Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Even though these creatures are not snakes, they are however a HERP and I could not resist sharing this very exciting news. I received this email literally minutes ago and had to share it with our readers. This news release comes from the St. Louis Zoo in St. Louis Missouri.
In October the Ozark Hellbender received Government protection through the Federal Endangered Species Act. They occur in the White River system in Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas. This species has declined by nearly 75% since the 1980's. 
Two years ago I was privileged to be given a behind the scenes look at the breeding/research program at the St. Louis Zoo. This was my first look at such a prehistoric-looking salamander. They are incredible creatures worthy of protection. 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                    FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:
Nov. 30, 2011                                                         Saint Louis Zoo 314/781-0900
Susan Gallagher, ext. 4633
Christy Childs, ext. 4639;
Joanna Bender, ext. 4703
Saint Louis Zoo, Missouri Department of Conservation Announce World’s First Captive Breeding of Ozark Hellbenders—Salamander Numbers Drastically Down in the Wild
Decade-Long Collaboration of Zoo and Federal, State Scientists Yields 63 Baby Hellbenders
The Saint Louis Zoo’s Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation and the Missouri Department of Conservation today announced that Ozark hellbenders have been bred in captivity—a first for either of the two subspecies of hellbender.  This decade-long collaboration has yielded 63 baby hellbenders.
The first hellbender hatched on Nov. 15, and currently there are approximately 120 additional eggs that should hatch within the next week.  The eggs are maintained in climate- and water quality-controlled trays behind the scenes in the Zoo’s Herpetarium. For 45 to 60 days after emerging, the tiny larvae will retain their yolk sack for nutrients and move very little as they continue their development. As the larvae continue to grow, they will develop legs and eventually lose their external gills by the time they reach 1.5 to 2 years of age. At sexual maturity, at 5 to 8 years of age, adult lengths can approach two feet. Both parents are wild bred:  the male has been at the Zoo for the past two years and the female arrived this past September.
Rivers in south-central Missouri and adjacent Arkansas once supported up to 8,000 Ozark hellbenders.  Today, fewer than 600 exist in the world—so few that the amphibian was added in October 2011 to the federal endangered species list.     
Due to these drastic declines, captive propagation became a priority in the long-term recovery of the species.   Once the captive-bred larvae are 3 to 8 years old, they can then be released into their natural habitat—the Ozark aquatic ecosystem.
Also known by the colloquial names of “snot otter” and “old lasagna sides,” the adult hellbender is one of the largest species of salamanders in North America, with its closest relatives being the giant salamanders of China and Japan, which can reach five feet in length.
With skin that is brown with black splotches, the Ozark hellbender has a slippery, flattened body that moves easily through water and can squeeze under rocks on the bottom of streams. 
Like a Canary in a Coal Mine
Requiring cool, clean running water, the Ozark hellbender is also an important barometer of the overall health of that ecosystem—an aquatic “canary in a coal mine.”
 “Capillaries near the surface of the hellbender’s skin absorb oxygen directly from the water – as well as hormones, heavy metals and pesticides,” said Jeff Ettling, Saint Louis Zoo curator of herpetology and aquatics.  “If there is something in the water that is causing the hellbender population to decline, it can also be affecting the citizens who call the area home.”
“We have a 15- to 20-year window to reverse this decline,” added Missouri Department of Conservation Herpetologist Jeff Briggler, who cites a number of reasons for that decline from loss of habitat to pollution to disease to illegal capture and overseas sale of the hellbender for pets.  “We don’t want the animal disappearing on our watch.”  
Reversing A Decline
In 2001, the Ozark Hellbender Working Group of scientists from government agencies, public universities and zoos in Missouri and Arkansas launched a number of projects to staunch that decline.  These included egg searches, disease sampling and behavioral studies.
In 2004, funding from private donors, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the United States Fish & Wildlife Services and the Zoo covered the cost of building sophisticated facilities including climate-controlled streams to breed the hellbender. 
The hellbender propagation facilities include two outdoor streams that are 40 feet long and six feet deep. The area is landscaped with natural gravel, large rocks for hiding and artificial nest boxes, where the fertilized eggs were discovered.  A nearby building houses state-of-the-art life support equipment used to filter the water and maintain the streams at the proper temperature. 
In addition, two large climate-controlled rooms in the basement of the Zoo’s Charles H. Hoessle Herpetarium are the headquarters for the program. The facilities recreate hellbender habitat with closely monitored temperatures, pumps to move purified water, sprinklers synced to mimic the exact precipitation and lights that flick on or dim to account for brightness and shade.  The largest room includes a 32-foot simulated stream, complete with native gravel and large rocks for hiding.  It houses a breeding group of adult Ozark hellbenders from the North Fork of the White River in Missouri; offspring from these hellbenders will eventually be released back into the wild. 
The Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation is part of the Wildcare Institute.  Ranked as America’s #1 Zoo by Zagat Survey and Parenting Magazine, the Saint Louis Zoo is widely recognized for its innovative approaches to animal management, wildlife conservation, research and education. One of the few free zoos in the nation, it attracts about 3,000,000 visitors a year.
Saint Louis Zoo launched its WildCare Institute in 2004 to further numerous wildlife conservation projects around the world. The Zoo partners with other zoos, universities, field biologists and government agencies to develop a holistic approach: wildlife management and recovery, conservation science and support of the human populations that coexist with wildlife.
The Missouri Department of Conservation protects and manages the fish, forest and wildlife resources of the state of Missouri.  The state agency facilities citizens’ participation in resource management activities and provides opportunities for use, enjoyment and education about nature.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Aging Rattlesnakes: Don't Bother Counting the Rattles....By: David Steen Ph.D.

