Late August began with an outstanding encounter in the woods when my grandson and I found an enormous canebrake rattlesnake stretched out in front of a tree stump. The snake rattled at us and then languidly crawled into a large hole beneath the stump. It was in the same place on three more visits over the next two weeks. Those visits were cool enough, but the fifth visit was really special. The big snake was still there, and stretched or coiled around the stump were five baby canebrakes.
Rattlesnakes do not lay eggs. They are livebearers, so the mother is around, intentionally or not, to protect her newborn young. Within a day or so after birth, a snake generally sheds its skin. Sure enough, when we went back to our family cabin three days after seeing the babies, we found five shed skins around the stump – and no snakes. My grandson is pleased to know that at least six canebrake rattlesnakes are roaming around in the woods we enjoy walking through. So am I.
Most North American snakes are born between midsummer and early fall. The baby rattlesnakes emphasize a point I have made before – more snakes are present in early autumn than at any other time of the year. Most snakes mate in the spring, so adults are usually more conspicuous then, usually within a few days or weeks after winter is over. But across the country, all snake species actually reach their highest numbers in August and September because of the appearance of hatchlings. Rat snakes, corn snakes, kingsnakes and racers are among the kinds that lay eggs in early summer; these hatch in late summer. Rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths and watersnakes hold their babies in the body and give live birth during the same season.
Due to natural mortality rates that affect all animal species, the actual population size of every snake species begins to decrease by mid-autumn. More small snakes are likely to be seen in the fall because the recently born young are moving around in search of their first meal while it is still warm. By spring, most of the newcomers have been consumed by predators or died in other ways.
The following information about how to identify a snake you encounter bears repeating. Sending an email with an attached photo from a cell phone is fast becoming an easy and effective approach. Email the photo to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you didn’t get a picture, send as good a description as possible of what you saw.
A photo accompanied by pertinent descriptors generally leads to ready identification. But poor picture quality or the absence of key physical features in the photo can make identification difficult. Be sure to tell where you saw the snake. If any behavioral observations seem noteworthy, mention them. Sending photos of the top of the animal, a side profile, a view of the belly and a close-up of the head would be ideal. With live snakes, however, most people are lucky to get a single photo of the snake as it is leaving – or the person is. Fortunately, a whole body shot is usually sufficient for proper identification.
To identify snakes of the Southeast, as well as other reptiles and amphibians, visit the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory website, www.uga.edu/srelherp/. Note that some species are highly variable in coloration and pattern, and the young of some look very different from the adults. Geographic variation can make identifying some snakes especially difficult, so check all photos for a species.
Finding out just what animal you saw in your yard can be gratifying. And, in the case of the maligned snakes, familiarity may breed understanding rather than contempt. You are likely to find that the interesting creature living near you is nothing to worry about. Even in areas of the Southeast where snakes abound, only about one species in six is venomous. Most of the others couldn’t hurt you if they tried.
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Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.