DOGGETT AT LARGE by Joe Doggett

PIKE ON THE EDGE by Doug Pike
March 25, 2016
TEXAS HOT SHOTS
March 25, 2016

Snakes!

M ost big snakes, like many big deer and all big fish, tend to grow with the telling. Put another way, there’s no such thing as a 10-foot snake this side of a Central American rain forest. Or, realistically, even a nine-footer. 

Texas Indigo Snake

Disclaimer: We’re talking about snakes native to North America, not the exotic pythons infesting swampy portions of South Florida.

Come to think of it, you would be hard pressed amid the thornbrush of South Texas or the rim rocks of West Texas or the palmetto bottoms of the Piney Woods to document an honest eight-foot native snake. 

In the real world statistically removed from campfire smoke, a seven-foot snake is exceptional. This statement is based on scientific research compiled by qualified herpetologists.

Texas Snakes, a 437-page text published in 2000 by John Werler and James Dixon, is an authoritative source. Werler was curator of the Houston Zoological Garden for many years and a childhood hero of mine; he was a “snake man” in the class of Carl Kauffeld, Bill Haast, Ross Allen, and the great Raymond Ditmars.

Werler and Dixon credit the diverse scope of Texas with 72 snake species, more than any other state. Most, of course, are small, less than three or four feet, non-venomous and pose zero threat to humans. 

I ran a rough tally of big snakes native to the Lone Star State known to exceed six feet. And of that number I could find only five species documented by Werler and Dixon that topped seven feet. 

In order of length, here are our Big Five:

1. TEXAS INDIGO SNAKE— The glossy Texas indigo, is native to the brush country of extreme South Texas and northern Mexico. It may not be quite as large as the eastern indigo of Florida, but it is a bona fide showstopper, one of the most impressive snakes in North America. 

The usual adult size is between 5 and 6 1/2 feet and, according to the text; the accepted maximum length is 8 feet, 4 1/4 inches (Conant and Collins, 1991). A 9-foot, 5-inch specimen was reported in 1986 (Vermersch and Kuntz), but could not be conclusively documented.

2. BULL SNAKE— The stocky bull snake threatens the indigo for the title, reaching a maximum known length of more than eight feet. The average adult is between four and five feet. Based on the average adult length, the nod goes to the indigo.

The bull snake thrives in brushy, rocky terrain across the middle swath of the state, ranging from South Texas through the Hill Country and into the Panhandle. It is a striking snake (pun intended), with a pattern of bold dark blotches, and often stirred into action when cornered or irritated.

The gopher snake, a subspecies of the bull snake native to extreme West Texas, has been documented at 7 feet, 8 inches. But this is a regional variation of the same snake.

3. EASTERN COACHWHIP— An eastern coachwhip was documented at approximately 8 1/2 feet, but the average specimen is between and 3 1/2 and 5 feet in length. It is native to East Texas and prefers grasslands, prairies and broken hillsides.

The adult coachwhip looks like, well, an old coachwhip. Or maybe a bullwhip. The comparison is created by the smooth scales and tan coloration (turning darker, almost black, on the head and neck). The slim snake is hyper but harmless. 

4. WESTERN DIAMOND-BACKED RATTLESNAKE— The range of this formidable pit viper is roughly the western half of the state. The diamondback averages three to four feet, and the mother lode of big snakes remains on the large ranches of deep South Texas—brush country turkey hunters and quail hunters take note.

South Texas diamondbacks occasionally attain an honest five or six feet and the generally accepted maximum, according to Werler and Dixon, is 7 feet, 4 inches. Mind, this was a true measurement and not a bogus mark taken from a stretched skin (which can increase the length by more than 30 percent).

But what the diamondback lacks in top-end length,  it more than makes up for in displacement. The girth of a six-footer can be awesome, far outclassing any of non-venomous contenders. This truly is a spectacular creature, but our measuring stick here is tip of tail to end of snout. 

Among the realm of rattlers, the Texas diamondback is exceeded in size only by the eastern diamondback of the coastal lowlands of the southeastern United States. The scarce canebrake rattler of southeast Texas is an imposing snake but few topping six feet have been documented. None taping seven has been authenticated.

5. TEXAS RAT SNAKe— The Texas (Lindheimer’s) rat snake barely makes the cut, with a 7-foot, 2-inch specimen. But it is a large snake averaging 3 1/2 to 5 1/2 feet, and honest six footers are fairly common, especially in southeast Texas. The overall range is generally considered to be the eastern half of the state.

The Texas rat snake is a handsome snake, with colorful blotches and a bulk similar to the bull snake. It prefers wooded and brushy areas, especially near bayous and ponds, and is the most common big snake in many urban environs. 

Texas Rat Snake

These are the Big Five in Texas. Worth repeating, four of the Big Five are harmless. Each can be a dramatic eyeful to the inexperienced observer, although none probably measures up to lore and legend. 

But the rare genetic fluke can happen. For example, the Guinness Record Book lists the tallest human alive today, Chandra Bahadur Dangi of Nepal, at 8 feet 3 inches.

Presumably, a “supersnake” could exist. For example, a grainy black-and-white photo reportedly taken in 1919 near West Palm Beach, Fla., shows five adult men standing shoulder-to-shoulder and holding a dead eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake claimed to be 11 feet 4 inches. It clearly looks 10. The old snapshot was published in the November 1972, issue of Sports Afield.

Granted, computer generated hoaxes are frequent today but the provenance of that old image makes it worthy of a serious second glance. I’m not saying “yes,” but, considering the dusty annals of Florida’s palmetto county 100 years ago, it’s a legitimate “maybe.” The region is, after all, the epicenter of big eastern diamondbacks.

A truly monstrous Texas snake might be a reality. If so, it most likely thrives in a remote pasture of a large South Texas ranch or in the back reaches of a state or national park far removed from shovel-bearing, rock-chunking, gun-cocking traffic.

And if an honest 10-foot native snake is out there, I’d bet on a world-class, mondo-giant indigo.

Email Joe Doggett at

[email protected]

 

Email Joe Doggett at [email protected]

 

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