David A. Steen received his Ph.D. from Auburn University, his M.S. from the State University of New York-College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and his B.S. from the University of New Hampshire. He researches the ecology and conservation biology of wildlife and blogs about his work at His copyrighted work appears here under a Creative Commons license.

           Taking care to step around clumps of wiregrass as you make your way through the pine forest, you suddenly hear it.  The sound is unmistakable. Working your way around the exposed roots of a large oak, you hear it from the base of the tree. Your blood chills as you instinctually freeze. 
  A rattlesnake’s rattle is an incredible thing, if you think about it. Take a run of the mill serpent, then add an odd-looking structure on the tail that makes noise, and you’ve got a rattlesnake. If we weren’t so used to the image of them, I’m sure we would think they were quite the strange creature indeed.
        A big rattlesnake with a long rattle is an impressive animal (assuming a hog hasn't eaten it), one persistent myth suggests the older the rattlesnake, the more rattles it has (although the entire structure is called a rattle , it is made up multiple rattles ).  In fact, so goes the myth, you can determine the age of the rattlesnake by simply counting its rattles.
            Not quite.

            Unlike mammals like us, who shed skin constantly in small pieces, snakes do it all in one shot. As a snake grows, they periodically need to shed their old skin to accommodate their larger body. When it’s time, a shedding snake will try to snag a piece of their old skin on a tree branch or rock and slither out of it. For most snakes, that’s that. But for rattlesnakes, each time an old skin is shed, a new rattle is added.
           If rattlesnakes always shed their skin once, and only once, a year, you might actually be able to tell how old a rattlesnake was by counting the rattles, but they don’t. Very young snakes grow quickly, some shed for their first time just a couple weeks after being born. 

        A newborn rattlesnake doesn’t have a functioning rattle, the characteristic sound is created when multiple rattles vibrate against each other and baby snakes are born with only a little nub at the end of their tail, called a button (or prebutton). In their first year of life however, snakes may shed their skin multiple times, adding a new rattle each time. 

          As snakes mature, their growth rates slow, to the point that some older snakes may not even shed once over the course of a year. Furthermore, as you might expect from a delicate structure on the back of a big snake in the wild, rattles can break off (close inspection can reveal whether this has occurred).
          So, if a given rattlesnake has seven rattles, the only thing you can say with certainty is that it has shed its skin at least seven times. This may not be terribly exciting news to people.

Rattlesnakes are impressive animals and their namesake rattles make them unique within the animal kingdom, the least we should do is get the facts straight about them.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Osage Copperhead

In northwest Missouri there are three venomous snakes. The timber rattlesnake, which I've done a few previous posts about, the Massasauga rattlesnake which occurs in wetlands and marshes like Squaw Creek NWR and then there is the Copperhead. I've spent three years trying to find one of these snakes to photograph and was beginning to give up ever finding one. Each time I mentioned to someone that I was looking for them, I was given all sorts of different places that were guaranteed to have copperheads. I would visit each location with high hopes of seeing one of these elusive snakes and always with the same snake! Then all that changed this past Friday evening. Joey and I decided to hike at a place called Sunbridge Hills Conservation Area located in the Northend of St. Joseph. I knew this place was known for having a healthy population of copperheads, so once again I was hoping my luck would change and I would see one of these snakes.... While hiking the only thing we found was a Great Plains Toad and some snails. We made our way back to the car and left the parking lot, instead of turning right to head home, I turned left down a dead end road. It turned out to be a good decision, because right in the middle of the road was my very first copperhead. I stopped the car and got out to look; worried that the snake might be dead, but thankfully it was very much alive. It never moved, and I was able to get a few pictures of it. The only problem was, I had to take the pictures by the light of the headlights on the car. So they didn't turn out as well as I would have liked. I actually considered taking it home with me, but realized that was not going to go over well with Joey who would have to ride in the same car with a caged copperhead. I can only imagine how that conversation would have went. I finally used my snake stick to coax it off the road so it would not be hit by the next driver.

Osage Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix phaeogaster) are a magnificently colored snake with shiny coppery colored body and darker colored hourglass shaped bands on the entire length of their body. They get their common name from the adult coloration of the head which looks very much like a shiny new penny. As juvenile snakes they are more gray in color with a yellow tip on their tail. This yellow tip is believed to be a lure designed to attract potential prey like small amphibians which are attracted by the waving of the yellow tail. When they come to investigate, instead of finding food, they find themselves served up for dinner. Adults may reach lengths up to four feet, with 3 feet being more common. They are a thick bodied snake with a triangular shaped head.

