Summertime is SSSnake Time

Summertime is SSSnake Time

It seems like there has always been a soft spot in my heart for snakes. From a young age, I was fascinated with all reptiles. The rural fabric of where I grew up in Central Florida (think late-1960s) afforded many opportunities for us kids to roam the woods and fields in search of adventure during summer vacation. I vividly remember the occasional eastern hognose snake that we would catch as kids. They were easy to house for a while, as there was no shortage of toads for a food source. This article will focus on some of the common species of snakes in NW Florida and a couple of snake safety tips.

Very likely, one of the first species of snakes most people encounter in North Florida is the gray rat snake (aka oak snake). If you raise chickens, you can greatly reduce the time it takes to enjoy your first encounter. I pull oak snakes out of our nest boxes on a regular basis. I have also encountered some rather large pine snakes in this manner; one with eight egg lumps in its mid-section. These are both harmless, beautiful creatures that can unfortunately make you hurt yourself in a dimly lit coop as you reach in to collect eggs. Another commonly encountered snake in our area is the corn snake, also called a red rat snake. The orange background and dark-red blotches make this one of our most beautiful species. Southern black racers are also a commonly seen species due to their daytime hunting habits. Racers are black on the back with a white chin and very slender for their length. They live up to their name and can disappear in a flash when startled. Two other species regularly encountered here are in the “garter snake” group. The eastern garter snake is one of very few species in our area with longitudinal stripes. They can have a tan to yellowish background color or even a greenish or blue color. The closely related ribbon snake looks similar in color and pattern but has a much slimmer build.

Gray rat snakes are also called oak snakes and are quite common in North Florida

My home county of Wakulla is home to four species of venomous snakes, which include the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, pygmy rattlesnake, coral snake and Florida cottonmouth. However, if you live in other parts of North Florida, you may have five or possibly even six species that are venomous. The copperhead’s range extends into North Florida in a few Counties along the Apalachicola River and the canebrake (or timber) rattlesnake ranges slightly farther south in the peninsula to North-Central Florida. I’ve only seen one canebrake rattlesnake and it was crossing a road on the north side of Gainesville many years ago. Both pygmy rattlers and cottonmouths can be very abundant locally in the right habitats but diamondbacks and coral snakes are less common these days having lost much of their preferred habitats to development.

 My best advice for those worried about being bitten by a snake is don’t try to pick one up, and watch where you put your hands and feet. It really is relatively easy to avoid (key word here is avoid) being bitten by a snake. There are many good medical sites on the web with detailed recommendations for snakebite treatment. In the very rare circumstance when someone is envenomated, the best policy is to remain as calm as possible and head for medical attention. Do not cut the skin and try to suck out the venom or apply a tourniquet. These strategies generally cause more harm than good.

I always appreciate the chance to get a look at one of our incredible native snakes when afield, especially if it happens to be one of our venomous species. A big diamondback rattlesnake is an impressive animal to happen on when afield. This appreciation does not mean that I don’t get startled occasionally when surprised, but once that instinctive reaction passes, I can truly appreciate the beauty of these scaly critters.

Snakes of the Florida Panhandle

Snakes of the Florida Panhandle

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.

Snakes do make many nervous but most of our 44 species are nonvenomous.
Photo: Nick Baldwin

 

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.

The Escambia River. One of the alluvial rivers of the Florida panhandle. Is a natural highway for many reptiles to disperse into our state.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

 

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).

  1. Smooth Earth Snake (Virginia valeria) This snake has records from Pensacola Bay area and areas south of the Georgia line.
  2. 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.
  3. Red-bellied Snake (Storeia occipitomaculata) Common across north Florida.
  4. 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).

The banded watersnake is one found throughout the state and resembles the cottonmouth.
Photo: UF IFAS

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Plain-bellied Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster) This snake also can be found in just about any water system.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

This copperhead was found JUST across the state line in Alabama. The more copper color and “hour-glass” pattern of their bands lets you know it is not it’s cousin the cottonmouth.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

This timber rattlesnake has chevrons (stripes) instead of the diamond pattern on its back.
Photo provided by Mickey Quigley

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.

