Monday, December 5, 2011

Western Fox Snake

Western Fox Snakes (Elaphe vulpina) were once thought to be threatened or endangered in Missouri and were listed as such until just this year. Apparently some populations were found that were previously unknown to experts. So while they are no longer listed as threatened this in no way should  indicate they are without risk of becoming so. They are certainly rare and only occur in a few scant counties in Northwestern and Northeastern Missouri. Because their habitat consists of marshlands, and those lands are greatly reduced throughout their range it is easy to see that part of their population decline is due to habitat loss. They may also occur in open forested areas, farmlands and prairies. These are beautiful, large snakes closely related to the much more common Black Rat Snake. They reach lengths up to 60 inches with a record snake being reported at nearly 6 feet. The color of this snake once upon a time protected it from predation and from humans. It is a remarkable mimic of the Massasauga Rattlesnake and even occurs in the same habitat further carrying out the similarity. Some even mistake this snake for the Copperhead, which seems a stretch to me. The copperhead is all over coppery in color and has hourglass shaped markings, but I guess from a distance it could be mistaken for Missouri's most common venomous snake. The mimicry that once protected the snake now often seals its fate and result in humans killing first and realizing their mistake in identity later. In my opinion they most closely resemble bullsnakes. They are the same yellowish-tan color with black blotches. The main differences between the two are the size, bullsnakes are huge at 7 feet or larger. Bullsnakes also have a more pointed face, and the fox snake usually has a reddish colored head, but otherwise the similarity is uncanny.

Fox snakes get their common name from the musk scent they emit when disturbed that is reported to smell very much like a red fox. This snake is extremely mild mannered and is not prone to bite unless severely molested. If you are harassing a snake, you should expect to be bitten! The bite is not dangerous and the wound is always superficial. You need only clean the wound of any bacteria. Their bite is designed more for holding onto their prey than in defense. They will often rattle their tail in dried grasses or leaves which can sound very much like the rattlesnake it is a mimic of, which only goes further in sealing their fate with humans.
These snakes feed on fledgling birds, small adult birds, eggs, small rabbits, mice, rats and voles.

The adult fox snake pictured here is a program/educational snake belonging to Squaw Creek NWR. Amanda the onsight naturalist was kind enough to allow me to photograph the snake. Because "Foxy" was so well behaved and tolerant of us photographing it I gave her a treat in the form of three pinkie mice. She seemed to enjoy her treat and gobbled them down very quickly.
All gone---well almost!

Western Fox Snakes mate in the spring or early summer. The female will lay 10-20 eggs in June or July. The eggs hatch in late August or early September. The juvenile snakes will measure between 8-12 inches in length. We are very fortunate at my office in St. Joseph because we were just given a juvenile western fox snake by Amanda and Darrin of Squaw Creek. Apparently one of the on sight construction crew accidentally disturbed a nest of eggs. A few of the eggs were broken and Darrin was able to identify them as Western Fox Snakes. He told Amanda about the situation and she remembered I wanted one for our office. She asked me if I would be interested in incubating the eggs. Of course I was! I had incubated black snake eggs last year and had excellent luck with it. They felt they would stand a better chance at survival if incubated, so I set about getting my incubator when Amanda called laughing saying that two of the eggs hatched! By the next morning three more had hatched. Amanda told me I could come up and pick one out for our office. Cindy and I drove to Squaw Creek and played with the babies and picked the one we wanted as our program/educational snake. We chose snake #4 which seemed like a nice friendly snake. We looked at the cluster of eggs and of the seven eggs present, 5 had hatched, one was not viable, and one was odd. This "odd" egg felt like it had something in it, but it was concave and weirdly formed. Amanda said I could cut into it and see what was inside......

a fully formed, living and breathing was a tiny fox snake. We were so excited to have 6 out of 7 young snakes be fully formed and healthy. Amanda is going to use the juvenile snakes for a junior naturalist program tonight, then release all the new babies back to the wild where hopefully they will avoid predators. Many creatures feed on young snakes including hawks, raccoons, foxes, and other snakes. 
Snake #4 is a male and will make an excellent addition to our growing population of educational animals

Meet #4

As juveniles they very much resemble their cousins the black rat snakes. If you did not have in hand one of each species to compare you would be hard pressed to tell them apart.

Juvenile black rat snake for comparison.

Occasionally we are given opportunities to educate the public about these wonder and often misunderstood creatures. This juvenile fox snake will be one of those opportunities. We will be able to showcase a snake that hovers on the line of being threatened or endangered within Missouri. This opens up an avenue to discuss habitat loss and the importance of all creatures within a given habitat. To say Cindy and I are excited to have this little snake would be an understatement! Thank you Darrin and Amanda for allowing us to have this wonderful little snake and the opportunities it represents.

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