The juvenile pictured here actually bit a man in St. Joseph yesterday. The man was visiting one of MDC's shooting ranges and when he reached down to the ground to pick up an empty shell casing, the snake bit him.  It blended in with the gravel and ground so well, the man did not even know the snake was there.The man managed to capture the snake and drove to the hospital. I commend the man for not killing the snake, which would have been the reaction of a lot of individuals. Bites to humans are very uncommon. Symptoms of bites include intense pain, tingling, throbbing, swelling, and severe nausea. A friend of mine describes the pain as feeling as if you're on fire and trying to put the flame out with a hammer. Bites can cause muscle damage. Seek immediate medical attention if bitten. Our office received the phone call to come to the hospital to retrieve the snake. Our wildlife biologist picked it up and placed it in two containers. My boss called me to ask me to photograph it. The picture above was taken inside the container. Then we drove to Sunbridge Hills and released it. I photographed it several times on the gravel and it is remarkable how much it blends in with the rocks. If you did not know it was there, you would have a hard time seeing it.

This snake appears to be a little over a year old, possibly born in the fall of 2009. It's tail is beginning to fade and its size is a bit bigger than a newborn. Its temperament was very docile, even while being moved around with the snake stick it never tried to strike at us. It was remarkably tolerant of our presence and all that we were doing to it in order for me to get some decent photos. The man who was bitten is doing fine, he has a swollen finger and a puncture wound to remind him of his experience. Fortunately for him it was a copperhead and not a rattlesnake that bit him. Our local herpetologist says that if you are going to be bitten by a venomous snake, then the copperhead is the right choice. No one has ever died from their bite in Missouri. It is a painful experience to be sure, but one you are likely to survive to talk about. 

Copperheads are pit vipers, meaning they have pits located on either side of their head between the eyes and the nostrils. This pit is a heat seeking sense, that allows the snake to pick up the heat given off by prey species like mice, rats and other warm blooded creatures. These snakes are efficient hunters, and having this extra sense only aids them further in being the expert predators they are. Juvenile copperheads eat mainly insects, tiny frogs and other small amphibians. Adults eat mice, insects, frogs, lizards and small birds.

Mating between copperheads can take place in the fall or spring. If mated in the fall the female will delay fertilization until the following spring. Once mated, the female will deliver her young in August or September. Unlike the majority of Missouri snakes, copperheads bear live young. They may have as few as one baby, to as many as 15. These newly born snakes are not protected or cared for by the mother in any way. They are armed with all the instincts they will need to be able to survive. They aren't without enemies however, hawks, owls, and other snakes will feed on these snakes, so they are vulnerable at this age. This is where their coloring helps in allowing them to blend in with their surroundings, making it more difficult for potential predators to see them.

When hiking in Missouri, the most common venomous snake you're likely to encounter will be this species. They occur in every county in Missouri. They often go unseen because of their camouflage, they so perfectly blend in with leaf litter that they virtually disappear in their surroundings. It is always best to be aware of where you are walking and keep an eye out for these snakes especially if you know you are in an area where these snakes are reported to occur. These snakes often occur in pairs and seem to prefer to stay in close proximity to each other. They also use the same hibernation site each winter. These hibernation locations may contain numerous species of snakes, venomous and non-venomous alike. They will begin appearing with the first warm days in the spring. Often not moving very far from their winter location.

If you want to see a short video of a copperhead in the wild click this link from MDC.

I feel so incredibly lucky to have been privileged to see not one, but two copperheads in less than a week, especially after lamenting that I will NEVER see one. Goes to show that a person should NEVER say never!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Rattlesnake #4----It's a Boy!

One Sunday in September we drove to the farm to set out some turtle traps in the hope of capturing a common snapping turtle to use for a program we are giving at work Tuesday evening. After wading into the pond and setting both traps we headed to the local diner for lunch. We had just pulled into the parking lot when my brother-in-law called and said they had a timber rattlesnake captured in the shed on another farm (where we had previously tagged several). Joey and I immediately left the restaurant and headed to the farm to see the snake.

We pulled in to see Tony holding the snake inside this fish net. It was not rattling or trying to strike. It seemed fairly calm. We released it from the net so I could take come pictures. After photographing it we placed it in a plastic barrel for safe keeping until I could contact Dr. Mills and have him meet us at the farm to document the snake.

This snake had recently shed its skin  and was as bright and shiny as new coin.

