakes. Even when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, people still cling to the sensational story, whether it includes the wrong species, exaggerated proportions, or level of danger.

Charles said...

And then those of us who love nature wonder why there are so many falsehoods running around. I try very hard to erase those myths that out there running around.