Youhave probably heard it before: “Snakes are slimy, evil, and out to get us, and the only good one is a dead one.” I simply reply that fear is a dangerous thing. It can cause you to hurt yourself.
The memory comes back rather clearly, although it was many years ago, when my oldest brother, Rudy, informed me that it was time for me to “meet the teacher.” On hearing this utterance a chill ran up my spine, and I tasted fear in my mouth. I had heard about this teacher from grown-ups. I was told by them that this teacher might kill me, that this teacher would enjoy killing me, and that this teacher was evil-in-flesh. So you might imagine the tenseness with which I took the steps to follow Rudy down our driveway, to the left of the cove by the lake, up the hill road, to the right, and then down the left street to the bottom of the hill. The teacher resided there — in the creek that flowed from under the road.
Does this sound a bit dramatic? You must understand that it was time for me to catch my first snake. Now, we knew that this snake was not venomous, but I had been informed that the bite of any serpent was a thing much to be avoided. The northern water snake’s head was aimed away from me as I slowly knelt down (fast motions catch a snake’s attention) to grasp him quickly behind the head. Let’s just say that something must have given my intentions away (a snake’s belly is sensitive to ground vibrations) for the head spun around suddenly and the jaws closed onto the base of my thumb!
For about a nanosecond I was about to scream, but then I looked at the wound. A few little pinpricks were visible where the six rows of tiny, backward curving teeth had broken my skin. A little blood showed from the pricks, but I had experienced far worse briar scratches, and I had no real pain. I just started laughing. For so long I had carried around this heavy burden of fear relating to serpent encounters — a concern handed down to me by grown-ups. Now I had discovered that it was a false claim. I followed my brother homeward with a much lighter step and refreshing sense of joy. The teacher had offered me a powerful first lesson in the art of overcoming the fear of difference in the world. My fright was replaced by respect, and this led to a similar attitudinal shift towards other life forms that did not look like me. It opened up my world view.
South Carolina has approximately 39 different snake species, only six of which are potentially venomous. They play important roles in the healthy functioning of the biosphere, as do all natural predators. They are fellow travelers on planet Earth and have much in common with us. Snakes need a place to live and raise their young; they must find a mate, food, water, and shelter; and they must defend themselves when necessary. We share these needs, but since they use different means to satisfy them, they have lessons to teach us. Snakes possess no arms or legs, no external ear openings, and no movable eyelids, but no problem — they do just fine.
These creatures belong to the group of animals called “reptiles,” a title derived from a root word meaning “to crawl.” Snakes are not slimy. Their bodies are covered with beautiful scales that protect them from abrasion and desiccation, and their belly scales aid in their locomotion. The trailing edge of each belly scale is loose and can catch on rough surfaces. The internal edge of each of these scales is attached to the end of a rib, which, when moved by muscles and in conjunction with a flexible spine, brings about the body’s slithering motion.
Snakes shed their outer skin layer two to four times a year, depending on the rate of growth. An oily film develops beneath the outer layer, causing the skin and eyes to become cloudy. During this period, called ecdysis, they hide because they have difficulty seeing. A clearing of the eyes is the sign that shedding is imminent. When the nose is rubbed against an object, the skin loosens at the head end and begins to peel back. When the skin comes off, it is a bit longer than the snake’s body and is turned inside out like a sock. Even the coverings over the eyes are removed. With the completion of this process the fresh scales are shiny and vividly colored, a beautiful sight.
Rattlesnakes are a favorite of mine, for they are so wonderfully designed. When they successfully shed, the very tip of the old skin stays attached to the snake’s tail and becomes a new segment in the rattler’s rattle. If no segments are missing, you can count the number to determine how many times that individual has shed. Dividing that number by three will give an approximate age in years. By the way, no poisonous powder is located within the rattle, only an air space. When the tail is vibrated, the rattle segments rub against one another, producing a dry buzzing sound. Listen for it as you roam about in woodsy areas, for it is a natural “No Trespassing” sign.
When one encounters a snake, most often the first question is whether or not it is venomous. South Carolina’s most common venomous snakes fall into a group called “pit vipers.” This class includes rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths. The other local venom carrier not under the pit viper classification is the coral snake. I was always told to look at the shape of a snake’s head to determine if it is harmless or harmful. If the head is diamond shaped (like an arrowhead) and easily distinguished from the neck, then that is a venomous type. But if the head is flush with the neck, then the fellow is harmless. It is true that all of the pit vipers have the diamond heads, with jaws protruding out beyond the neck. The problem is that a number of non-venomous types, like the rat snakes, also have this distinctive shape to their heads. Also, harmless types that normally have blunt heads, when threatened, will often push the back of their jaws outward and flatten their heads to mimic the pit vipers’ appearance — a self-defense behavior. And, to further confuse the situation, the coral snake, which is quite venomous and can be found on the South Carolina coast and coastal plain, has a blunt head. Yes, look at the head shape, but don’t just depend on that for identification; plus, many snakes from other continents (that are often kept as pets) also don’t follow that rule.
