The danger of demonizing snakes
One question I have been posing to students a lot lately is, “What is your favorite thing about spring?” Mostly, the response has been that the weather feels warmer, which means kids get to visit the pool. Some have said they have been enjoying the flowers (minus the annual allergy battle) and they love being able to see so many more animals and insects. These longer days and warmer temperatures are a welcomed departure from the frigid winter. As we spend more time outside, so do other animals revelling in the tepid weather.
Winter-time can be tricky for animals that cannot produce their own body-heat, such as amphibians and reptiles. Snakes undergo a form of hibernation known as “brumation,” which means they are in a trance-like state to preserve as much energy as possible. Typically, they pack together in a den (a “hibernaculum,” for interested parties), to wait out the frosty season together. Early spring yields consistently warm enough temperatures for these cold-blooded (ectothermic) animals to wander out for basking and copulation. (https://varmentguard.com/blog/when-snakes-wake-up)
By this point, I may have lost some people already just by mentioning snakes. If it helps, let’s mentally replace the word “snake” with “danger-noodle.” Indeed, there are a couple of venomous characters in the Southern Appalachia area which it pays to be mindful of (notably, the Northern Copperhead and Timber Rattlesnake, more on this later). In fact, of the 37 species of snakes found in North Carolina, 31 of them are non-venomous — not dangerous to humans. Despite many people’s reservations about snakes, or even downright fear, these animals are actually major players in the functionality of our local ecosystem.
We know about food webs: animals consuming other animals makes for predator-prey relationships specific to their environment. This means that ecosystems will be different based on what the environment is. For example, the Sahara desert is home to a completely different group of plants and animals than the Amazon rainforest. Therefore, the Sahara desert is one ecosystem and the Amazon is another. Ecosystems are defined by the dynamic of who is eating what. In this tiered system (known as a trophic system), species which manufacture their own energy from the sun are primary producers (like plants or photosynthetic plankton). Then, something eats the plants, they’re primary consumers (like cows or deer). Something eats the deer, they’re secondary consumers, etc. etc. Images depicting these relationships are often displayed as a pyramid to represent biomass ratios. Granted, ecosystems are complex, but to put it simply, the removal of keystone species from these trophic levels compromises the function of the whole system.
We know that snakes are consumers. The most common snake species found in this area target small rodents and amphibians. Yet, they themselves are targeted by large predatory birds like hawks and eagles. So, this places snakes in the secondary consumer level (or tertiary depending on who you talk to). Eliminating or even diminishing the population of snakes will mean we have an excess population of rodents and amphibians, and would minimize the food supply for the predatory birds. Ecologically, this is an unbalanced trophic system. Just like a wobbly Jenga set missing some of its pieces, it is in danger of collapsing at any further disturbance. Scientists call this a trophic cascade, which is as scary as it sounds.
Let’s get back to our local snake friends. Which ones are common, which ones are dangerous, and what do we do when we find them?
Statistically, if you come across a snake around here, it is likely to be non-venomous. These days, we can take a picture with our cell-phones from a distance, execute the wisdom of simply traveling a different direction, and refer to the photo later for identification. Such identification can be achieved through a quick process of elimination. Of the 2 local venomous species, both have variations of brown, black, and copper shading on their skin and sport a distinctly triangular head.
In my opinion, venomous and non-venomous species should all just be left alone. Many accidents happen when people start messing with snakes by relocating or even trying to kill them. This behavior is a common one that humans exhibit when we are afraid of something. I cannot talk you out of feeling an intrinsic human emotion, but I do implore you suppress reactive fear. Consider where you are. If you are on a hike in the forest and there is a timber rattlesnake across the path (this has actually happened to me), then perhaps your best move is to make haste back to the trailhead and call the forest service. If you are at home and find a copperhead under your canoe, a wise reaction would be to leave it alone and call a specialist to remove it. In every case, there are people trained to handle venomous snakes, other than yourself. It is also worth mentioning that both of our venomous species are protected in North Carolina, which means it is unlawful (albeit, unwise) to harass, harm, or kill them.
Biologically, snakes are COOL. You can help kids relate to this fact by having them try a movement activity. Have them lie on the ground or floor on their stomachs and try to move in the forward direction, without their hands. How amazing is it that snakes not only can move forward (quickly!), but can also climb?! And, as they mature, they literally grow out of their skin, which has to be shed periodically. With all of their unrivaled adaptations, they are also ecologically critical. So, the next time you find a snake, we encourage you to view this danger-noodle as an animal that stabilizes the ecosystem and values its personal space.
For more information on the snakes of North Carolina, go to: http://herpsofnc.org/snakes/