Tony (my brother-in-law) and Jimmy (my father-in-law) were determined to make sure the snake wouldn't get out of the barrel. The measures they took to keep it contained made me laugh. It looks like they are trying to contain an anaconda instead of a 3 foot rattlesnake! I believe this snake will remain in the barrel until we remove it. Once in the barrel it began rattling in earnest, and the sound of it in the barrel was magnified making it sound like a box full of cicadas. The first time I heard a rattlesnake vibrate its rattle I was stunned at how much it sounded like a cicada. In an area where cicadas are plentiful and rattlesnakes occur it can be kind of freaky. Your mind will play tricks on it a cicada? it a rattlesnake? Then you begin looking around to make sure you aren't about to step on a snake hidden in the grass.
Once everyone was satisfied that the snake wasn't going to escape we left and headed back to the diner to eat lunch. After enjoying a tenderloin and fries we headed home and I still could not contain my excitement over the rattlesnake. I think I tried calling and emailing Dr. Mills at least 5 or 6 times. I simply could not wait to tell him about the snake. He returned my call and agreed to meet us bright and early the next morning.

 I arrived at the farm at 7:40 AM to find Jimmy and Tony already there. Dr. Mills and Cindy arrived shortly thereafter. We peeked in the barrel and our captive was still present and accounted for, but unfortunately the stress from his capture and incarceration caused him to regurgitate two partially digested mice. I felt bad that we caused him so much stress, but I also knew the data we would obtain from this snake will be invaluable in gaining more knowledge on this misunderstood and often vilified creature.

We removed the snake from the barrel and quickly contained it inside a clear tube. It was remarkable how fast we were able to tube this snake, it normally takes numerous tries to coax them in, after just two attempts it was safely secured.

(right after getting the snake in the tube we measured it. 
It measured 99cm or just over 3 feet in length)

(Here we are preparing to hand the snake over to me)

(Scanning the snake to see if it is one we had previously pit tagged. No BEEP, so it is a new snake. He probed the snake and we happily discovered it is a male. We know he has at least three females nearby, so hopefully he is breeding his little harem)

 (The snake is trying really hard to back out of this tube, it is amazing how strong their muscles are. Right after this Dr. Mills inserted the pit tag.)

(Here we are bagging the snake to weigh it---it weighed 1000 grams, or just over 2 pounds)

(We carried the snake about 100 yards away from the shed and let it go on a concrete slab that has a lot of rock piles and other places to safely hide)

In four months we have found 4 rattlesnakes on this farm. Each one has been in the vicinity of the shed and corn crib which is approximately a 150 yards radius. We are curious to know where they are hibernating. We plan to radio tag one before the season ends and they all go underground for the winter. We will be able to gain much more knowledge about their habits and habitat with this additional technology. Ultimately we want to be able to protect their winter locations and perhaps locate gravid females. 

The fears and stigmas associated with this species of snake ultimately leads to many unnecessary deaths. Ignorance breeds fear! Often if we can reach out to people and share our passions we can change attitudes. I am proof that it works. My in-laws used to kill every rattlesnake they saw, now they are helping preserve them for future generations! 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Diamonds on the David Steen Ph.D.

David A. Steen received his Ph.D. from Auburn University, his M.S. from the State University of New York-College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and his B.S. from the University of New Hampshire. He researches the ecology and conservation biology of wildlife and blogs about his work at His copyrighted work appears here under a Creative Commons license.

This column was originally written in fall of 2008.

Last weekend I came face to snout with the magnificent king of the longleaf pine forest, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, Crotalus adamanteus. I was in south-central Alabama, driving slowly along some dirt roads in Conecuh National Forest when I saw him slowly make his way across my path. He was as stately as a snake could be, his slightly arched back prominently displaying the golden-bordered diamonds checkered across his body. It was an exciting discovery.

The eastern diamondback is the largest rattlesnake in the world and it’s known only from the southeastern United States. Although this impressive animal can be abundant in some areas, populations of this species are declining throughout their range. Whenever I have the good fortune to find one, it’s an exhilarating experience. This snake was a large mature adult, probably almost four feet long. I admired the unique tail, without getting too close, I counted about ten rattles. Rattlesnakes don’t add a rattle each year, as is commonly thought, they add a rattle each time they shed their skin. This happens frequently when a snake is young and growing fast but less often once a snake reaches maturity.

It’s fall, which means it’s time for these usually extremely secretive animals to start crawling around looking for mates. Although most people associate the spring with the birds and the bees, diamondbacks conduct their business in September and October. It takes them about a year from mating to produce a litter, giving birth the following fall. This is a big investment for the snakes and they likely only breed once every few years.

I knew better than to get too close. These venomous snakes command respect and it’s not worth taking a chance. I sometimes need to handle this species for my work, and when I do so I am extremely cautious. Most of the nature shows on television are more sensational than realistic. They often give people the wrong impression regarding the proper way to handle dangerous animals.

Because of their potentially dangerous nature, rattlesnakes are much maligned and feared. Many interactions between people and snakes result in a dead serpent. But attempting to kill or harass a rattlesnake is much more dangerous than walking the other way. The overwhelming majority of reported venomous snake bites occur on people’s hands and arms. Now, if they were minding their own business, what do you think the chances are of getting bit on their hands by a snake?

