FOR NORTH GEORGIA JOURNAL
TRUTH ABOUT SNAKES
GEORGIAS REPTILES HAVE THEIR OWN STORIES, BUT PERHAPS NOT THE ONES
YOUVE 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 mans 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 thats not the best part. The snake, she said, was
chasing her. Naturally, her advice to me: Always run uphill from a
How can a creature that crawls along the ground without arms and legs rate such a spine-tingling mythology? Maybe thats 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.
Its 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
snakes 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, its 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
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
I suppose I shouldnt 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. Id 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. Id 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 couldnt 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
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!
With tactics like these, its 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 snakes 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 Im 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.
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...thats the safest tactic
for a snake.
Someone who heard that story at the same time I did refuted it
immediately. Thats a bunch of bull. Snakes cant bite
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
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?
How can we differentiate between moccasins and non-venomous water
snakes? Since the water moccasins coloration and pattern are so
variable (from black to gray to red, from uni-colored to multicolored
with chevrons like a beaded Indian belt), lets 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. Ive 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 vipers 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.
As a general rule, a snakes 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
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 vipers 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 copperheads 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.
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
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 youve spent lots of outdoor time in the pigmys
habitat, chances are you have passed right by these well camouflaged
rattlers. They do have rattles, but dont count on them for a warning.
Better to stay alert.
All of these pit vipers are, if unmolested, unaggressive even sluggish...unless its 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 snakes 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 cats food bowl one of those containers shaped
like an inverted sailors 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 victims age or to unusual circumstances like the botanist who
was crawling beneath palmetto fronds on one of Georgias 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 Georgias snakes. Humans are not to be found on
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 lets visualize what some might consider an unprovoked bite from the snakes 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
summers dusk. Snakes cant 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. Its
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 Jacobsons organ to interpret smell. (A snakes
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 its too late for that. A giant foot
slams down right in front of the snake. There is no escape. The
copperhead is trapped. It cant scream, slap, claw, slug or kick. So
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 cultures 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. Ive 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 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. Thats 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 (thats a toddlers 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.
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.
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 racers 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