Some people think they have to kill snakes to get rid of the venomous ones. But why bother — when the helpful black snakes will do it for you?
It’s the time of year people start seeing snakes outside, and the grand majority of snakes are harmless. People panic for no reason, said local snake experts Brian Williams of Dan River Basin Association and Jason Gibson, a biology instructor at Patrick Henry Community College.
Of the 34 species and subspecies of snakes in Virginia, only three are venomous, according the Virginia Herpetological Society. People in Henry County or Martinsville, Williams and Gibson said, only are likely to come across the copperhead, or very rarely — on mountaintops — a timber rattlesnake.
The rest of the Virginia snakes are harmless to people and beneficial to the environment. The most well-known of those snakes are the black snakes.
“Snakes are greatly beneficial to humans,” said Gibson, who is a member of the Virginia Herpetological Society.
“In our area the majority are non-venomous. They are very beneficial, very helpful with rodent control. They are part of the food web: They eat things; things eat them,”
There are two common black snakes in Virginia: the black rat snake and the black racer.
The black rat snake is the largest in Virginia. They are “very beneficial snakes to our environment. They eat a lot of rats and mice” and are such an important part of the ecosystem that “without them we would not have the food we have,” Williams said.
Black rat snakes climb trees and brick or stone walls easily, while their thinner, faster relative, the black racer, stays on the ground — and is fast.
“They are some of the fastest snakes in the country,” said Williams, adding that they “love to chase lizards” and also eat other snakes.
This is a time of year people see more snakes than usual. That’s because they are out breeding, Williams said, and in the next month or so you will be seeing baby snakes about.
Williams said he has been interested in and studying snakes all his life. He had has first pet snake when he was 5 years old, worked for a couple of years in the reptile department at the Atlanta Zoo and has reptiles for the pet trade.
He regularly offers to help people with snakes, and last week he responded to such a call at a location where two black snakes had been seen.
He pulled one black snake out from a pile of hoses, but the other had gone through a hole in the exterior clapboard siding of an outbuilding.
“I took the flashlight and tried to coax it out with wire,” he said. When that didn’t work, he “cut the hole a little larger, put my hand in, reached in and pulled it out” — no big deal.
But that might not be the case with those three venomous snakes: copperheads, water moccasins and rattlesnakes.
There are no water moccasins anywhere in southern Virginia — only by the coast. However, there are a handful of types of harmless snakes that swim — and that are unjustly attacked, Williams said.
Timber rattlesnakes are extremely rare in this region — only likely to be found at the very top of mountains, such as Turkeycock Mountain and Fork Mountain, said Gibson, who is a member of the Virginia Herpetological Society.
Gibson described copperheads as having hourglass-like patterns all along their backs and copper-colored heads, or also similar to the Hershey’s kiss-hourglass shape, Williams said. Their eyes are slit like cats’ eyes.
Copperheads are camouflaged to hide in piles of autumn leaves, where they often are found — as well as in wood piles and brush piles.
“They blend in perfectly. It’s very, very hard to see them when they are coiled up,” Gibson said.
The rattlesnake has a highly variable, light brown to almost yellow chevron pattern (lines or stripes in “V” shapes) interspersed with black chevrons, Gibson said. Colors could be grays and yellows as well.
“That chevron pattern and the hourglass pattern are the big key features in those snakes,” Gibson said.
Solid or striped snakes “are not going to be venomous,” Gibson added.
What to do
Snakes “are easily avoided,” Williams said. “Don’t try to pick one up. Don’t try to kill one.”
Snakes don’t want to bite people, because doing so takes too much out of them, Williams added. A snake’s first line of defense is to run away; its second is to spray musk; and its last resort, if it can’t escape, would be to bite.
“They can lose their teeth when they strike. That’s really bad” for them, he said. “It can cause mouth disease. They want to use that venom to capture prey” and not otherwise waste it.
“It’s a waste of their resources. They don’t want to battle a human that outweighs them 50 times.”
Copperheads can bite even after they are dead, Gibson said. That’s because of automatic reflexes from muscle cells, which can live up to six hours after the snake has died.
“The majority of snake bites happen when people are trying to kill snakes,” Williams said. “They don’t happen when people are walking through the woods or digging around the garden.”
That knowledge comes from years of his studying snake bites, he added.
“If folks learned those patterns” on the copperhead and rattlesnake “and learned to avoid them, all other snakes are perfectly fine,” Gibson said.
The most common snakes, green ones and black ones, “are not able to harm you in any way,” Gibson said.
Fewer than 10 people have died from snake bites in Virginia since 1945, Gibson said — and many of those killed were religious snake handlers. It’s in other parts of the world, such as India and Africa, where venomous snakes are more common.
In May 2008 June Newman Engle, 62, of Wedgewood Road in Ridgeway died from what a state medical examiner said may have been an unusual allergic reaction to venom from a snake bite, according to Bulletin reports.
Medical personnel “said ordinarily in a worst-case scenario, a copperhead bite would cause a loss of limb. They said she would have had to have been bitten by 20 snakes at the same time to have caused her death” if she had not had an allergy, her daughter, Sonya Engle of Falls Church, told the Bulletin at the time.
Patrick County veterinarian Dr. Lock Boyce said in that article that it is more likely that someone would suffer a heart attack after being bitten or have some other major complication than dying from a snake bite.
"It's as close to never ever as anything," Boyce said, adding that poison from those snakes “can cause certain people a lot of problems, but an average healthy adult human should be able to survive a bite of either of these with no medical attention.”
Anyone who is bitten by a snake should take a photograph of the snake to show medical personnel, then seek medical attention. That would let the staff know if it is a venomous snake and, if so, what kind of treatment to provide.
If you have seen a snake and would like to find out what kind it is, take a picture of it and send it to the Virginia Herpetological Society’s Facebook page or email as found on its website, or the Virginia Museum of Natural History, Williams said, adding that people are welcome to send it to him as well. He also recommended snake identification charts on the Herpetological Society website.
Ben R. Williams (no relation to Brian Williams), the science administrator at VMNH, said he welcomes any questions and/or pictures of snakes to him at email@example.com .
The Virginia Herpetological Society was founded in 1958, according to www.virgniaherpetologicalsociety.com . It meets twice a year and publishes a bulletin, Catesbeiana, also twice a year.
The 2019 spring meeting and survey of the Virginia Herpetological Society will be Friday through Sunday at Sky Meadows State Park in Delaplane, with the Sunday survey open to members only.
According to the Society, Virginia also is home to 28 species of frogs and toads, 56 species and subspecies of salamanders, nine native lizard species and two introduced species, 34 species and subspecies of snakes (only three venomous) and 25 species and subspecies of turtle, including five sea turtles.
People “think that killing a snake is helping people out, but killing a snake that is not venomous is not doing people any good,” Gibson said. It “diminishes the ecosystem and the animals that are in the ecosystem.”
Snakes “are impressive animals. People get startled by them, but there’s no need to,” Brian Williams said. “It’s OK to be frightened by them, but just don’t kill them. They are a hugely important part of our environment.”