With great interest I read this week that the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation in central Florida has begun a project to reintroduce the federally listed Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon corais cooper) to the Florida Panhandle; where there have been no verified sightings since the late ‘90s.
The eastern indigo snake is the largest nonvenomous snake in the southeast.
Photo: Molly O’Connor
The Eastern Indigo is the largest nonvenomous snake in the southeast, reaching lengths of eight feet. They prefer sandhills and dry upland areas such longleaf pine forest. The males can patrol areas as large as 3000 acres and are associated with gopher tortoise burrows. Being large snakes they feed on a variety of animals including venomous rattlesnakes. The loss of habitat, along with the decline of gopher tortoises, triggered the decline of this species, and they are rarely seen in the western portions of the range. Indigos are most often found in southern Georgia and peninsular Florida, but sightings at these locations are not common.
The Orianne Center is currently raising young Indigos for release in the Nature Conservancy’s Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravine Preserve. They are planning to release 20 snakes there and an additional 30 in the Conecuh National Forest to support a similar project that Auburn has been doing for the last four years. These snakes are pretty easy to identify. They are iridescent black, usually having an oily sheen appearance to them, with orange coloration on the lower jaw. Oh… and they are big… 8 feet. We are hoping panhandle residents will not be alarmed if they encounter one and allow them to move along. During the last four years of Auburn’s project they have lost quite a few to cars and one visited a youth camp in the National Forest. Alarmed at first the residents soon learned that they were feeding on copperheads in the tool shed and have since loved having these snakes around.
You can read more about this project and the Orianne Center at:
Most people, including myself, have been taught this. Snakes are in an unusual situation of trying to kill prey with no hands or claws. A few can inject venom, others either swallow it whole (such as an egg) or the coil around their prey “suffocating” it – or so we thought. It has been my understanding that snakes did not actually “squeeze” the air out of their prey but rather coil tighter each time the prey exhales, tighten the coils until the prey is dead due to lack of oxygen. A recent paper published in the Journal of Experimental Biology is challenging this.
The issue stems around the fact of how fast the prey die. Some biologists felt death of the prey occurred to quickly for suffocation; thus began the hunt of what was the cause. Dr. Scott Boback, of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, looked at the possibility of cardiac arrest. He and his team developed a method of monitoring cardiac and circulatory data in rats before, during, and after an attack by a constricting snake; in this study – the common boa. Using pre-attack vitals as baseline the team compared numbers during the attack and after death; which occurred, on average, 6.5 minutes. What they found was interesting.
A constricting gray rat snake coils around a bird.
Photo: Nick Baldwin
Within six seconds of being bitten and having the body coil the peripheral arterial blood pressure dropped by half and the central venous blood pressure increased six fold. After 60 seconds the heart rate had dropped by 50%. After death, again mean time was 6.5 minutes, the peripheral arterial blood pressure and heart rate had dropped significantly and 91% of the rats (n=11) had evidence of a dysfunctional cardiac system. Blood samples were taken from the deceased rats. These samples indicated that the potassium levels had increased 2-fold and the pH and dropped from 7.4 to 7.0. Some suggest that the increased potassium levels may have been toxic enough to kill the rat.
Though this is only one study the results do suggest that the cause of death may be due to cardiac arrest and not the lack of oxygen. For many of us it is a point of “who cares… the rat is dead”. But for those of us in science education (teachers, park rangers, etc.) the results are of interest. We are being asked to explain how the scientific process works to students, visitors to parks, and to the general public. This is a good example of how science works. The process of experimentation finding results that do not always fit the “norm” of general understanding yet they do occur, generating more questions and more experimentation. Though this one study does not mean that suffocation is incorrect it does suggest there is another explanation and this, at least at this stage, is how we should explain such things to the public.
To view a copy of the article and abstract for this paper visit:
This rhyme has been around for decades suggesting that rain increases during the month of April. In recent years the amount we have received has caused local flooding, and most in Escambia County will remember receiving 26” of rain in 24 hours! These heavy localized rain events have certainly removed pollen from the air but they have also dropped blossoms from plants, dropped baby birds from their nests, forced fire ants to surface and move to high ground, and then there are the snakes.
Gray rat snake crossing a driveway.
Photo: Carrie Stevenson
It was actually these flooding events that developed the need for the snake program I am currently doing for Extension. Highly saturated ground forced the snakes to search for high ground. Patios, driveways, garages, and occasionally bathrooms, became popular places for the reptiles to dry off. In the last week or two I have had calls about snakes in buses, on bushes, and in the laundry room, and I actually met someone at a restaurant to identify what kind of snake they found in their home.
