Submitted by member animaljosh

I have had loads of free time as of late and have been checking out past threads here in the hope of making the days pass faster. I’ve had lots of giggles and gained a lot of insight. There is one subject here that I feel needs some clarification. That subject is reptiles…..specifically snakes (alligators are a close second…) I am going to take this opportunity to try and shed some light on an obviously misunderstood subject. I know it’s hard to “teach old dogs new tricks” but I feel compelled to try. I have amassed a good deal of information and experience through direct contact and academic studies over the past 20+ yrs of my life on the subject (I’m 35 FYI). I have personally handled, maintained in captivity, and bred almost all of the species native to NC, both venomous and non-venomous, as well as many more exotics and so I feel somewhat qualified. Why would you do that you ask? Well, simply put, because I am fascinated by nature and its wonders. Snakes are a part of it. By all apparent reasons they shouldn’t be able to survive in this world as we know it. Millions are killed by man every year. How can they still be around, and for that matter why do they exist in the first place? Come on, they can barely see, can’t vocalize, they don’t even have legs!!!!! And yet they can survive, breed, multiple, catch food items like mice, birds and fish, etc… with nothing more than a long body and a mouth. (actually, they do have some particularly impressive abilities which we’ll touch on later. You ever tried to catch a mouse, a bird, or a fish by hand??? How’d that turn out? And remember you have the advantage of thumbs and an enormous brain……

It’s warm outside again (finally!!!) and we all are out doing what we do. So are the snakes. ALL species without exception are cold blooded (ectotherms…Poikiliotherms to get more specific). Their strange limbless body form is perfectly adapted to the environments and tactics that they live in and use to catch prey. (not all limbless snake like reptiles are snakes. In NC we have a number of legless lizards, a few of which are extremely abundant in the coastal region – see legless lizards ). Snakes depend on the temperature of the surrounding environment to control internal body temperatures. A minimum threshold must be maintained in order to sustain life. In cooler temperatures metabolic process and mobility are virtually nonexistent. They go into a state knows as brumation in cold weather. Warmer temperatures allow for increased metabolic function, and mobility. If upper temperature thresholds are exceeded they perish. Temp threshold and requirements vary by species, but almost all species fall into the roughly 50-105 degree F range for survival. Optimum temperatures for most species are roughly 65-95 F. The lower temperature range is much larger. The upper range will quickly lead to sudden death if exceeded by only a few degrees. Whether it be water or air temps, if the conditions are below the optimal chances are unlikely that snakes are active. All species encountered in NC are land dependent for reproduction, but some species have adapted to a highly aquatic existence or are often found in the vicinity of bodies of water. Those are the species I am going to focus on in this rambling due to the relevance of our pastime, angling. Information on all species can be readily obtained through reliable scientifically recognized and sound sources both online and in printed publications. This information will not be in any means complete. I am merely gathering and compiling documented and proven information here. If at any point I interject my opinion in any way I’ll try to note it. Much of this is from memory, but any piece of this information is easily verified through any number of channels. A simple google search should offer reinforcement of the information. I will try and post links to document accordingly and especially when I pull information directly from a source. I will use Wikipedia links when available as it is the most convenient and easy to use source. (Wikipedia is far from perfect and should never be relied on as a sole source unless the information is verified through other channels). Also, I will use NC based sites when at all possible to maintain relevancy. The purpose of this is not in any way to argue or belittle anyone’s personal understanding or position on the subject, but rather to educate and try to dispel some of the many widely held misconceptions regarding the subject. It seems some of you have a real fear of them. There is absolutely no reason to have a shred of fear. By understanding fact and not myth you might be able to enjoy and appreciate your outdoor experiences more.

I am assuming some level of basic understanding regarding reptiles and snakes. There are 37 species of snake in NC and only 6 are venomous, one of which (the coral snake) is rarely ever encountered-see here-. See these links for general information and photos. Reptiles Species in NC

In the interest of simplicity let’s focus on the species of most concern. Unarguably the most maligned as well as misunderstood is the Water Moccasin or Cotton Mouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus). Contrary to popular belief the population of this species is rather low. It may be very locally common, but in general it is very unusual to encounter one. Many people (myself included) have spent countless hours in search of them specifically with rare sightings only. They are very aquatic in nature and rely on this habitat type for survival. Occasionally a specimen may be found a good distance from water, but if a.pisciviorus it is surely only in transit to suitable habitat or has been displaced by some physical means (most commonly activities of people). Water Moccasins rely on camouflage and stealth to both escape predators and to help procure prey. Mutations in color are not unheard of. Generally, younger specimens have more contrasting patterns and older specimens are faded and darkened, often to an almost completely black or dark brown coloration. (-see here- for decent photos). Water Moccasins are often noted for their aggressive behavior, but this is really a misconception.-see here- When encountered they will often hiss, puff up the body, coil the head opening the mouth, and often blindly lunge as if to strike. This is almost always a bluff display to discourage possible predators and protect territory. Just as often (if not more commonly) they will hunker down and try to blend into the background. You just don’t notice them then. In virtually every encounter the snake will go in the opposite direction than the perceived threat if allowed. If it is cold outside it might not be able to make a very fast retreat. Furthermore if a strike is to occur it is common that the snake will abstain from releasing venom. (called a dry bite) Venom is first and foremost a tool to subdue food. It is used in defense only when necessary, as venom takes some time and valuable energy to produce. If used for defense the snake is then left relatively defenseless and without its primary capability to catch its prey until it can build up venom stores again…. Water Moccasins can swim, and they can spend some time submerged. They are most commonly encountered on floating debris and vegetation near the shore in still moving bodies of water. They can tolerate some amount of salinity but require regular access to freshwater and cannot survive for any length of time in pure salt water environments. They will rarely be encountered swimming in open water or swift flowing currents. The only real characteristics to help identify them to those that do not know their snake species very well is to know their habitats, ranges, and distinguishing characteristic and behaviors. Some physical properties to look for are a rather blocky and angular head, a heavy and thick body, and cat like pupils. Here is a link to help....Identifying a Water Moccasin . A vast majority of the time this species is misidentified and confused with one of the numerous species of harmless non-venomous water snakes commonly found throughout the state. Of much importance is the range –see here- Guys, sorry but they do not exist in the western portion of the state, and even the range map is very liberal and does not mean they inhabit every inch of the territory included. Bottom line is Water Moccasins are simply an important part of the ecosystems in which they are found. Their presence indeed indicates rather healthy conditions. They are in no way out to harm you and will retreat from most any encounter. Yes, they are potentially dangerous, but isn’t this true of most anything???