While looking at the head, check out the eyes. Snakes do not have keen vision, but motion catches their attention. They tend to stay calmer if you move slowly around them. Each eye is covered with a transparent scale, so the whole roundness of the eyeball is visible. All of the pit vipers have round eyes with elliptical pupils, like a cat’s eye. All of the state’s non-venomous snakes have round eyes with round pupils. Just crouch down there and stare them in the eyes, right? Well, if the lighting is good, you can discern this from a distance. But take note that the coral snake also has round eyes with a round pupil. The popular pet snakes, such as boas and pythons, have elliptical pupils.
All pit vipers have a pair of openings located on the edge of their upper lips: one between each eye and nostril. This opening is the “pit” that gives this group its name. The pit houses a sensory organ that can “see” the heat energy radiating out from the body of a warm-blooded animal, the prey. They are so sensitive that they can detect a temperature difference as small as one 1,000th of a degree. If a native snake has these pits, he is venomous.
Inside the mouth and just below that pit are located the specialized, hollow fangs. Glands containing venom, a modified saliva, attach to the fangs, and the hollow teeth serve as hypodermic needles to deliver the venom to the prey. The heat-sensing pits guide the fangs to their target. The Air Force used information gained from studying this pit mechanism to design a heat-seeking missile named after a rattlesnake — the Sidewinder.
Let me mention here that the y-shaped thing flicking in and out of a snake’s mouth is the moist tongue, which is used to pick up olfactory clues of nearby food sources. It is completely harmless. Also note that a snake’s venom is used primarily for the capture of food and not for self-defense. A venomous snake can bite with little or no venom being injected.
Distinctive markers are located on the tail end as well as the head. If the tip of the tail has a rattle attached to it, then that is a venomous individual. Rattles can break off, but usually some segments remain. Take note that many harmless snakes will vibrate their tails when threatened, and in dry leaves they can produce a dry, buzzing sound that can really get your attention.
Next, look underneath. (Say what?) While you may not grab a serpent by the tail, what about when you find a shed skin in your shed? Where does the body end and the tail begin? On the snake’s underside is a row of rectangular belly scales running from just behind the head to the tail. If you follow that row, you will come to the half-moon-shaped anal scale. Just beyond it is an opening (the cloaca) where waste material and baby snakes or eggs emerge.
The anal scale opening marks the beginning of the tail. On the underside of a pit viper’s tail, most of the scales are in a single row instead of divided into two rows. On the copperhead and cottonmouth the single row may split into a parallel pair of scale rows near the tail’s end. All non-venomous snakes have a double row of scales for the full length of the underside of the tail, but so does the coral snake.
The coral snake seems to confuse the order of snake identification. How can we ever decide whether a snake is truly venomous or not? Perhaps the best single point to consider is the pattern visible on the skin. If you learn the patterns well on the six venomous types and if you don’t just take a quick glance at the fellow you are identifying, then the skin colors and designs can be decisive, especially when their ranges of habitation are also considered. Not all types of venomous snakes are found statewide, and not all (actually few) snakes that are found by water are going to be the venomous ones. Remember that northern water snake that introduced me to this whole subject!
The coral snake that has been causing us problems until now does have a distinctive skin pattern with alternating red, yellow, and black bands. It is true that other, more common snakes also have those bands, such as the scarlet snake and scarlet kingsnake, but the patterns are different between the coral and the others. Here is the poem you may have heard:
“Red on black is a friend to Jack, red on yellow can kill a fellow.”
There you have it — a bit of information that can open up a whole new world of friendships for you. Over the years I have presented a number of snake talks to varied audiences, and I usually open by saying that I have never met anyone who was truly afraid of snakes. But, as hands shoot up to correct me, I quickly add that I have, however, met many folks who are afraid of the “idea” of what a snake is. My fear prior to my education from the “teacher” has turned to joy; today, if I encounter a “serpent,” it makes my day. Snakes have not changed — what has been altered is my understanding of them. I would rather marvel at the natural world than be fearful of it.
Tom Mancke received his B.S. in biology from Wofford and his B.A. in philosophy from USC. Ever learning in school of the woods and woodcraft, he encourages everyone to walk in the Great Outdoors!