Snake Heads (and we’re not talking fish!)

You are in the garden.  As you bend down to pick a tomato, you see a:  snake!  Whoa – that snake has a triangular shaped head!  Is the snake venomous?

Many people mistakenly believe that all snakes with triangular shaped heads are venomous.  And not just people: a recent study in Spain has even shown that predators such as hawks and eagles will often avoid snakes with triangular heads!  Valkonen, J., Nokelainen, O., & Mappes, J. (2011). Antipredatory Function of Head Shape for Vipers and Their Mimics PLoS ONE, 6 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0022272

The fact is, however, that many harmless snakes mimic the viper-like head shape when they are frightened.   Harmless snakes including garter snakes, rat snakes, and water snakes will flatten their heads and bodies when they feel threatened.  And snakes in the garden feel threatened when they see people.

So is there an easy way to know if a snake is venomous or harmless?  No, not really.  Herpetologists and snake experts learn to identify snakes using a variety of physical characteristics.  There is also individual variation within species: albinism, melanism, and pattern variations that occasionally occur can cause confusion when trying to  identify a snake.

At Reptiles Alive, we suggest that people  just leave all snakes alone.  If you leave snakes alone, snakes will leave you alone.  That way it  does not matter whether the snake is venomous or not  – even venomous snakes will leave you alone if you don’t bother them.

snake-heads-compared-300x242

Comparison of Snake Heads

northernbrownsnakehead-300x193

Northern Brownsnake

easterngartersnakehead-300x212

Harmless Eastern Gartersnake

northernwatersnakehead-300x211

Harmless Common Water Snake

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)

Calvert Cliffs Expedition

We have only one day off together. That means a trip to somewhere close. Today we head out to Calvert Cliffs in Southern Maryland:

http://www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/southern/calvertcliffs.html

With only a two mile hike to the fossil filled beach, it was a treat.

intcvbordwlkcc

 

We saw many frogs and other critters along the boardwalk. Caroline looks like she is about ready to go skipping. Tra-lah-lah-lah.

It was in the perfect 80′s. The boardwalk comes to an abrupt end. We have two miles ahead of us. Some fantastic scenery. And something possibly never seen before!

Can you find the turtle on the log in this picture?

inttreesswampturtle

Can you identify that turtle?  Me either, that little guy is WAY too far away.

Keep your eyes peeled on the other side of the walk or you might miss a HUGE worm snake.

Worm snakes (Carphophis amoenus) have tiny little eyes and look very much like a giant worm. The worms know the difference though. These snakes dine on worms! They even have a little spike on their tail to help push those wiggily-iggly slimy little worms in their mouth. Sssssslurps up!

Caroline fondly calls the worm snake and the next snake, LBS’s “little brown snakes.”  They may look the same, but they are very different.

Smooth Earthsnakes (Virginia valeriae) spend most of their time underground, they are fossorial.  They love to snoop under logs, boards, and rocks for yummy earthworms.

Does that sound like another snake?

Wormsnakes lay eggs like typical snakes.  Earthsnakes give live birth.  Visually, wormsnakes have pink bellies and a blunt snout.  Earth snakes have longer snouts and their scales include black specks.

intringneckyellow

Ringneck snakes are one of my favorite snakes to find.  When you first see them, they look like just another LBS.  If they get nervous, you get a surprise!  A brilliant yellow, orange, or red belly flashes into view as the snake flips and coils on the ground.

So far we have had amazing luck.

Now we are at the beach.  I am amazed at how blue the water is here!intcalvertcliffbeach

Gorgeous!intbeachfoot

These two pictures were sent to all my friends at work, to taunt them.

We get to play during the normal work week when there is no one around.  I love being alone out in the wild.  I imagine during the weekends, the beaches are filled with people looking for fossils.  You can have as many as you find on the beach.  Cool!

 One guy we met found several shark teeth and even a few fossilized dolphin teeth.

intfiveline

Back on the trail, this little skink ran right out in front of us.  What is with these lizards?  Every time we see one I swear they are playing chicken on the hiking trail.  Are they making bets with other lizards to see how close they can get to a hiker without getting stepped on or caught?  Three worms for three inches!

Check out the huge ear on this guy!

On our way back, several people going the other way told us to watch out for the copperhead in the middle of the trail.  It was battling another snake, we swear!  Yeah, right.  For one it is most likely a non-venomous brown snake.  We doubted there was even another snake in the vicinity. Boy were we wrong!

racereatcppr

Racer eating a copperhead

A northern black racer has wrestled and killed a bone fide copperhead snake.  Then, he began to eat it.  We stared in amazement until he slurped down the last of his tail.  Down like spaghetti.

Whoa!