With spring warming, snakes are moving and Daniel Sollenberger’s phone is ringing.
As state herpetologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Sollenberger is a go-to for snake questions. And this time of the year, most of those questions center on two topics: What species is this and what should I do?
As for the first, seldom is the snake a venomous species, according to Sollenberger, a senior wildlife biologist with DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section.
Whether it’s venomous, of course, is the worry or fear underlying most of the questions. Chances are it’s not. Only seven of the 47 species native to Georgia are venomous and only one – the copperhead – usually thrives in suburban areas, which is where many Georgians live.
“While at least one of the state’s venomous snake species could be found in each county in the state, seldom are they the most common snakes encountered,” Sollenberger said.
Now to the second question: What should you do, or not do, if you see a snake?
• You can try to identify it from a distance. Resources such as georgiawildlife.com/ georgiasnakes, which includes DNR’s “Venomous Snakes of Georgia” brochure, can help.
• Do not attempt to handle the snake. Give it the space it needs.
• Remember that snakes are predators that feed on small mammals, amphibians, insects and even other snakes. There is no need to fear non-venomous snakes. Also, Georgia’s native non-venomous species are protected by state law, and one – the eastern indigo – is federally protected.
• If a clearly identified venomous snake is in an area where it represents a danger to people or pets, consult georgiawildlife.com/preventingwildlife conflicts for a list of private wildlife removal specialists. Most bites occur when a snake is cornered or captured and defending itself.
Non-venomous snakes such as scarlet king snake, eastern hognose and water snake species are frequently confused with their venomous counterparts – coral snakes, rattlesnakes and water moccasins, respectively. Although pit vipers, which include all venomous species native to Georgia except for coral snakes, are often identified by their broad, triangular-shaped heads, many non-venomous snakes flatten their heads when threatened, which can make their heads appear triangular-shaped. Also, some non-venomous species have color patterns similar to venomous snakes.
The bottom line: While it’s likely not venomous, use caution around any unidentified snake. For more on Georgia’s snakes, visit georgiawildlife.com/georgiasnakes. “Amphibians and Reptiles of Georgia” (University of Georgia Press) also provides a comprehensive reference.
• Venomous vs. poisonous: Venom is a toxic substance. But a key difference when the terms are used to describe organisms is how the toxin is delivered. Venomous animals inject theirs by biting, stinging or sticking – think venomous snakes, wasps and stingrays. Poisonous species, such as poison frogs, deliver toxins passively, such as when they’re eaten or through skin secretions when they are touched.
• Benefits: While some snakes eat rodents and even venomous snakes, others prey on creatures some Georgians also may not want near their homes. Brown and red-bellied snakes, for example, feed on snails and slugs, the bane of gardeners. Crowned snake species primarily eat centipedes.
• Baby snakes? Snakes such as earth and brown snake species are small (usually less than 12 inches long) and homeowners occasionally mistake them as juveniles. The common concern here: Are the parents nearby? Some snake species are live-bearers and some are egg-layers. But most snakes do not exhibit parental care. If there are parents, they are not watching over their offspring.
• Prevention: To reduce the potential for snakes near your home, remove brush, log piles and other habitat features that attract mice, lizards and other animals on which snakes prey.
Next week’s True Citizen will feature a DNR article on identifying venomous snakes.
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