Conserve Wildlife Blog

Happy World Snake Day!

July 15th, 2022

Globally, nearly 4,000 species of snakes have been described in scientific literature. Of these,
about 15% are venomous. The remaining 85% of species rely on alternative methods to capture
prey. Of the species that are venomous, the toxins they produce are meant to incapacitate the
rodents, amphibians, and birds that they eat which are, generally, exponentially smaller than a
human. Since producing venom is energetically costly, relatively few snakes are able to amass
a sufficient quantity or potency to have a serious effect on large animals. Roughly 7% of all
snakes are capable of wounding or killing a human. Having the ability to inflict a deadly bite,
however, does not mean that doing so is their number one strategy. Most snakes are
nonaggressive toward humans. In fact, they don’t want anything to do with us and will typically
choose flight over fight. Bites occur most often when people inadvertently put their hand near or
directly step on a snake that could not get away. In the United States where antivenin is widely
available, 5 people die from snake bites annually. Compare that to seemingly risk-free activities
like utilizing a vending machine or Black Friday shopping which cause 13 and 550 deaths per
year, respectively.
Snake venom varies widely among species, but there are three basic types. Neurotoxins
prevent nerve impulses from firing normally, disrupting the function of the nervous system.
Cytotoxins cause the death of cells. Hemotoxins damage tissue, prevent clotting, and can lead
to hemorrhage. These effects may sound scary, and they are. In locations that aren’t as
fortunate as the US, snake bites are recognized as a neglected tropical disease and affects
millions of people- they are serious. But, if you think critically about the specific effects, are there
not applications where they could be desirable? Venoms have been used in human medicine
since 380 B.C., but the blood pressure medication Captopril made history in 1981 as the first
FDA approved treatment to do so. In addition to their use in the manufacture of antivenin, snake venoms are or could one day become components in drugs treating heart disease, thrombosis,
diabetes, arthritis, autoimmune diseases, and cancer. Even to those solidly opposed to snakes,
these applications must improve their merit.

The characteristic Hershey’s kiss patterning is visible in this photo of a northern copperhead, one of New Jersey’s two species of venomous snakes. Photo Credit: Steve Buckingham

We share New Jersey with 22 species of snakes. Some are quite small, like the southern
ringneck and eastern smooth earth snakes, which might only grow to 7 inches in length.
Conversely, northern pine and black rat snakes can be over 7 feet when fully mature. Queen
snakes are so rare that they are thought to have been extirpated from their New Jersey range,
while eastern garter snakes are likely hard at work, ridding your garden of slugs as you’re
reading this text. The coloration of smooth and rough green snakes helps them to blend into
their habitat while the beautiful patterning of corn snakes makes them vulnerable to poaching for
the illegal pet trade. Two species of venomous snakes- timber rattlesnakes and northern
copperheads also call the state home. Habitat loss, collection for the pet trade, and persecution
have led to respective listings as endangered and of concern in New Jersey. Mistaken
identification also leads to the persecution of eastern milk snakes, northern water snakes,
eastern hognose, black rat snakes, northern black racers, eastern garter snakes, and eastern
ribbon snakes. Not only is this incredibly sad, but it is environmentally concerning. We need
snakes, venomous or not, for the function they play in balancing the food web and removing
pests that could make us sick and damage our crops.
We urge those of you who spend time outside, whether you are utilizing public hiking trails or
simply enjoying your own backyard, to educate yourselves on our local snakes. Learn where
venomous snakes live- what their habitat looks like. What THEY look like. Northern
copperheads have a distinctive pattern of splotches, shaped like Hershey’s kisses, down their
back. Timber rattlesnakes occur in yellow or black color morphs. If you hear a rattling sound
back away, but know that harmless snakes will mimic that sound when threatened by vibrating
their tail against twigs and leaves. We do not have coral snakes here, so don’t panic if you see
red banding. There are a lot of myths about identifying venomous snakes. Triangular heads and
slit pupils are not reliable indicators! Always be aware and keep your dog on a leash when
visiting venomous snake territory. If you get bitten by a venomous snake, seek medical attention
immediately. Being able to identify the species can expedite treatment. Never try to draw the
toxin out yourself. Remember that, most snakes are only aggressive if you give them a reason
to be. By learning more about snakes and educating others, you can play an invaluable role in
their conservation while enhancing your own out door experience.

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One Response to “Happy World Snake Day!”

  1. Rick Weiman says:

    Great article, especially the part about not harming a snake just because you are afraid of them. As you said there are only 2 venomous snakes in the state and all others are harmless, even the venomous ones, if left alone. Enjoy their beauty and be happy the place you saw it (remember it’s their home range, not yours) has a healthy enough ecosystem to support them. If you do i.d. a Copperhead or Timber Rattlesnake on your property and feel it is a risk for you, your family, or your pets to be that close please call the NJ Venomous Response Team where there are many volunteers who will gladly come relocate the snake harmlessly. So if you suspect a snake on your property is a rattlesnake or a copperhead and is in need of relocation, call the DEP Endangered and Nongame Species Program’s northern region office at (908) 638-4381 or (908) 638-4127, or the southern region office at (609) 628-2103. After hours and on weekends call (877) WARN-DEP. If you are not sure of the species they will also give you i.d. tips and may ask you to send a photo taken from a safe distance of course.