ARTICLE FOR NORTH GEORGIA JOURNAL

 THE TRUTH ABOUT SNAKES

~NORTH GEORGIA’S REPTILES HAVE THEIR OWN STORIES, BUT PERHAPS NOT THE ONES YOU’VE HEARD   ~

 By Mark Warren


     When I was nine years old, I heard a story from a trusted adult who had witnessed a snake beating her grandfather with its tail. Each lash mark caused the elderly man’s flesh to rot. My adult friend was dead serious. But I remained a cautious audience.

     Once someone tells a snake story, usually another will follow. Everybody has one. After the “whip-snake” story, another woman related a curious vignette of a snake biting its own tail to form a circle. At this point it managed to raise itself up like a wheel to roll down a hill. But that’s not the best part. The snake, she said, was chasing her. Naturally, her advice to me: “Always run uphill from a snake.”

     How can a creature that crawls along the ground without arms and legs rate such a spine-tingling mythology? Maybe that’s it – that they can move so effortlessly, as if by magic. Whatever the reason, snakes - perhaps more than any other animal on the planet - bring out the storyteller in humans.

     It’s always the unknown that puts us on edge. Everyone knows that some snakes can inject venom – a formidable bit of knowledge to a walker in the woods. But few people truly learn to distinguish between venomous and non-venomous species. Therefore all snakes fall under the mantle of “the enemy.”

     Some psychologists have suggested that humans cannot relate to snakes due to the disparity of our anatomy and theirs. How could anyone love a slithering tail with a head? The idea is so completely un-human. And young snakes never exhibit any stage of infantile cuteness like puppies and kittens do. One tentative glance from almost any baby animal triggers the caretaker in us. One glance from a snake leaves most people cold. And certainly the Biblical references to snakes as emblems of evil have not improved their situation. (Ironically, in the book of Mark, there is a reference to snake-handlers acquiring healing powers.)

     Many folks have an aversion to slimy, yucky things and incorrectly lump snakes into that category. After a recent molt, a snake’s skin glistens like a new varnish. This reflective sheen loses some of its gloss in time, but generally a snake reflecting sunlight might appear wet. Regardless how shiny they look, snakes are not slimy but dry – unless, of course, it’s a water snake in water.

     Another bias against snakes presents itself in the facial expression of our venomous species. The scale above the eye slants downward endowing the snake with an “evil eye” worthy of any cartoon villain.

     Because many snakes are content to lie about in the daylight hours, shifting positions only to move from shade to sunlight and back (snakes depend on their environment for their body heat), they appear to be lying in ambush. Which they might be - for a toad or a mouse...but not for you and me. Taken together all these factors might encourage a human misinterpretation that reptiles are devious plotters with malicious intent.

     I suppose I shouldn’t be too critical of the old wives’ tales (and the even more plentiful old husbands’ tales) about snakes. After all, snakes can do some amazing things – rolling like a bicycle tire not being one of them.

     I think back to a late summer afternoon of my boyhood when I was tramping across an open field spotted with flat rock outcrops. The yellowing grass was high enough that I walked right up on a thick-bodied snake the color of tire rubber. I’d been warned repeatedly through childhood that thick, muscular snakes were deadly. The snake reared its head more than a foot off the ground and hissed like a blast from an air hose. Its neck flattened and flared a good six inches across. Moving by reflex, my legs backed me up – quickly – and I found myself transfixed by the sight of this feisty serpent. I’d never seen anything like this.

     Part of me – the part that wanted to live long enough to have supper with my family one more time – encouraged full retreat...to backtrack into the shelter of the trees where the ground cover was not so thick. But I couldn’t take my eyes off this spectacle, which for me ranked somewhere in the order of an Odyssean confrontation with a mythical beast denying me access to my journey.

     The snake hissed again, its hooded neck hovering above the grass like a warning post. Back off! My space. I laugh whenever I tell this story to my nature students, because as I stood alone in that field I was convinced that somewhere nearby a circus train had derailed. There was a cobra loose in north Georgia.

