Monday, September 26, 2016


I gave a talk at the local library last week. It was generally about the ranch as an ecosystem with a bit of emphasis placed on seasonal variations, weather, and wildlife.

It was a standing room only crowd -- not!

There were six adults and two children present, and two of the adults were library staff.

I'm not complaining! I doff my hat to the library staff for making the attempt. Maybe we'll develop it into a better and better attended lecture in the future.

I mention this talk only because I ran into a common reaction when I showed my pictures and videos. Everybody loves the antelope and ground squirrels and weasels and baby calves and insects and -- well -- just about everything.

But when I put up the slides of the snakes, the near-universal reaction is negative. Very negative. "Ick, yuck, awful, terrible, ooohhh."

I'm pretty sure I know why that is. It's fear.

Now there are a lot of animals to be cautious of and to even fear. Lions. Tigers. Bears. Bison. Cape Buffalo. Those things can kill us in very short order, and we pretty much all understand that.

But we also seem to find those deadly animals interesting and fascinating.

Our seemingly universal reaction to snakes is very different. In a great many cases just the image of a snake causes revulsion and a deep fear bordering on terror.

I wonder why that is. It seems to be a very deeply rooted phobia, one that lives in the primitive, non-reasoning part of our brain. Why are snakes so fundamentally repulsive and fear-inducing, while other deadly animals are less so?

It's interesting to think about. I don't know the answer, but I get the feeling that snakes were the number one danger to evolving proto-humans, and that deep seated fear has remained with us down through the ages. It may in fact be hard-wired into our very DNA.

Just speculation, of course, but interesting to think about.

And oh by the way, my own visceral reaction to snakes is one of fear and revulsion. I've learned to deal with it and to appreciate snakes intellectually and rationally. But that does not mean that an unexpected rattle at my feet does not instantly shoot adrenaline through my system. And every time I levitate and scream like a girl. My primitive brain and my reasoning brain do not agree on the subject at all.

In the last couple of months I've posted on rattlesnakes and bullsnakes. One of the things that absolutely delights my reasoning brain is the way the bullsnake aggressively imitates the rattlesnake when threatened. It coils, raises its head, vibrates its tail, hisses in a fair approximation of the buzz of a rattlesnake rattle, and strikes at the threat if it comes close.

The bullsnake is, in fact, more aggressively and overtly threatening than the rattlesnake. The difference in behavior is striking. The rattlesnake -- at least the prairie rattlesnake -- is usually quite docile. It will coil and raise its head and rattle, but usually only after some serious pestering. In general the rattlesnake will simply try to slither away. Prairie rattlesnakes actually seem pretty laid back, especially when compared to the bullsnake, which often behaves like a tweaker coming down off the meth.

One other thing that many bullsnakes do is to constrict the muscles right behind the head to give the head a triangular appearance. The rattlesnake head is triangular due to the muscles and joints required to strike and envenomate, and also due to the size and musculature of the venom glands. The bullsnake, on the other hand, has an oval shaped head.

But it can sure make its head look triangular! I found this one sunning on a county road yesterday.
Just soakin' up some rays.

Close up of the oval shaped head.
Presto-changeo! Now I'm a rattlesnake! Note the round pupil.
Very convincing!
For comparison, here's the prairie rattlesnake.

Coiling, tail up but not rattling. Just a gentle "have a care, chum."
Naturally triangular head.
And a vertically slit pupil.

And here's some video of the bullsnake.

All in all, just a slice of nature's wonder. As is our visceral reaction to snakes.


  1. I saw your video first over at YouTube. The snakes head seemed very clean and even moist. Would that have been from the dew, or could it have just molted?

    1. I'm glad you mentioned that because I forgot to. He was so bright, shiny and colorful that he almost certainly had shed very recently.

  2. Snakes, not my favorites critters but I'm very much a live and let live kind of guy. Unless me and mine are threatened, which is rare in these parts. We once had a garter snake living in the rocks surrounding our pond, for one summer The Missus Herself would go nowhere near the pond. She is pathologically terrified of snakes, in fact all things that slither about with no legs.

    Then one morning she called me to inform me that the wee snake had somehow gotten into the pond and drowned. Poor thing. She claimed it was "an accident," I would suspect foul play but I know she'd not go within 10 feet of a snake for all the tea in China. (Not that we drink that much tea...)

    1. That put a grin on my face!

      Google tells me that you've got quite a few native snakes in Rhode Island and it's common for home owners to find them sunning on the driveway or patio. The snake pub from your fish and wildlife service says no native snakes are venomous, the last timber rattlers having disappeared 30 years ago. I wonder where they went? It also encourages housewives to use a squirt bottle or broom to encourage sunning snakes to move on. You appear to be a highly civilized people up there. :)

  3. Maybe our fear IS part of our DNA from the way back.