I recently lost a large chunk of the contents of my hard drive, including many of the photos I intended to use for this blog. Most of them still exist, scattered over an old hard drive, several thumb drives, and at least three camera cards. My files were backed up, but not organized.
I’ve been slowly going through them all, occasionally finding something I forgot I had. Like this video version of the Spider vs. Anole photo!
Rat snakes are some of the most frequently seen snakes in the US, but they still cause a lot of confusion and panic. They’re often mistaken for whatever venomous snake lives in the same area. They’re relatively large snakes, and they have an intimidating defensive posture, raising the fronts of their bodies above the ground. And they can have a slightly triangular head if you’re looking at it and thinking, is that triangular? I don’t know… maybe? Kinda. Better assume it’s venomous.
It’s not venomous. Rat snakes are harmless, unless you’re small enough for them to swallow. They can even be beneficial to humans, keeping the rodent population under control. On the other hand, they’re notorious for stealing chicken eggs, which they can swallow whole. And they can clear out an entire nest of baby birds. (If you put up birdhouses, it’s a good idea to add predator guards.)
They’re also skilled tree-climbers*. If you live in the United States, and you see a snake hanging out in a tree in your yard, or from the rafters in a barn, or perched calmly on top of your doorframe as you go to open the door, chances are pretty good that you have a rat snake.
Identifying them can get a little complicated. They come in different patterns and colors, depending on the region. In peninsular Florida, they’re yellow with dark stripes:
Elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, they’re gray or tan with darker patches, like the one pictured at the top of this post. And farther north, they’re black:
And to the west, you get this splotchy, stripey kind:
These are all the same species! At the edges of their regions, intergrade patterns are often found. The Atlantic coast has some olive-green ones, a mix of yellow and black. In the Piedmont, where I live, they’re mostly black but often have some faint markings.
Rat snakes are constrictors, like boas and pythons, but much smaller. A truly giant rat snake is about 7 feet long, and most adults are under 5 feet. Still, you could say they’re the closest thing the US has to pythons (except in the Everglades, where the Burmese python has become a pest).
They like abandoned buildings and other structures near humans, where the rats are plentiful. So if you see a big yellow, black, or brown snake hanging out in a tree or a hayloft, no need to panic. It’s probably just a rat snake going about its exterminator duties. Leave it alone, and enjoy fewer rats around your house.
In spite of being originally from Appalachia, I have been neglecting it here, due to lack of photos. This week, Sara Bean has stepped in to help fill that gap with a species from her backyard. Sara is a fantasy, nature, and fantastical-nature artist from West Virginia. Along with her photography, she creates whimsical sculptures and paintings that are a mix of surreal and adorable. Her monsterized paintings are a creepy delight to behold. You can find her work at The Attic Studio. — Bethany
Whether grubbing around in my flowerbeds or wandering through the woods, the snake I encounter most often is the Northern Red-Bellied Snake.
Although my trusty Audubon guide states that these snakes range from 8 to 16 inches in length, most of those that I find are on the smaller end of that range. When born (via live birth), these little critters measure just 3 to 4 inches long.
As the name suggests, Northern Red-Bellies (henceforth referred to as NRBs) typically have vivid red bellies — with an occasional yellow or grey-bellied snake thrown into the mix to confuse matters. The dorsal side of their bodies can range widely in color from red-brown to dark grey, either plain or with one to five dark stripes. Their heads are typically dark, with three pale yellow-brown spots on the back of the neck. Sometimes the spots fuse to form a collar or ring, causing some amateur herpetologists confuse NRBs with the more common Ringneck snake.
NRBs prey on garden pests like slugs (gardeners rejoice!) as well as earthworms and other small invertebrates. They are benign and easily handled, seldom displaying any signs of alarm or distress when picked up. If they do feel threatened they’ll curl their upper lip in what looks suspiciously like a sneer of disdain, or assume a pose that makes them look like a very tiny adder. As they’re so tiny and cute, this display is not very convincing to snake enthusiasts. Luckily it does work on some predators, as a wide variety of wildlife from shrews to raccoons to birds of prey find NRBs quite tasty.
The cottonmouth, also known as the water moccasin, may be the most feared animal in the eastern United States. People panic about cottonmouths in areas where cottonmouths don’t even live. Growing up in West Virginia, which is decidedly outside the cottonmouth’s range, I was told by several people that they had killed or been chased by “moccasins” in the creeks. This was highly unlikely.
Some of the fear is justified: cottonmouths are venomous, and they’re more common than the larger diamondback and timber rattlesnakes, with more venom than the smaller pigmy rattlesnakes and copperheads. Either way you’re ranking threat level — number of bites or seriousness of bites — the cottonmouth falls somewhere in the middle.
So, why do they have such a bad reputation? One possibility is mistaken identity. The Nerodia genus of non-venomous water snakes can be found pretty much anywhere with fresh water, and they are often misidentified as cottonmouths. They’re both fairly large, heavy-bodied, dark-colored snakes usually found near water; it’s an understandable mistake. After all, who wants to get up close and check the shape of the pupil or the color of the inside of the mouth?
Many southerners will recognize the green anole, aka Carolina anole, aka American chameleon. The scientific name is Anolis carolinensis.
Though sold in pet shops as “chameleons” because of their color-changing ability, they’re not the same as the true chameleons of Africa and Asia.
Green anoles are small, slender lizards that live mostly in trees, but can also be found clinging to window and porch screens. Usually bright green, they can change their color to brown or tan. They have a pink throat fan, or dewlap, which they expand to communicate with other anoles. They are territorial, so what they’re communicating is probably “MY tree! Go away!”
Pigmy rattlesnakes always look disgruntled, but this one has a really good reason!
It blended in so well, and I was paying so little attention, that I didn’t see it until I was bringing my foot down. I didn’t have time to stop it. I stepped right on it, trying at the last instant not to put too much weight on it.
Next thing I knew, I was standing about six feet away. I think I made an inarticulate squeak as I jumped away.
The snake never tried to strike at me. It just coiled up tighter and glared. I took a quick photo and then I left it alone. Every stick and leaf looked like a snake for the rest of the day.
The gopher tortoise is large, as North American land turtles go, but it does not stand out.
It’s slow-moving, grayish-tan, close to the ground, and when not moving it resembles a smooth, dome-shaped rock. On top of that, it spends a good part of its time underground. The tortoise is most visible when actively digging, as a fountain of sand flies up behind its claws.
The burrow is easier to find than the tortoise itself. The burrow of a mature tortoise can be spotted from a long distance in the hot, sunny, sandy habitat it prefers. A tortoise burrow is a crescent-shaped hole in the ground, with a wide mound of sand called an apron in front. These burrows go all the way down to the water table, so they stay relatively cool and moist in summer, and relatively warm in winter. This makes them an ideal refuge for many other species, and the tortoise doesn’t seem to mind sharing. Over 350 species have been found in gopher tortoise burrows 1. Personally, I have seen frogs, snakes, mice, beetles, and once a skunk.