     When the snake made no attempt to get closer, I knelt to observe. With a thousand guesses I would never have predicted its next move. It flipped upon its back in a disheveled coil and let its mouth gape as though it had just expired from heat exhaustion. I nudged it with a stick. Nothing. I could not imagine why it had died. I worked the stick under its spine and righted its body to get a better look at a pattern or marking I might have missed. No sooner had the “dead” snake settled on its belly than it inverted itself again. It had died again!

[HOGNOSE PHOTO]

     With tactics like these, it’s no wonder snakes have spawned so many tall tales. After all, until I later satisfied my curiosity by reading a book on reptiles, I believed I had come face to face with a thespian but deadly cobra. In fact, I had crossed paths with a hognose snake. With all its dramatic performance, the hognose is a perfect candidate for misinterpretation. But one has only to look at the confrontation from the snake’s perspective to understand that it merely wanted to be left alone.

     The most memorable story that floated in and out of my teen years was about water moccasins - or cottonmouths, as they are named due to the brilliant white lining in their mouths. This story surfaced first, supposedly, from Lake Lanier. Then the Chattahoochee River. And finally Lake Burton. Though the location changed with each telling, the essential details of the story remained the same. A water skier takes a fall. He calls out to his friends, “Hey, I think I’m tangled in some barbed wire!” By the time the boat maneuvers close enough, the crew is horrified to see the young man flailing at snakes. He has tumbled right into a nest of moccasins. As the rescuers try to pull him out, the snakes cling to him like leeches. A friend of mine swore to me that a friend of his swore that he saw it happen. “They had to beat the snakes off his body with the spare paddles.”

[WATER MOCCASIN PHOTO]

     First of all, water moccasins most likely do not live in those areas mentioned. And even if they did, they would not nest up like a clump of unstirred spaghetti noodles. They would drown. And no prudent water moccasin would bite something as large as a human and hold on. Bite, inject and retreat – all in a flash...that’s the safest tactic for a snake.

     Someone who heard that story at the same time I did refuted it immediately. “That’s a bunch of bull. Snakes can’t bite underwater!”

     Therein lies another illogical “law” of snakes that is believed by many. Think about it. Water moccasins eat fish. Where do they catch them? I saw my first water moccasin when I was eleven visiting friends in south Georgia. The snake – as big as my leg was then – was two feet deep in a crystal clear creek. In its mouth, stuffed head-first, was a catfish as large as my adult calf. It was a sight I will never forget and one that reminds me that snakes can – just as I can – bite underwater.

     So where do water moccasins live if not here in the mountains? Along the coast, up the coastal plain to the fall line and somewhat beyond, and in a section of northwest Georgia (including Lake Alatoona) – in short, those places where in prehistoric times ocean water (and its adjacent coast) had covered the land. Of course, this range could change in time; but the parameters of the map are pretty reliable. Once a cottonmouth was found and identified in Peachtree Creek in Atlanta, but finding one specimen of a specie in an atypical habitat does not warrant changing the parameters. For all we know, someone might have released it there just to liven up the neighborhood.

     In the central and eastern mountains of north Georgia, old timers are quick to tell you that water moccasins abound. Water snakes are often killed in the name of moccasins, and the event is sure to include some hair-raising descriptions of bright white mouths opened defiantly with repeated threats. I would guess that most of these victims I hear about are northern water snakes or brown water snakes, both non-venomous but quite warrior-like if challenged – a virtue applauded in our own specie.

[NORTHERN AND BROWN WATER SNAKES]

     When I began my snake-catching efforts, it was these harmless water snakes that posed one of the best standing challenges. Not only are they wary and quick – able to bite several times in the flash of a split second (if caught improperly) – but they possess a putrid defense chemical (as virtually all our snakes do in varying potencies) that makes the catcher want to abort his mission. A thick milky substance is expelled from the anus, fairly penetrating human skin to taint the “marked man” for hours. If the snake feels it has no chance to jerk free of its captor, it will wrap its body around wrist and arm – the better to smear this foul smelling fluid all over the offending human. Could this be the seed of that outlandish story about a snake that whips human flesh into putrefaction?

