Most of my wildlife photos came from one job. That job, in spite of allowing me a lot of time and access to wander around taking pictures, did have a goal: to find and document flatwoods salamanders on two state forests.
It had recently been discovered that the flatwoods salamander is actually two species, so recently that the current Petersen Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians still lists them as one species: Ambystoma cingulatum. A few years before I started the job, the populations west of the Apalachicola River were declared a separate species, the reticulated flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma bishopi). They were already rare as one species; this little offshoot was extremely rare. There were only about 36 known ponds where they had been found, and at many of those, none had been seen in years.
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.
Several years ago, I was working as a field biologist. I was out in the woods all summer and winter, trapping small amphibians and reptiles. It gave me an appreciation of the sheer diversity of animals hidden in the trees, underwater, underground, in any patch of grass. The places I worked were only a mile or so from suburban housing developments, yet most people I talked to, even the anglers and hunters and hikers, were unaware that many of these species even existed.
And I did talk to a lot of people. It’s the sort of job people are curious about. If I happened to stop by the grocery store while wearing my work T-shirt, some random shopper would ask how to get my job. “Do you have to have a college degree?” I’d tell them that I did have a degree, but it was possible to get a job without one if you had relevant experience. They would begin to look hopeful. Then I would regretfully crush their dreams: I’d tell them how much it paid. They would look at me disbelievingly and tell me their nephew made that holding a STOP/SLOW sign for the road company.
After a while I realized I was never going to pay off my student loans, so I left that job and went back to school to accumulate more. I’m now a graduate student, and I spend a lot less time in the woods these days. But one thing that happens when you walk around in the woods and look at things for a living is that you take a ton of pictures. Some of them even turn out well. A few months ago I was looking for a specific photo to show a friend, and ended up scrolling through the photos I took and thinking, hey, these aren’t bad. I should do something with them.
So this blog is for showing some of the hidden and lesser-known species of the southeast US: the burrowers, the swimmers, the creepers, the camouflaged, and the just plain overlooked.