As the weather gets warmer, I am seeing more pictures of snakes on my Facebook newsfeed. Many of the comments following those pictures include sentences like, “The only good snake is a dead snake” and, “Kill it!” or something to that effect. I understand that snakes are not the most well liked creatures and everyone has their own reason for disliking them, but most of the time it is our own ignorance that creates fear of animals, especially snakes. This post will hopefully help to dispel some of the fear by lending some information about snakes, and giving us an understanding of their place in the world.
Let’s first discuss venomous snakes. There are only four species of snakes that use venom to subdue their prey in Illinois. They include the Copperhead, Timber Rattlesnake, Massasauga Rattlesnake, and Cottonmouth. Three of those species have been vouchered after 1980 by the Illinois Natural History Survey in Madison County. The Cottonmouth is only found in extreme southern Illinois. These snakes for the most part are rarely seen and definitely are not “out to get you.” The Massasagua is endangered, the Timber rattlesnake is threatened and the Copperhead faces decline from habitat destruction. Copperheads are most abundant but rarely seen.
The rest of the snakes in Illinois are non-venomous. They can and will bite but as long as you are smart and give them their deserved space you have nothing to fear. All snakes are carnivores. They eat only meat and are great at controlling the population of rodents. If you think about it snakes have some of the most amazing abilities. Imagine trying to eat a hamburger and not having hands or even arms to get it into your mouth. Snakes are able to kill, and swallow whole prey without the help of claws, arms, legs or feet. AMAZING!!! They are ambush predators. Snakes sit in wait for an animal to get close enough to quickly strike and subdue. Most of our snakes are constrictors. They hold their prey in thier mouth, then wrap the rest of their body around the animal and squeeze until it suffocates. This is a dangerous way of hunting, because most animals they are going after have sharp claws, beaks or teeth. Many snakes get scratched up and bitten, especially when they misjudge the size of the animal. Our venomous snakes have adapted so that they dont have to fight with an animal to subdue it. They have more of a hands off approach. They quickly strike their prey of choice and inject a little venom that will kill that animal quickly, and make it easier and safer to eat.
So the real question you are asking…if I am not seeing venomous snakes, what snakes am I seeing? There are a variety of common snakes that we see on TNI property and I will tell you about a few of them.
One of the most common and well known snakes in our area is the Garter Snake. Many people also lump the Western Ribbonsnake in with garter snakes. These snakes are medium sized, and live in forests and edge habitats, commonly near water. Ribbonsnakes are more common around permanent water sources. They can also be found in vacant lots. These snakes eat fish, amphibians, young birds, and many different kind of invertebrates. They are eaten by lots of things as well. Both will bite and emit a musk (very unpleasant odor) when handled.
Another snake that is quite common and most people have seen is the Black Rat Snake. These are large snakes with a variable dark colored pattern; some appear to be completely black. They live in a variety of forest, shrub and edge habitats, and are common around farm buildings and abandoned houses. They are often spotted sunning in trees. They feed on rodents, birds and their eggs, and other small mammals. Large adults have few predators, but young snakes will be eaten by carnivorous mammals and birds of prey.
Watersnakes are also very common. They are easily the ones most likely confused with their venomous cousins. We have three species common to Madison County. They include the Plain bellied Watersnake, Diamondback Watersnake, and Common Watersnake. They are all large bodied snakes and they spend most of their time in and around bodies of water. They eat fish and amphibians and are eaten by large shore birds and other snakes. Watersnakes will bite when handled and will musk and void their feces as well.
Eastern Hognose Snakes are common and in my opinion one of the more interesting snakes in our area. They have an upturned scale on the tip of nose, which give them their name and they are dramatic. Hognose snakes will act aggressive when encountered and then will play dead. When acting aggressive they will flatten their head and neck, hiss, and feign strikes (striking to the side rather than biting). If that doesn’t deter the attacker, the snake will release feces and musk, then roll onto its back with its mouth open so that it appears to have died. Hognose snakes eat mostly frogs and amphibians and have specially adapted fangs to do so. When a toad gets caught, it will puff up to make it harder to swallow. The hognose uses its rear fangs to “pop” the toad and then swallow it.
So the moral of the story is…you should not be terrified of snakes. They are doing you a great service by eating mice and rats that plague your house, and they do it in a very interesting way. Everyone should have a healthy respect for snakes and all animals for that matter. Every animal that has teeth (yes, even humans) will bite when handled improperly. Being scared of an animal does not make it ok to kill and when you are scared of something you should demystify it by learning more about it. That is my challenge to you. Learn more rather than continue in your unnecessary fear.
Enjoy TNI’s trails and remember to tag your pictures #NatureInstitute
-Ramona Puskar, education assistant