About two weeks ago, a central Georgian man was bitten by an eastern diamondback rattlesnake and required emergency care. This is a tragic incident but not the whole story. When he saw the snake crossing the road, he proceeded to drive over it multiple times with his tractor and then attempted to beat the still-writhing animal to death with a deer antler. The snake bit the man between his fingers before its head was cut off with a shovel. Fortunately, the man survived.

The entire incident could have been easily avoided. How? By letting the snake finish crossing the road.

When a snake is encountered in natural settings, it’s not safe to go out of one’s way in an attempt to kill it, it’s dangerous and it doesn’t respect the role that these animals play in natural environments. They have many jobs, eating rodents perhaps primary among them.

However, when you have rattlesnakes in your yard and you’re concerned about your children or pets, it’s understandable that you’d want them gone, and quickly. Instead of finding ways to get rid of snakes, it may be more effective to dissuade them from ever establishing residence in the first place.

If there’s one thing that snakes love, it’s hiding places. If you don’t want snakes around your house, make sure to remove any brush piles. These animals often hide in stacks of wood. Keep lawns mowed and bushes trimmed so that they don’t reach the ground, this eliminates cover for snakes. Although much has been said about commercially available snake repellents, their usefulness has not been clearly demonstrated.

There’s no denying that rattlesnakes are potentially dangerous. But by using some common sense you can virtually eliminate your risk of a bite. If you’re concerned about your children, make sure they can identify potentially dangerous animals and teach them to give vipers a wide berth. Always watch where you put your hands and wear appropriate footwear if you’re in snake habitat. No sandals! A snake minding its own business is not likely to bother you. If you see a snake in nature, just leave it alone.

The rattlesnake I found last week sure wasn’t interested in me. After I took some photographs from a safe distance, it slithered away into the wiregrass. Once it reached the forest, the snake’s camouflaged patterning made it nearly invisible. I wondered how many I walk by without ever knowing they’re there.

This much excitement could cause brain overload

Sometimes in life things happen to you that raise your adrenaline to such a level that you are sure your brain will ignite from the inability to process it all. One Monday in May was one of those moments......Cindy and I joined Dr. Mills (herpetologist at MWSU), my brother-in-law Tony and my father-in-law Jimmy at the farm where Cindy and I photographed the rattlesnake a few days prior to this day. After gathering our snake sticks, cloth bags and tongs we headed out across the grass to the concrete slab where Cindy and I found the rattlesnake this past Wednesday.

Dr. Mills immediately noticed about a 6 inch piece of rattlesnake showing from underneath a large slab of concrete. This is the exact same location where we photographed the one the other day. He tried grabbing it with the snake stick but it managed to slither off the stick and make its way further underneath the slab. Jimmy and I pried the concrete slab up and held it while Dr. Mills used his tongs to capture the snake. We placed it safely inside a cloth bag and put it in the shade. One rattlesnake bagged and soon to be tagged. That was almost too easy!

Twenty minutes after finding this snake, Dr. Mills found an additional rattlesnake under a pile of limestone rocks. This particular snake remained coiled and did not move, as if being still meant being unseen. Dr. Mills was holding the large rock up with his snake stick, and could not grab his tongs from the ground and secure the snake. He asked me to use the tongs to grab it, but I was afraid I would not be quick enough and it would get away. I instead opted to hold the rock so he could grab it. I need to practice with the snake tongs on a non-venomous specimen. He quickly grabbed and bagged the snake.

This second snake was much smaller and very docile. It did not rattle once until he placed it in the sack. We put it in the shade with the first rattlesnake. Two rattlesnakes bagged and soon to be tagged.

We moved on into the grassland and flipped over rock piles and looked near trees. When we first started our adventure there was much speculation as to whether we would even see a rattlesnake because of the heat. The afternoon temperatures were sunny and 81 degrees. After finding two rattlesnakes in 20 minutes we were soon proved just how wrong we were.

We continued to explore for over an hour when we came to a rock pile that had two huge Yellow-Bellied Racers (A.K.A Blue Racers) hiding underneath. Dr. Mills had his own unique way of snake wrangling these notoriously cranky snakes. He grabbed it with his snake stick and then whipped it back between his legs, holding it secure with his thighs. Then he slowly fed the body of the snake out by hand until he reached the head, which he could safely grab without getting bit. We all had a good chuckle when he said "Where is the head on this thing!?" It was a very large, long snake....seemingly no end to it, especially if you are holding it between your legs. He also made sure to tell us to not try this technique in shorts......LOL Apparently giving the business end of a snake access to your bare leg is not a good thing!

 (Dr. Mills maneuvering the blue racer to allow for better handling)

 (A very ticked off blue racer)

After photographing the blue racer, we moved on to more rock piles and more likely spots that might contain snakes. No more snakes were spotted and we slowly made our way back to the shed with the two rattlesnakes and began processing the data.

