Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mississippi Floods and Monster Morganza Snakes

   The Mississippi River has been flooding to record levels in recent weeks, creating emergencies for many people residing in states bordering this massive waterway. Homes, businesses, and property in Louisiana and Mississippi are at great risk of damage and destruction due to the rising water. It's a very real hardship for those involved.

  In the wake of what we might consider a natural disaster, various media outlets have been rushing to warn everyone of a danger I think is more imagined than real, a snake invasion. It's not a new phenomenon for the media to stoke fears about snakes, particularly native and harmless species. But, I think in this case it's a distraction from some very real issues. It doesn't help that this news story leads with a picture of a harmless water snake with a caption indicating it's a venomous Cottonmouth (a mix-up that is all too common). To ABC's credit, the snakes within their video segment are legitimately Cottonmouths.

  Snakes are something everyone in the Southeastern United States are very familiar with. Although it's true that some animals are being displaced by rising flood waters, I don't think it should be on the top 10 list of things to worry about when your house is flooding. A little common sense goes a long way when dealing with venomous snakes. Snakes are always present in the South, whether there's a flood or not.

 In addition to the "official" news stories circulating about dangerous snakes, some enterprising individuals have taken the opportunity to spread some serpentine falsehoods. A familiar strategy is to take a picture of a snake taken somewhere in the world and change the story and location to scare one's neighbors. It's been used for Anacondas in Alabama and Pythons in Arizona, for example. When a spillway in Morganza, Louisiana was recently opened to divert water and lower flood risks, someone reported seeing the snake on the right crawling alongside the road.

  The snake in the picture is closer to the camera than anything else that would allow us to accurately gauge its size (a trick we know all too well). But it's clearly a large snake. Superficially, the long and slender body is reminiscent of a Coachwhip, Coluber flagellum. But it's not quite right. A little internet sleuthing suggests the picture wasn't even taken in North America. A few days ago someone posted a picture of what is claimed to be a King Brown Snake in Australia, and it seems this picture was hijacked for the current Louisiana prank (although there is controversy regarding this identification as well). Although King Brown Snakes are huge and highly venomous, they should not a concern for anyone in the southeastern United States.


Anonymous said...

The first thing I thought when I saw it was that the front didn't look right. The head is elevated at an angle which just looks wrong to me, and I haven't been able to find pictures of any snake raising its head in a sharp sigmoid like that. do you think it's plausible? Besides, why would it do that? I know black racers (for example) lift their heads up to see above grass or something, but that doesn't apply to the picture.

The second thing I thought was that if real, it would be an eastern indigo snake. the color and shape look right, plus indigo snakes can get huge.

David Steen said...

Thanks for your comment. "Periscoping" can occur in a number of species, as you mention it often happens so that a snake, such as a racer or coachwhip, can raise their head over vegetation to obtain a better view. I think coachwhips do this often and slink away before we see them.

Personally, I have never seen a snake crawl (as opposed to periscoping and being stationary) through the grass in this position either, but I'm not confident enough to say it can't happen.

Indigo snakes can get large, but this picture doesn't strike me as one. I think most indigo snakes are more purple/blue, while the snake in the picture appears brown or tan.

Thanks again,


Zookeeper Gabe said...

Could it be one of the large pythons, Amethystine or Olive? Although I'm not sure is they do the head raising behavior often

David Steen said...


Could be a python, the body looks about right. But, as you mention, the head posture would be unusual (but perhaps possible?). In any case, I think we can safely rule out any North American snake.