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Venomous Snake I.D. in the Southeast – Part 3

At last, we come to the rattlesnakes. There are three main species native to the southeast United States, and here I will briefly describe them to you, in no particular order.

Pygmy Rattlesnake (aka "ground rattler")

The smallest, and arguably, the most frequently encountered is the pygmy rattlesnake. Often referred to as the ground rattler, this diminutive serpent has a much more slender body shape than its larger relatives, and rarely grows over 2 feet in length. It is typically a greyish hue with dark black markings saddling its back and sides, although some localities can be red or tan in coloration. Its natural color and pattern is similar to many harmless species, including rat snakes, hognose snakes, and the juveniles of corn snakes & racers. This can make it somewhat hard to identify by coloration alone. Because of its relative small size, its rattling is more akin to insect buzzing more than the traditional “maraca” sound of a larger rattlesnake, which makes it somewhat easy to stumble upon an irritable pygmy rattlesnake on the defensive. Additionally, it is found in a wider variety of environments than larger species; thus, more likely to be encountered in an urban setting. All of these factors combined make the pygmy rattler potentially more dangerous to humans than any other venomous snakes in the southeast.

Timber (Canebrake) Rattlesnake

Also known as the canebrake, the timber rattlesnake is a larger species native to much of the eastern U.S. It usually prefers thick, deciduous forests in rugged terrain. It is potentially one of the most dangerous rattlesnakes because of its large size, and venom, which, in many localities, contains both hemotoxins and neurotoxins. However, this allegedly offset by its generally placid temperament. Like coral snakes, timbers are not prone to wasting their venom on predators; when disturbed, they typically do a fair job of letting you know they’re around by rattling excessively and feinting (striking with their mouths shut). Nevertheless, in the event you are in timber territory, tread cautiously through the woods.

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

Reaching an adult length of 6-8 feet in length and weighting over 20 pounds, the largest venomous snake in North America is the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. I don’t care what anyone says; encountering this serpent in its natural environment is an awe-inspiring experience, one that I honestly hope to have one day myself (at a safe distance, of course!). Eastern diamondbacks are usually found in upland pine forests and palmetto flat woods, sand hills and coastal hammocks, and similar habitats. They often use burrows of the endangered gopher tortoise during the summer and winter months. Their diet primarily includes rodents and rabbits, as well as ground birds.

Its thick body, raccoon-like mask, and distinctive diamond-shaped markings make identifying this rattlesnake fairly easy. However, younger specimens may be hard to tell apart from the more common rat snake or hognose snake, both of which have very similar coloration. One thing to keep in mind is that, unless you live in a rural area close to the dense wooded habitat that this species prefers, encountering an eastern diamondback is very unlikely. Furthermore, habitat destruction for urban development and over-collection for rattlesnake roundups have both steadily decreased wild populations of the species. This is a cause of alarm for wildlife enthusiasts, as the same issues affect other species like the aforementioned gopher tortoise, the Alabama-endemic black pine snake, and host of other animals that utilize the tortoises’ burrows.

Eastern Diamondback *Note the raccoon-like mask over the eyes.*

While I do not want to downplay the potential danger of this snake should you find yourself in close proximity to one in your backyard, I would like to again comment that if you do encounter one of these snakes in their wild habitat while hiking or exploring, and you are able maintain a safe distance, consider yourself lucky and privileged to witness such an magnificent reptile in its natural setting. Consider shooting it with a camera instead of a gun.

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So what can you do as an alternative to simply killing every snake you find (not the most environmentally-friendly approach)? The key is familiarizing yourself with your local wildlife, including the venomous snakes in your area so that you can confidently identify them if you ever do encounter them in the wild. My suggestion is to essentially look through image after image of each of those venomous species, until you are aware of every appearance they can take in nature. The objective being that if a snake slithers into your backyard, you could say to yourself, “Okay, I’m not sure what that one is, but I know it’s not any of the venomous snakes I’ve been studying, so it must be harmless.” Chances are, unless you do live in a very rural area, any snake you encounter will be a small, harmless one. If you spend a lot of time in “snake habitat,” the main things to remember is always watch where you place your hands and feet.

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For tips on how to snake-proof your yard and home, check out this link: http://www.outdooralabama.com/watchable-wildlife/Watchablearticles/snakeproof.cfm

*Photos provided by Ritchie King.



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