Here is Cindy assisting Dr. Mills in tubing one of the rattlesnakes for safe processing. The snakes were reluctant to enter the tubes and had to be coaxed repeatedly before finally giving up and entering the tube. Once the snakes were safely in the tubes they sexed each snake, using a metal probe. The probe is inserted into the vent of the snake. Depending upon how far the probe is able to be inserted, determines the sex of the snake. If the probe slides all the way in it is a male, if it is met with resistance it is a female. Male rattlesnakes have two penises called an Ospenis. He compared the penis to a rubber glove. Imagine that when you  remove a rubber glove from your hand and the fingers of the glove are inverted...he said that is how the penis lays within the cavity of the snake. When the snake meets a female and mating takes place, the inverted penis expands and allows for breeding.

(Probing the snake)

I was in charge of getting the pit tags ready and recording all the data. I also helped him hold the snake, so the tag could be inserted under a belly scale several inches above the tail.

At the end of this blog post I will include the data.

Here is the second rattlesnake being professionally and "safely" handled by Dr. Mills
Once all the data was collected and recorded we headed back to the areas where we found them.

Dr. Mills preparing to release the first rattlesnake back to the slab of concrete where it was found. It quickly....super quickly actually slithered back underneath the concrete.

We then proceeded to the rock pile where snake #2 was found to release it back to its original location. Dr. Mills was in the lead, Cindy, Tony and myself were directly behind him....and Jimmy was bringing up the rear. We reached the rock pile and Dr. Mills was just getting ready to open the sack to release the snake when we heard Jimmy scream......well it was more like a YELL actually!

He began dancing around and hollering for us to "HURRY UP".

Dr. Mills gently placed the bagged snake in the shade near the rock pile and we immediately ran back to where Jimmy was to see what all the commotion was about. He had stepped on a rattlesnake! He was walking through the grass following us and felt something move under his foot, he jumped back and discovered  the largest rattlesnake of the day slithering away from his foot. Dr. Mills quickly subdued the snake and placed it in a bag. Talk about excitement! Not only had we found two rattlesnakes......but now we had 3!!!! Jimmy was exceedingly lucky to not have been bitten when he stepped on that snakes tail. It easily could have whipped around and hammered him. It is a testament to the docile nature of this particular species of rattlesnake. However, individual rattle snakes can have a wide variance in their personal temperament and should be treated with the utmost respect. These are not a snake to be taken for granted. We quickly released the 2nd snake back to the rock pile so we could contend with the 3rd snake.

We returned to the shed and processed this snake and teased Jimmy about how lucky he was. We told him he should go buy a lottery ticket, because he was sure to win. Cindy wondered if he needed to change his shorts....he chuckled in good humor, but I know the whole incident had him very unsettled and rightfully so.

This is the third and final snake of the day. It was much lighter in color and the biggest find of the day. We were able to process the data and release all three snakes, unharmed back to their rightful place. To say the day was productive would be an understatement. To find three timber rattlesnakes, within 200 yards of each other in 2 hours time was not only unexpected, but incredibly exciting. I think we were all a bit flabbergasted at the luck we were having. My brain was having trouble processing it all.....I could not even sleep that night. I kept waking up with snakes on the overload I'm telling you!

Snake Data

All three snakes were females....which hopefully means there is a male nearby and soon to be babies.Timber rattlesnakes aren't able to breed until the age of 4 or 5 years and will only produce a litter every other year. An average litter will be 8 or 9 young, but they may produce up to 14 offspring.


Weight: 630 grams (1 lb. 6.22 ounces)
Length: 83.5 centimeters (2' 8.87")
Rattles: 5
Tail length: 6 centimeters


Weight: 300 grams (10.58 ounces)
Length: 70.3 Centimeters (2' 3.67")
Rattles: 6
Tail Length: 5.2 centimeters


Weight: 630 grams (1 lb. 6.22 ounces)
Length: 89.0 centimeters (2' 11.03")
Rattles: 7
Tail length: 7.5 centimeters

I hope to keep you all updated as more snakes are found and these rattlesnakes are relocated. We hope to determine their growth season to season and with any luck find how many offspring are being produced. 


Old rattler, it is part of Nature's plan
That I should grind you underneath my heel----
The age-old feud between the snake and man----
As Adam felt in Eden, I should feel.

And yet, Old Rattlesnake, I honor you;
You are a partner to the pioneer;
You claim your own, as you've right to do----
This was your Eden---I intruded here.

                                                ---Vaida Stewart Montgomery

Friday, November 25, 2011

Garter Snakes

Garter Snakes are without a doubt one of the most widely spread of all the reptiles found in North America. In fact the Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) is the only snake known to be hardy enough to survive in Alaska’s inhospitable climate. It is thought to be the northernmost snake in the World with exception to a snake called the Crossed Viper (Vipera berus). In Missouri where I live I find several varieties in my yard, but one of the most common by far is the Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) which is pictured here above left. They reach lengths up to 26 inches. As far as I know all garter snakes have the tell-tale stripes that run dorsally along their bodies. These stripes may be green, yellow, gray, black, red and even blue. The subspecies the red-sided garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis talis parietalis) is the most prevalent of the two species I find. Red-sided garter snakes are quite striking in their appearance with bright red color patches between the stripes. 

