Thursday, April 2, 2015

Spring-time and Snakes Are on the Move

Speckled Kingsnake
By Kathy Whaley

It’s that time of year again – redbuds are sprouting their beautiful purple blooms, the fragrance of sand plums whiffs through the forest, and, yes, snakes are emerging from their winter siestas. For some people, this brings gasping for breath, while for others, it’s just an opportunity to see more of Mother Nature’s creatures doing what they do.

So, what do they do anyway? Like it or not, snakes are a very important part of the natural ecosystem. They play a critical role in the balance of nature by eating countless numbers of rodents – rats, mice, moles, shrews – along with bugs and insects worldwide. All of these can destroy crops or damage property by chewing or consuming them. Snakes will also eat lizards and eggs given the opportunity. On occasion, some snakes will even prey on other snakes. One example is the kingsnake that is known to eat even venomous snakes such as copperheads and rattlesnakes.

Diamond-backed Water Snake
Snakes are often a food source for predators such as hawks, herons, egrets, bobcats, and coyotes. The most common predator you would likely actually see with a live snake is the great blue heron. Herons strike quickly with their massive, sharp-pointed beak to immobilize the snake. They often then use their beak to carry the snake to a more suitable dining location.

Snakes have been around for many millions of years and worldwide more than 3,000 species have been identified. In Texas, there are 109 species of snakes and 28 of those have been documented on Hagerman NWR. Of Texas snakes, none are currently listed as federally threatened or endangered, but two are listed as state threatened by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department: timber rattlesnake and smooth green snake. State law prohibits killing (incidental or otherwise) any state-listed species, including snakes. Penalties can range from $25-$500 for a first-time offense to as much as a $4,000 fine and/or up to 1 year in jail if found to be a Class A Misdemeanor.

Only 5 of the 28 snakes found on Hagerman are venomous: broad-banded copperhead, western cottonmouth, western pygmy rattlesnake, timber rattlesnake, and western diamondback rattlesnake. Of these, the most often seen is the cottonmouth. When frightened, the cottonmouth quickly opens its mouth showing the bright white skin inside – hence the name cottonmouth. Most adults are 30-42 inches long with a dark, grayish-brown body with little or no markings. Older cottonmouths may be entirely black. Unlike non-venomous snakes that have a round pupil, the eye has a cat-like pupil that usually appears as a narrow slit. There is normally a lighter colored band visible on the side of the head under the eye. Cottonmouths prefer wet or moist areas and are often seen swimming on a pond. A good rule of thumb is that if you see a snake swimming with the entire body on top of the water it is likely a cottonmouth. If only the head is above water, it is usually a non-venomous water snake.

Western Cottonmouth
In general, snakes are very misunderstood and often feared creatures. Many people think snakes are slimy and vicious – neither is true. As with any relationship, it’s all about respect. A snake doesn't want to be any closer to you than you do to it. Learn to identify poisonous snakes and keep your distance – enjoying the view from afar and never attempt to catch a snake with your hand. Almost half of all snake bites are a result of someone trying to hand catch a snake. If you find a venomous snake in your yard and feel it absolutely cannot stay there, please seek a non-lethal means of dealing with the snake first, remembering that it is part of the ecosystem and likely just passing through.

At the Refuge, snakes and all other non-game wildlife are protected and may not be harmed, killed or captured. Also, it is illegal to release any type of wild or domestic animal on a National Wildlife Refuge. The reason for this is to make sure that animals not native to the area are not introduced to possibly start a population (such as what happened in the Florida Everglades with pythons). The other important reason is that wild animals brought in from another location can transmit diseases such as rabies, distemper, or hemorrhagic disease to previously healthy Refuge wildlife.

For a list of all snakes at Hagerman NWR, click here: list of reptile and amphibian species found at Hagerman NWR

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