Jim White: Delmarva’s Snakes

by Dave Wilson

Naturalist Dave Wilson talks with Jim White of the Delaware Nature Society about snakes.

Dave: In my former life as Director of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, I always had lots of inquiries about snakes; which ones were venomous, how many species do we have, where and when am I most likely to encounter them? Unfortunately, due to habitat loss from development, conversion of native forest to pine monoculture, persecution and even the pet trade, many species on Delmarva are struggling.

In the studio today we have Jim White from the Delaware Nature Society and co-author with his wife, Amy, of The Amphibians and Reptiles of Delmarva. Jim is a native Delawarean and has worked for the Delaware Nature Society for 33 years where he is currently serving as a Senior Fellow for Land and Biodiversity Management. He teaches herpetology at the University of Delaware. He is going to shed some light on the mysteries of the peninsula's snakes.
Jim, welcome.

Jim: Hi, Dave. It's great to be here.

Dave: So, Jim, how many species of snakes are there on Delmarva and which ones are venomous?

Jim: We have 19 species that are known to occur here. Only one is venomous, the Northern copperhead.

Dave: What's the status of copperheads? Is it something I am likely to see or I can go out and see and how likely am I to get bitten. That's a question people always ask me which I chuckle at, but I'll let you answer that.

Jim: Well, the copperheads are not very uncommon. They are distributed throughout the Peninsula, at least in the Northern part of the Peninsula-one colony up near Wilmington and then as you get down here to the mid or Southern end of the Peninsula, they become a little bit more common. However, the likelihood of finding one, let alone being bitten by one, is pretty remote.

Dave: I noticed that in my time down here that usually when I see them, I see them in the evenings or road kills, unfortunately, in the night in September or early October. Can you elaborate on maybe why that is.

Jim: Yeah, well first of all they're very secretive, so you are not apt to just find them as you are walking a trail or just wandering around in the day time. They tend to be nocturnal They come out at night. We see them on the roads because they will come out on the road, especially after a warm day, to basically obtain the heat from the road. So sometimes they'll come out and just rest on the road like a warm rock. We also see them, probably the most of the time, is when they are killed by cars.

Dave: And how is their status? Are they increasing, decreasing? Is there a sense that the conservation community has on what their status currently is?

Jim: Most of us feel that they are having some serious problems and declining markedly. Probably most snakes are. Maybe more than we actually know. Habitat loss throughout the peninsula is decimating these species. Plus, with more traffic on the roads today the fatalities by cars has risen tremendously over the last 20 years.

Dave: Yeah, I know that vehicular traffic is a big problem for a lot of species, even salamanders sometimes, but also the habitat, the quality of the habitat that they're in. Can you talk about some of these snakes' needs on the Delmarva and what kind of habitat they might live in.

Jim: Most of the snakes are forest dwellers so they like a nice healthy mixed deciduous or mixed deciduous/coniferous forest down here on the mid-peninsula. Up north they are primarily found in rocky slope areas up on the piedmont. But they really do need a fairly large, somewhat healthy woodlands which is fairly rare today.

Dave: What are some of the most common snake species that you'll see here on Delmarva?

Jim: The two most common are the eastern ratsnake and the eastern garter snake. However, the northern watersnake is a close third. In fact, this species is seen by a lot of fishermen, people who spend time around ponds and other water, wetlands.

Dave: How about we talk a little about northern water snakes, which, some of us who are bold enough to handle snakes, know that northern water snakes and black racers can be pretty aggressive. They don't like to be held, but some people also, we're talking about water snakes, tell me that they see moccasins, that they think moccasins live here. Can you elaborate on that a little bit.

Jim: Yeah, sure. Well, most of our snakes, at least the larger snakes, like I said, the eastern ratsnake, the black racer, or the watersnake, they are relatively aggressive. They'll protect themselves by biting if you were to handle them. Many people feel that when a snake is aggressive, it automatically means it is a venomous species. And the northern watersnake because it spends its time almost always near the water, many people believe it's a water moccasin which does not occur on the Delmarva peninsula. As far north as we know it comes is Newport News in Virginia outside of the Chesapeake.

Dave: So what are some of the problems? We talked about species of snakes facing problems with development, with the habitat type, with vehicular traffic. Are there any other issues that snakes might have that relate to viruses or things like that on the peninsula.

Jim: Right now we haven't detected any viruses in the snakes, at least here on Delmarva. However, there are reptile species that are getting certain viruses throughout the world. So Fish & Wildlife in Delaware are monitoring some of these species. We are worried a little bit about disease because the humans are going into all these wetlands either for fishing or for hunting or, in some cases, like you and I, Dave, going after amphibians and reptiles, and we have to be a little concerned about spreading these diseases. In fact, recently, most herpetologists are actually sterilizing their boots when they go from one wetland to another being very, very careful not to spread some of these diseases and these viruses.

Dave: I know worldwide virus problems are huge for amphibians and reptiles. I know a lot of snakes have different patterns when they're juveniles and when they're adults. A lot of snakes when they are juveniles look very similar to venomous snakes or other snakes. Can you maybe talk about why that is and what snake species look different when they're juveniles.

Jim: Yeah, several species, especially the larger ones when they're young are boldly marked. They might have bands on their back and may be somewhat colorful, reddish, red colorations; really bright yellows. This probably is a form of camouflage for the young snakes so that they're not eaten by birds, other mammals, maybe even other snakes. As some of these species like the eastern rat snake, the northern watersnake, even the black racer, as they get larger they lose this pattern and they become, in the case of the racer and eastern ratsnake entirely black. The watersnake becomes almost a very dark brown. However, when these snakes are young, they are showing that pattern, this is another reason, not a good one, but a reason that people think that they're venomous. As soon as they see a pattern on the snake for some reason they become frightened of it and they treat it like a venomous snake and usually that means death for the snake.

Dave: I want to switch gears here a little bit and talk about what species eat which critters and what eats snakes.

Jim: Sure. Well, many of our snakes eat rodents or warmblooded animals; rodents and birds, mice and bird species like the eastern ratsnake, the cornsnake that we have on the peninsula that is very rare. Then other species the northern watersnake, the red bellied watersnake, they eat fish and frogs. Then there's a couple species, the eastern kingsnake and the eastern milk snake that actually eat other snakes. So there is a variety of diet depending on the species from anything to eating other snakes to all the way up to eating birds and mammals.

Dave: Do king snakes have a preference as to which species of snake they eat. Is there any science on that?

Jim: Well, no. The science says that they'll eat about any snake they come across. Now there is a lot more about kingsnakes eating venomous snakes and they will. They will eat venomous snakes, they'll eat copperheads. They're immune to the venom. So one of the reasons they're called king snakes is because of that fact, the king of snakes, because they can actually eat a venomous snake.

To learn more about snakes on Delmarva visit these websites:

Delware Nature Society

Delaware: What snake is that?

Field Guide to Maryland's Snakes (Order Squamata)
Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Maryland: What snake is that?

Virginia Snake Identification Guide
The Virginia Herpetological Society

Virginia: What snake is that?