Deer in Spring Landscape

Did Someone Say Snakes?

By Scott A. Smith

Did Someone Say Snakes? By Scott A. Smith

Ask a randomly selected group of Marylanders what they think about snakes and you are likely to get responses covering the spectrum of human expression. Two typical comments are an emphatic "I hate snakes!" or a frightened "I'm scared of snakes!"

Fortunately for these unique and beneficial creatures, others say, "Snakes are cool!" or "Snakes are beautiful!" Whatever the response, most people are curious about these misunderstood members of nature.

Timber Rattlesnake coiledMaryland is home to 27 species of snakes, from the common and widespread eastern garter snake to the extremely rare and endangered mountain earth snake found only in Garrett County. Snakes occupy the full range of habitats found in Maryland. For example, the timber rattlesnake resides near ledges and rock outcrops in the forests of Western Maryland, while the red-bellied watersnake is found in the rivers and forested swamps of the lower Eastern Shore.

Some snakes have very specialized diets. For example, the queen snake feeds exclusively on soft-shelled crayfish, while the rainbow snake feeds on eels, and the eastern hognose snake eats toads. A number of snakes even prey on other snakes. This list includes the eastern kingsnake, which is immune to the venom of Maryland's only native venomous snakes, the northern copperhead and timber rattlesnake. Snakes found in wetland habitats, such as the ribbon snake and northern watersnake, generally have a diet that includes small fish, salamanders, frogs and crayfish.

The snakes that have been traditionally viewed as the most beneficial to humans are those that feed on rodents. This is a long list including the copperhead and rattlesnake, as well as the eastern milk snake, black racer, black rat snake and corn snake. But all snake species are beneficial in that they are all important components of food webs and natural communities.

King SnakeSome snakes capture prey by wrapping their coils around the prey's body and constricting, while others rapidly devour it live. Still others inject venom, which also begins the digestion process prior to eating. Whatever the method, snakes are very efficient predators. It is, perhaps, this killing efficiency coupled with their appearance that has led to much of the persecution of snakes.

The persistent negative attitude held by some Marylanders toward snakes arises from a lack of knowledge and is further aggravated by the myths and legends of our culture. Starting in childhood, with the biblical story of a serpent beguiling Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, we are taught that snakes are the lowest of all animals, hence the vernacular, he/she is "lower than a snake."

close-up of Black Rat Snake in treeOne common myth is that milk snakes suck the milk from cows. This erroneous story, which is still uttered by some dairymen, has led to the demise of many a beneficial "mouser.” Another false tale often repeated is that black snakes breed with rattlesnakes, which leads to the deaths of both black rat snakes and black racers. This story probably derives from observations of all three species together in the same area with some of the rattlesnakes being of the dark color phase, rather than the more common yellow color phase. In fact, rat snakes, garter snakes, copperheads and rattlesnakes will den together for the winter, but they do not mate with each other.

An earlier name for rat snakes, the “pilot rat snake" is derived from the common though false belief that rat snakes "piloted" the way out of the den for the rattlers, as they were observed to be first to emerge in the spring. The black racers presence, on the other hand, is more one of opportunism, as they are the major predator of young rattlesnakes.

The behavior of most snakes when threatened has also led to our mistaken opinion of snakes. First, we must realize that to a snake any Rough Green Snake in treedirect approach by a large animal is probably perceived as a threat to its safety. Snakes are generally not aggressive toward humans unless cornered and will move away from you if given the opportunity. However, if cornered, many snakes will appear aggressive even though they are being defensive. And so the classic coiled-and-ready-to-strike stance is observed in many species, from the harmless eastern garter snake to the venomous timber rattlesnake. This is usually accompanied by a rapid vibrating of the tail, which when against the ground is often mistaken for the "buzz" of a rattlesnake, leading to the misidentification of the snake as "poisonous" and often its death. The rattlesnake has taken this threat display a step farther and evolved a rattle, venom glands and fangs, though the latter's prime functions are to begin digestion of prey prior to swallowing as both copperheads and rattlesnakes have weak digestive systems.

Hognose snake in threat displayThe most interesting threat display belongs to the eastern hognose snake, which when threatened flares its head like a cobra and hisses. This has lead to local names such as "puff adder" or " corn viper." If that fails to scare off a potential threat, it begins writhing as if in its death throes, and finally lays still on its back. If you pick the snake up and turn it right-side-up it will immediately flip over on its back and "play dead." This, again, is a snake often killed because it is misidentified as venomous.

Most venomous snakebites in Maryland (only two to six per year with deaths extremely rare) are caused by people actively attempting to handle or kill a snake. Thus, the best way to avoid snakebite is to not attempt to handle or kill snakes or to be sure you identify what you attempt to catch. If bitten by a copperhead or rattlesnake, seek medical attention immediately. I have heard one story in which a Pennsylvania man was showing off his rattlesnake in a nearby Maryland tavern, was bitten and decided to drink whiskey like in the old western movies rather than visit the hospital. Unfortunately for this man, the tissue damage was so extensive that by the time he eventually received medical attention he had to lose his arm and soon after, his life.

For a non-venomous snakebite, clean and disinfect the wound area thoroughly. Seek medical attention if you appear to get an infection, feel any reaction to the bite or require peace-of-mind.

man holding Black RacerSnakes are considered "nongame" species in Maryland. According to regulations passed in 1993, it is legal to possess or collect without a permit up to four snakes from the wild as pets for all species except timber rattlesnake, rainbow snake, scarlet snake and mountain earth snake. These four species are either endangered or treated as such, and may not be possessed. If you attempt to breed or sell snakes in Maryland you need a Captive Reptile/Amphibian permit. No snakes taken from the wild are allowed to be sold. DNR promotes trade in captively-raised animals only, to preserve wild populations of our native snakes. Additionally based on these regulations, it is illegal to kill timber rattlesnakes without a permit issued by DNR.

So the next time you see a snake, instead of "freaking out", think about the ecological benefits they provide, their interesting behaviors, the really neat places they live in, and for the snake lover of which I am a member, how beautiful and interesting they are. And watch where you step!

Note: An earlier version of this article first appeared in Maryland Fish & Wildlife News, Spring 1996.
- Scott A. Smith is the Eastern Region Ecologist for DNR's Wildlife & Heritage Service. Scott provided the photos for this article.
Photos: (top to bottom): Timber Rattlesnake, King Snake, Black Rat Snake, Rough Green Snake, Hognose Snake, man holding Black Racer Snake.