For many, it does not matter what kind of snake it is, they are all terrifying and dangerous and unwanted in the yard. For others, nonvenomous snakes are not welcome but they are not life threatening. Venomous snakes on the other hand… well that’s a different story. The problem here is that many do not know how to tell a moccasin from one of the water snakes. When you are not sure, you are more nervous than you may need to be. Venomous snakes truly bother people psychologically.
There are six venomous snakes in Florida and all six have been found in the panhandle. Five of these are members of the “pit viper” group and can be identified by their triangular shaped head, elliptical pupil in the eye, and a heat sensitive pit in front of their nostril. Most venomous snakes also have a dark colored “mask” (stripe) across their face. It is the mask character that I look for first, because many nonvenomous snakes flare their head when threatened and you have to get close to check the shape of their pupil. The pit vipers include the Copperhead, Moccasin, Pygmy Rattlesnake, Timber Rattlesnake, and the Eastern Diamondback. The non-pit viper is the Eastern Coral Snake. Each of these snakes should be considered dangerous and handled only by a professional if in your home. Remember, 95% of the people bitten by venomous snakes are either trying to catch or kill them.
The head of a pit viper. Notice the additional pit, elliptical pupil, and “mask” across the eye. Photo: Molly O’Connor
There are several methods you can use to reduce the chance of an encounter in your yard or home, and Extension would be glad to help with these. But remember, you live in Florida and snakes are part of the landscape here. Also remember there are four snakes in the panhandle that FWC staff are tracking: the Florida Pine Snake, Southern Hognose, Eastern Indigo, and the Eastern Diamondback. If you do encounter any of these visit http://myfwc.com/conservation/you-conserve/wildlife/snakes/ to log a report and include a photograph and GPS location if possible. If you have any questions about snake encounters contact your county Extension office.
In the last few weeks we have received an increase in calls about snake encounters. Most of these have dealt with small juvenile snakes folks are finding on their property, or in their homes, but we are also hearing about large ones.
Corn snakes are excellent climbers and consume a lot of rodents.
Photo: Nick Baldwin
Most of the 56 species of snakes found in the southeastern United States breed in spring or summer and this time of year people begin to encounter the juveniles from this year’s brood. The Southern Black Racer has been the most common encounter we have heard from and this is because the young do not resemble the adults at all. But panhandle residents should be aware that there are several species who do breed in the fall and the adults will be seeking each other this time of year increasing your chances of an encounter. Of those that do breed in the fall 16 can be found in the panhandle.
Three of these species are small terrestrial snakes. They would include the Florida Red-Bellied Snake, the Southeastern Crown Snake, and the Southern Ringneck Snake. These are typically less than 15” in length and move at night. They frequent the underbrush where they hunt for insects and small amphibians and are no threat to people or pets.
There are 4 species of local mid-sized snakes that are fall breeders. The Rough Green Snake, Eastern Garter Snake, Eastern Hognose Snake, and the Scarlet Snake are all very common and pose no threat to people and pets. The Green Snake and Scarlet Snake can be found in around trees this time of year and the Eastern Hognose is often confused with the Pygmy Rattlesnake. Hognose differ in that they have round pupils and an upturned nose; of course they lack a rattle as well. Scarlet snake is confused with the Eastern Coral Snake but can be distinguished but their red head (instead of black).
Gray rat snake crossing a driveway.
Photo: Carrie Stevenson
Of the 8 species of large terrestrial snakes only 2 are known to breed in the fall locally. These would be the Gray Rat Snake and the Eastern Indigo. Both of these snakes can easily reach 6 ft. in length and tend to terrify people but in reality these are both rather docile and consume a significant number of disease carrying rodents; Indigos will actually feed on venomous snakes helping to control their populations. The Eastern Indigo Snake has not been seen in the Florida panhandle since the late 1990’s and is current listed as an endangered species in our state.
We have 15 species of non-venomous water snakes in the southeastern U.S. but only 1 local is a fall breeder; the Queen Snake. This snake is found in all panhandle counties except those along the coastal portion of the Apalachicola River; Bay, Gulf, Franklin, and Wakulla counties. As a group water snakes tend to be aggressive, and some can be quite large, but they pose no danger to people and pets.
Finally the ones most are concerned with. There are 6 species of venomous snakes in the southeastern U.S. All 6 can be found in the panhandle and all 6 breed in the fall. This means that males will be out seeking females and encounters could occur. Copperheads are rare in Florida but are most often encountered along the region of the Apalachicola River. These snakes tend to be cryptic and move very little. They will release a musk to warn that you are getting to close. There are 2 subspecies of Cottonmouths in the panhandle. The Florida Cottonmouth is found in the coastal counties of the Apalachicola River (mentioned) and the Eastern Cottonmouth is found elsewhere. They prefer water but will move upland during the cooler months. They have a reputation of being aggressive but are actually no more aggressive than other snakes. Like most, they are trying to avoid you. The Eastern Coral Snake is the only neurotoxic snake in our state. This animal moves through the underbrush seeking prey, including other snakes. They are rarely encountered but are quite common.
