Category Archives: Serpentes

On the beauty of rattlesnakes

This is the year of the timber rattlesnake on the Southern Cumberland Plateau. I’ve seen and heard of more in the last five months than I have in the last twenty years combined. They’re sleeping in gardens, gliding across porches, crossing wooded trails, and swimming on asphalt. Most seem to be one or two years old, suggesting that we’re seeing the result of a baby-boom in 2013 or 2014. What might have caused such a successful hatch year is a mystery: perhaps a good mast year of acorns and hickory nuts swelled the rodent population, echoing a year later in the abdomens of fecund snake mothers? Another possibility is that the last two winters have been colder here than any within the last decade, pinching the rodent supply this year, making snakes take to the road where we then encounter them. Certainly 2014 was chipmunk-poor after the “Arctic Vortex” made several visits. I estimate an 80% drop in chipmunks the following spring.

Whatever the cause, these snakes inevitably run foul of humans. Many are dead on the roads; others are killed around habitations. I’ve picked up a few of these corpses and, before giving them a respectful return to the woodland community, I’ve taken great pleasure in examining what must surely be called their gorgeousness. Each individual has a different mottled pattern, but all grade in tone and texture from head to tail.

2015-08-05 Rattlesnake head12015-08-05 Rattlesnake head2The nostril (higher) and pit organ (below) jut into the world. Inside the pit organ, a membrane hides a profusion of nerve endings and  blood vessels. Nerve receptors tingle when temperature changes; blood carries away last second’s heat, letting the snake know moment-by-moment how its thermal environment is changing. The pit organ’s information runs directly to the same part of the brain that receives signals from the eyes. So “heat” is seen by rattlesnakes. The pits are extra eyes, functioning like pin-hole cameras. Oh, to be able to experience such a synesthetic world, if only for a few seconds.

And down the body we go, a cascade of forested scales:

2015-08-05 Rattlesnake 0122015-08-05 Rattlesnake 0172015-08-05 Rattlesnake 0212015-08-05 Rattlesnake 0242015-08-05 Rattlesnake 026And the tale ends with the longest rattle so far among the deceased:

2015-08-25 Rattlesnake tailFor encounters with live snake cousins, I invite you to more sounds and sights.

Nemo me impune lacessit. Time to reclaim the Gadsden flag for all.

What does a rattlesnake sound like?


…before being released from the bucket in which I transported the snake from a friend’s house.

One cannot age a rattlesnake by simply counting the rattles (they gain a rattle with each molt, but usually molt more than once per year). However, this one was a youngster, maybe two years old? My post from June 2013 has a look at their teeth and some better scale shots of a larger individual.

2015-07-07 rattlesnake 0112015-07-07 rattlesnake 0082015-07-07 rattlesnake 007May your crawlway be strewn with sunflecks and chipmunks, young snake.

Eastern diamondback rattlesnake

In the last few weeks, the genus Crotalus seems to be sliding its coils into my life with some regularity. This one was nestled in the short grass in front of the cabin that I’m staying in on St Catherine’s Island. A good reason to remember the flashlight at night.

The diamond markings (and face mask — like a raccoon) on this species (C. adamanteus) are quite different from the mottled colors of the timber rattlesnake (C. horridus). The diamondback lives in the coastal plain and prefers open piney woods, meadows and the edges of salt marshes. All these habitats are in decline, so the species is not doing well in most places. Extensive persecution doesn’t help. St Catherine’s Island is one exception: the animals are fairly common there. This one was relocated to an area away from heavy foot traffic.

eastern diamondback rattlesnake 009eastern diamondback rattlesnake


I’d been sitting on the dead ash log for a good thirty minutes before I noticed that I had company. The rattle caught my eye — what an odd piece of vegetation — then the whole snake popped into consciousness — whoa! The animal was curled catlike, its nose and tail resting on the body. It did not move one tiny little bit for the hour that I watched.

2013-06-20 rattlesnake ash 003The eye is clouded which, I think, means that the snake is preparing to molt.