Garter Snakes are colubrid snakes in the family Colubridae; over 2/3 of the snakes found in the world belong to this family, making it the largest family of snakes. This group of snakes is often described as a catch all for snakes that don’t quite fit into other families. Most within this family are non-venomous, but a few however have venom toxic enough to cause human fatalities such as the Boomslang, Twig Snake and snakes in the genus Rhabdophis which are found in Asia. Garter snakes do posses venom glands, but these glands are located  posterior (to the rear) of the snake’s eyes whereas typical venomous snakes have venom glands located anterior or forward. The venom they posses is not lethal enough to affect humans and the garter snake lacks any real way of injecting you with it anyway. The venom is used to subdue prey rather than as a defense mechanism.  Once the snake has captured its prey it will “chew” the venom into the unfortunate victim.

Garter snakes commonly prey on frogs, toads, small rodents, birds, slugs, lizards, leeches, earthworms, and fish. Since the majority of their diet consists of aquatic creatures they will most often be found in those environments. We have a large goldfish pond and that is usually where I find these snakes. They commonly feed on the toads and bullfrogs found near or in the pond. This photo was taken a few years ago near the pond. This red-sided garter snake had captured a large toad and was doing its best to swallow it. There was quite a struggle taking place, almost like tug-o-war. The snake pulling with its mouth, and the toad pulling with its legs in the other direction. The toad was finally able to free itself from the snake and quickly hopped off to lick its wounds.

I swear the toad looks ANGRY in this photo….as if indignantly saying “How dare this snake try to eat me!!!!”

Garter snakes are one of the testiest snakes in the reptile world. For a snake that averages 2 feet in length and lacks any significant venom, it more than makes up for it in attitude. Of all the snakes I’ve handled I’ve been bitten and musked more by this species than any other. This past spring while doing an interpretive hike with a group of first grade students, one of the fathers noticed a snake along the side of the trail. He pointed it out to me in case I wanted to show the kids. With 25 kids, plus parents in the group I was afraid the snake would slither away before all the kids could see it. So I choose to catch the snake and show the kids……BIG MISTAKE! As soon as I had the snake in hand it chose that moment to musk me. I was literally covered from chest to toe with white, stinky musk!!!! Talk about smell bad! The kids all let out a loud EWWWWW! I quickly put the snake down and told the kids “This is why we should not handle wild snakes.” It was a lesson learned for all of us, albeit a stinky one!

While this snake appears to be smiling, it was definitely doing its best to warn me away. He was lunging and biting at me in a very intimidating way. I managed to capture an image with its mouth open and tongue hanging out before finally leaving it in peace. This illustrates my point about the attitude these snakes possess.

All snakes use their tongue to smell the World around them. They flick it in and out of their mouth scraping it across an organ in the roof of their mouth called the Jacobson Organ. This organ picks up scent particles off the tongue as it is brought back into the mouth. The snake is able to determine if what it is smelling is food, or foe. Snakes do not possess ears for the outside world (although a snake with ears would be seriously cool). They “hear” their surroundings through vibrations felt in their jaw bones. Humans walking around in a snakes world must sound like giants to the snake. They almost always feel us coming and get out of the way long before we even know a snake was there.  Snakes lack eyelids and cannot blink their eyes to protect them from injury, they instead have a thin scales over their eyes. The scales are shed each time the snake sheds it old skin. Snakes shed several times a year, but much depends on how much the snake is eating and how much it is growing. Snakes that are feeding on a regular basis will shed more often than those that find it difficult to find food. This is often why wild snakes shed fewer times annually than pet snakes. Wild snakes have to sit and wait for food to come within reach, or they will go in search of food. This is not as easy as it sounds. A snake may smell a rodent trail, and sit and wait motionless for a rodent to pass by. They are capable of remaining motionless for many hours. Snakes may go many weeks or even months without feeding. They have a slower metabolism that mammals and are able to go without food for long periods of time. A large meal may last a snake for several weeks before it feels the urge to feed again. Snakes are also cold blooded and must warm themselves in the sun. Being heterothermic means the snakes body is the same temperature as its surroundings. It must therefore find a suitable location to bask itself before it is able to move and feed properly. I describe it as “A Cold Snake, is a Slow Snake and a Slow Snake is a Dead Snake.” A warm snake can flee from predators and digest its food. A cold snake is slow and unable to move quickly out of dangers way, and will often regurgitate its meal should it try to eat.

