Since last year we have been logging reports from area residents of snake encounters. The purpose of this is education. We are learning which species people most frequently encounter, what time of year different species are encountered, and where they are being encountered. Here is the 2023 3rd Quarter Update.
To date – we have encountered 24 of the 40 species (60%) known to inhabit the Pensacola Bay area.
The most frequently encountered snake has been the cottonmouth. This species has been encountered 45 times. It has been seen every month this year and at the following locations – north and south Escambia County as well as north and south Santa Rosa County.
The second most frequently encountered snake has been the southern black racer. This species has been encountered 35 times and every month except January. Locations reporting this snake included – north and south Santa Rosa County, as well as north and south Escambia County.
The third most frequently encountered snake has been the banded water snake. This species has been encountered 26 times and 25 of those were last winter and spring – the snake was only reported once during the summer and has not been reported this fall. It was encountered from north and south Santa Rosa County as well as north and south Escambia County.
Reports by snake groups…
Small Snakes – 4 of the 7 species (57%) have been encountered. The most common have been the Florida red-bellied snake and the Southern ring-necked snake. These have been reported from north Escambia County, south Escambia County, north Santa Rosa County, Pensacola, Milton, and UWF.
Mid-Sized Snakes – 5 of the 8 species (63%) have been encountered. The most common has been the Eastern garter snake. It has been reported from north Santa Rosa County, south Escambia County, south Santa Rosa County, and north Escambia County.
Large Snakes – 6 of the 7 species (86%) have been encountered. The most common has been the Southern black racer followed by its close cousin the Eastern coachwhip. The only large snake not encountered so far this year has been the Eastern indigo snake, which is a threatened species and encounters in the wild have not been documented since the late 1990s. Coachwhip encounters have occurred from south Escambia County, north Santa Rosa County, and south Santa Rosa County.
Water Snakes – 4 of the 13 species (31%) have been encountered. The most common has been the Banded water snake followed by the Brown water snake. The Brown water snake has been encountered on the Choctawhatchee River, Perdido River, Blackwater River, Escambia River, and south Escambia County.
Venomous Snakes – all 4 venomous species in our area have been encountered (100%). The most common has been the Cottonmouth followed by the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake. The diamondback has been encountered from south Escambia County, north Santa Rosa County, and south Santa Rosa County. With high interest in venomous snakes, the other encounters include the Dusky pygmy rattlesnake, which has been encountered from south Escambia County, and north Santa Rosa County. The Eastern coral snake has only been encountered once and that was from south Santa Rosa County.
Rare Encounters – those that have only been encountered once this year…
Rough earth snake was encountered during September from south Escambia County.
Rough green snake was encountered during August from north Santa Rosa.
Eastern hognose was encountered during July from north Santa Rosa.
Eastern kingsnake was encountered in February from north Escambia County.
Eastern coral snake was encountered in June from south Santa Rosa County.
Florida pine snake was encountered during the winter and spring from north Santa Rosa County.
This sounds similar to the idea that has been discussed about protecting some species of sharks. Do we really want to do this?
It reminds me of an interesting situation that was created when they passed the Marine Mammal Act in 1972. The law seemed simple enough. Citizens wanted to protect our marine mammals – such as whales, dolphins, and manatees. But it also included the polar bear, a dangerous animal. If you lived in a community where polar bears existed, and had one enter town that could possibly be a threat to the citizens, could you shoot it? A colleague of mine had a brother who worked with Alaska Fish and Game. We asked this question. He told us that – yes, if you were threatened by one you would shoot it. But you would have to defend yourself in court that it was defense and that you were not actively hunting the bear.
It seems odd to some that we would even consider protecting a creature that is potentially lethal to humans. But, as has been said so many times before, though they are potentially lethal, they rarely are. Rattlesnakes are different from polar bears in they do not seek us out when they are near us. They actually try to avoid us. In the United States only 5-6 people die each year from venomous snakes bites1. Comparing this to the number who die in car accidents, gun violence, or opioid overdose, there is no comparison. So, though the potential is there it is a very low risk. We can also note that many who bitten by snakes were trying to catch or kill the animal.
