The 10 Most Commonly Seen Snakes in DC Metro Area

Eeek! What is that snake in my backyard? We receive several calls a year from frantic and fascinated homeowners alike from the District and surrounding areas of Virginia and Maryland wanting to know what kind of snake is in their backyard

Here is a little guide to help you out.  Remember, all snakes are harmless if you leave them alone.

All snakes are able to flatten their head and shake their tail when scared.

(Disclaimer: Leave all snakes you find alone, they belong in the great outdoors; this includes your backyard. This guide is not intended to be the end all and be all of snake identification guides. All snakes can be born with different patterns and colors than what is typical for the species. As with ALL wild animals: Respect, watch, and admire from afar.)

ALL snakes listed are non-venomous unless otherwise noted.

1. Northern Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi) – a small, brown snake (15 inches) with darker paired spots down its back.

brownsnake

2. Ring-necked snake (Diadophis punctatus) – A small gray snake (up to 20 inches) with orange to yellow belly and a yellow or orange ring around its neck.

ringneckgreat

3. Garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) – A greenish or brown snake covered in checkered spots, and a yellow to white line down its back. Grows up to 48 inches long.

garterside

4. Black Ratsnake (Elaphe obsoleta) – A large and harmless black snake that can grow up to 80 inches long (6.5 feet).  The body is shaped like a loaf of bread. Belly is black and white checkered becoming gray near the tail.  Baby or juvenile black rat snakes are often confused with other snakes as they are gray or brown with black blotches on the body.  They are wonderful at taking care of rats and mice.

blackratsnake

 

babyblkrat

5. Northern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor) – A large shiny black snake that can grow to six feet.  These guys will slither away very quickly.  The young look very much like the baby black ratsnake.

blackracer06

6. Wormsnake (Carphophis amoneus) – A small shiny brown snake with a pink belly.  They look very much like a large worm, growing to 15 inches.  They think earthworms are delicious.

intwormsnake

7. Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon) – A large gray to brown snake with darker blotches on its back.  They are non-venomous, that is they have no poison.  Watersnakes live in and around water snacking on fish.  Note: there are NO cottonmouths or water moccasins in the DC area.

nerodiaonroad

8. Red Bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata) – A small grayish brown to black snake with a red belly.  They sometimes have black stripes down the back and light blotches on its neck.

occipitomaculata

9. Mole Kingsnake (Lampropeltis calligaster) – It may look like a cornsnake, but its a kingnake!  This gorgeous gray to brown snake with orange spots or blotches grows to 47 inches.

moleking01

10. Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) – VENOMOUS (Poisonous)* This is the only venomous snake found in the DC metro and surrounding counties.  Copperheads, like all snakes, will leave you alone if you leave them alone.  This beautiful snake has eyes like a cat so it can hunt at night.  Copperheads can be pinkish, tan, brown, and even a light rust color.  Nearly every snake in the area has been mis-identified as a copperhead, although uncommon in the area treat all snakes with respect. This snake provides humans with a very valuable rodent control service.

copperintsml

Remember:  Treat all snakes with respect.  Leave them alone as they belong where you found them just like the birds and butterflies living in your backyard.  Experts sometimes have trouble identifying snakes as all animals can be born all black (melanistic), patternless, or albino.

Find out more and join Virginia Herpetological Society

Visit your local nature center

Sources:
Pinder, MJ and JC Mitchell, “A Guide to the Snakes of Virginia.” 2002 Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Conant, Roger, “A Field Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians of Eastern & Central North America” (Peterson Field Guide Series)

Sad News for Galapagos Tortoise

Lonesome George, the last tortoise of his kind may not have babies after all.  The single survivor of the Pinta Island Galapagos giant tortoises, Lonesome George has been an icon for conservation the world over.  The big tortoise was paired with two female tortoises, and successfully mated with them for the first time in over 35 years just a few months ago. (The females are of another subspecies of the Galapagos Tortoise, but are of a close genetic match to the Pinta Island subspecies.)

Unfortunately, most of the eggs produced by this encounter are likely infertile. There is still hope for 20% of the eggs.  Researchers are keeping the eggs in incubators covered in religious symbols, waiting for a miracle. I myself am crossing my fingers. At 90 years old, the tortoise is still in his prime, but with several decades of failure I am a bit guarded. Scientists have tried many means to get George interested in breeding and have even tried artificial insemination. All of it with no luck.

