all the attention that sharks are getting this summer, snakes have been
able to slither under the radar as the most sensationalized animal
threatening human existence. Usually this time of year, we hear all
about the “copper-mouthed, water-headed rattlers” aggressively chasing
my years as a park ranger, I once received a phone call from an excited
neighbor screaming in a high-pitched voice about “a cobra, or might
even be a black mamba” that was in their yard. I laughed and told them
not to worry, that it was a harmless hognose snake that will mimic a
cobra and scare the heebee-jeebies out of you. They were not happy with
that answer, and I had to go to their house and relocate the snake.
with ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes, are wary during the
warm-weather months when these cold-blooded reptiles are much more
active and moving about. Venomous or not, most people just don’t like
snakes. Snakes have never been able to overcome their depiction in the
Bible as Satan in the form of a snake that convinces Eve to take a bite
out of that apple and thus, introduces sin into the world. The Greek
story about Medusa, the woman with snakes growing out of her head who
could turn people into stone with merely her gaze, didn’t help either.
North Carolina, there are 37 species of these legless reptiles, of
which six are venomous and can be found somewhere along our coastal
plain. Five of the six are pit vipers -- copperheads, water moccasins
(also called cottonmouths) and canebrake, pigmy and eastern diamondback
rattlesnakes. Just reading the names will cause anxiety in some people.
vipers are so named because of a small depression, or pit,
between the eye and nostrils. This pit contains a sensory organ, or
thermoreceptor, that can detect the body heat of warm-blooded prey
mammals such as rats and mice.
sixth venomous snake, the coral snake, is in the same family as
cobras and mambas and is referred to by some as the American cobra.
all of these snakes are venomous, not poisonous. They inject, like a
hypodermic needle, their venom through their fangs. Poisonous plants
and animals, such as some types of frogs and the berries of the
Virginia creeper vine, transmit their poison though touch or by being
not exactly sure what makes people so afraid of snakes. I don’t think
it is one specific characteristic, but rather the totality of many.
Right off the bat, many folks think that snakes are slimy. Not true.
The scaly outer layer on their body is dry, smooth and has a glossy
sheen that may give the impression that it is wet and slimy.
there is that forked tongue flicking in and out of their mouths that
gives some people the creeps. This is just a snake’s way of smelling
tiny chemicals in the air or ground and delivering them into the mouth
to be analyzed by what is called the vomeronasal system located near
the nasal cavity. Here, messages are sent to the brain to help the
snake follow prey, find a mate and avoid predators. The tongue is split
with a left and a right side giving the snake a sense of direction
based on the chemical concentration levels detected by each side.
serpentine movement of snakes as they wiggle about can also be
unnerving to some. Snakes use box-shaped ventral scales along their
belly to grab the ground for traction much like a tire. They have a
number of propulsion styles that allow them to adapt to changing ground
conditions. Even without legs, they are good climbers.
there are the broad triangular heads of the pit vipers with their
elliptical eyes that create a facial demeanor some associate with evil.
These cat-like eyes are important for hunting at night and accurately
tracking the movements and distances of prey.
there is the fear of those double-barrel, retractable fangs dripping
with venom, sinking into your flesh and releasing its consequences. A
Bible quote, “And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and
they bit the people …” has really left an impression. As a rule, snakes
will bite humans only as a last resort to protect themselves. They
usually slink away and try to avoid confrontations. When provoked, they
will defend themselves in a manner that is perceived as aggression.
of their excellent camouflage that seamlessly conceals them in
their natural surroundings, many snake bites occur when people step on
them or reach into areas where they cannot see. Most venomous snake
bites, however, occur when people try to touch, handle or grab
hold of danger waiting to happen. Darwin Award candidates displaying
such bravado can be rewarded with a trip to the emergency room. Just
ask this guy, who showed off by kissing a water moccasin.
venom of pit vipers is similar to saliva and contains proteins and
enzymes that are hemotoxic and do damage to tissue and blood. A bite
can produce swelling, pain, weakness, nausea and inhibit the ability of
blood to coagulate. Coral snake venom, on the other hand, is a
neurotoxin and affects the nervous system, causing paralysis and
hunting, the bite and venom of these snakes is used to immobilize and
digest their prey. When they bite as a defensive measure, such as
during interactions with humans, there is a good possibility that very
little or no venom is released from the fangs. These “dry bites” are
used on non-prey animals as a way to defend themselves while conserving
their venom. This isn’t to suggest that a harassed and agitated snake
won’t bite repeatedly and with a full complement of venom.
