Like so many other people, I grew up falsely thinking brown recluse spiders are common in Vermont. In actuality, brown recluses don’t live here, and if you look at range maps they don’t even get close. Yet common wisdom here contradicts fact; everybody knows you have to watch out for the brown recluse and you don’t have to look too hard to find someone who thinks they were bitten by one. Black widows too, which are so rare here that worrying about them is nearly pointless. The truth is, many of the wounds people associate with spider bites aren’t really from spiders, and most people do not know how to properly identify brown recluses, so any brown spider is likely to be misidentified as a one. This includes many doctors too, fanning the flames of misinformation (thankfully treatment for an infected spider bite is not much different than treatment for any other infected wound, so the doctor’s cure should still work!). Such misinformation is even worse with snakes. Far worse.
Despite the fact that Copperheads and Cottonmouths do not live in Vermont, I meet many people here claiming to know a nearby wetland “infested” with either species. We do have Watersnakes, though, which look quite similar. Unfortunately, convincing someone they misidentified an animal can be very difficult. I recall one incident where someone had reported a gigantic rattlesnake in their barn in an area far removed from the nearest known population. A couple experts went to the property, promptly found a juvenile Milksnake, and showed it to the landowner who said, “That’s the snake alright”. After informing the landowner the animal was a harmless Milksnake, they changed their tune and said, “Oh, no, that’s not the snake, the one I saw was definitely a rattlesnake”.
“Thanks to the internet, you don’t need to know what an animal is to easily figure out what it isn’t…”
Go to almost any granite or slate quarry, even in places nowhere near rattlesnake populations and you will hear tales of the quarry rattlers. The town where my wife grew up, for example, used to be a booming slate town, and everybody there knows the legends of rattlesnakes up in the quarry. Yet no rattlesnake has ever been documented there. The elevation is too high for rattlesnakes and the forest composition simply doesn’t have enough mast producing trees such as hickory and oak to support the species. Plus it’s about 60 miles to the nearest known rattlesnake population and snakes are NOT good dispersers. The quarries are, however, full of Milksnakes, which can vibrate their tails, mimicking a rattle. Try to tell someone that, though, and there is a good chance they won’t believe you. As an “expert”, I try to remind myself that I am presenting information contradicting what some people lived their entire lives knowing as fact. As such, the way in which you present this information makes a difference.
So why do these legends persist? First, there is the fact that most people do not use field marks to identify animals. If it looks like a duck, it’s a duck, no? That’s a great system if you live somewhere without geese or grebes, but most people don’t. People may have seen a photo of a copperhead or previously lived somewhere copperheads are common, so any snake that looks kind of like a copperhead is a copperhead. If you spend a few minutes online researching Copperhead field marks, you’ll learn that Copperheads are a light brown snake with darker brown bands across their back resembling hourglasses. Their non-venomous counterpart here, the Watersnake, is also a brown snake with dark banding, but the bands look more like saddles laid over the snake. Watersnakes are also a lot darker than Copperheads, often with some reds tossed in for extra show. Free range maps online will tell you where you can expect to find almost any animal, especially venomous ones. Really the best place to start is simply to go online and search for “Venomous wildlife in your state”. Then it’s a simple matter to learn how to tell those venomous animals from similar non-venomous ones in your area using field marks.
Some folk are quick to point out that the animal they saw could have been transported there from somewhere else. This is true, but if it was common then I would never buy bananas. Almost every instance of a python scare in some urban northern neighborhood ends up being traced back to a native (and much smaller) ratsnake. I even recall a time when a TV station broadcast video of a ratsnake in a tree with the headline “Giant Python on the Loose!” (check out this blog for a long list of “ratsnake freak out” mishaps). When people see a snake or a spider they are not familiar with, they assume the worst. It’s in our nature. Looking at field marks isn’t.
The bottom line here is that while local knowledge is absolutely critical to understanding the distribution and abundance of plant and animal species, you can’t always take what people say they saw as being accurate, even if lots of people say the same thing. Tales of sightings of dangerous animals go viral through communities, and after one person thinks they saw rattlesnake, soon everybody knows about it and the odds of subsequent misidentifications multiply tenfold.
To be clear, we, “the experts”, know that animals turn up in places they don’t belong. If you do think you have found a venomous or exotic species outside its range, it is very possible you identified it correctly, but be aware that an expert may sound skeptical when you tell them. Some of us get 100 confirmed misidentifications before encountering something like a Gaboon Viper in Maine and we could spend our entire lives following up on false leads. If you want to make a convincing point, try not to say something like “it looks just like some picture I saw online”, and instead use field marks in your description. What color is it? What does the pattern look like? Did you see a rattle? Better yet, take a picture, and don’t be discouraged if the first person you report the sighting to sounds a little skeptical. The more field marks you can reference, the more quickly they will take your report seriously.
Thanks to the internet, you don’t need to know what an animal is to easily figure out what it isn’t. With a little advance effort using online resources you can find out which venomous species live in your area and research how to tell them from the others. Brown recluses, for example, have a dark mark on their back shaped like a fiddle, and after looking at a few photos, it is very easy to see, so all you need to do in the future is rule out the brown recluse and peace of mind quickly follows.
Beyond just googling which venomous species live in your area and researching their field marks on your own, below is a list of online and crowd source resources than can help you identify the animals you find. Take note that automatic identification apps are not correct 100% of the time and not every person in the Facebook wildlife ID groups is an expert. Once an ID is suggested, you should do another minute or two of research to see if you agree with it.
iNaturalist: This wonderful app allows users to upload images and then it can automatically suggest an identification. Be wary, as the ID tool is not 100% accurate, but use the top three or four suggested IDs as a starting point and then look up more information and photos on your own to confirm. If you submit the sighting, other iNaturalist users can confirm the ID, but that may take days.
WhatTheHerp: This is a great tool that improves in accuracy every day. Upload an image of a reptile or amphibian and a bot named Fitch will try to ID it for you. Fitch is not always right, so again, this ID should be considered a starting point. One thing I like about Fitch is he will give you a percent confidence for each possible match.
BugGuide: This great page allows users to upload images of unknown insects for experts to weigh in on. Human error is always possible.
Facebook Identification Pages:
These are all terrific, but as with BugGuide, be mindful that not everybody who will weigh in is an expert. To expedite the process, be sure to tell people where you saw the animal. It makes a difference.
Any Reptile or Amphibian: https://www.facebook.com/groups/reptileandamphibianidentification/
Insects, including spiders: https://www.facebook.com/groups/Insect.Identification/
And, of course, don’t forget Google. You can learn a lot simply by searching for “The snakes of my state”, or “venomous animals in my state”. You’ll be surprised how quickly you can become proficient at telling apart all the venomous animals in your area from the non-venomous ones.