If it weren’t so sad, it would be laughable. A burly 6-foot, 200-plus pound man strutting around like a peacock because he just killed something with a brain the size of a pea. “Cut it right in half,” he proudly announced. Sadly, Joe Blowhard killed a Black Rat Snake, one of the best neighbors a person can have.
Ft. Wright herpetologists Adam and Melissa Mann hate to hear such stories. They like snakes. More importantly, they understand snakes and the important role they play in our ecosystem. “Like many animals that people consider pests or a nuisance (bats, spiders, sharks, etc.), snakes are predatory and serve a very useful purpose,” said Adam. “They live in many different habitats and eat many types of other animals, some of which are pests to humans, such as rodents. Snakes are relatively clean animals and don’t pass many diseases to humans. Rodents are much more harmful to humans than snakes in that regard.”
Snakes are one of the most feared and despised animals. Unfortunately these irrational fears are due to a lack of understanding, superstitions, and inherited fears passed down through generations. “It is snake morphology that draws disdain from many people,” said Melissa. “It is our nature to like animals that have 4 limbs and have fur and feathers. Snakes usually don’t win prizes for cuteness. The fact that some snakes can harm humans leads many people to generalize that fact to all snake species. Since many people can’t tell the different snakes apart, they assume every one is dangerous rather than learning the differences between them.”
Like birds and butterflies, snakes too can be very colorful and fun to observe. They are secretive with interesting life histories.
Snakes are cold-blooded and must rely on behavior to regulate their body temperature. They seek shade when it’s warm and sun when it’s cool. They have frequent periods of inactivity and can go for several weeks without eating.
They are very specialized. They do not have legs, ears, or eyelids. They smell with their tongues. The tongue is constantly flicking to pick up odors. When smells are detected, a snake will insert its tongue into two holes in the top of its mouth where smells are interpreted by the brain. If a food-source is detected and the snake is hungry, it will pursue its prey.
Some snake species lay eggs, while others bear live young. Commented Adam, “Birth of live young is generally considered a more adapted trait for snakes. Most snakes associated with water give birth to live young, while most large and/or land dwelling snakes lay eggs. Reptile eggs cannot survive underwater like amphibian eggs, and need heat to survive. Land snakes bury their eggs in detritus or warm loose soil. All pit vipers, a very advanced group of venomous snakes, including the Copperhead, give birth to live young.”
Many people think that snakes are slimy, though they feel dry to the touch. Unlike humans who continually shed skin, snakes shed their entire outer layer of skin periodically during months when active. This accommodates growth and replaces skin exposed to many traumas such as scrapes, cuts, blows and bites.
Like fish, birds, mammals and even humans snakes are vertebrates, meaning they have backbones. Snake bones are very light and obviously highly movable. The lower jaw and skull are attached with a stretchy ligament. This allows a snake to open its mouth very wide and move each jaw independently. A snake therefore can swallow prey much larger than its head because its jaw can “detach”.
Unfortunately, when people encounter a snake they often corner it. When cornered a snake will hiss, coil up, open its mouth in a threatening manner and even strike. But this happens only when a snake feels threatened. Snakes just want to be left alone and will do their best to avoid conflict by simply moving away. “The majority of people who are bit by snakes are careless,” said Melissa. “Snakes are not aggressive, though it’s instinctive for them to defend themselves.”
When threatened or picked up many snakes will release a foul smelling musk. “Most harmless snakes will musk,” said Melissa. When predators get a face and mouth full of this smelly mixture they forever associate the sight and smell of the snake with the unpleasant experience.
Kentucky has 33 species of snakes with 12 of them calling Northern Kentucky home. “The most common snakes in Northern Kentucky are the Black Rat Snake, Eastern Garter Snake, Eastern Milk Snake, Midland Brown Snake, Black Racer, Ringneck Snake, Northern Water Snake, and Queen Snake,” said Adam. “Less common are the Kirtland’s Snake, Eastern Hognose Snake, Rough Green Snake, and Copperhead.”
“Several snakes are commonly mistaken for Copperheads,” said Melissa. “Especially snakes with patterns. Black Rat Snakes, Eastern Milk Snakes, and Northern Water Snakes are often mistaken.”
“It should also be noted that many people believe we have Cottonmouths in Northern Kentucky,” added Adam. “We do not. Northern Water Snakes are always confused with Cottonmouths due to their aggressive nature and affiliation with water.”
Snakes are good. In densely urbanized areas like Northern Kentucky, they provide much needed biodiversity. More importantly, they belong here. “It is human nature to fear what we do not understand,” said Melissa. “Once people have the opportunity to learn about these animals and their role in the environment, it can open their eyes to appreciate the natural world in its entirety. Every living creature has a purpose in our ecosystem and even the slightest alterations can cause great impacts in the web of life.” Added Adam, “The more we learn about these strange and fascinating creatures, the more we will appreciate how they fit into our world and into our everyday lives. Never stop learning about nature, for it’s all around us.”