News and ResourcesSnakes Provide Beneficial Ecosystem Services - April 24, 2016
Spring is finally here and our natural natives from birds, to bugs, fish, mammals and dare we say snakes, are starting to make their appearances. We know a lot of our readers probably squirmed with the last species, but maybe if you had a better understanding of our native snakes, your squirm level might lower a bit.
Throughout history snakes have been vilified, often billed as treacherous, sneaky, evil, and cold creatures. The biblical serpent tempting Eve with the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, St. Patrick fighting and subsequently banishing all snakes from Ireland, and even Samuel L. Jackson fighting for his life against snakes on a plane are just a few examples of stories and movies where snakes play their usual antagonist role against humanity and civility. Snakes are often feared because they look so different from us and because they are often perceived as venomous and dangerous. Much like the fear of spiders, because they have so many legs and crawl around in weird places, the sight of a limbless 4-foot snake crawling around the lawn outside can cause fear or squeamishness in almost anyone. However, these misunderstood reptiles are more than just cold blooded killers and without them the world would be a much less habitable place.
Here in Maryland, snakes can be found throughout the state, from the sandy dunes of Assateague Island to the rocky mountaintops of the Appalachians in Garrett and Allegany County. Whether they are basking on a rock, quickly crossing a deserted stretch of road, or slithering through the underbrush, snakes are perfectly adapted to a wide array of different ecosystems here in Maryland. We have a total of 27 different types of snakes, including different species and sub-species, in Maryland and amongst those they are divided into two different families, the viper or viperidae family and thecolubridae family.
The overwhelming majority of snakes in Maryland are not poisonous, belong to the colubridae family, and actually do a great deal to help humans and our ecosystems. These snakes often eat many small rodents and mammals that can spread disease, eat agricultural crops, or ruin homes and businesses. Because these snakes belong to a wide array of genera and there are not more than two species of snake per genus, they are often lumped together by their preferred habitat.
We only have two different species of viper in Maryland; the timber rattlesnake and the copperhead. Both of these species are venomous and should be treated with extreme caution, as they are liable to bite when feeling threatened or provoked. Both the copperhead and timber rattlesnake are pit vipers, which means that they have a pit in between each eye and nostril that acts as an external opening to a pair of extremely sensitive infrared detecting organs in the snakes head. These organs allow the snake to essentially have a sixth sense that allows them to detect and judge the size of potential food or threats nearby.
The timber rattlesnake, as the name suggests, lives mostly in the western portion of Maryland in upland forested areas with rocky outcroppings. They are also the only snake in Maryland with a true “rattle” and are generally larger than their copperhead cousins by up to 20 inches. The copperhead is broken up into the Northern copperhead and the Intergrade between Northern and Southern copperheads. The Northern copperhead is often found on the western side of Maryland; however, it can be found throughout the state, preferring to live in old fields, forests, or forests close to agricultural fields. The Intergrade between the Southern and Northern copperhead is found almost exclusively in the southern counties of the Eastern Shore, and prefers to live in swamps, forests, and areas directly adjacent to swamps and old marshes.
In Maryland, we have two species of watersnake; the Northern watersnake and the red-bellied watersnake. These snakes are often confused for water moccasins; a different, venomous species of snake that we do not have in Maryland. These snakes like to live around the water in marshes, bogs, swamps, floodplains, forested wetlands and other wet and open areas. Queen snakes are another snake species that often lives near sources of water, including freshwater ponds and streams, in order to find their favorite source of food; crayfish.
While there are several species of watersnake, there are also many species of snakes that inhabit the coastal plains, and the Eastern Shore, and make use of wetland and flooded areas although they do not spend much time in the water. These snake species include the Northern rough greensnake, Northern scarletsnake, coastal plain milksnake, Southern ring-necked snake, red cornsnake, Eastern kingsnake, and more. The most common species of snakes found throughout the state include the common ribbon snake, Eastern gartersnake, Eastern hog-nosed snake, and Eastern ratsnake. All of these snakes are non-venomous and not dangerous to humans; however, they are often mistaken for their venomous cousins and can be killed or chased away for no real reason.
All of these snakes provide a wide array of benefits and should be given plenty of space in order to keep them, and us, happy, healthy and safe.
Jackson is the former Educational Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and current graduate student at Clemson University.
The Maryland Coastal Bays Program is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit, your tax deductible donations make it possible for us to continue our work of protecting the Coastal Bays.
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