Embrace the Gulf 2020 – the reptiles

Embrace the Gulf 2020 – the reptiles

An eastern cottonmouth basking near a creek in a swampy area of Florida.
Photo: Tommy Carter

When you think of reptiles you typically think of tropical rainforest or the desert.  However, there is at least one member of the three orders of reptiles that do live in the sea.  Saltwater crocodiles are found in the Indo-Pacific region as are about 50 species of sea snakes.  There is one marine lizard, the marine iguana of the Galapagos Islands, and then the marine (or sea) turtles.  These are found worldwide and are the only true marine reptiles found in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sea turtles are very charismatic animals and beloved by many.  Five of the seven species are found in the Gulf.  These include the Loggerhead, which is the most common, the Green, the Hawksbill, the Leatherback, and the rarest of all – the Kemp’s Ridley.

 

Many in our area are very familiar with the nesting behavior of these long-ranged animals.  They do have strong site fidelity and navigate across the Gulf, or from more afar, to their nesting beaches – many here in the Pensacola Beach area.  The males and females court and mate just offshore in early spring.  The females then approach the beach after dark to lay about 100 eggs in a deep hole.  She then returns the to the Gulf never to see her offspring.  Many females will lay more than one clutch in a season.

The largest of the sea turtles, the leatherback.
Photo: Dr. Andrew Colman

The eggs incubate for 60-70 days and their temperature determines whether they will be male or female, warmer eggs become females.  The hatchlings hatch beneath the sand and begin to dig out.  If they detect problems, such as warm sand (we believe meaning daylight hours) or vibrations (we believe meaning predators) they will remain suspended until those potential threats are no more.  The “run” (all hatchlings at once) usually occurs under the cover of darkness to avoid predators.  The hatchlings scramble towards the Gulf finding their way by light reflecting off the water.  Ghost crabs, fox, raccoon, and other predators take almost 90% of them, and the 10% who do reach the Gulf still have predatory birds and fish to deal with.  Those who make it past this gauntlet head for the Sargassum weed offshore to begin their lives.

 

These are large animals, some reaching 1000 pounds, but most are in the 300-400 pound range, and long lived, some reaching 100 years.  It takes many years to become sexually mature and typically long-lived / low reproductive animals are targets for population issues when disasters or threats arise.  Many creatures eat the small hatchings, but there are few predators on the large reproducing adults.  However, in recent years humans have played a role in the decline of the adult population and all five species are now listed as either threatened or endangered and are protected in the U.S.  There are a couple of local ordinances developed to adhere to federal law requiring protection.  One is the turtle friendly lighting ordinance, which is enforced during nesting season (May 1 – Oct 31), and the Leave No Trace ordinance requiring all chairs, tents, etc. to be removed from the beach during the evening hours.  There are other things that locals can do to help protect these animals such as: fill in holes dug on the beach during the day, discard trash and plastic in proper receptacles, avoid snagging with fishing line and (if so) properly remove, and watch when boating offshore to avoid collisions.

 

If we include the barrier islands there are more coastal reptiles beyond the sea turtles.  There are freshwater ponds which can harbor a variety of freshwater turtles.  I have personally seen cooters, sliders, and even a snapping turtle on Pensacola Beach.  Many coastal islands harbor the terrestrial gopher tortoise and wooded areas could harbor the box turtles.  In the salt marsh you may find the only brackish water turtle in the U.S., the diamondback terrapin.  These turtles do nest on our beaches and are unique to see.  Freshwater turtle reproductive cycles are very similar to sea turtles, albeit most nest during daylight hours.

An American Alligator basking on shore.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

The American alligator can also be found in freshwater ponds, and even swimming in saltwater.  They can reach lengths of 12 feet, though there are records of 15 footers.  These animals actually do not like encounters with humans and will do their best to avoid us.  Problems begin when they are fed and loose that fear.  I have witnessed locals in Louisiana feeding alligators, but it is a felony in Florida.  Males will “bello” in the spring to attract females and ward off competing males.  Females will lay eggs in a nest made of vegetation near the shoreline and guard these, and the hatchlings, during and after birth.  They can be dangerous at this time and people should avoid getting near.