On the other side of the coin, these animals do us a service by controlling disease caring rodents. When predators select and kill prey, they tend to select one that is easy to catch and kill. Most predators not only have teeth, but hands and claws to grab the prey. The only thing a snake can do when it sees a rodent is grab it with its mouth and hold on. Many snakes do this, almost 90% of those in Florida do. But a few have venom. This can be injected into the prey so that the snake does not have to hold on, making the process much easier. It makes sense for snakes to have venom and is surprising that more do not. However, this venom was meant for killing prey, not for defending against predators. And rattlesnakes, like other venomous snakes, do not want to use it on humans if they can avoid it. As my professor told us in college venom is “expensive”. It is a complex cocktail of proteins they must produce, and they do not want to waste it.
So, though it seems strange that a state or federal agency would even consider protecting dangerous animals, they do. These creatures play a vital role in the ecology of local systems and if their numbers decline that role is not filled and the spin-off results could have larger negative impacts on us.
The U.S. Fish Wildlife Service has been petitioned to list the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus). This animal inhabits several habitats within the coastal southeastern United States. The National Council of Air & Stream Improvement, Inc. – a scientific research organization that provides technical information on environmental issues concerning forestry and forestry products – is conducting a survey to better understand its distribution and habitat preferences. They are asking people to report sightings of this snake. You can do so by visiting the following link. Please take photos.
Over the last few weeks, I have received several questions and comments on, and about, the eastern indigo snake. I was curious as to why so many in such a short time – maybe a public television program on them or something? Not sure, but it is an amazing snake and I like to talk about them. So, let’s talk about them.
The eastern indigo (Drymarchon couperi) is the longest native snake found in North America. It reaches a length of 9 feet and can weigh up to 11 pounds. It is beautiful. A shiny, iridescent black, with smooth scales that give a glossy look and emits beautiful patterns of color when the sun reflects off it that resembles the sheen you see when gasoline is spilled on water. This beautiful coloration, being nonvenomous, and docile attitude made it very popular as a pet – except that it can reach up to 9 feet long.
Their habitat of choice are high sandy ridges along the extreme southeastern United States. These ridges are covered with longleaf pine or turkey oak trees and provide enough space, hibernacula, and food to support them. Though a point of origin has not been published, the historic range suggest a possible origin in Florida. It has been suggested that there were once two distinct genetic forms of indigo snakes, one existing along the Gulf coast and another along the Atlantic coast. It appears there was a climatic barrier separating the two which no longer exist and today it is believed that there is only one species in existence now. The historic range of the snake included extreme southwest Mississippi, extreme coastal Alabama, extreme coastal Georgia, and all of Florida. The most recent range shows the snake exists across the entire Florida peninsula and some portions of southern Georgia but does not include all of Georgia’s historic range. It may be extirpated in the Florida panhandle, with a few rare reports, and believed to be completely extirpated in southern Alabama and Mississippi.
Indigos live mainly solitary lives with large home ranges that can extend hundreds to thousands of acres. Males have larger home ranges than females. Indigo snakes are diurnal and forage for their food rather than sit and ambush as many snakes do. Their diet consists of a variety of species, but diet studies show that rodents, frogs, small turtles, and snakes make up the bulk of their prey. It also includes species of venomous snakes like the eastern diamondback and copperhead.
Indigo snakes move between upland and lowland habitats during the warmer months. During the winter months they are closely associated with gopher tortoise burrows where the temperature can range between 45F and 88F and average 54F. They often emerge on sunny winter days to bask but do not move too far from the burrow. It is not known how long indigos live in the wild, but they have lived as long as 25 years in captivity.
During the 20th century the population of these snakes began to decrease. As is often the case, the loss of suitable habitat was a big problem. Longleaf pine forests where no prescribed burning was occurring as frequently as they had historically, the understory altered the habitat to a point where indigos could not support themselves. This also led to the decrease in gopher tortoise populations along with their burrows in which the indigos needed. The harvest of gopher tortoises as food and pets also decreased the number of burrows and thus the number of snakes. Often people would pour gasoline into the burrows to get the tortoises out and this led to the death of many indigos. And then there was the collection of the snakes for the pet trade. Another problem was that they are snakes. An eight-foot snake crawling around had little chance of escaping the wrath of scared humans.
Today they are completely missing in Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida panhandle. They are listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, and there are attempts to restore their populations in Alabama and the eastern Florida panhandle. Though there are occasional reports from the panhandle, there have been no verified records of the eastern indigo in the western panhandle since 1999. We would like to see this animal return but to do so, the habitat will need to be restored, and head starting (releasing captive bred snakes) may be needed as well. Though they are large, they are harmless to humans and actually provide a needed service by controlling the populations of venomous snakes in our region. I for one would love to see them return.