     Probably.

     How can we differentiate between moccasins and non-venomous water snakes? Since the water moccasin’s coloration and pattern are so variable (from black to gray to red, from uni-colored to multicolored with chevrons like a beaded Indian belt), let’s take a look at more reliable clues – physical characteristics that pertain to all pit vipers in north Georgia: water moccasins, copperheads and rattlesnakes.

     All snakes can swim, but some perform the feat differently from others. True water snakes, when cruising along the surface, usually swim with just their head out of the water. But the water moccasin often swims with most of its body on top, just like his pit viper cousins, rattlers and copperheads. I’ve seen all three in water. The rattler and copperhead bloat themselves for buoyancy and ride the water high enough that they might look like snakes gliding across ice.

     Because these pit vipers often hunt at night, they are equipped with heat-sensing organs in cavities situated between nostril and eye. This pit collects infrared waves, which are transmitted to the brain where a visual image defines to the snake whether the source of heat is a mouse, rabbit or some other prey. Hinged fangs unfold from the roof of the mouth to deliver the debilitating dosage.

     The pit viper’s pupil is a vertical slit against a rounded background. Non-venomous snakes show round pupils. The exception to this rule is the venomous, round-pupilled coral snake, whose habitat is restricted to south Georgia and parts of western middle Georgia.

[CORAL SNAKE]

     As a general rule, a snake’s belly is covered by a single shingled row of scales called scutes, which provide grip for the fluid locomotion for which snakes are famous. To demonstrate just how remarkable these scales are, twice I have seen black rat snakes, in the frenzy of mating, fall from trees. I picked up these heavy snakes and simply positioned them vertically on the tree trunk and let go. The snakes held fast and “oozed” up the tree without spiraling. (Surely there is a myth somewhere in Appalachia about these snakes ambushing people by leaping from trees.) If the tail of the snake (that portion of the body posterior to the anus) shows a center dividing line on its underside (in other words, two rows of scutes side by side), that snake is not a pit viper. If the underside of the tail is predominately covered by a single row of scutes like the belly (no dividing seam down the center), it is a pit viper. Granted this method of identification is not practical in a situation with a living snake, but it is useful in proving to a snake killer that he might have slain a harmless, even beneficial snake.

     But be careful examining a dead snake. Keep your distance. A dead rattlesnake will keep biting till the sun goes down. There is some credence to that old adage. Once the dead brain ceases to control the selection of activities of the snake, reflexes can fire the nerve cells into action – including striking.

     A pit viper’s silhouette – thick bodied (for its length) and triangular head – might be difficult to assess without another snake for comparison. So many times I have heard my students comment on the triangular head of a water snake or rat snake. And hognose snakes, pine snakes and rat snakes can weigh in pretty hefty.

     The copperhead’s magnificent camouflage makes an unforgettable pattern of coppery hourglasses running down its back. The background color varies from tan to pinkish to gray...sometimes even bluish. In most cases when I have found a gray, it was on high ground; and tans were on floodplains – which makes sense for blending into drier or moister ground. But exceptions are the rule in nature. I have seen each out of its prescribed element.

[COPPERHEAD]

     Rattlesnakes, of course, carry a chain of rattles on their tails – one button forming for each shedding of the skin...not, as is often believed, one per year. Though some old-timers in southern Appalachia will tell you that diamondback rattlers once lived in these mountains, these huge snakes (sometimes six feet in length) are only found in the coastal plain. The timber, or canebrake, rattler can grow big too, almost rivaling the diamondback in size. I once found a well-fed timber rattler in a mouse-infested abandoned chicken house. That snake measured just shy of five feet with a thirteen-inch waistline. Maybe such mountain giants once encouraged old timers to boost the status of older and bigger timber rattlers by elevating them to the category of “diamondback.”