2013-06-20 rattlesnake ash 016A close-up of the scales on the animal’s back (taken with a flash, hence the change in tone from the photos above):

2013-06-20 rattlesnake ash 020The camouflage was incredible: the head was a perfect match for sun-bleached maple leaves, the dark patches were the color of wet litter. Hard to spot, even when you’re close:

2013-06-20 rattlesnake ash 008

I returned the next day found the snake coiled in exactly the same place, its body shifted slightly. Still very hard to see:

spottherattlesnake2By coincidence, I received a frozen road-killed rattlesnake this week from some colleagues whose vehicle accidentally violated the revolutionary imperative: Don’t Tread on Me. This allows a closer look at the source of the phobias that have etched snakes into the deepest parts of our subconscious (religious allegories, anyone?).

roadkilledrattlesnakeIn pulling open the mouth to get a photo, I managed to spike myself on the lower teeth. So when asked whether I’ve ever been bitten by a snake, I can now answer No, but I’ve bitten myself with a rattlesnake. Another entry in the Annals of Zoological Stupidity. As it happens, this week I’m reading David Quammen’s excellent new book, Spillover, which is full of tales of microbes leaping into humans through pin-prick wounds. So far, the end of my thumb shows no sign of incubating the next zoonotic pandemic.

If these images fang you with fear, let me add that I’ve spent thousands of hours in Shakerag Hollow and this is the only close encounter I’ve had with a rattlesnake.

The timber rattlesnake is declining across most of its range due to habitat changes, road mortality and direct persecution from people. In its former territory in the Northeast, sightings are very rare indeed. In the snakes’ place, plagues of tick-bearing small rodents tromp merrily through the woods, their enemy defeated.


ratsnake ratsnake2This handsome black rat snake was in a neighbor’s yard, tangled in the plastic netting used to deter deer from browsing on plants. Dozens of strands of netting were bunched around the snake, completely immobilizing the strong body. Some work with small scissors (points held out!) freed the animal who was unharmed enough to tongue the air at me, then launch a little jabbing strike that stopped well short of contact.

It is rat snake breeding season, so the animal no doubt has a social life to be getting on with. I returned it to the adjoining woods.

Herp fest continues

Herpetological wonders continue to unfold. The Cumberland Plateau and the Southern Appalachians are among the most diverse places in North America (and the world) for amphibians and, to a lesser extent, reptiles. The last few weeks have not disappointed in encounters with this group.

We found this Seal Salamander during my Advanced Ecology/Biodiversity lab last week. The animal was in a creek in Shakerag Hollow. It was about five inches long. Seal salamanders spend most of their time in water, but will wander on land to feed, especially on wet nights.

Unlike its close relatives, the Seal Salamander has tough cornified toe tips, possibly to help it climb vegetation during its terrestrial forays. You can see the blackened tips through the ziplock bag.

This Slimy salamander was under a rock in the same creek. This species is usually found away from water, under logs or rocks, so this individual may have just been passing through. Slimy salamanders lay their eggs in moist places on land and their young never dip their feet in water. Young Seal Salamanders, on the other hand, are aquatic and have feathery gills.

I found this Marbled Salamander during Intro Biology class. It was hiding under a log in a dried up vernal pool. In a normal year, the salamander would wait for several more months before the pool filled up. This week’s phenomenal rains mean that the pools are now overbrimming. We’ll see whether or not the water stays. If so, this will be the earliest filling of these ephemeral wetlands that I know of in recent years.

Scott Summers, a freshman at Sewanee, found this spectacular Red Salamander last week under a log near Morgan’s Steep. Great find!

A Pickerel Frog in Shakerag Hollow. Note the squarish spots on the back. The similar Leopard Frog has rounder spots that are more randomly scattered over the back.

A Green Frog snuggled underwater with an acorn. Also in Shakerag Hollow. Note the nice clear water — thankfully, not all streams have been impacted by silt runoff into the hollow.

And from an entirely different habitat, located just a stone’s throw away from the vernal pool: a fence lizard enjoying the baking sun on a sandstone outcrop near Piney Point. These outcrops are incredibly dry and blazing hot. Fence lizards love the heat.