The familiar face of an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake.
Photo: Nick Baldwin
Then there are the most feared of the group – the rattlesnakes. The Timber Rattlesnake is actually not that common in Florida but many travel to Georgia and Alabama during deer season where they are common. The Eastern Diamondback and the Dusky Pigmy Rattlesnakes are common here. All three species breed in the fall and could be encountered this time of year.
Many of our local snakes will den during these cooler months and some in groups. All should be aware of this when exploring stump holes and such while visiting the outdoors. Also know that on warm sunny days they may venture out to bask in the sun; another chance to encounter them.
For more information on how to handle an encounter or a snake bite visit the Escambia County Extension website ( http://escambia.ifas.ufl.edu ) or contact Rick O’Connor at 850-475-5230; firstname.lastname@example.org .
Warming temperatures have awaken snakes that have been dormant during the winter months. As a result, they are more active during abnormal times of the day and move more than they typically do while searching for food. This also means more people are likely to encounter with them.
Even though most snakes are nonvenomous, many people fear them and will go out of their way to kill them if an encounter occurs. Interestingly, 95% of the humans bitten by snakes are either trying to catch or kill them; suggesting the best thing to do when encountering a snake is to leave it be.
Brush piles such as these attract snakes. These should be kept away from where family members play. They can actually be used to move snakes away from areas where you do not want them. Photo: Rick O’Connor
How can you reduce your chance of encountering a snake?
Most snakes found around the house are either seeking suitable habitat or food. Anything that could attract rodents or amphibians could attract snakes. Overgrown landscaping, trash or brush piles, bird feeders, water features, garbage, and greenhouses are examples of snake attractants many people have. To reduce your chance of an encounter you should move such items away from the house, and for those that you cannot – keep as clean as you can. Snakes do not like to cross short grass, so a frequently mowed yard helps as well. If you live near good snake habitat you may have to invest in silt fencing, or a similar product, that has a slick surface which is difficult to crawl over. If placing silt fencing along the boundary you should have the wooden stakes on your side of the fence; snakes can climb these.
What do I do if I encounter a snake?
The first thing you should understand is that, like most animals, there is a zone around snakes in which they feel threatened. When they detect you, they react as if you are the predator. If you are outside their zone they will remain motionless. If you cross the line, they will try to move away to avoid being attacked. If they have nowhere to move they will turn and defend themselves; this could mean a strike. If a snake is encountered, try not to move towards the snake and if you are already close try to give the animal an escape route. Many will want to know if the snake is venomous. Of the 46 species and subspecies of snakes in our state only six are venomous. Of these, five belong to the family Viperidae and can be identified by the elliptical eye pupil, the triangle-shaped head, and the second set of nostrils (pits) on the snout. These include the three species of rattlesnakes, the moccasin, and the copperhead. One venomous snake, the Eastern Coral Snake, does not have the appearance of a viper. The coloration of this snake is red, yellow and black with red touching yellow. They also differ from their kingsnake mimics by having a black head.
This copperhead shows the elliptical pupil and pit commonly found in Florida’s pit vipers. Photo: Molly O’Connor
If the unfortunate happens and a snake bites you, the first thing you should do is not get bit twice. Many people react by trying to kill the snake and multiple bites can happen. Nonvenomous bites should be washed with warm water and soap. If the bite is from a viper, remember–do not get bit twice. With venomous snakes many feel the hospital will need the snake for identification of the proper antivenin. This is not necessary and, again, could lead to multiple bites. Viper bites can be extremely painful and, if venom is injected, can induce severe swelling. You should remove rings, watches, or any garment that may impede swelling. Many of the traditional first aid treatments for snake bites can cause more harm than the bite. It is recommended that you hold the bite below heart level if possible and calmly go to the hospital. Coral snake bites are often undetected but are very serious and medical attention is needed.
As we approach spring, locals should be aware that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is trying to track three species of local snakes; the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, the Florida Pine Snake, and the Southern Hognose. If you think you see one of these FWC would like to know. A GPS mark and photograph is needed. You can find the log site at FWC’s website: www.MyFWC.com. For more information on snakes, contact your local County Extension Office.
This nonvenmous gray rat snake has a head shaped more like your thumb and the round pupil. Photo: Molly O’Connor