The largest land tortoises in the world, Galapagos Tortoises can weigh over 500 pounds and live well over 100 years.  Since their discovery, only 11 of the 14 known subspecies of the tortoise survive today.  The big reptiles were used as a food source and ballasts on pirate, whaling,  and trader ships in the past.  More recently, introduced rats and goats have been destroying food sources and eating the eggs of the highly endangered tortoise.

It is clear that humans are likely solely responsible for the tortoises declining numbers. Lonesome George provides hope that humans may use their knowlege to do something good. It is unlikely the researchers in the Galapagos will give up with this latest disappointment. They had over 36 years of set-backs, there is still hope.

Tell us what you think!  Will successful breeding of Lonesome George with the hybrid females be considered a success for the species, or simply the creation of another hybrid?

 

Learn more about Galapagos Tortoises from the San Diego Zoo at:

http://www.sandiegozoo.org/animalbytes/t-galapagos_tortoise.html

News Source: Associated Press US News:

http://usnews.feedroom.com/?fr_story=d68d6e925ab13a8451aa8ec0faa9c6b5f5a1346a&rf=bm

Sea Snakes Slurp the Good Stuff

Even though sea snakes spend their entire lives swimming in salt water, they need to drink the good stuff, fresh.

A new study from the University of Florida has shown that even when the sea snakes are dehydrated, they will only drink fresh water (water with less that 20% salt content.)

www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/11/081106153629.htm

While the study only used a few species of snakes, it was well done.  It is possible that more ocean-going reptiles may take advantage of fresh water as well.

This completely changes the way scientists think the 60 or so species of sea snakes deal with their watery world.  Sea snakes were once thought to filter out the salt from the water by using special internal glands.

Why is this an important finding?  Many species of sea snakes may be disappearing due to rising temperatures and lack of rainfall.  Either the snakes must crawl onto land and drink fresh water there or they must drink fresh rainfall falling on the ocean.

Wait, these guys drink rainfall in the middle of the ocean?  It just so happens that when rain falls on the surface of the ocean, it sits there for a period of time without mixing. Fresh water is slightly lighter than salty water, this is known as the Ghyben-Herzberg lens. Sea snakes may then drink from the pool of fresh water formed on top of the ocean.

Some species of sea snakes may become extinct due to droughts!

Sea snakes are amazing serpents related to cobras and coral snakes, the elapids.  While they have potent venom, sea snakes are reluctant to bite.  Like all snakes, the venom is used to catch their food, not for defense as many people think.  How easy would it be for you to catch a slippery swimming eel with your mouth and try and swallow the wriggling thing in the vast ocean?

Sea snake venom is potent so that the prey may become paralyzed quickly for the snake to catch and swallow.  Fisherman the world over have often taken sea snakes out of nets with their bare hands without being bitten.  The snakes are probably just happy to be back in the water.  I of course, would have second thoughts before scaring the living daylights out of an animal with powers like that of an elapid.

I sure hope the rains return to the homes of the many species of facinating sea snakes.

North Carolina Herptravanganza

Imagine a blond, brunette, and a red-head visit a log cabin in the middle of nowhere. A horror story, adventure, or comedy?

A friend at a local zoo invited us down to his place in the woods for a few days of reptiles and fun on thousands of acres of protected forest.

So, we packed the car with tons of goodies and headed down early in the morning. Our directions were to: “drive down a road until you think no one could possibly live there, then drive a few more miles.”

We turned on a dirt road with his address on the mailbox, and quickly ended up on a dirt road with the word “SNAKES” spray painted on a board lying on the side of the road. I guess we got the right place. Boy, did we! A few minutes up the road we encountered another sign stating the land is protected preserve. Not far from that were some tin on the side of the road for reptiles to hide under.

No reptile fan would ever in their right mind pass up the opportunity to look under tin. We got out of the car fire drill style and ran to the tin. Notin’ Honey. Our real surprise was waiting for us at the end of the road. What a beaut!

nclogcabin

Notice this gorgeous log cabin is run by solar panels? That’s right kids, this baby is completely off the grid! It comes with all the amenities;

  • All hard wood
  • Huge fireplace
  • fridge
  • hot water
  • giant woodburning stove
  • comfy beds
  • dogs
  • tasteful interior decorations

Did I mention it was off the grid?