 

We have several native species of lizards that call the islands home.  The six-lined race runners and the green anole to name two.  However, non-native and invasive lizards are on the increase.  It is believed there are actually more non-native and invasive lizards in Florida than native ones.  The Argentina Tegu and the Cuban Anole are both problems and the Brown Anole is now established in Gulf Breeze, East Hill, and Perdido Key – probably other locations as well.  Growing up I routinely find the horned lizard in our area.  I was not aware then they were non-native, but by the 1970s you could only find them on our barrier islands, and today sightings are rare.

An eastern cottonmouth crossing a beach.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

Then there are the snakes.

Like all reptiles, snakes like dry xeric environments like barrier islands.  We have 46 species in the state of Florida, and many can be found near the coast.  Though we have no sea snakes in the Gulf, all of our coastal snakes are excellent swimmers and have been seen swimming to the barrier islands.  Of most concern to residents are the venomous ones.  There are six venomous snakes in our area and four of them can be found on barrier islands.  These include the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, the Pygmy Rattlesnake, the Eastern Coral Snake, and the Eastern Cottonmouth.  There has been a recent surge in cottonmouth encounters on islands and this could be due to more people with more development causing more encounters, or there may be an increase in their populations.  Cottonmouths are more common in wet areas and usually want to be near freshwater.  Current surveys are trying to determine how frequently encounters do occur.

 

Not everyone agrees, but I think reptiles are fascinating animals and a unique part of the Gulf biosphere.  We hope others will appreciate them more and learn to live with and enjoy them.

Snakes on Our Barrier Islands

Snakes on Our Barrier Islands

Over the last two years I have been surveying snakes in a local community on Perdido Key.  The residents were concerned about the number of cottonmouths they were seeing and wanted some advice on how to handle the situation.  Many are surprised by the number of cottonmouths living on barrier islands, we think of them as “swamp” residents.  But they are here, along with several other species, some of which are venomous.  Let’s look at some that have been reported over the years.

The dune fields of panhandle barrier islands are awesome – so reaching over 50 ft. in height. This one is near the Big Sabine hike (notice white PVC markers).

In the classic text Handbook of Reptiles and Amphibians of Florida; Part One – Snakes (published in 1981), Ray and Patricia Ashton mention nine species found on coastal dunes or marshes.  They did not consider any of them common and listed the cottonmouth as rare – they seem to be more common today.  In a more recent publication (Snakes of the Southeast, 2005) Whit Gibbons and Michael Dorcas echo what the Ashton’s published but did add a few more species, many of which I have found as well.  Their list brings the total to 15 species.  I have frequently seen four other species in Gulf Breeze and Big Lagoon State Park that neither publication included, but I will since they are close to the islands – this brings the total 19 species that residents could encounter.

 

Leading us off is the one most are concerned about – the Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorous).  Though listed as “rare” by the Ashton’s, encounters on both Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key are becoming common.  There is more than one subspecies of this snake – the eastern cottonmouth is the local one – and that the water moccasin and cottonmouth are one in the same snake.  This snake can reach 74 inches in length (6ft).  They are often confused with their cousin the copperhead (Agkistrodon contorix).  Both begin life in a “copper” color phase and with a luminescent green-tipped tail.  But at they grow, the cottonmouth becomes darker in color (sometimes becoming completely black) while the copperhead remains “copper”.  The cottonmouth also has a “mask” across its eyes that the copperhead lacks.  Believe it or not, the cottonmouth is not inclined to bite.  When disturbed they will vibrate their tail, open their mouth showing the “cottonmouth” and displaying their fangs, and swiveling their head warning you to back off.  Attacking, or chasing, rarely happens.  I find them basking in the open in the mornings and seeking cover the rest of the day.  Turning over boards (using a rake – do not use your hand) I find them coiled trying to hide.  MOST of the ones I find are juveniles.  These are opportunistic feeders – eating almost any animal but preferring fish.  They hunt at night.  Breeding takes place in spring and fall.  The females give live birth in summer.  As mentioned earlier, they seem to be becoming more common on our islands.

