August 2008

What You Need To Know About South Carolina’s Snakes

Author: Craig Hysell

If you’ve ever been surprised by a snake, you can relate to that electric tingle of adrenaline that hums through your body with, what feels like, the speed of light. There’s something primeval about the critter. Something instinctively unsettling. Something that makes you move from where you were to somewhere else in about .3 seconds when you come across one by accident. But is it justified?

That depends.

Snakes are a vital part of the global ecosystem. As a matter of fact, the only places in the world that do not have a snake population outside of zoos and pets are Ireland, Greenland, New Zealand, Iceland and Antarctica (most likely because nobody wants to live in Antarctica). But, in places like the Lowcountry, where the ecology is both lush and diverse, snakes are not only a blessing, but a barometer of the area’s condition.

J. Whitfield (Whit) Gibbons is the former head of the Environmental Outreach and Education Program at The Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and a professor of ecology at The University of Georgia. He writes, “How can snakes be indicators of a healthy environment? In natural ecosystems, the presence of top-level carnivores, the meat eaters, indicates that the herbivores, the plant eaters, are doing well. The presence of herbivores, in turn, denotes that the plant life is functioning as it should.”

All snakes are carnivores. Some are generalists—eating anything they can latch on to—and some, like the hognose snake, are specialists, preferring a strict diet of, in this case, toads. Some are ambush predators and some are active foragers. All of them are cold blooded in the literal sense and have a body temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit. In the Southeast, there are more than 50 species of snakes from three snake families.

The taxonomy of snakes is a source of contention between herpetologists and is, therefore, not an exact science. Arguments about genealogy and debates over characteristics have led serpent sorters to categorize snakes in anywhere from 15-18 families, comprising approximately 2,800 species. In the Southeast, snakes from the families Elipi??dae?? (coral snake), Viper??dae?? (cottonmouth, copperhead and rattlesnake) and Colubri??dae?? (a broad classification of snakes, most of which are non-venomous) make up the known species.

In this issue, Celebrate explores a selection of these “’daes” so that you can be sure to have a nice day should you unexpectedly encounter one. (Once that adrenaline rush wears off anyway…)

The Eastern Garter

a.k.a. “A bite which still hurts, but can’t really hurt you.”

The Scarlet Kingsnake: Smooth scales. Slender to robust body type growing to a little over two feet long. While the scarlet kingsnake isn’t venomous, its black, red and yellow ringed bands give it the appearance of its dangerous cousin, the eastern coral snake. To denote the species’ differences, try this simple rhyme: “Red touch yellow, kill a fellow. Red touch black, venom lack.” Scarlet kingsnakes are typically forest dwellers, hiding under loose bark, feeding mostly on rodents, lizards, other snakes and eggs, and kill by constriction. They are particularly active during warm months. Fun Fact: Kingsnakes, rat snakes and racers will vibrate their tails when threatened in an effort to mimic the venomous rattlesnake.

The Eastern Garter: Keeled (rough) scales. Stocky body. Can grow to over four feet long. Although varied in appearance, most eastern garters have three yellow, brown or green stripes running the length of their dark body. They reside near water—swamps, drainage ditches, ponds and wet meadows—and prefer open, grassy spaces. They actively chew their food to subdue it, have a tolerance for cooler temperatures and primarily feed on amphibians.

Racer: Smooth scales. Slender body. Can grow to six feet long or more. There are many species of racers, all varied in color. The southern black racer in South Carolina is all black with a white chin. They prefer open fields, forests and marshland. Racers are active in the daytime and hunt by sight. Their eating habits could be considered widely generalist: they’ll eat almost anything, including other snakes, and chew them into submission.Fun Fact: The venomous black mamba is known as the world’s fastest land snake, having been clocked up to 14 mph over short distances.

Coral Snake

a.k.a. “If you get bit, go to the doctor. Now.”

Copperhead: Keeled scales. Heavy bodied. Can grow to about five feet long. Copperheads have dark brown hourglass patterns on a light brown body. They live pretty much everywhere except Florida and congregate in communal dens, even living with timber rattlesnakes. They are ambush generalists. Gibbons writes, “More people are bitten by copperheads in the Southeast than any other venomous snake.”

Cottonmouth: Keeled scales. Heavy bodied. Grows to over six feet long. The eastern cottonmouth is indigenous to South Carolina. The snake has dark patterns over an olive brown skin and loves swampy regions. They are both ambush and active generalists. Fun Fact: Cottonmouths are very non-aggressive toward humans. They get their name from gaping their mouth widely to reveal their inner white lining when threatened.

Rattlesnake: Keeled scales. Heavy bodied. Eastern diamondbacks can be over eight feet long. The Southeast is home to timber/canebrake rattlesnakes and eastern diamondbacks. Timber and canebrake rattlers are the same species. They have black markings on a gray, yellow or brown back. Diamondbacks are unmistakable with their dark diamond patterns running the length of their body. They are ambush predators preferring small mammals to other prey. Diamondbacks live in forest-like habitats while the timber rattler will live just about anywhere humans have not urbanized. Fun Fact(s): The eastern diamondback is considered to be the most deadly snake in the United States and can still attack up to an hour after it has been killed! Their rattles can be heard from up to 60 feet away. Telling a snakes age by its number of rattles is a myth. And they can live for up to 20 years.

Coral Snake: Smooth scales. Slender body. Maximum length of four feet. Remember when red touches yellow, it can kill a fellow. Coral snakes have black, yellow and red bands running the length of their body. They live in pine and scrub areas, actively hunting other snakes and lizards. Human bites are very rare and usually only occur when a person tries to pick up the snake.

So, in summary, as your scholarly serpent study seemingly smolders with show-stopping severity, all you should solicit from a sociable sojourner such as yourself these days is to keep your senses on swivel. Your snake surprises will now seem serendipitous instead of scary. Which is all any type of education can hope for.

For more fascinating information on local snakes, read Snakes of the Southeast by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas. Information for this article was provided from its text.

A Snake Bit You. Now What?
Stay calm. Getting excited makes your heart beat faster, circulating the blood (and venom) more quickly. Most people do not die from snake bites, even without treatment, and oftentimes snakes inject little or no venom when they bite. Get to a doctor immediately. DO NOT cut out the bite, use ice, tourniquets or drink that shot of whiskey to dull the pain, cowboy.

More Snake Facts:
•Snakes are deaf.
•Most venomous snakes in the Southeast have elliptical pupils and keeled scales.
•Pythons are not Florida locals. And they are getting to be a problem. People brought them there as pets, either letting them go in the Everglades when they got too big or having them escape after hurricanes destroyed their enclosures. Healthy females lay 60 to 80 eggs a year.
•The longest snake on record is not an anaconda. It was a reticulated python found in 1912. It measured 32 feet, 9 inches long. The largest snake ever measured in •Florida was a 22-foot long Burmese python.
•The inland taipan in Queensland, Australia, has the most deadly venom in the world. One good chomp contains enough venom to kill 100 people or 250,000 mice.
•In Asia, the annual number of snakebite deaths is over 100,000, 80 percent of the global total.

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