Originally created 03/19/00

Serious serpents



Each year, Whit Gibbons looks forward to his favorite signs of spring. There are budding azaleas, nesting birds -- and sunning snakes.

Yep. Snakes.

"I'm going outside right now to look for some," said Dr. Gibbons, a herpetologist and University of Georgia professor assigned to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory at Savannah River Site.

It is springtime, and the snakes that inhabit Georgia and South Carolina are beginning to stir from winter dormancy.

"They're out right now, but it's only because it's a warm day," Dr. Gibbons said. "Any warm day from now on they'll be out sunning themselves. As we get to April, we'll see all the species."

The scores of snake species that thrive in our back yards -- and in nearby swamps, ponds and forests -- are mostly beneficial reptiles worthy of protection and respect.

But there are venomous snakes as well, which deserve a little more than respect. They should simply be left alone.

"More than half the snakebites to people in the United States are to people who pick the snake up," Dr. Gibbons said. "The best thing, if you don't know exactly what you're doing, is just don't pick it up."

In the Augusta area, three of the region's six venomous species can be commonly found:

There is the copperhead, a shy creature that prefers wet wooded areas and high places in swamps. They are light brown with saddle shaped crossbands, and blend easily into dry leaves and foliage.

The cottonmouth, or water moccasin, only grows to 3 to 4 feet but can be unusually thick. These snakes stand their ground when disturbed and will wander far from water in search of food. They resemble the common water snake.

The canebrake rattler, also called timber rattler, is one of the area's largest snakes, reaching 6 feet. It is passive unless disturbed and easily identified by its rattles.

There also are dozens of non-venomous snakes in our area, many of which are hacked to pieces by gardeners, shot at or run over by people who don't know any better.

A black rat snake, for example, consumes up to 78 rats a year. Killing off rat snakes increases the rat population, which in turn enhances destruction of nesting birds and other creatures.

"If you don't have snakes where they're supposed to be, that's when you really have problems," Mr. Gibbons said. "It is a benefit when you see snakes around because if they are around it means the habitat is in good shape."

Snakes are at the top of the food chain, and as such they eat other animals, he said. Their presence is a constant reassurance that things are well.

"The Eastern kingsnake is another especially good one to have around," Dr. Gibbons said. "They are immune to the venom of rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and copperheads, and they'll actually eat them."

Dr. Gibbons doesn't like to hear of people killing snakes needlessly, and many such killings are by people who mistakenly believe they are removing a venomous specimen.

The banded water snake -- a harmless, shy creature -- is often the victim of its resemblance to the venomous water moccasin.

"There are four species of big water snakes, five actually, in this area, that look like our water moccasins," he said. "They they live in the same places, so they are often confused."

Water snakes are far more common than their venomous counterparts. A study along the Savannah River several years ago, for example, found that water snakes outnumbered moccasins 100-to-one.

Anyone interested in learning more about area snakes should get a copy of the book Dr. Gibbons co-edited, Snakes of Georgia and South Carolina.

The color booklet includes identification tips, photos, habitat maps and other information about all 40 of the snakes known to inhabit the two-state region.

The booklet is available through the Savannah River Ecology Lab for $5, which covers postage. For more information, call Marie Hamilton, 725-9724.

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119, or rpavey@augustachronicle.com.