 

Eastern Cottonmouth with distinct “mask” and flattened body trying to intimidate.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

This year, while surveying for cottonmouths, I encountered numerous Eastern Coachwhips (Masticophis flagellum).  These long slender snakes can reach lengths of 102” (8ft.), move very fast across the ground – often with their heads raised like a cobra – and, even though nonvenomous, will bite aggressively.  They get their name from their coloration.  They have a dark brown head and neck and a tan colored body – resemble an old coachwhip.  They like dune environments and are excellent climbers.  They consume lizards, small birds and mammals, and even other small snakes.  They are most active during the daylight, but I usually find them beneath boards and other debris hiding.  They have always been on the islands but encountered more often this past year.  They lay eggs and do so in summer.

 

Their close cousin, the Southern Black Racer (Coluber constricta) is very similar but a beautiful dark black color.  They can reach lengths of 70” (6ft.) and are also very fast.  Like their cousin, they are nonvenomous but bite aggressively – often vibrating their tail like cottonmouths warning you to stay back.  They are beneficial controlling amphibian, reptile, and mammalian animals.  They are also summer egg layers.

The southern black racer differs from otehr black snakes in its brillant white chin and thin sleek body.
Photo: Jacqui Berger.

There are a few freshwater snakes that, like the cottonmouth do not like saltwater, but could be found on the islands.  These are in the genus Nerodia and are nonvenomous.  There are two species (the Midland and Banded water snakes) that could be found here.  They resemble cottonmouths in size and color and are often confused with them.  They differ in that they have vertical dark stripes running across their jaws and have a round pupil.  Though nonvenomous, they will bite aggressively.  One member of the Nerodia group is the Gulf Coast Salt Marsh Snake (Nerodia clarkii clarkii).  This snake does like saltwater and is found in the brackish salt marshes on the island.  It is dark in color with four longitudinal stripes, two are yellow and two are a dull brown color.  It only reaches a length of 36” (3ft.), is nocturnal, and feeds on estuarine fish and invertebrates.

This banded water snake is often confused with the cottonmouth. This animal has the vertical stripes extending from the lower jaw, which is lacking in the cottonmouth.
Photo: University of Georgia

Other species that the guides mention, or I have seen, are the small Crowned Snake, Southern Hognose, Pine Snake, Pine Woods Snake, and the Rough Green Snake.  I will mention here species I have seen in either Gulf Breeze or Big Lagoon State Park that COULD be found on the island:  Eastern Coral Snake, Eastern Garter Snake, Pigmy Rattlesnake, Eastern Hognose, and the Corn Snake (also called the Red Rat Snake).  Only two of these (Eastern Coral and Pigmy) are venomous.

 

Last, but not least, is the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotolus adamateus).  This is the largest venomous snake in the United States, reaching 96” (8ft.).  It is a diurnal hunter consuming primarily small mammals, though large ones can take rabbits.  They prefer the dry areas of the island where cover is good.  Palmettos, Pine trees, and along the edge of wetlands are their favorite haunts.  Despite their preference for dry sandy environments, they – like all snakes – are good swimmers and large rattlesnakes have been seen swimming across Santa Rosa Sound and Big Lagoon.  They tend to rattle before you get too close and you should yield to this animal.  The have an impressive strike range, 33% of their body length, you should give these guys a wide berth.  I have come across several that never rattled, I just happen to see them.  Again, give them plenty of room when walking by.

Eastern diamondback rattlesnake swimming in intracoastal waterway near Ft. McRee in Pensacola.
Photo: Sue Saffron

It is understandable that people are nervous about snakes being in popular vacation spots, but honestly… they really do not like to be around people.  We are trouble for them and they know it.  Most encounters are in the more natural areas of the islands.  Staying on marked trails and open areas, where you can see them – and be sure to look down while walking, you should see them and avoid trouble.  For more questions on local snakes, contact me at the county extension office.

