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Culpeper Times • April 28-May 4, 2016
➤ Snakes, from Page 9
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snake species are protected under the commonwealth’s Endangered Species Act, according to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ booklet, “A Guide to the Snakes of Virginia,” none of the three species discussed in this column are endangered. However, the booklet says, “by state regulation, non-endangered snakes cannot be killed unless they are a nuisance or health hazard.” It acknowledges the important role snakes play in our ecosystems and agriculture, particularly in keeping rodent populations under control, adding “unless you have no reasonable alternative but to kill a snake, it should be left alone.” I totally agree. The basking snake didn’t appear to have a rattle on its tail, and I heard no rattling. The cool temperature could have made the snake sluggish enough that it was just slow to respond and the tip of its tail was hidden under some dead leaves, so I couldn’t be sure it didn’t have one when I first saw it. And on occasion, rattlesnakes lose, or are born without, a rattle. While color patterns vary among the three species, sometimes these patterns are often not distinct enough to rely on for ID, especially from a distance. With all wildlife, but especially potentially dangerous species, I try to figure out how close I can comfortably get to adequately observe and photograph them without disturbing them. With this snake, I carefully made my way around it, staying about 10 feet away,
trying to get a better look and take photos. I had recently bought a 100-millimeter macro lens, which was on my camera. While I would have preferred getting closer, or having a longer lens, to get the snake’s details, the macro’s focal length helped in getting good enough shots to confirm the snake’s species later. In observing the snake, I briefly checked out the color pattern on the body, then looked closely at its head, which in most snakes have more telling ID points. The watersnake does not have the very broad, triangular head with heat-sensing pits behind the nostrils that marks the rattler and copperhead, both members of the venomous pit-viper subfamily of snakes. The northern watersnake’s nose is also rounder, while the nose of the other two snakes is flatter on top. And the watersnake has vertical stripes running across its mouth, which is lacking in the other two species. Without getting too anthropomorphic, I have to say that the rattler has what I’d characterize as a fiercer look than the watersnake or, to a lesser extent the copperhead, because of the ridges above its eyes. The vertical pupils of the two venomous snakes also look scarier — more alien — perhaps because we primates have round ones. Overall, I was pretty sure the snake I was looking at was a northern watersnake. But, as I normally do ➤ See Snakes, Page 11
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