[TIMBER RATTLER]

     The pigmy rattler, a much smaller and less seen rattlesnake, frequents all of south Georgia and some eastern and western portions of north Georgia. If you’ve spent lots of outdoor time in the pigmy’s habitat, chances are you have passed right by these well camouflaged rattlers. They do have rattles, but don’t count on them for a warning. Better to stay alert.

[PIGMY RATTLER]

     All of these pit vipers are, if unmolested, unaggressive – even sluggish...unless it’s the mating season in spring. But even in the throes of passion, the increased agitation of these snakes is directed not at humans but at the object of their affection. Once I interrupted two male copperheads vying for the attention of a female – a high drama being played out on my back doorstep. As I went about the separating and catching process so that I could transplant them to a wilder setting, these smitten creatures never acknowledged my presence until they were caught.

     All my life I have heard stories of the extremely aggressive nature of water moccasins. One fisherman swears that a stealthy moccasin waited for his john boat to drift beneath its perch in a shrub, dove into his boat and went after him. According to the storyteller, the entire scene was a calculated ambush. A more sensible interpretation is that the moccasin awoke to the vibrations of something scraping his sleeping loft. The snake had chosen this branch over the water for fast escape should the need arise. It dropped. Instead of a familiar liquid “splash,” it slammed into hard aluminum and found itself in a container with public enemy number one – a human. One of the snake’s natural defense maneuvers is to show its white mouth to scare off its antagonist. Without an obvious escape route from the boat, the snake might even move threateningly toward the man. Aggressive? Yes. But all in the name of defense and survival.

     In order to make my wilderness base camps safer for my students, I have caught lots of venomous snakes and transplanted them. Never has one of these snakes shown any indication of aggression, trouble-making or even agitation until I had picked it up, removing it from its familiar contact with earth or water. When first captured, snakes might thrash about trying to free themselves from human hands and might even hurt themselves in the process, which is one more reason a snake-handler must be careful where to place his or her hands. And naturally the captives will try to bite – just as you or I would if we were limbless and captured by a giant creature weighing fifty times our own weight.

     A friend who works as an ER physician questions every snakebite victim who comes into his hospital, and after enduring a diatribe on the insidious nature of reptiles, he finally elicits from his patient an admission: “Well, I guess I was sorta messing around with it a little with a stick.” Or something similar.

     Stepping on a venomous snake, especially at night when the snake is hunting, is a prime scenario; but there is nothing too surprising about that. Inadvertently surprising or disturbing a snake is another typical stimulus for a biting response. Last summer a neighbor leaned down to pick up his cat’s food bowl – one of those containers shaped like an inverted sailor’s cap. When he slipped his fingers under the base, he was bitten by a young copperhead that undoubtedly thought it had found an out of the way shelter.

     Death by pit viper is rare...but possible. Venoms are varied combinations of hemotoxins, neurotoxins and cardiotoxins that can differ not only from one specie to another but also by the season. Usually what follows an injection of venom is intense pain and marked swelling within a quarter hour – and sometimes weakness, sweating and numbness of the mouth follow. Tissue damage by necrosis is not uncommon. But in almost half of the recorded bite incidents, little or no venom is injected. Such “dry bites” might be the result of the snake having recently purged its supply. Or it might be an act of discretion – holding some toxin in reserve. Or perhaps it is the whim of the snake based on personal decisions we shall never be privy to.

     Deaths might be attributed to specific human medical conditions, the victim’s age or to unusual circumstances – like the botanist who was crawling beneath palmetto fronds on one of Georgia’s coastal islands. She came face to face with a big diamondback and was bitten on the forehead – one of the most vascular locales on the human body.

     Such grim stories make it easy to understand why even snake-haters claim as their favorite specie the kingsnake, who is immune to pit viper venom. This protective body chemistry allows the kingsnake to hunt and eat venomous snakes. And though this might appear to be, finally, a snake with our own interest at heart, the kingsnake is simply following its genetic call to eat whatever it can. The pit vipers are no different – they just happen to be venomous. Mice, rats, birds, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, toads, frogs, salamanders, cicadas, crayfish, slugs, worms, lizards, other snakes...each has a place on the shopping list of north Georgia’s snakes. Humans are not to be found on that list.