In closing, a frission of danger. This Timber Rattlesnake was on the trail in the northern Smoky Mountains where I was botanizing with the TN Native Plant Society last weekend. The botanists stopped briefly to admire the snake’s freshly molted shine, then returned their attention to petioles, leaf margins, and floral structure. The snake had thirteen rattles, so it has molted thirteen times. They molt two or three times a year, so this one is relatively young. They live up to twenty years.

Ringneck snake

I found this ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus) under a piece of firewood from the pile in our driveway. The snake either came as a free bonus with the wood or it colonized the new hiding place in the last couple of days. Either way, the wood is stacked, so the snake is roaming the garden. It is probably joining many others of its kind. This species can, in the right conditions, live at very high densities (hundreds per acre).

I held the snake for just a minute or two, and in that time it demonstrated its two favorite methods of defense. First it writhed around, flashing its bright underbelly at me, then it oozed nasty-smelling saliva from its mouth. Despite a thorough scrubbing, my hands still smell musky. If severely provoked, the snake will bite, but I merely handled it for a photo, then released it, stopping well short of this level of torment. The bite is not dangerous to humans.

Ringnecks are mostly active at night when they hunt for small salamanders, insects, slugs, and any other animal that can fit down their gullet. They, in turn, are preyed on by larger snakes, raccoons, and, occasionally, birds. I’d guess, from the smell, that they taste pretty bad. I usually encounter them under rocks and logs. The contrast between their smooth dark backs and bright bellies makes them one of the more visually appealing (I was going to say…striking…but we’ll leave that word for the copperheads) snakes in our area.

Range maps for the species indicate that this is a “northern” ringneck. But the color patterns are ambiguous. The animal has a complete neck ring (a characteristic of the northern subspecies, D. p. edwardsii), but the belly is patterned (a characteristic of the southern subspecies, D. p. punctatus). Some recent molecular work suggests that this “species” — the ringneck snake whose range covers much of North America — may in fact be a complex of multiple undescribed species. In addition, some of these undescribed species seem restricted to particular habitat types, suggesting ecological as well as evolutionary diversity within the group. So taxonomic revision is coming, I suspect.


While walking down the garden path, I was stopped by the sight of a black rat snake, its body woven loosely through the low weedy plants. The snake was a youngster, too young to have the heft and scratched hide of a mature adult, but too old to be striped and worm-like. It was about two feet long and was basking in the weak heat of an overcast noon. The snake was entirely still, but its whole being said: alive.

Light hit the snake’s scales and melted. Black. Somehow, an earthy deity had lifted its head from the ground and breathed life into graphite. I’ve never been so captivated by a snake’s quiet presence.

In my admiration and greed, I wanted to catch and remember this beauty. So I walked to the house for my camera. Of course, the snake was gone on my return, leaving a wavy line of pressed vegetation as a mark of its passing.

So far this year, I have not seen the big old rat snake that used to patrol our garden. Even the strong snaky smell around the apple trees has dissipated. This newcomer may have wandered into a deceased old-timer’s empty domain. To stay, I hope.

Snake (charmer)

I came across this large (4.5 foot long) snake as I was biking up Roark’s Cove Road near Sewanee (apologies for the haze in the photos — these are phone-camera shots). The snake is a black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) and it showed no desire to move off the toasty road surface. I did not want it to get squashed by the next passing car, so I unclipped from my bike and poked the snake with a stick. It responded by curling into a defensive posture with its head jabbing at the air in my direction (all bluff — these rat snakes are non-venomous and present no danger to humans). It was now even less inclined to slither off the road. At this point a car came up the steep road. No doubt the driver wondered what a sketchy dude in tight shorts and odd shoes was doing waving a stick around in the middle of the road, but this is Sewanee, so peculiarity of behavior is expected if not always welcomed. I used the universal hand signal for “there is a gorgeous snake curled in the road; I am presently attempting to assist the animal; please don’t squash it.” I resorted to scooping the snake onto the stick and shuffling it to the verge. This caused further coiling, with the head withdrawn under the body, nose peeking out. Yes, I was snake-charmed.

Hopefully the snake had the sense to stay off the road after I left. I’ll find out on my next ride. This road is heavily wooded and therefore great for viewing wildlife as I pedal Sisyphus-like up the mountain, but it is regrettably also good for finding road-killed beasts of all kinds.