 

References

 

Ashton, R.E., P.S. Ashton. 1981. Handbook of Reptiles and Amphibians of Florida; Part One – Snakes. Windward Publishing, Miami FL. Pp.176.

 

Gibbons, W., M. Dorcas. 2005. Snakes of the Southeast. University of Georgia Press, Athens GA. Pp. 253.

Another Mystery in the Marsh – The Gulf Salt Marsh Snake

Another Mystery in the Marsh – The Gulf Salt Marsh Snake

I am writing about this animal because, though it is rare to see them, our terrapin volunteers saw two this past week; and maybe you will too.

The round pupil and vertical jaw stripes indicate this is the nonvenomous Nerodia. Photo: Carole Tebay

The Gulf salt marsh snake is one of those, like the eastern coral snake, that is actually common – just rare to see.  It is rare to see because (a) it lives in muddy salt marshes, where we rarely venture, and (b) it is mostly nocturnal – and even fewer of us venture into muddy salt marshes at night.

 

It is in the genus Nerodia, which includes the common water snakes like the banded water snake (Nerodia fasicata).  It is a harmless nonvenomous snake.  However, because of where it lives, it is often confused with a cottonmouth and is killed.  A common name for this snake in Alabama is “bay moccasin”.

 

Their name is Nerodia clarkii, but it is a subspecies of this group – so the actual name is Nerodia clarkii clarkii.  The other two subspecies are found in Florida.  The Mangrove salt marsh snake (Nerodia clarkii compressicauda) is found from central Gulf coast of Florida, around the Keys to Indian River County on the Atlantic coast.  The Atlantic salt marsh snake (Nerodia clarkii taeniata) has a very small range.  Originally reported in Volusia, Brevard, and Indian River counties – due to the northern expansion of mangroves, it is believed to only be in Volusia County now.  It is listed as THREATENED both federally and with the state.  Our Gulf salt marsh snake is found from central Florida to Texas.

The nonvenomous Gulf Salt marsh Snake.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

It is a relatively small snake, only reaching a length of around 15-20 inches, though some have been reported at 30 inches.  They possess two long yellowish-tan stripes running laterally the length of its body, the only species of Nerodia to do so.  Again, they move at night feeding on small crabs, shrimp, frogs, and small fish.  During daylight hours they hide beneath the wrack or other vegetation avoiding herons, egrets, and larger blue crabs.  Lacking the needed glands, they cannot desalinate seawater the way sea turtles and terrapins can.  All of their freshwater comes from their food and from rainfall.

 

They breed in the spring, possibly why we are seeing them now, and give live birth to about 10 young in midsummer.  They are of moderate conservation concern in Alabama due to the loss of salt marsh.  The loss of salt marsh habitat and rise of sea level are their major concerns at this point.

 

I do need to warn you, though it is a small, nonvenomous snake, they will bite.  If bitten, soap and water will do the job.  For me, and others, it is actually exciting to see them because of their reclusive nature.  If you see one while exploring our intracoastal waters, know that you are not in any danger but rather lucky to see this “mystery of the marsh”.

The Gulf Salt Marsh Snake swimming in a local marsh.
Photo: Carole Tebay

 

References

 

Gulf Salt Marsh Snake  – Texas Parks and Recreation – https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/species/gulfsnake/.

iNaturalist – https://www.inaturalist.org/guide_taxa/776612.

 

Outdoor Alabama – Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources – https://www.outdooralabama.com/non-venomous-snakes/gulf-saltmarsh-snake.

 

Atlantic Salt Marsh Snake – N.c.taeniata – U.S. Fish and Wildlife – https://www.fws.gov/northflorida/Species-Accounts/Atl-Salt-Marsh-Snake-2005.htm.

A Speedy Serpent – the Southern Black Racer

A Speedy Serpent – the Southern Black Racer

As we begin our wildlife series for 2019, we will start with a snake that almost everyone has encountered but knows little about – the southern black racer.

The southern black racer differs from other black snakes in its brilliant white chin and thin sleek body.
Photo: Jacqui Berger.