[KINGSNAKE]

     Acceptable first aid measures for venomous snakebite seem to change every few years. The cutting of the fang punctures with a blade to induce blood (and venom) loss that was once recommended is now not advised. More permanent damage has been incurred by improper cutting than by the venom. And now the use of a tourniquet is known to be too risky – increasing the chances of gangrene and the need for amputation and depriving a potentially necrotic area of oxygen. The best advice is 1.) to stay as calm as possible, 2.) to keep the bitten area below the heart and 3.) to get to professional help as soon as possible. The great paradox of these suggestions is that numbers 1 and 3 are sometimes not compatible – especially if you are alone or in a remote area. It takes effort to get to help. If help cannot be obtained within a few hours, it might be advisable then to get warm and comfortable, drink lots of water and weather the miserable storm.

     What happens at a hospital? It depends. The use of antivenin can affect some people even more adversely than the venom. Basically the physicians start an IV, administer antibiotics, tetanus booster if necessary and anti-inflammatory drugs, then within a few days graft good skin over an area where dead tissue has been surgically excised.

     Most venomous snakebites are not complete surprises; that is, the snake was spotted before the bite incident. Then due to curiosity, bravado or the urge to kill, the victim-to-be makes an imprudent decision. But let’s visualize what some might consider an unprovoked bite from the snake’s point of view.

     A copperhead nestles under the curvature of a log and settles in for a cool, comfortable rest before the time to go hunting in a summer’s dusk. Snakes can’t hear, but they can feel vibrations in the earth. When this copperhead detects something approaching, it pays attention. The rhythm of the steps is disturbing. So is the weight. It’s the dreaded two-legged – the snake-slayer human. The footsteps are alarmingly close now. The snake tenses at the proximity of such an enemy and hopes that the human will pass on by. It flicks its tongue, sweeping the air for molecules of scent, which it then carries inside its mouth to deposit on its Jacobson’s organ to interpret smell. (A snake’s nostrils are not for smelling but for breathing when the mouth and throat are stuffed with a mouse or some other meal.) Now the footsteps are right behind the log. The snake must consider the danger. I should get out of here! But it’s too late for that. A giant foot slams down right in front of the snake. There is no escape. The copperhead is trapped. It can’t scream, slap, claw, slug or kick. So it bites.

     But, in my opinion, the more likely scenario would be the one we never know about. The snake remains still and the walker in the woods moves on. In time the peaceful world of the snoozing snake returns just like a rippled pond settling, and the hiker becomes an inconsequential memory. If there is a lesson in this hypothetical story, it is to step on the tops of logs, pause just for a moment to see if a snake makes a dash for it, then if there is no sign of one, take a big step then look back at (perhaps) the accident you avoided.

     North Georgia is home to a great diversity of harmless snakes. Most people know garter snakes, named for the yellowish (or green or blue) stripes running the length of their bodies (reminiscent of garter designs from our culture’s past). Besides the striped variety there is an eye-catching garter snake with a small-checkered pattern.

     It might surprise you to know that the garter snake is technically venomous to its prey...but not nearly potent enough to harm humans. I’ve been bitten by them a number of times with absolutely no ill effect. Once caught they settle down nicely and serve well in an impromptu snake lesson for my students. Though the teeth leave only a double arc of skin pricks (wash up with soapy water after bites), the other end of the snake is a different story, expelling its foul musk quite effectively by everting its anus – literally turning it inside out like a worst-case hemorrhoid. Imagine turning a pocket inside out to completely empty it of every speck of dust – much more effective than plucking it out bit by bit.

[GARTER SNAKE]

     Garter snakes are hardy. Several times I have seen them in early spring slithering on top of a solid blanket of snow. Like pit vipers they give birth to live babies, and the numbers might surprise you. Once I counted forty-eight rattlesnake infants as they emerged from the mother. As many as fifty have been recorded for garter snakes. Many other snakes lay eggs. Unless by a chance meeting, the snakes that crawl from these shells never see their mother. Baby snakes from womb or egg go their on way, fully equipped to perform survival duties from the moment they hit the ground slithering.