Garter snakes mate in the spring in accordance with their emergence from brumation. Reptiles generally begin brumation in late fall (more specific times depend on the species). They will often wake up to drink water and return to “sleep”. They can go months without food. Reptiles may want to eat more than usual before the brumation time but will eat less or refuse food as the temperature drops. However, they do need to drink water. The brumation period is anywhere from one to eight months depending on the air temperature and the size, age, and health of the reptile. During the first year of life, many small reptiles do not fully brumate, but rather slow down and eat less often. Brumation should not be confused with hibernation; when mammals hibernate, they are actually asleep; when reptiles brumate, they are less active, and their metabolism slows down so they just do not need to eat as often. Reptiles can often go through the whole winter without eating. Brumation is triggered by cold weather, lack of heat, and the decrease in the amount of hours of daylight in the winter.
In the case of garter snakes the males generally leave the hibernacula first and sit in wait for the females to come out. These emergence’s may contain 100′s of individual snakes. The female emits a strong pheromone that entices the males to compete for mating privileges. It is not uncommon for dozens of males to fight and vie for the attention of one female. Once mated, the females are capable of retaining the males sperm for years and therefore can delay fertilization if they so choose. The female incubates the eggs within her body until the babies are ready to be born. She will then give birth to live young. The litter size can vary from as few as 3 young to as many as 80, depending upon the age of the snake, how healthy the snake is and the species it is. The record litter size for garter snakes is 98 offspring. Juvenile snakes are independent at birth. They require no special help or skills from their parents and are armed with all the instincts they need to survive. They are however vulnerable at this stage and often fall victim to predators such as large frogs, birds, raccoons, foxes and other snakes. Those that survive may live up to 15 years or more.

Garter snakes have often been sought after in the pet trade, mostly because they are strikingly beautiful creatures, but also because they are so easily found. Garter snakes are known to emerge in the spring in heavy numbers all at once, so anyone bent on capturing them, just locates a hibernation site and visits it in the spring. Many garter snakes have been removed from the wild in this fashion. Even though 1,000′s have been captured from the wild , their numbers are still stable to high in most all their range. There is an exception in California, the San Francisco Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia) is listed as Federally endangered. Even though the majority of garter snakes would be considered common, they are still beautiful examples of snake fauna. They are beneficial in the garden by keeping slugs, leeches, rodents and other creatures under control. They are also an important component in the food chain providing food for many other animals. All snakes should be tolerated and respected for the good that they do. Many of us may not like snakes, or perhaps we’re scared of them, but this should never be an excuse to kill one.

Timber Rattlesnake

Snakes are one of those animals that illicit strong fear or outward dislike among many people, and that it is so very unfortunate. Snakes may be a bit peculiar, and a tad bit creepy, but they are also incredible and uniquely beautiful. Even people who have tolerance for the non-venomous variety of snakes, seem to have zero tolerance for the venomous kind. I know this comes from fear and lack of knowledge of the snake and the potential danger it represents. Yes, all venomous snakes should be respected and given their space.....however, there is no real need to live in fear of them. They are not out to get us, in fact they go out of their way to avoid us whenever possible.
In May Cindy and I drove to Guilford, Missouri to do an outdoor safety program for their elementary school. We spent a couple of hours there talking about everything from poison ivy , ticks, and spiders to snakes. When we finished with the presentation, we decided to stop by a farm my husbands family owns to see if we could find any snakes. My brother-in-law had been seeing a Bullsnake on this particular farm and Cindy and I were anxious to find it and photograph it. We had approximately 30 minutes to kill before we needed to be at our next program. We pulled into the farm, grabbed our cameras and began walking towards a large concrete slab that used to be the base of a shed that was torn down many years ago. We noticed my brother-in-law had burned all the grasses which made it easier walking and gave us better visibility for spotting snakes. On the concrete slab there are numerous stones, and pieces of tin piled up here and there. I walked over to a piece of tin and flipped it over, and voila! I looked at Cindy and said here it is! Well it wasn't the bullsnake we were after, but it was certainly an incredible snake....a Timber Rattlesnake. This is the largest venomous snake in Missouri and the most venomous. To say we were excited would be an understatement. This one measured approximately 3 feet in length and had 4 rattles on its tail.

We began snapping pictures, and between the two of us we took well over 100 photos of this very tolerant snake. Cindy was beside herself as this was the first rattlesnake she had seen alive. She looked at me and put her hand in the air to "HI-5" soon as our hands connected and made the loud clapping noise of our very exuberant "HI-5" it apparently frightened the snake and it struck at us! Cindy shrieked, and turned around and ran.....right over the top of me. The snake started rattling, and I couldn't quit laughing! Poor Cindy was shaking from the adrenaline rush, and the snake was ticked off at the two crazy women who were pestering it! The snake turned tail and ran away, never once ceasing to rattle.

The snake was making a hasty retreat to the nearest rock pile. It slithered underneath a large flat stone and found his way was blocked! It was literally beating its head against a brick wall under that stone and could not hide sufficiently which further irritated the snake, and it began rattling louder. We watched as he/she backed out and moved to the right and found another way under the stone, and was finally able to disappear.


Last summer I had my very first experience with these wonderful predators, so I knew exactly how Cindy was feeling, and I shared her enthusiasm for this poor misunderstood beast. I posted a blog about my rattlesnake encounter last July, and if you are interested in reading about it and looking at the pics of a much larger snake please visit Explore Missouri--Timber Rattlesnake.