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In The Country

Serpentine Asp-irations

Tim Iverson
Seasonal Naturalist
Cunningham Falls State Park

(10/2013) October is a month associated with things that go bump in the night and ghoulish or nightmarish creatures. For many of us, snakes embody that idea year round. Slithering, hissing, forked tongues, and the like evoke different visions and meaning for all of us. In my line of work Iíve found that most people either love or hate snakes, rarely are people indifferent. Whether theyíre venomous or not, snakes are truly a vital part of the ecosystem. There is a great deal of mystery and misinformation surrounding snakes so with our proverbial flashlight letís plunge into the darkness and illuminate the darkness.

Snakes the world over get a bad rap. We might trace this to a Biblical tradition where a deceitful snake spring boarded humanity into a descent towards chaos. Perhaps itís something engrained into our DNA from our universal African heritage, where virtually every snake from the continent that birthed early humanity is fatally venomous. In childrenís stories snakes are usually depicted as villains so we start off early knowing snakes are bad guys. No matter the root cause itís something societies young or old or separated by oceans share Ė fear of the serpentine. This fear causes all snakes to be killed indiscriminately.

Maryland is home to 27 different species of snakes, only two of which are venomous. The Timber Rattlesnake and the Northern Copperhead, both of which can be found in our area, are the only venomous snakes that call Maryland home. Contrary to popular belief we do not have the Water Moccasin (aka Cottonmouth). There are a few simple ways to differentiate between a venomous or non-venomous snake here in Maryland (disclaimer Ė these methods do not hold true to all areas of the US or worldwide). First, you can go by the shape of the head. Venomous snakes, in our area, will have a triangular shaped head. Whereas, non-venomous snakes will have a cylindrical shaped head that runs almost seamlessly into the rest of the body. So, if you see a snake and its head looks like the shape of your thumb it is non-venomous. If its head looks like a spade, then tapers off into the body it could be venomous. Many snakes however are aware of this feature and will flatten their heads out to pose as venomous snakes in order to scare of potential predators. Another method of differentiating between the two is by looking at the shape of the iris. A non-venomous snake will have a rounded pupil, just like you or I. A venomous snake, however, will have an elliptical shaped eye. It will resemble an eye like a cat.

Timber Rattlesnake


By this time of year though snakes should be relatively inactive and if not already hibernating should be preparing for it. When temperatures fall below 50 degrees is their cue to nestle down. As the temperatures rise in the spring, or even warm fall or winter days they may reawaken for short periods. This helps conserve energy during the winter months when food sources may be scarce.

Just like people growing up, or out, that need newer bigger clothes snakes do too! Snakes will shed their skin anywhere from once a month to just a few times a year depending on many factors. The skin will begin to look ashy and eyes may look blue or ďcloudyĒ. Their eyes appear this way because they actually donít have eye lids and the scale covering the eye is beginning to pull away from the eye itself. After a few days of this the skin will begin to flake and resemble sunburn on a person. Snakes will rub their nose and mouth on a rough surface like a rock and the skin begins to peel backwards and inside out. Snakes will wiggle their way out until they shed that skin and don their new threads.

Snakes will kill prey in one of two ways, either through venom (if thatís an option) or by constriction. Once a constrictor snake locates prey it will strike and sink their fangs into dinner. Then they will begin to wrap their bodies around the meal and squeeze until their prey is no longer moving Ė itís like the worst hug youíve ever had. All snakes can swallow food that is actually bigger than their heads. A human jaw is attached to the skull so movement is fairly constrained. The jaw of a snake is joined to the skull by muscle, tendons, and ligaments. Because of this extra flexibility snakes can open their mouths to about a 150 degree angle. They can stretch their jaws open wider than the width of their bodies to swallow larger prey, but that doesnít mean youíre on the menu! Snakes generally want to be left alone. So if you happen to stumble upon one on a hike or even just in your yard they will want to go the other way. A person is way too big to be eaten by any of our native snakes so the only reason it is going to strike is if it feels threatened. So the best way to avoid being bitten is to just back away and give it plenty of space. If you are bitten you may want to seek medical attention whether it is venomous or not, because an infection could still occur from any bite.

Snakes are crucial to pest and rodent control for the environment and us. Most of what snakes eat is largely rodents. Rodents, like mice for example, are prone to spreading disease. Often they are carriers of ticks. In case you live under a rock: ticks can transmit a plethora of pathogens to people including (but not limited to) Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme disease. By indiscriminately killing snakes we are limiting their natural ability to help defend us from these illnesses. Mice donít need help from ticks to spread disease though. They are effective enough at it on their own. Through urine and fecal excrement mice are known to transmit salmonella, hanta virus, and of course plague. Bites or scratches from mice or mites that live on mice can cause rat-bite fever, typhus, and types of pox. We of course canít forget that mice are prolific breeders and chew incessantly, so it can be costly to repair or replace damaged wiring. The last thing I need is for a mouse to chew through my X-Box cables! Snakes are glad to lend a helping hand in protecting us from all this.

Aside from being hugely beneficial, reason alone not to kill them, it is also illegal to kill any snake in Maryland. They are protected by the Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act. This act states that that native snakes cannot be killed, possessed, bred, or sold without first acquiring the proper permit from the Department of Natural Resources, and a permit is required for the possession, breeding, and sale of native reptiles and amphibians in the state. When encountering snakes in the wild it is best to leave them alone. If they enter a home you can either attempt to remove the snake yourself or call animal control. You can discourage snakes from becoming a problem by rodent proofing homes, keeping lawns mowed short, making sure entry points (doors, cellars, windows) are sealed tightly.

Snakes are a remarkable and highly beneficial species. Remember snake bites in Maryland are rarely fatal, and if left alone snakes pose no threat to people. While there is a cultural and literary history that vilifies snakes, they are actually our friends. By valuing their assistance and knowing the difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes we can aspire to all get along much better!

Read other articles by Ranger Tim Iverson