     Crossing paths with a black rat snake can be an unforgettable experience due to its size. During a stalking exercise, my students and I watched a six-foot long “granddaddy” rat snake swallow seven baby rabbits from the same nest. That’s a lot of snake, and I am sure my wards will remember every inch of it.

     My first memory in life is my father chopping into pieces with a hoe a writhing ten-foot (that’s a toddler’s recollection; it was more likely five or six feet long) black snake. At the time I had, of course, no idea what this creature was...nor did my father. Little did he know he was dispatching the premier rodent controller in our area. In those days any snake that showed up in our neighborhood was destined to die at the hands of well-meaning but uninformed parents up to the knightly task of slaying serpents.

[BLACK RAT SNAKE]

     Rat snakes are constrictors, powerfully muscled to kill rodents and other prey by suffocation – tightening their grip with each exhalation of their victim. These snakes are excellent climbers and will search for birds and eggs in their nests. The next time you hear an avian racket in the trees, look up. You may be surprised who is stalking through the branches.

     It is the opinion of many that the most comely of our snakes is the red rat snake or corn snake. Because I have seen only a few in the wild, I must assume these constrictors are shy and retiring. But I do agree about the aesthetics. The corn snake is one you will not likely forget should you be lucky enough to see one.

[CORN SNAKE]

     Black racers are aptly named. They are sleek and fast. If they stand their ground when approached, they might vibrate their tail in dry leaves so rapidly that they mimic a rattle. (In fact, all the non-venomous snakes mentioned just previously use this same bluff.) If a racer were to veer toward you in its escape from a group of humans, you might be tempted to see this as an act of aggression – especially because it is so swift. The unexpected “attack” might be frightening. Which brings us to the questionable claim I hear most often about reptilian encounters – snake attack! In the many times I have crossed paths with snakes – venomous and non-venomous – I have never seen anything that could be remotely called an attack.

     The native people of Belize and Guatamala claim that such a snake exists in the fer de lance. Unfortunately (or fortunately) during my time in those countries, I failed to find one to confirm that trait. So I will remain open but highly skeptical on the matter. In my limited travels I find people to possess the same human qualities everywhere – including the propensity to elevate stories to a higher level of adventure - the result being misinterpretations of animal behavior.

     The black racer could easily be confused for a black rat snake. Both can be very black with a white chin. A rat snake could not compete with a racer’s speed; but without a comparison of both snakes side by side, one might have a difficult time pinpointing which is which. A few fine points of identification are worth noting here simply to demonstrate what details snake experts look for.

     If you were to count the number of longitudinal rows of scales on the back of an adult racer (from one side of the belly scute across the back to the other side of the belly scute), you would find seventeen rows. Looking closer at an individual scale, the surface would appear as a smooth unwrinkled plate. The black rat snake possesses twenty-five to thirty-three rows. The scales on the sides of the rat snake are also smooth, but on top of the spine each scale is keeled, anterior to posterior – just like the shallow keel of a lake canoe.

     As a final note about these leg-less reptiles, it is illegal to kill or hold captive any native non-venomous snake without a special permit. There is no law to protect venomous snakes from being killed and, ironically, from being caged as a pet in your home. But the more you learn about snakes by reading and especially by observing them in the wild, the more you will come to understand them as fellow survivors on the planet who play a key role in the population control of animals that need controlling. Mice, after all, are the primary carriers of the deer tick, which can transmit Lyme Disease. And now there is Hanta virus to worry about. Not to mention the Plague. You may even come to see snakes, as I do, as beautiful creatures with unique skills. Their habits and mannerisms can actually become demystified by your study until their movements become familiar to you – almost predictable...which is why the new snake-handlers flooding our television sets appear to be so calm and able as they pick up deadly snakes with near frivolous methodology. They simply know snakes. They have gone beyond the mythology to the truth.