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Snakes alive!

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By Claude Lewis

At one time, the entire state of Florida was a haven for snakes, as warm climes, plenty of food and suitable habitat allowed serpents to thrive.

Massive development over the past few decades to the south has helped put a dent in snake populations, but there are still pockets where the legless wonders can roam relatively undisturbed.

The rural Big Bend or Gulf Hammock area of Florida is one of those regions, and Levy County would be smack dab in the middle of that.

There is a variety of habitats ranging from the hilly areas of southeast county, to the swampy areas around the Waccasassa River drainage, south to the Withlacoochee, out west to the Cedar Keys and north to the banks of the Suwannee River.

The myths

For some reason, snakes have been long maligned by humans.

Perhaps it's a carryover from the Bible, where the serpent tempts Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Maybe it's because they're so unlike us - creatures who can motor without limbs.

But the truth is, snakes are beneficial to man in many ways.

Non-toxic rodent control is an obvious one.

Rats and mice like to seek out human habitats for shelter and food.

They, in turn, attract a variety of snakes, who help keep rodent populations in check.

Beats poisoning the earth and groundwater with pesticides.

When encountering man, most snakes turn and run. They will never chase a person down.

The best advice is to leave the serpent alone and let it go its way.

They're part of the chain of life.

Sightings

Bill Turner, herpetologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, says there are more than 30 types of snakes calling Levy County home.

Some are encountered a lot more than others. But then again, where a human goes at what time of day during what season can have a lot to do with sightings.

Those active during the day have a better chance to be seen than those who strictly prowl at dusk, dawn and night.

Those snakes that live close to houses, sheds or barns also have a better chance of being seen.

Then there are a number of species that may live in close proximity to a house, but will seldom, if ever, be seen because of their fossorial - or burrowing - habits.

Even some of the more rare ones can sometimes be seen in the spring, during mating season, or during or after heavy periods of rain.

Common species

_ One of the most common species seen in these parts would be the southern racer, a brown to black snake that is white underneath.

These alert and seemingly nervous snakes are almost always on the go and can be seen bobbing around houses searching for lizards or small rodents.

They usually grow to three to four feet long and are generally slender with long tails.

Indigo snakes are also black but are more heavily bodied, have a larger head with a bit of red on the cheeks, plus they grow quite a bit larger - six to eight feet.

_ The rat snakes are also pretty common in Levy County. There are three different sub-species found in these parts.

There are gray rat snakes that have gray saddles on a lighter gray background.

There are yellow rat snakes that have a yellowish body with dark stripes running the length.

When the two interbreed, the result is a Gulf Hammock rat that has characteristics of both.

Rat snakes are attractive and large. Their head is noticeably wider than the neck. They can grow to six or seven feet.

They will hang around a house looking for rodents. Some climb high in trees, looking for birds.

_ The corn snake is another common snake in these parts.

The corn snake is really a red rat snake. It has all the characteristics of a rat snake, but because of red blotches over a cream or gray base, it is considered more desirable for those who breed snakes as pets.

Corns don't grow quite as large as the other rats, with a five-footer a good-sized snake.

_ Those who garden a lot may be familiar with a small snake that is black on top, has a light ring around the neck and a colorful yellow/orange/red underside.

It's the ring-neck snake, which usually grows to about a foot in length.

Ringnecks eat bugs and are beneficial to have around a garden.

_ If you live near or frequent fresh water, you're bound to see the banded water snake or the brown water snake.

Brown water snakes are often seen surrounding the spring head at Manatee Springs State Park.

When some folks see these, they immediately think they're water moccasins. Most of the time, they're not.

Other species that will be found in or near water include the crawfish snakes, the rainbow and mud snakes, green and yellowbelly water snakes and mangrove salt marsh snakes.

_ The garter and ribbonsnakes are popular in some locales, but there doesn't seem to be an overabundance in Levy.

What makes them so special in these parts is that the longitudinal stripes are blue instead of the traditional yellow.

They are generally smallish snakes with a three-footer considered a monster.

Ribbon snakes are even skinnier than garter snakes. Their tails are nearly a third of the snake's total size.

_ Florida brown snakes are small serpents with a two-footer considered large. As the name would indicate, they are brown with a dark ring around the neck.

Less encounters

_ The Florida kingsnake has never been one to make itself well known. It is another adept burrower that eats mice, rats, birds, lizards and other snakes.

The Florida kingsnake looks somewhat like an eastern kingsnake - black or dark brown background with a white "chain" zig-zagging through.

They can grow quite large - six or even seven feet - although five-footers are more the norm.

_ Another kingsnake - the scarlet - is a tri-colored beauty with red, yellow and black bands circling the body. The snout is usually red, unlike the coral snake, which usually has a black nose.

The way to distinguish the scarlet king from the coral is the color sequence. The yellow and red are separated by the black band in scarlet kings. They touch in corals.

Anyhow, scarlet kings are small burrowers that eat mostly small lizards and other tiny snakes.

_ There's another snake found in Levy with the red/black/yellow/black sequence - the scarlet snake. Unlike the scarlet king and coral, the scarlet snake has a white belly. The scarlet snake eats mostly other small snakes and lizards.

_ The Florida pine snake is a seldom seen beauty.

The northern pines have a bold whitish/cream with black or brown pattern.

Florida pines have a much less distinct pattern. Some are even patternless.

The pine snakes can grow quite large - six or seven feet - but they spend a lot of time underground. They eat rats, mice and moles.

The nose is slightly upturned. They may hiss loudly when encountered in the field. Some may strike - some are more tame.

_ Hognose snakes are in a world of their own. They can be identified with upturned snouts used for burrowing in sand and digging up their favorite food - toads. They have stout little bodies. When encountered in the field, they put on quite a show. They will flatten their heads and hiss. They may even roll over and play dead.

There are two types of hognose snakes in Levy - eastern and southern. Southerns are smaller.

_ The coachwhip snake is a very long serpent with a long tail. The body is black to brown from the head down to around halfway. Then it gets lighter and a braided, whip-like pattern can be detected.

It is related to the racers and is active by day. It is very quick with large eyes.

Coachwhips need large territories to exist and are extremely sensitive to development.

_ Another species affected by development is the indigo. These snakes also have large ranges and are tightly protected by law. Read Turner's accompanying tale of indigo snakes.

Venom

There are just four kinds of poisonous snakes in Florida.

Two of them are rattlesnakes - the diamondback and pygmy.

The pygmy is, as its name implies, a small snake, but it usually doesn't take much to get them agitated, as they have a defensive disposition.

The diamondbacks are the largest rattlesnakes, growing to more than eight feet and having quite a girth. They have magnificent diamond-like patterns down the back. A snake that size is better left alone.

All rattlesnakes will usually warn with their rattle tails.

The stout water moccasin has a much thicker body than the non-venomous water snakes. The head is large.

The coral snakes are the tri-colored beauties discussed earlier under scarlet king. Coral snakes are usually non-aggressive and will readily disappear into leaf litter, vegetation and then burrow.

Coral snakes are rear-fanged - meaning they have to chew to deliver the potent toxin. If not treated soon after being bitten, humans can die, as the poison arrests breathing.

Although all four can make life miserable for man, pets can particularly be at risk. A dog or cat's curious nature can sometimes lead to a fatal bite.

Best advice is to keep pets away from woodpiles and if possible, keep areas the pets play in mowed short. Also, crawl spaces under sheds or outbuildings should be off limits for pooches.

Staff Writer Claude Lewis is an amateur herpetologist, having chased critters from his native New Jersey Pine Barrens to the many habitats in Florida.