We did not hang around the house for long, it was time to look for reptiles! We walked outside laughing and talking, but that did not last for long. Serious herping was happening. The first thing you notice about being in the middle of nowhere is the absolute silence pierced only by the song of a bird, an insect, or a rustle in the grass next to the solar panel. Was that a flash of green I just saw? What the … ? Aren’t those guys supposed to occur in Florida?

carolinanole

I was dazzled, we were in the most northern range of the Carolina Anole! He was gorgeous. We hadn’t even left the front yard. I drooled in anticipation.

Things were gettting serious. Serious relaxation that is.

I have a very exciting job with rooms full of children in sugar induced frenzies and wild life. I love my job. I love the noise, the screaming children, zombied parents and teachers with glazed eyes and stumbling walk, the tortoise with the occasional gas…

my brain needed a bit less stimulus to munch on for a while.

Mark, our gracious host, and I wandered with snake hooks. There were timber rattlesnakes and copperheads around. Mark even mentioned how two rattlesnakes like to sit in the bushes near the bird feeder waiting for rabbits and chipmunks to come in for breakfast. We hoped there would be some use for the hooks today. (We use them to gently scooped up and guide venomous snakes away from us if we find one along the path.)

I was enjoying stories of otters and hawks along our flower scented walk when we found our first group of tin. All of us excitedly began to peak under them. We took turns lifting up a piece while the rest of us squinted in anticipation. Nothing in the first group. We walked up a small hill and soon found a prize.

jenrncking

A gorgeous representative of its species!

The snake is pretty too.

That is Jennifer holding an eastern kingsnake with our host, Mark looking on. This kingsnake is something I would call an intergrade. That is; a mix two subspecies. The snake has characteristics of both the Florida kingsnake and the eastern kingsnake. See the chains of yellow up his side?

Mark tells us that many of animals found in this part of North Carolina are a mix of the northern and southern versions of the species. They are the best of both worlds. How cool!

If you look closely, you may be able to see that this kingsnake is missing its entire tail! It is likely that a hawk or some other animal got a hold of it and bit it off. The snake got away, but not without missing a few parts. Poor guy!

In a little wetland area, we met a cute little critter of the slimy variety. Isn’t he a cutie

ncfrog

Flowers were blooming everywhere. We walked over footbridges, across streams, meadows, and through grass. After crossing the same stream several times, we all stopped. “What smells like strawberry banana smoothie?” A native plant with tiny flowers all over it? Boy, do we have some fascinating plants in the States.

“Quick Caroline!”

“I see it!”

“I think it just ran under that log.”

He found a much better hiding place.

“Is it okay to come out now?”

“Time for me to make my getaway while no one is looking.”

That was one cute skink.

We decided to walk to Mark’s closest neighbors place to check out a yurt they were building next to some very nice ponds. I have never heard of a yurt before. I found out that it was a round house with a domed ceiling and a hole in the top for a chimney, or in this case, a skylight.

I was amazed at the amount of space the building had.

This building was to be completely off the grid as well. Three cheers for green living!

Past the house in progress and up the hill was the one thing that all hikers in the south fear! Watch what happens when I lightly tap the sandy area with my snake hook

Stay away from that ant mound. They look small, but they are fast and fierce!

Next, it was time to check out an old barn in the middle of a field that fell down. Boards were everywhere. For the first time for all of us, we found the elusive cornsnake!

Why is this snake considered hard to find. Believe it or not, its people! One of the reasons for the snakes declining population is collection for the pet trade. There are many people who like snakes, but please Leave them in the Wild where they Belong! The main reason these snakes are disappearing is likely just the presence of people. We are building houses where animals used to live, and bulldozing over and killing thousands of animals. Cornsnakes do not occur in the Washington DC area because of this. Check your field guide however, and it will list the snake as occurring in the region. Sad. Hopefully little guys like this wild animal will make a comeback and continue doing its job eating mice!

We had a wonderful day herping. Now it was time to light a fire and cook some fajitas. I think Caroline was so excited about finding the corn snake she fell asleep on the couch first. Gradually we all staggered up the blue spiral staircase into our warm and cozy beds.

What an adventure!

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