of these distinctive traits of snakes that give people the willies are
simply amazing adaptations that allow snakes to make their niche in
North Carolina, the copperhead and timber rattler can be found
throughout the state in a variety of habitats. The water moccasin and
pigmy rattler are mainly found in the eastern part of the state and the
eastern diamondback rattler and coral snake are in the southeast
are the species we are most likely to encounter and they account for
the majority of reported snake bites. They are quite social and like to
hang with other copperheads. Young copperheads are recognized by the
yellow tip of their tails which they will jiggle as a lure to draw in
prey such as frogs. Adults have a preference for rodents but will also
climb shrubs and trees looking for cicadas.
water moccasin, as its name implies, spends a lot of time at night in
aquatic habitats such as marshes, streams and ditches, where it waits
to ambush frogs and fish. The water lowers their body temperature,
which is why they can be found basking in warm, sunny spots for
extended periods during the day. It is also known as the cottonmouth
snake because of its defensive posture of opening its mouth widely,
exposing the white fleshy interior. They can grow to more than four
the rattlesnakes, the Carolina pigmy is the smallest. It is a slim
snake found in sandy longleaf pine forests and is only a little more
than two feet when fully grown. The rattle of the pigmy is tiny and
hard to see. When agitated, the sound of the rattle doesn’t travel far
and sounds more like the buzzing of an insect. Because of loss of this
unique habitat, the pigmy is a species of special concern in North
timber or canebrake rattlesnake is a brute of a snake growing up to six
feet in length and is also a state species of concern. This shy snake
is reluctant to engage its rattle until danger is imminent. Its
scientific name, Crotalus horridus, identifies it as a dreadful rattle.
are without a doubt the big beast of the rattlesnake world. Some
individuals have been documented at almost eight feet in length and
weighing in at 30 pounds. Anyone seeing this bruiser
unexpectedly along a forest trail will surely pass out on the spot
or be unable to run because of uncontrollable body spasms. Those
who remain conscious will be mesmerized by the gorgeous dark diamond
pattern against its sand-colored scales.
their main prey is rabbits, they will also target rats, squirrels and
birds. North Carolina is the extreme northern range of these snakes,
which are listed as a state endangered species, rare and difficult to
find in the wild.
pit vipers have a rugged look, but the eastern coral snake is svelte
and elegant looking with a round head and eye pupils. Its striking
Halloween colors of black, yellow and red bands alternately circle the
length of its body. The non-venomous scarlet kingsnake closely
resembles, but should not be confused with, the coral snake. One of the
clever rhymes to help identify which one is venomous goes like this,
“Red touch yellow, kills a fellow; red touch black, venom lack.”
of a recluse, this snake spends most of its time burrowed under
decaying forest litter and loose soils. It ventures out at twilight and
dawn to seek out prey such as other snakes and lizards. Because
of their short, fixed fangs, they need to hang on and chew a
little bit for the venom to take effect.
cringe when I hear people say “the only good snake is a dead snake,” or
when they try to rationalize the existence of some snakes, and thus,
the condemnation of other snake species by saying, “at least it’s one
of the good snakes.” All snakes, venomous or not, are good snakes.
a lot of cultural history casts snakes in a negative light, there is
plenty of history touting their virtue. They have long been symbols of
wisdom, fertility and a sign of immortality because of their “rebirth”
after each shedding. As a sign of healing, they are prominently
featured in the Rod of Asclepius, a logo used by many health
organizations throughout the world. Look at the Star of Life, a symbol
of emergency medical services, and there you will see a snake. Today,
their venom has a number of medical uses including treating cancer,
stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.
great place to learn more about these magnificent creatures is at the
N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores in Carteret County. The
herpetologist on staff, Fred Boyce, is a wealth of knowledge when
it comes to snakes. Boyce grew up surrounded by his older brother’s
snake collection. His childhood playmate and friend was a big black rat
snake named Atlas. If anyone can talk you off the ledge of snake fear,
asked how people develop their fear of snakes, Boyce replied, “I have
no doubt in my own mind that the common fear of snakes is an acquired,
learned behavior that has very little or nothing to do with the actual
snakes themselves. Once you actually see a venomous snake, you’re out
of danger and can observe it safely.”
sight of snakes actually brings me comfort – comfort in the knowledge
there is natural habitat to support their existence. If there is
habitat for the snake, there is habitat for a diversity of other
wildlife as well. Wildlife deserves our respect and right to existence,
no matter what form it takes.
article is provided by Coastal Review Online, an online news service
covering North Carolina's coast. For more news, features, and
information about the coast, go to www.coastalreview.org.)
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