I was recently gathering information together for a presentation on Florida snakes, highlighting those in the Florida panhandle. This particular reference listed 44 species found in the state. Of those, 29 were found throughout the state – north, central, and south Florida. Granted, there were subspecies for many which made for some distinction, but most of our snakes (66%) have few barriers and seem to have adapted to the different habitats and climates. And let’s face it, north and south Florida are two different worlds. That says a lot for the adaptability of these animals, they are pretty amazing.
Another trend was obvious. As you looked at those species which were only found in north Florida (here defined as the panhandle across to Jacksonville and south to Gainesville) and compared that to species only found south of Gainesville, we have a rich diversity of snakes in our part of the state. There were 12 species found in Florida that were only found in north Florida. South and central Florida only had 3 species that were unique to their part of the state. I saw this same trend with turtles. Of the 25 species of turtles found in Florida, 9 are unique to north Florida, 2 to central and south.
It has been known that the biodiversity of the panhandle is pretty amazing, and that the Apalachicola River basin in particular is a biodiversity hot spot. In the panhandle, several “worlds” collide and species, many using these river systems we find here, can easily reach this area. Some produce hybrid versions of two species. Some produce new species only found here. There may be more reptiles / acre in central and south Florida (I did not look at that) but the variety of these creatures in the north Florida is pretty amazing.
But what about those 12 species unique to our part of the state?
Four of them are small terrestrial snakes, rarely getting over a foot in length. These are easy prey and nonvenomous so are most often found beneath the leaf litter of the forest, or beneath the ground, coming out at night to feed on small creatures. We generally find them living in our flower beds and gardens. Most are ovoviviparous (producing an egg but instead of laying it in a nest, the female keeps it internally giving live birth), with only the Southeastern Crowned Snake laying eggs (oviparous).
- Smooth Earth Snake (Virginia valeria) This snake has records from Pensacola Bay area and areas south of the Georgia line.
- Rough Earth Snake (Virginia striatula) This snake has most records west of the Apalachicola River, but there are records from the Suwannee basin in north Florida.
- Red-bellied Snake (Storeia occipitomaculata) Common across north Florida.
- Southeastern Crowned Snake (Tantilla coronate) Found only in the panhandle.
Six of the unique panhandle 12 are nonvenomous water snakes. This would make sense in that we are host to several long alluvial rivers that reach deep into the southeast. The Escambia, Choctawhatchee, and Apalachicola Rivers are highways for all sorts of riverine species, and those closely associated with rivers, to cover hundreds of miles of territory with few barriers (except for the occasional dam). Though these water snakes are nonvenomous, they are known for the “bad attitudes” and high tendency to bite. They feed on a variety of prey and are often seen basking along the riverbank or in a tree branch hanging over the water where they can escape quickly if trouble comes, and they do escape quickly. Some are quite large (over 4 feet) and most are ovoviviparous. The northern watersnake is known to have a placenta-like structure to nourish its young (viviparous) and the rainbow snake lays eggs (oviparous).
- Queen Snake (Regina septemvittata) is only found in the western panhandle (west of the Apalachicola River). This snake likes cold, clear streams with rocky or sandy bottoms and plenty of crayfish.
- Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon) also is only found in the western panhandle. It can be found in almost any body of water and has been reported on barrier islands.
- Plain-bellied Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster) This snake also can be found in just about any water system.
- Diamondback Watersnake (Neroida rhombifer) has only been found in the Pensacola Bay area (Escambia and Santa Rosa counties). They can be found at times in large numbers around almost any body of water.
- Western Green Watersnake (Neroida cyclopion) only as records in one Florida county – Escambia. There they have been found in a variety of water habitats including man-made ones.
- Rainbow Snake (Farancia erytogramma) This snake likes to feed on American eels and is usually found in aquatic systems where this prey inhabits.
Another interesting trend with these unique panhandle watersnakes is the number only found in the western panhandle. Four of the six are only found there and two are only found in the Pensacola area. Some say, “Pensacola is not really Florida”, the snakes might agree.
The last two of the unique 12 are venomous snakes. Florida has six species of venomous snakes, but two are only found in the north Florida.
- Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix). Though quite common in Alabama and Georgia, most records in our state are from the Apalachicola River basin area. Many local panhandlers will tell you they see this snake everywhere, but they use this name for the cottonmouth also (a close cousin). The true copperhead is not common here. It seems to like rocky areas further north and is usually found with limestone rock areas that have been formed over time from river erosion.
- Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus). As with the copperhead, this is a common snake in Alabama and Georgia associated with rocky terrain and is not common in our state. Many ole timers will speak of the “canebrake”, which was found in the common cane of north Florida. There was discussion at one point of this being a separate species from the timber rattler, but the specialist now believe they are one in the same. So, the name canebrake is no longer used by herpetologists. Records of this snake in Florida are mostly east of the Apalachicola River and not common.
I think the diversity of wildlife in our part of the state is pretty special. Even if you do not like snakes, it is pretty neat that we have so many kinds not found south of the Suwannee River. Snake watching is not as popular as bird watching, for obvious reasons, but it is still neat that we have these guys here.