As many of you know, I do programs with snakes and receive a lot of calls about them. But in recent weeks I have seen an increase in the number of calls and the number of encounters inside of homes. Though most of the home invasions have been in the garage, one found a gray rat snake in the cushions of her couch. In addition to the home invasion calls I have also seen an increase with venomous snake encounters and thought I would write about the possible reasons for this increase.
Of the 48 species of snakes found in Florida, 40 are found in the western panhandle – where I live. I decided to try a snake watch where they public would report what snakes they were seeing and what time of year. As of September 15, there have been 54 reports. 32 of those (59%) were reported in April and May. There are two explanations for this. One, it is the beginning of spring and the warm temperatures have them moving from their wintering habitats. Two, it is spring, and this is breeding season. When breeding hormones are flowing snakes are bolder during their movements and may expose themselves more often in the search for mates. It is also true that they have been in brumation during the winter when they feed very little and are need of food. This could make them move more than normal as well.
I divided the species into subgroups mimicking publications by Dr. Whit Gibbons. Based on this, in the western panhandle there are 7 species of small snakes, 8 mid-sized, 7 large snakes, 13 water snakes, 4 venomous snakes, and 1 non-native species. The encounters by these subgroups so far include 1 of the 7 small snakes (14%), 3 of the 8 mid-sized snakes (38%), 5 of the 7 large snakes (71%), 5 of the 13 water snakes (38%), 3 of the 4 venomous snakes (75%), and the non-native Brahminy Blind Snake has not been reported yet.
The high percentage of large snake encounters makes sense because they are – well… large and easier to see. The explanation for the high percentage of venomous snake encounters is numbers. There are only four species to be found in the western panhandle. It does not take many encounters to get a high percentage.
Water snakes will be encountered only if folks are visiting local waterways and are relatively still while there. My guess is that most encounters were from basking snakes or ones swimming across a body of water in which the observer happened to be there. Most snakes will freeze and hide when they since we are near, and most are well camouflaged. There are plenty of people who visit local waterways where these snakes exist. The lower percentage of encounters with this subgroup does not mean they are not there; they were just not seen. Many reports come from fishermen who are relatively still in their boats while fishing. If you move, they stop. If you stop, they move – and more will be seen.
If you look at the encounters by species, we have found 17 of the 40 western panhandle species have been encountered so far (43%). There has been a total of 54 encounters. Most, 13 (24%) have been with the southern black racer. This is a common large snake that does very well in human habitats like our neighborhoods and parks. It is active during the day and is fast enough to avoid trouble so may be more willing to expose themselves than other species. They also have a preference for more open spaces where they can be seen.
The second most frequently encountered snake so far this year has been both the eastern ribbon snake and the cottonmouth – 9 reports of both. The two account for 33% of all reports. Eastern ribbon snakes are fans of water and are often found along the edge of water bodies. With the increase in rainfall, many areas are wetter and encounters with this mid-sized snake have increased. They are most active during the day, especially on warm days, and this may also play a role in why they have been seen more often than other species.
The cottonmouth is an interesting story. Of the four species of venomous snakes, three of these have been encountered, and their encounters make up 15 of the 54 so far this year (28%). Of the 15 encounters, 9 were cottonmouths (60% of the venomous snake encounters, and 17% of all snake encounters reported). It is a commonly encountered snake. Seeing the cottonmouth as one of the top three encountered snakes in our area makes some people nervous. Like some of the other commonly encountered snakes, they like water – and there is plenty of it in the western panhandle. They prefer quiet water locations such as ponds, swamps, and lakes. They frequent water holes on golf courses and retention ponds in neighborhoods. It is also obvious that new developments are going up closer to wetlands than they did in the past – which would increase your chances of encounters. I recently completed a three-year survey of a gated community on Perdido Key where encounter rates were high. The interesting thing here is that barrier islands have little freshwater and are not classic cottonmouth habitat. But for decades there have seen an increase in encounters, which prompted many studies on how they are surviving. There are certainly natural freshwater systems on both Perdido Key and Santa Rosa Islands, but we have also created such habitats as well. It is possible that the cottonmouth is better suited to exploit these island habitats than other species of water snakes and thus are encountered more often. I plan to do more surveys for this, and other water snakes, on our islands beginning in 2023 and will let everyone know what we discover.
So, what has triggered the recent increase in home invasion and other snake encounters?
