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Snakes alive, put down that shovel

WEEDON ISLAND — Shhhh. Want to know a secret? Snakes are cool.

Kids already know this, but unfortunately for these misunderstood reptiles, many grown-ups wind up being afraid of some of the neatest critters you will find slithering along the local nature trails.

"Your average toddler has no fear of snakes," said George L. Heinrich, a St. Petersburg-based biologist and environmental educator who has helped hundreds of schoolchildren develop a healthy love and respect for these fascinating creatures. "It is too bad that so many adults end up having an aversion to these reptiles."

Heinrich and colleague Timothy J. Walsh just released a waterproof field guide titled Snakes of Central Florida. The pocket-sized brochure describes more than 40 species found in our region, including venomous varieties that often get so much negative attention.

Now that the warm weather is here, snakes are on the move. Your chances of encountering a snake in your yard or on a river or trail are better than ever. So learn to identify snakes, then stand back and enjoy them from a distance.

"More than half of all venomous snakebites in the U.S. occur when somebody is trying to capture or kill a snake," Heinrich said. "We could reduce the number of snakebites by 50 percent if people just left them alone."

Florida has 44 native species of snakes but only six of these are venomous — four are found in Central Florida.

In our area, the Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake is the largest and most dangerous to humans. Rattlers live in just about every habitat in Florida, but unless you're a hunter or a hiker bushwhacking through the scrub, the chances of a negative encounter are slim.

The Tampa Bay area has another smaller rattlesnake, the pygmy, sometimes called a ground rattler, which also packs a powerful wallop.

Rounding out the Big Four are the cottonmouth, or water moccasin, which looks a lot like many harmless water snakes, and the country's most venomous reptile — the Eastern coral snake — which has a neurotoxic venom similar to that of a cobra.

Because of its bright yellow, red and black bands, the coral snake is often confused with the scarlet king, a snake with similar markings.

But forget the rhyme, "Red touch yellow, kill a fellow; red touch black, good for Jack." Just look at the face: The coral snake's is black; the king snake's is red.

Every Floridian should know how to identify the state's venomous snakes (and in case you are counting, the other two are the canebrake rattlesnake and the copperhead), but more important they should also develop an appreciation for those harmless reptiles most often encountered by outdoor enthusiasts.

"There are so many different kinds of snakes," Heinrich said. "Snake observation, like bird watching, can be great fun. The more people learn about them the more likely they are to help protect them."

Snake populations are declining. In Florida, snakes have enemies that have been recently introduced, including fire ants and feral cats. Development and habitat destruction are threats.

Then there are what Heinrich calls "the shovel people."

"Unfortunately, many people have an irrational fear of snakes, so any time they see one the first thing they do is grab a shovel to try and kill it," he said. "But snakes are not evil creatures. We need them. They play an important role in our environment."

If you are interested in learning more, Snakes of Central Florida is available at many nature parks, including Boyd Hill Preserve, as well as bookstores.

STOP! Don't kill that snake.

Snakes play an important role in the environment as both predators and prey. Nonetheless, these reptiles are still misunderstood. Only four venomous species of snakes are found in the Tampa Bay region and present little danger to humans when left alone.

What are my chances of dying from a venomous snakebite? Very low thanks to readily available, high-quality medical care. The United States averages fewer than six fatal snakebites a year. The average person is nine times more likely to suffer a fatal lightning strike.

What is the difference between poison and venom? Plants are poisonous. Snakes are venomous. Poisons are substances that are toxic if swallowed or inhaled. Venoms are generally not toxic if swallowed, and must be injected under the skin by snakes, spiders, etc.

What is a dry bite? Roughly 25 percent of all rattlesnake and cottonmouth bites are dry, or without venom.

Source: University of Florida


Fast Facts

Snakes are cool for kids

George L. Heinrich teaches a popular herpetology camp for children, ages 7 to 11, at several local nature preserves:

Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, St. Petersburg, June 20-24 and Aug. 15-19

Weedon Island Preserve, St. Petersburg, June 27-July 1

Brooker Creek Preserve, Tarpon Springs, July 18-22

For information, go to www.heinrichecologicalservices.com.

Snakes alive, put down that shovel 04/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 22, 2011 11:26am]

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