Six-Lined Racerunner

These pretty little lizards were the fastest-moving thing on the ground in the Florida sandhills. I saw them every day, but I never managed to get a photo of one in situ. I caught this one in a snake trap and snapped this shot just before letting it go. Look at those crazy long toes!

The six-lined racerunner is a type of whiptail lizard, the only one found in the east. There are more in the southwest. You might have heard of those; they’re known for a very interesting trait. Some populations of whiptail lizards are all female. They reproduce by parthenogenesis. No males required!

This is not the same thing as the asexual reproduction you see in plants, where a part of an organism is broken off and an entirely new one grows from it. That’s cloning, in which the offspring and the parent have the same set of chromosomes. In parthenogenesis, no new DNA is introduced, but the existing chromosomes still go through meiosis, so the offspring are not genetically identical to the parent. And, honestly, my several attempts at a paragraph explaining how that works only reminded me that it’s been a long time since I took a genetics class, so I’ll do us all a favor and just point you to Wikipedia’s entry on parthenogenesis.

We tend to think of only plants and some invertebrates as reproducing asexually, but it’s more common in vertebrates than you might have thought. Some of the other species it’s been documented in include hammerhead sharks, boa constrictorsKomodo dragons, and domestic turkeys. While looking for examples, I discovered that I’m already familiar with some local snakes capable of parthenogenesis: the cottonmouth and copperhead — a 2012 study found genetic evidence in both species! No matter how you feel about venomous snakes, that is pretty damned cool.

Eastern Coral Snake

Last week, I posted a scarlet snake and compared it to the similar-looking coral snake. Here’s what a real coral snake looks like. The most visible differences: the nose is black, and the red and yellow bands touch. People in parts of the US where this snake lives (and sometimes where it doesn’t!) grow up hearing this rhyme:

Red and yellow, kill a fellow.
Red and black, friend of Jack.

There are variations — a more sensical one ends “poison lack” — but the one above is the one I learned as a child in West Virginia, which is well outside of the coral snake’s range. Where my parents, who came from Pennsylvania, learned it is anyone’s guess.

The black head is less definitive — some kingsnakes have black heads. But the red and yellow bands still don’t touch.

Coral snakes are venomous, but they’re not closely related to the other venomous snakes in North America, the pit vipers (rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads). They have a different type of venom, and they don’t have the big front fangs the pit vipers do. And unlike pit vipers, coral snakes lay eggs.

Their venom is very toxic, but they’re not much of a threat to humans. Their small fangs are not very good for injecting venom, so they don’t just strike and let go like a rattlesnake. They hold on and chew, and the only time that’s likely to happen is if you pick them up. I don’t recommend picking them up. Or standing on them while wearing flip-flops. Otherwise, you can safely watch them from a few feet away.

This species lives in the southeast coastal plain, from eastern NC south to FL and then west around the Gulf of Mexico. Other species live further south, but they don’t have the same pattern. If you’re outside the US, don’t trust the “red and yellow” rule!

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Eastern Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius)

So here’s a question for readers: If you live somewhere with venomous and non-venomous animals that look similar, what tricks do you use to quickly identify which are dangerous?

(Correction: I had stated that there was only one species of coral snake in the US. That’s wrong, there are others in the Southwest. This is just the only coral snake species in the Eastern United States.)

Scarlet Snake

This is a scarlet snake. It’s easily mistaken for either a scarlet kingsnake or a coral snake, but you can tell it’s neither by the fact that the bands of red and black are only on the snake’s back. The belly is white. Coral snakes and scarlet kingsnakes have bands that go all the way around the body.

Scarlet snakes live in the southeast and as far west as Oklahoma and Texas. They eat mostly small rodents and reptiles, and reptile eggs. A large adult might get up to two feet long.

That pointy head helps them burrow into sand. The head always starts with red at the nose, unlike coral snakes, which start with black. (The “red touch yellow, kill a fellow” rule is good only in the US. If you go to Central America, the coral snakes are a lot less standardized.)

scarletsnake

Rat Snake

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:

Yellow rat snake
Yellow rat snake. © Gabriel Kamener Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 (CC BY-SA 2.0) Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike

 

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:

Black rat snake.
Black rat snake. © Matt Reinbold Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 (CC BY-SA 2.0) Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike

 

And to the west, you get this splotchy, stripey kind:

https://i2.wp.com/media.eol.org/content/2014/08/25/09/77180_orig.jpg
Texas rat snake.  © bchambers Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial 3.0 (CC BY-NC 3.0) Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial

 

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.


Here’s a rat snake in action:

** Source for images (except the first one): Encyclopedia of Life

Guest Post: Northern Red-Bellied Snake

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.

Northern Red-Bellied Snakes. Photo by Sara Bean
Northern Red-Bellied Snakes. Photos by Sara Bean

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.

Red-Bellied Snake. Photo by Sara Bean
Baby Northern Red-Bellied Snake. Photo by Sara Bean

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.

Red-Bellied Snake and Ringneck Snake. Photo by Sara Bean
Northern Red-Bellied Snake and Ringneck Snake Comparison. Photos by Sara Bean

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.

Northern Ringneck Snake. Photo by Sara Bean
Northern Red-Bellied Snake. Photo by Sara Bean

Post by Sara Bean.

Cottonmouth

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?

Continue reading Cottonmouth

An arachnophobe, a hemophobe, and an ophidiophobe walk into a forest…

(Arachnophobia: fear of spiders and scorpions. Hemophobia: fear of blood. Ophidiophobia: fear of snakes.)

In any job dealing with wildlife in the field, you’re eventually going to have to deal with things many people find frightening, disgusting, or just plain creepy. I have caught and been bitten by snakes, walked through countless spiderwebs, and waded around in ponds with a thick layer of scum on the surface.

One of my projects in the summer was to trap, measure, mark, and release snakes. To that end, my co-workers and I set up giant X-shaped silt fence arrangements with a trap in the center and buckets as pitfall traps at each end. The buckets were covered with little plywood tables to provide shade. One day I lifted up one of the plywood tops and found this:

Arachnophobe's Nightmare
Arachnophobe’s Nightmare

That is a pigmy rattlesnake in the bucket. Next to it is a very large wolf spider. On the underside of the plywood is a black widow spider and the dried-out corpse of a scorpion. An arachnophobe’s nightmare.

Continue reading An arachnophobe, a hemophobe, and an ophidiophobe walk into a forest…