Know Your Snakes
D uring this past spring I received three emails showing images of dead snakes. Each snake appeared well and truly hammered, limp and broken and bloody.
One was a hognose snake. One was a broad-banded water snake. One was a Texas rat snake. All, of course, are non-poisonous species, harmless to humans.
The rat snake had only a ragged stub of neck, the head being blown off by a .410 charge from a Taurus Judge revolver.
That excellent defense handgun often is touted as a great “snake killer.” Indeed it is, but I submit that the no-nonsense weapon would be better served when aimed at a poisonous snake—and in a situation where that reptile poses a clear and present danger to people or pets.
Blindly pulling a trigger or swinging a stick simply because it’s a “Snake!” is high on my list of sad outdoor behavior. We should be three or four generations removed from such an intolerant stance.
The Lone Star State probably is the snakiest state in the country, with dozens of species thriving even within urban environs. Close encounters are not at all unusual—and the huge majority is with harmless species.
I must admit that to the untrained eye some of these “counterfeit copperheads” do look threatening. For example, the oft-maligned hognose can more-or-less resemble a copperhead (light phase of yellow and brown blotches) or a cottonmouth (dark phase, gray and brown blotches).
Regardless of coloration, the innocuous hognose is stubby and thick, given to puffing and hissing when hassled. It projects trouble and puts on a show but it is one of the few snakes that cannot be induced to bite.
Several species of non-poisonous water snakes also approximate the dangerous cottonmouths and copperheads. Among the most common are the broad-banded water snake, the yellow-bellied water snake, and the diamond-backed water snake.
All can appear menacing. When alarmed and cornered, a swarthy diamondback with swelling girth and flattened head looks like a serious dose of knee-buckling, chest-clutching, heart-stopping trouble.
Trust me firsthand that the bite from an innocent water snake is no big drama. As a young snake collector in Houston, I hand-grabbed dozens of them from bayous, ditches and ponds within the city limits.
All can furiously bite—as they have every right to when snatched —but the tiny teeth leave only superficial cuts similar to raking a hand or forearm with a clump of briars.
And not once during those junior high forays with snake stick and collecting bag did I mistake a poisonous snake for a harmless snake. That’s because I was familiar with the fine-tuning of the different species.
As an analogy, the SUV owner can tell at a glance a white Chevrolet Tahoe from a white Ford Expedition. Both vehicles are big and boxy, very similar in shape and color, but the minor differences jump out—no mistake to the experienced driver.
So it is with snakes.
For what it’s worth, a cottonmouth is marked by a large and blocky head. By comparison, the various water snakes have smaller, slimmer heads. When confronted, water snakes almost always scoot (preferably to water); copperheads and cottonmouths tend to rely on camouflage and hold their ground. The latter might have the white mouth flung open—an alarming sight.
When swimming, the cottonmouth floats high in the water while the water snakes seem half-submerged. And, even at the Herpetology 101 level, we know that the cottonmouth, the copperhead and the various rattlesnakes are poisonous pit vipers identified by the twin heat sensing “pits” located between the nostril and eye.
And all native pit vipers sport elliptical eye slits. The harmless pit viper lookalikes have round eyes. Of course, you would have to get awfully chummy with a wild snake to confirm such fine-tuning as pits and slits.
The catch to this is that the average outdoorsman not versed in the teachings of Ross Allen and Raymond Ditmars and John Werler cannot always make a quick and correct call on a nasty-looking serpent partially obscured by brush.
But exercising reasonable judgment should not be asking too much.
For example, a full-blown western diamond-backed rattlesnake is a no-brainer. The bulbous head and bold diamond pattern and the black-and-white “raccoon tail” –not to mention the string of terminal rattles–are unmistakable.
Yet harmless rat snakes and king snakes occasionally are killed as “rattlers.” Vibrating tails aside (a nervous reaction in various species), neither snake is similar to Crotalus atrox. Returning to vehicles, that’s sort of like confusing a Toyota Camry with a Chevrolet Corvette.
Take a better look before wailing away with a shovel.
And, while snakes of many stripes (not to mention bands and blotches and diamonds) are scattered across our various ecological regions, the concerned individual can make great strides by simply studying field-guide descriptions of the several most common lookalikes. In most areas, water snakes and hognose snakes probably lead the list.
Significant to a quick ID program, keep in mind that almost all copperheads are less than three feet in length and most cottonmouths are less than four feet in length. Almost certainly, any native snake longer than an honest four feet and without a tail rattle is something harmless (and probably a beneficial rodent eater).
And any native snake of monotone color with no visible pattern of crisscrosses, bands or blotches is safe. So is any snake sporting long stripes.
These are quick and easy guidelines to follow when confronting a “Snake!” If any confusion exists and the suspect is well removed from people and dogs, my advice is to go around and just leave it alone. Based on species counts and population densities, the odds overwhelmingly favor a non-poisonous encounter.
In fact, if the snake has recently shed, iridescent in the morning light, calm but watchful, you might take a moment to admire the graceful symmetry. All native snakes, regardless of species, have a rightful place in the natural order of things¬–a fact that more Texans going afield should appreciate and respect.
Email Joe Doggett at
Email Joe Doggett at ContactUs@fishgame.com