Snakes sense organs are unique among animals. They rely heavily on their sense of smell and touch. A tongue that helps smell, no eyelids, and no ear openings are all adaptations that make snakes interesting.
Like other reptiles, snakes are cold-blooded vertebrates, covered in scales, whose young mostly hatch from eggs. As a cold-blooded animal, they have a lower metabolism that allows them to survive for long periods without a meal. All snakes are carnivores but different species feed on different prey. All snakes can swim and some spend a lot of time in or near the water. Some species are diurnal (active during the day) and others are more nocturnal (active at night). Given the flexibility of snakes, some people assume they have no bones – actually they have more bones than humans.
Along with other land and water species, there are two venomous snakes that can be encountered on the island – the cottonmouth and the rattlesnake. Both are members of the pit viper family with facial pits located between their eyes and nostrils that detect minute temperature changes. This “sixth sense” aids in detecting warm-blooded prey and is helpful for the cottonmouth that primarily hunts at night and for the ambush hunting technique employed by both. The venom is a cocktail of chemicals injected voluntarily through hollow fangs. Snakes are not aggressive towards humans, and we are not easily mistaken for their prey. These venomous snakes will typically not strike unless threatened. Why waste venom if it is not for a meal? When humans are bitten by ANY snake, 95 percent of the time it is because someone is trying to catch them or kill them. Keep a safe distance and use the zoom on your camera to catch the moment.
The venomous Eastern Cottonmouth is also known as the water moccasin. These are fish eaters that can reach four feet in length. Cottonmouths are also opportunistic feeders and will eat almost anything, including other snakes – even their own kind! Fish is their favorite. They are attracted to dead fish on the beach, bait buckets or crab traps with bait left in them, or discarded fish parts in a trash can after a day of fishing.
The name cottonmouth comes from the brilliant white found on the inside of their mouths. When threatened they will coil, vibrate their tails, and display this “cottonmouth” letting you know to back off. Being big-bodied snakes, they do not flee – they are slower than most snakes. So, they will turn and defend their ground and hope you will back down. Bites from this snake are very painful but rarely fatal.
The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake is the largest venomous snake in the United States and can weigh up to 10 pounds. Most do not surpass six feet, are diurnal in habit, and like sandy dune areas where shrubs and trees are nearby for cover. They feed almost exclusively on rodents and the larger ones really like rabbits. They will lie beneath a shrub, like a palmetto, for a couple of weeks waiting for prey to pass within range.
This species only reproduces every two to three years, mating in spring with the female giving live birth to a dozen or two baby snakes. They are born with fangs and venom, but lack a rattler – which grows when they start molting.
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Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake © UF/IFAS – Josh Wickham
When encountering humans, rattlesnakes are often not alarmed. Many will remain in their coiled state with their head down, and not rattle at all. However, if alarmed the snake will hold its head up in the “S” position and begin to rattle. This is alerting you to back off – and you should. A rattlesnake has a strike range 2/3 of its body length. Though it is rare to get them angry enough to strike, the venom of this snake is very toxic and a bite requires immediate attention. While parts of the island are prime habitat, Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes are hard to find. They seem to avoid us – which is good.
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
The Southern Black Racer is one of the most commonly encountered snakes in our area in a number of habitats. Racers are excellent climbers and like to be around people – and they are very fast. If you try to pick them up or move them with a stick, they will strike – over and over again. Remember this is an act of self defense. Black racers are opportunistic predators feeding on a variety of prey including other snakes. There are reports of them eating copperheads and pygmy rattlesnakes.
Racers have a close cousin in the Coachwhip, so named because they look very much like the old stagecoach whips. Couchwhips are very common in the dunes, are also nonvenomous, but will not hesitate to strike if provoked. Both are diural, egg-laying and hunt by sight. They can be seen racing across the ground with their head elevated like a cobra looking for prey.
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Southern Black Racer © Joe Stukey
The Rough Green Snake is a beautiful snake! They are very thin and a brilliant green color. These snakes spend most of their time hunting in trees and shrubs blending in so well they are very difficult to see. They have been found along the trails of Ft. Pickens and in other parts of the island where vegetation is dense.
The Eastern Garter Snake is a very common in grassy and wooded areas. It shares traits with its cousin – the Eastern Ribbon Snake. Both are diurnal and prefer to feed on amphibians. This preference keeps the ribbon closer to a water source, while the garter is more opportunistic and eats other small prey as well. Females in both species have the ability to store sperm for over a year, waiting to fertilize their eggs until conditions are most favorable. A garter snake can give birth to as many as 50 five to eight inch babies. The ribbon snake is also very thin.
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Rough Green Snake © UF/IFAS – Thomas Wright
There are several species of nonvenomous water snakes in the genus Nerodia and they are very difficult to tell apart, especially when they are in the water. They look VERY similar to a cottonmouth and are often confused with it. Some of the ways to tell the difference require close observation of the coloration on the snakes head. An easier distinction is the heads shape. A water snake’s head is shaped more like your thumb. The cottonmouth’s is spade shaped and thick and has a distinct neck. However, when threatened a harmless water snake will flare its head mimicking a venomous snake. These snakes are not fans of saltwater but there are freshwater sources on the island. They are more nocturnal by nature but can be found early or late in the day, basking on tree limbs overhanging the water. Like most snakes, they will defend themselves by biting.
Banded Water Snake