Will That Snake Bite Me?



Three herpetologists native to Georgia recently indulged in an interesting exercise. John Jensen, Herpetologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Carlos Camp, Professor of Biology at Piedmont College in Demorest, and myself enjoyed a roundtable discussion wherein we tallied the nonvenomous snake species indigenous to the southeastern United States that are prone to bite humans (when approached, captured or handled, etc.). More specifically, based on our experience and knowledge (and considering the behavior of each snake species when encountered or captured in the wild), we classified each of the 47 nonvenomous snake taxa native to the southeastern U.S. as either: a) a species that never (or rarely) bites humans; b) a species that sometimes (or commonly) bites humans. We considered in full the snake fauna of seven southeastern states (MS, AL, FL, GA, SC, NC, VA). With respect to taxonomy, we followed the current scientific names endorsed by the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (Crother et al. 2011).

We found this an amazingly cool reptilian fact to chew on. Snakes that don’t (or rarely) bite include two species of Ribbon Snakes, the Ringneck Snake, Eastern Worm Snake, Brown Snake, Redbelly Snake, Black Swamp Snake, Scarlet Snake and three species of Crowned Snakes (the latter actually have tiny rear fangs and subtle venoms, but these are reserved for their invertebrate prey). One could physically scold a Rough Green Snake, steal a cricket from her jaws, call her a “poor sport” and “caterpillar breath” —she would never ever bite in return. And the same goes for the Smooth Green Snake, the Smooth Earth Snake, and the Rough Earth Snake; these species never bite us.

Obviously, snakes bite their prey. Some snakes, like Eastern Indigo Snakes, may bite same-or-opposite sex members of their species as part of combat or courtship. And of course, biting is employed by some species as a defense against predators. Deservedly, we classified all of the Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis, 7 species), Ratsnakes (Pantherophis, 3 species) and Watersnakes (Nerodia, 8 species) native to the southeast as species that may sometimes, or commonly, bite humans. Despite a menacing gaze and an ability to hiss loudly, we classified the Pine Snake as a species that seldom bites (we’ve handled many dozens, they just don’t seem to…).

Of course, snakes are most interested in distancing themselves from predators (and situations) that pose a threat to their survival. Why fight when you can potentially escape, or deter your foe, by running fast (e.g., Racer), swimming underwater (Watersnakes), vibrating your tail like a rattlesnake (Indigo, Coachwhip, Kingsnakes, Ratsnakes), or balling your tail and flashing a brightly colored belly (Mud Snake, Ringneck Snake). Not to mention releasing copious slimes of offensive musk (all of the above)!

June has been a good month for finding snakes in south Georgia. On the heels of Tropical Storm Andrea, I encountered over a dozen species of snakes within the span of a few days. I photographed a pair of comical Eastern Hognose Snakes found on an Ohoopee River sand ridge; both were impressive thespians, slobbering and rolling as part of their death-feigning routine.

A visit to a blackwater branch near the preserve found me admiring one, two, three Cottonmouths, one of which was foraging; the big wet snake had looped its form around a streamside cypress knee and extended its fist-sized head over a place where water flowed down through a mini-staircase of logjams. I moved to the edge of the swamp, where fallen bay leaves the color of fire rested on the bottom of clear, spring-fed pools. Puddling about in some mucky detritus, I was excited to find a small Mud Snake. Excited, I admired my prize, knowing all the while I didn’t need to worry about the snake’s teeth. Although decidedly strong and ferocious when dispatching their siren prey, Mud Snakes never bite us.