The next species, and arguably the most commonly misidentified is Agkistrodon contortrix, better known as the Copperhead. Copperheads are, in fact, quit common. They can be found throughout the entire state -see range here- and are often locally quite common. (I personally could direct you to a few places but will refrain as not to upset and frighten…you’d be surprised how urban some of these places are!) Copperheads naturally exhibit a wide variation in color and pattern, and it is my opinion that is one of the reasons it is often confused with the majority of harmless species. They also inhabit a wide and diverse range of habitats and conditions. They are often found in close proximity to water, and will take some forms of aquatic prey, but are by no means considered an aquatic species. In truth the Copperhead is an upland dwelling species. Consider though, that precious few forested areas are intact, and those that are generally border bodies of water or at least contain them to some degree. Copperheads will rarely take to water other than to flee from a perceived threat. While capable of swimming (as are almost all snake species to some capacity) they are not actually adapted to the behavior. There preferred diet consists rather heavily on rodents such as mice and voles. They will also consume insects, worms, and other similar prey when available. Seldom do they feed on aquatic animals. While they are venomous rarely is the venom dangerous or fatal (barring underlying medical issues). I have personally been bitten twice, both times while mishandling wild caught specimens while they were trying to retreat. One bite was dry and nothing more than a scratch, the other was hot. It hurt, it swelled, it turned pretty colors……and I lived. I barely have a scar for “bragging rights”. Didn’t need antivenom or any medical treatment. Almost invariably, and this is true of all species, bites are due to people molesting snakes, and not snakes attacking people. –see here- When encountered copperheads often will simply not move and rely on their stunning camouflage to protect them. They are truly not aggressive animals and strikes are last resorts. It is a myth that young are more dangerous. The venom is not statistically (I will locate that if necessary) stronger. However, young are more apt to strike hot and offload the full dose of venom contained in their glands. Young also happen to be small and almost invisible in most situations. The indentifying physical characteristics are an angular head and jaw with visible pits (heat sensing organs) and cat like pupils. More info here….and here

Like all species snakes, venomous or not, are an important part of ecosystems and their natural cycles. They prey on many species that if left unchecked can cause great damage. (Ever had a mouse or roach infestation in your home?) Snakes are a major predator of rodents and other species, and in turn are a major prey species for other important species, such as birds of prey, mammals, and even aquatic species such as fish. They have their place and are there for a purpose. Unnecessary killing of them can throw things out of balance with potentially dramatic effects. There are some very simple and easy things to do to virtually guarantee your complete safety when outdoors.

First, take a second and check before you step. Snakes often take advantage of trails and areas we walk to expose themselves to the warming rays of the sun. You are in there territory, not the other way around.

Take special care to check boats before hitting the water. If one has crawled onboard seeking shelter and warmth there is no way to avoid some sort of uncomfortable (and potentially hilarious!) situation for the both of you once you leave the dock.

Don’t penetrate brush or overhanging branches. Snakes often sun themselves in overhanging branches to warm themselves. The branches offer a safe place and a convenient retreat to the waters below if danger approaches. Sometimes “danger” is a boat and in their attempt to flee end up landing inside the boat!!!!! It’s happened to me, it can happen to you.

The best way to avoid an unpleasant encounter for all species involved is to simply retreat if a snake is sighted. Of course you can also keep a safe distance and observe. You might be surprised how interesting they are and you may learn a thing or two about them.

A couple of random myths that seem to have permeated regarding snakes.

NC has no species of sea snakes.NONE! in fact, sea snakes are completely absent from the entire Atlantic basin and only found in the Pacific and Indian ocean and scattered parts of Oceana –see here- If you are in saltwater and you see a snake, especially swimming underwater, it almost certainly isn’t one….it’s an eel or eel like fish for which we have many species

A triangular head means venomous. Well, not exactly. “Triangular” is rather subjective and fairly misleading. Just have a look at all the species- here- and other places and simply familiarize yourself with what you might find

If it swims under water it’s a….. if it’s on top it’s a…… In truth there is little validity to these statements. Aquatic snakes that are more adapted to their environment have a much greater range of mobility regarding the water. And any snake can in a panic swim , even submerged for short bursts. This is not a valuable tool to indentify species.