A week or two ago we experienced massive amounts of rainfall when a frontal system passed over. You might remember the flooding that occurred in Dallas TX and Jackson MS. That same system passed over us and generated a lot of rainfall. Like many animals, when water levels are up, they seek higher ground. During such events snakes are often reported in garages, porches, even in walls of homes. People were telling me they were finding them in the bathrooms, hallways, and even in the cushions of their couches. All of those reported were non-venomous, but cottonmouths are often encountered during these flooding events as well.
Other encounters can be explained as they were in the spring – the weather is changing. You may have noticed the recent decrease in humidity as a front passed over. It is not cold yet, but the lower humidity is signaling the oncoming fall season – and the snakes’ sense this as well. 15 of the 40 species (38%) in the western panhandle have a fall breeding season in addition to the spring one. All of the pit vipers breed in the fall and the rattlesnakes prefer fall breeding to spring. With the oncoming of the fall, males will be out seeking females. And as we mentioned earlier, hormones will force you to move more in the open than they may typically do.
We will continue our snake watch for the rest of the year and will give an update early in 2023. If you do see a snake, please let us know which species and which month you encountered it. If you have questions about snake encounters and snake safety, do not hesitate to contact your county extension office.
Most of you – okay… ALL of you who read this column like the outdoors. Some like it for its peace and beauty, some for recreation opportunities, some like it for both. One activity I have found many enjoy is seeking creatures from a list. A sort of “bingo” approach to observing nature.
For many, they have a list of birds they would like to see. I have a colleague who wants to see each species of turtle in the U.S. in the wild. I heard of a group that was trying to photograph a selected list of turtles in the wild. I have a list of animals I hope to see while camping out west. It is a lot of fun to do. Many like the challenge.
I am not sure how it started, but earlier this year I began asking people to report snakes they see while out and about. Again, it started as just a list but then I decided to see how many of the 40 species and subspecies that call the Pensacola Bay area home we might find in one year. The challenge was on.
I broke the types of snakes into size categories following a guide published by Dr. Whit Gibbons and others. In our area there are seven species of small snakes, eight species of mid-sized snakes, seven species of large snakes, 13 species of water snakes, and four species of venomous snakes. There is one species of introduced snakes. Here are the results so far –
# Known species
Snake sightings in the Pensacola Bay Area (Jan-Jul 2022)
Seeing no small snakes makes sense… they are small and are mostly nocturnal.
Seeing most of the large snakes also makes sense… they are large and easier to notice.
Not seeing a lot of water snakes also makes sense. First, you have to spend a lot of time on our rivers and lakes to see them. Second, they are not easy to tell apart. That said, we have seen almost half.
It is interesting we have seen three of the four venomous snakes. Cottonmouth encounters are quite common, but the two species of rattlesnakes (pygmy and eastern diamondback) are not. But… the one that is missing… is the eastern coral snake.
Seeing a coral snake is actually a rare thing. I bet if you asked 100 people “how many of you have seen a live coral snake in the wild?” very few would reply yes.
Why so few encounters?
Is this species declining?
I personally have only seen only two corals snakes in the wild in my life. Three if you count the time my dad said I was playing with one in the first grade – but I do not remember that. The two I saw were both at the Naval Live Oaks section of the Gulf Islands National Seashore near Gulf Breeze.
The first was when I was a Boy Scout camping there in the late 1960s. We came across the snake coiled around the base of a palmetto. We all knew what it was and did not get close, but all enjoyed watching it thinking how lucky we were. I remember how docile it was. No angry rattle. No nasty gaping white mouth. Just chillaxing and enjoying the day. Being boys, we had to see it move. We got a stick and nudge it. It just looked at us as if to say – “What are you doing? You know who I am? You know what I can do?” We left it alone, but it was an amazing experience.
The second encounter was also at Naval Live Oaks, but many years later. I was conducting a box turtle survey within the Seashore and following a transect I had set to search. I was moving slowly, looking hard, when I heard to some rustling in the leaves to my right. The type of rustling you hear when an armadillo is moving nearby. But there was no armadillo. I continued to hear the noise and searched for a small mammal when I realized it was coming from beneath the leaf litter. Using my hiking stick, I moved the leaves to find a large coral snake crawling. You can imagine my excitement. At this stage of my life, I had been a science educator for a long time and had taught about these snakes a lot, but only had seen one in my life.
The eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius fulvius) is found across much of the coastal southeastern United States. There are records in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. They do seem to be more common in Florida than other states. They can easily be recognized by their classic red/black/yellow banded colors. There are mimics who have this coloration but the old song “red on yellow will kill a fellow” does work with this subspecies. Also, the mimics in our region have red heads, where the eastern coral has a black one. The literature states they prefer dry sandhill environments but can be found in hardwoods (which where I found them) and wet flatwoods dominated by pines.
The best chance to find one is in the spring and fall and most often found during or after rain. As I found, they spend most of their time beneath the ground or under leaf litter but when they do move above ground, they seem to prefer mornings.
Their food of choice are lizards and snakes. They will grab their prey and chew releasing the venom. They do have their predators. Kingsnakes, notorious for eating other snakes, are one, but indigo snakes, and black racers will also consume them. When they encounter a potential predator their first response is usually to try and hide underground. If this does not work, they will flatten their bodies hiding their heads beneath a coil and sometimes raise their tails to appear as the head end. As I observed, they are not terribly aggressive snakes but anyone seeing one should keep their distance.
Coral snakes have a neurotoxin, different than the hemotoxins find in the pit vipers. They are more closely related to sea snakes and cobras, who have a similar toxin. Deaths from this snake are rare, but encounters and bites are also rare.
Do I encourage you seek out this snake for our project?
No… The bite from this animal can be very serious. Though the majority of venomous snake bites come from copperheads, and most fatalities from western diamondback rattlesnake, this is NOT a snake to mess with. If you do see one, let us know and consider yourself lucky. But keep a safe distance. It is amazing to see one.
When hiking around the Florida panhandle in midwinter, most snakes are undercover trying to avoid the chilly cold fronts that pass through and can drop temperatures close to freezing. So, the probability of seeing one is low. But one species, the eastern garter snake, seems to tolerate cold temperatures better. They are often found basking on open areas this time of year and are quite common not only on the trails, but in our home landscapes as well.
But not to fear…
This is one of the 40 non-venomous snakes found in our state. Many are afraid of these animals because… well… because they are snakes, and that is all that need to be said – at least for some. But for others, they understand the benefits snakes provide to the ecosystem (controlling unwanted pests) and to see one is kind of exciting. Being non-venomous does not mean they will not bite, they certainly will, but no venom is associated with it. Larger non-venomous snake bites can be painful, but not deadly. Garter snake bites barely hurt.
The eastern garter snake is one of the few who are active during the cold months. Photo: Molly O’Connor
Recently my wife and I were on a hike with our grandsons in central Escambia County. At one point my oldest grandson said “snake”. I am not sure how he saw it actually. It was a young eastern garter snake basking in the middle of the trail. These snakes have colorful patterns of stripes and squares that help them blend in well. We knew right away what it was and were all excited to see it. Knowing it was harmless we allowed him to pick it up but warned him that it would most likely bite. Garter snakes tend to flee when first alarmed but will turn and bite if cornered. They will sometimes rattle their tails in the leaves giving off a “buzzing” sound and can release a musk to warn the predator. But this young snake did neither, no rattling, no musk. However, it did try to bite him. After a few photos and the amazement of seeing one, we released it in a sunny spot to continue its midday basking. It was pretty cool.
Many reading this have seen many garter snakes and know this as a harmless animal. They are found all across the state of Florida and much of the eastern United States. There is a subspecies, the blue-striped garter snake, that can be found in the Big Bend area of Florida, but the differences are minor.
Eastern garter snakes are smaller snakes, usually reaching two feet but there is a four-footer on record. They like to inhabit areas that are near water where their favorite prey (amphibians) can be found. Preferring open grassy areas, they can be found in wooded habitats and are often found in lawns and gardens of local neighborhoods.
They hunt primarily during the daylight hours for amphibians but will also eat fish and earthworms. Some have been found to feed on snails, slugs, and even small snakes, birds, and mammals. They are not constrictors but rather grab their prey and swallow it whole.
They are famous for their large gatherings during breeding season. In spring, females will release a pheromone to attract the males, and the males will come, many of them at one time. There are locations in Canada where literally thousands gather at one location. The females do not lay eggs but rather give birth to about 20-30 live young in late summer or fall, it could be up to 100 in a litter. These large groups of slithering garters bring back images from movies where “snake pits” and “a den of snakes” are portrayed. I have never seen such a gathering, and in the southeast, they do not happen in such large numbers as these, but it would be cool.
This time of year, on sunny days in open basking areas, you may see this small but neat snake. The same could be true if hiking near an open sunny location. So, keep your eyes down and maybe you will get lucky.