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Season of the serpent

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 28, 2000


Summer rains flooded the ponds and creeks, sending everything from water moccasins to alligators on the prowl.

As we made our way through the trees in a flat-bottomed john boat, swatting clouds of sparrow-sized mosquitoes that hovered over our heads, my friend the wildlife officer said for him, summer always meant snakes.

"Cottonmouths, rattlers, coral snakes . . . you see 'em all when it rains like this," he said. "Keep an eye out on some of these long-hanging tree limbs. You might just see one."

No sooner had the words left his mouth than we rounded a corner, banged into a branch and knocked a 3-foot-long water moccasin into our boat. My first reaction was to shoot the serpent, but the officer advised against it, citing state regulations concerning the destruction of public property, i.e., the government-issued john boat.

So we did our best with an old canoe paddle, dancing around the tiny boat for 10 minutes until the snake finally curled up in a corner. We picked it up and tossed it out.

I thought about that cottonmouth the other day when I found a monstrous corn snake hiding beneath a bag of mulch in the garden.

"Summer is definitely a time of increased snake activity," said Lt. Gary Morse of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "Whenever we get a lot of rain it puts snakes and other reptiles on the move."

The recent warm, wet weather has done wonders for lawns and wildlife.

"There are a lot of frogs, insects and other creatures moving about," Morse said. "Snakes feed on these creatures and as a result, people may be seeing more of them."

Florida has 44 species of snakes, with six considered dangerous to humans: the coral snake, the copperhead, the cottonmouth, the diamondback rattlesnake, the timber rattlesnake and the pygmy rattlesnake.

Two of those species, the timber rattlesnake (formerly called the canebrake rattlesnake) and the copperhead, are found primarily in north and northwest Florida. The coral snake is secretive and rarely bites unless picked up.

Of the four venomous species found near St. Petersburg, the eastern diamondback is the largest and most dangerous. Its venom is haemotoxic, meaning it destroys blood cells and body tissue.

Diamondback rattlesnakes are found in just about every habitat in Florida -- from salt marshes to scrub lands, and at times, even swimming between barrier islands in the Intracoastal Waterway and in Tampa Bay.

Diamondbacks are distinguished by a tail rattle and a distinctive pattern of yellow-ringed, diamond-shaped markings that help camouflage the snake in the bush.

"Rattlesnakes love palmetto fronds and at times can be hard to spot," Morse said. "This time of year they will try to get out of the wet stuff and move to higher ground."

Diamondback rattlesnakes can grow to 8 feet and strike objects up to two-thirds the length of their bodies away. Despite the snake's nasty reputation, it mostly kills rodents and plays an important role in nature's balance.

The cottonmouth, or water moccasin, prefers stream banks, swampy shores and tree limbs hanging low over the water. Its color is usually dark brown or black, so it is often confused with other harmless water snakes.

"Water moccasins are pretty much confined to swampy areas, but occasionally somebody living nearby may find one on their doorstep," Morse said. "Usually what people think are water moccasins are some other type of harmless water snake."

As a result, most big, brown snakes found near the water are killed because people think they could be water moccasins.

But cottonmouths can easily be distinguished from harmless water snakes. Here is how to tell the difference:

When looking down on the snake, if the creature's eyes are visible, the reptile is probably a water snake. The eyes of a cottonmouth cannot be seen from above.

Cottonmouths or water moccasins (the names are used interchangebly) have elliptical pupils, whereas water snakes have round pupils. Water moccasins also have a facial pit between the nostril and the eye. Water snakes do not.

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