by Matt Moore
Happy World Snake Day! If there ever was a wild animal that was a candidate for needing advocates, undoubtedly the snake is that animal. Below are a some common questions and beliefs that I have heard from people regarding snakes native to the southeastern United States:
“What good are snakes?”
Snakes are essential components of functioning ecosystems. They eat other animals, and other animals eat them. If snakes were removed from the ecosystems that they evolved to inhabit, it would be tantamount to removing a huge supporting structural block from a giant Jenga puzzle. Removing an essential part from a complex system inevitably puts the entire remaining structure in jeopardy of collapsing.
In addition to the critical ecosystem role that they fill, snakes directly help people in many ways. They consume huge quantities of disease-carrying pests. These pests include rodents and the disease-carrying parasites that are on the rodents (especially ticks!). There are even some snakes that specialize in ridding your gardens from slugs and snails.
“Are snakes dangerous?”
A relatively small number of snake species native to Georgia—only six species are venomous out of a total of 46—are potentially dangerous, but only if they feel their life is threatened. It is important to realize that no one ever gets bitten while consciously leaving a snake alone; however, lots of people get bitten while NOT leaving them alone (i.e. trying to kill or handle them). Accidental bites do sometimes occur inadvertently (i.e. stepping on or placing a hand on an unseen snake), but these accidents are statistically rare.
“Poisonous snake bites can kill you, but non-poisonous snake bites will just make you sick.”
Bites from nonvenomous snakes native to the United States are not capable of causing injuries of any medical significance to people or pets. I have been bitten at least a few hundred times over the last 20 years by native nonvenomous snakes of a variety of species—every one of those bites was due to me catching or handling them— and have never gotten sick from a bite from any of them. Nonvenomous snakes here in the Southeast are only capable of bites that are of less than a brier scratch in significance.
“But snakes chase people, especially those aggressive ‘water moccasins!’”
A snake has nothing to gain by chasing something much larger than itself that it perceives to be a predator (i.e. humans). What does occasionally happen though is attempted escape behavior, which is mistakenly perceived by people as chasing. A snake that feels threatened by will often attempt to flee in the direction where they feel there is a safe refuge. If a person startles a snake and they happen to be in between it and the hole in the ground or the pile of sticks that it wants to escape into, then the snake may crawl towards the person in order to get to that refuge. I have actually had snakes crawl right over my feet on numerous occasions in their attempts to reach safe refuge. The problem is that very few people wait around to see why the snake is coming towards them. They too often just kill the snake that was crawling in their direction and tell people they were “chased by an aggressive snake.”
“What should I do if I find a snake in my yard?”
Leave it alone, and let it go about its business of helping keep our environment healthy. If you have snakes in your yard, it is a sign that you are in an area that is still capable of supporting wildlife. This is a good thing! Also, it is a good idea to learn what the few venomous species that are native to your area look like.
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources has two great online field guides called Is it a Water Moccasin? and A Guide to Venomous Snakes of Georgia at georgiawildlife.com/GeorgiaSnakes.
Although there are six total species of native venomous snakes that can potentially be found in Georgia, there is only a relatively small area within the Coastal Plain where all six of those species co-occur. The majority of Georgia’s counties only have three or four species of venomous snakes.
It is illegal to kill a nonvenomous snake in the state of Georgia. Misidentification of a harmless snake is not an excuse. Although it is currently legal to kill venomous snakes in the state of Georgia, it is very seldom necessary and doing so puts the person at great risk of being bitten.
A triangular-shaped head, thick body and/or short tail are not traits exclusive to venomous snakes and therefore are not reliable ways of differentiating between venomous and nonvenomous species. A quality field guide is a much better way of learning to properly identify snakes.
World Snake Day is a perfect day to start looking at snakes in a more positive light. Let’s all give snakes the respect and appreciation that they deserve, not just on World Snake Day, but rather on every day of the year. Please remember: the only good snake is a live snake!