This snake is common for many reasons.

  • It is found throughout the eastern United States
  • It is diurnal, meaning active during daylight hours when we are out and about
  • It can be found in a variety of habitats and is particularly fond of “edge” areas between forest and open habitat – they do very well around humans.

The southern black racer (Coluber constrictor priapus) is one of eight subspecies of this snake found in the United States.  This local variety is a beautiful shiny black.  The shine is due to the fact that they have smooth, rather than keeled, scales.  It is a long snake, reaching up to six feet, but very thin – and very fast!  Most of us see it just before it darts away.

 

They are sometimes confused with the cottonmouth. It can be distinguished in having a long “thin” body, as compared to the cottonmouths shorter “thick” body.  It has a brilliant white chin and the top of the head is solid black.  Cottonmouths can be mottled, usually have a cream-colored chin with a dark “mask” extending from the lower point of the chin through the eye.  Cottonmouths also have the wide delta shaped head compared the finger-shaped head of the racer.  They are also confused with the eastern indigo snake.  The indigo is very long (up to eight feet) large bodied snake, and the lower chin is a reddish-orange color.  The coachwhip is a close cousin of the racer, found in many of the same habitats.  It has a similar body shape, and speed, but is a light tan color with a dark brown-black head and neck.

The juvenile black racer looks more like a corn snake, and is sometimes confused with a pygmy rattler.
Photo: C. Kelly

The juvenile looks nothing like the adult.  The young racers hatch from rough covered eggs laid in late winter and early spring.  They typically lay between 6-20 eggs and hide them under rocks, boards, bark, and even in openings in the side of homes.  In late spring and early summer, they hatch.  Their body resembles adults, but their coloration is a mottled mix of grays, browns, and reds – having distinct patches on their backs.  This helps with camouflage but often they are mistaken for pygmy rattlesnakes and are killed.

 

They are great climbers and are found in our shrubs and trees, as well as on our houses and in our garages.  Though sometimes confused with the cottonmouth, this snake is non-venomous and harmless.  Harmless in the sense that a bite from will cause no harm – but it will bite.  Black racers are notorious for this.  If approached, it generally freezes first – to avoid detection.  If it believes it has been detected, it will flee at amazing speeds.  If it cannot flee, it will turn and bite… repeatedly.  Again, the bites are harmless, but could draw blood.  Cleaning with soap and water is all you need.

 

They are opportunistic feeders hunting a variety of prey including small mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, and eggs.  They also hunt snakes, including small venomous species.  Unlike the larger venomous snakes, black racers stalk their prey – many times with their heads raised similar to cobras.  When prey is detected, they spring on them with lighting speed.  Despite the scientific name “constrictor”, they do not constrict their prey, rather pin it down and wait for it to suffocate.

 

They do have their predators, particularly hawks.  When approached they will first freeze to avoid detection, they may release a foul-smelling musk as a warning, and sometimes will vibrate their tails.  In leaf-litter, this can sound very similar to a rattlesnake – not helping with the juvenile identification confusion.  One paper reported finding a dead great horned owl with a black racer in its talons.  Apparently, the owl grabbed the snake too far back.  It killed the snake but not before the snake was able to strangle the owl.

 

They are hibernating this time of year but will soon be laying another clutch of eggs and we will once again encounter this most common of snakes.

 

References

 

Florida Museum of Natural History. Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus). http://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/herpetology/fl-snakes/list/coluber-constrictor-priapus/.

 

Gibbons, W., M/ Dorcas. 2005. Snakes of the Southeast.  University of Georgia Press, Athens GA. pp. 253.

 

Perry, R.W., R.E. Brown, D.C. Rudolph. 2001. Mutual Mortality of a Great Horned Owl and a Southern Black Racer: a Potential Risk for Raptors Preying on Snakes.  The Willson Bulletin, 113(3). http://doi.org/10.1676/0043-5643(2001)113[0345:MMOGH0]2.0.CO;2.

 

Willson, J.D. Species Profile: Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus). SREL Herpetology. www.srelherp.uga.edu/snakes/colcon.htm.