Do Snakes Chase People?

I have to admit that I have many pet peeves. My biggest pet peeves often come from the many myths and urban legends surrounding snakes. One of those is the notion that snakes will chase people. The details vary, the species vary, but a popular version usually involves a venomous species.

A water moccasin came right up out of the water and chased me away!

Do snakes really chase people? Well…I’m not sure the answer is clean cut, but let’s take a look at a few situations where someone might believe they were “chased” by a snake.

A Feeding Response?

 

In the above video a large (non-venomous) Diamond-backed Watersnake (Nerodia rhombifer) comes out of the water and takes a fish from a mans hand. These snakes are curious and often will come close to someone fishing. In some cases, people feed the snake, and they start to associate humans with being fed. This watersnake will probably approach anyone, and to someone who knows nothing about snakes, it could very well seem that this snake is “chasing” them.

Between a Snake and a Hiding Place?

 

I love this video. A Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) comes gliding downstream, seemingly right toward the cameraman, right? At that moment the average person would definitely freak out, thinking an “evil” cottonmouth is coming right for them! What actually happens here is that this snake is heading directly for….it’s favorite hiding spot. If you watch carefully you’ll even see the snake kind of jerks away from the cameraman as it attempts to locate the hole in the bank of the stream. This actually happens a lot with many different species of snake. I’ve had snakes go through my legs to get to a hole or rock crevice. It’s all about understanding snake behavior. There is absolutely no “chasing” here, either.

Super-Defensive?

 

Here we have a highly venomous Eastern Brownsnake  (Pseudonaja textilis) from Australia – not related to the harmless North American Brownsnake (Storeria dekayi / victa). The guy in the video explains it very well. This is what some of us call “super-defensive” or “hyper-defensive”. Many elapids are high strung and very defensive when harassed by predators and stupid humans. They often pull off impressive defensive displays and mock-charges, which is what the snake in this video is doing. Don’t get me wrong ~ being charged by a snake as venomous as this species is no joke. These snakes are not to be messed with. Despite the impressive display, this snake only wants to get away, not chase the guy down. As soon as it sees an opening it darts straight into the tall grass and disappears. The average person who startles one of these snakes will have a great story to tell, but were they actually chased by the snake?

Semantics

Chase – pursue in order to catch or catch up with.

The topic of snakes chasing people is a popular argument for people who don’t like snakes. They use it as justification to kill snakes. I’ve heard the same tired stories for years and years. The word “chase” is used as a fear tactic by these people, when in reality that word is not really accurate when describing the behaviors I covered previously. The image of a snake pursuing a human in a “race against death” is actually a pretty hilarious thing to imagine – someone running top speed with a snake right behind them. It sounds ridiculous, right? But, could it ever happen……?

Anecdotal Experiences

There have been some accounts – from reputable biologists – of snakes chasing humans. I don’t have these accounts to share with you here, but I have read a few of them. (and if I can get my hands on them I will edit this entry). My opinion is this – I appreciate all “stories from the field” and I do take them into consideration. People like to tell compelling stories and that includes biologists. I take these accounts with a grain of salt but remain open-minded. Could it actually be possible that they were chased by a snake? Ehhhhhh, maybe. I suppose anything is possible.

Conclusion

Until I see it, I remain of the opinion that snakes do not actually chase people. What is happening is misinterpretation of snake behavior. Snakes generally want absolutely nothing to do with us and have nothing to gain from chasing us. It’s a great story that has become part of the folklore and urban legends surrounding snakes, but as with most of those myths, it just doesn’t hold water.

I leave you with one more video. This is one of my favorites and it really gets the point across!

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

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The Ratsnake Mess for Dummies

 

Nothing is causing more confusion, frustration, squabbles, duels, divorce, facebook “unfriending”, and countless other disasters than the current state of North American Ratsnake taxonomy. I will keep this short, concise, and (hopefully) easy for any one to understand.

Once upon a time there existed a snake known as the “Common Ratsnake” (Elaphe obsoleta). This snake was divided into five subspecies ;

Black Ratsnake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta)

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Gray Ratsnake (Elaphe obsoleta spiloides) – photo courtesy of Christy Eddy

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Yellow Ratsnake (Elaphe obsoleta quadrivittata) – photo courtesy of Luke Smith

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Texas Ratsnake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) – photo courtesy of Adrian and Laura Berg

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Everglades Ratsnake (Elaphe obsoleta rossalleni) – photo courtesy of Michael Taylor

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Then some taxonomists came along and said, “Hey, I think we’ll change the genus of North American Ratsnakes to the older name of Pantherophis because DNA shows them to be distinct from those ratsnakes (Elaphe) living in Europe and Asia”. Well, as it usually goes, not every herpetologist agreed with this change, and the debate waged on. However, the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (an organization studying herps) started using Pantherophis and so, gradually, more and more people began accepting Pantherophis…but it was about to get more confusing.

After a while some herpetologists started looking more in depth at North American ratsnake DNA. Without getting too deep into it, they came to the conclusion that what was then known as the Ratsnake (Pantherophis obsoletus) was actually three separate species. These three species were not determined by color or pattern, instead the DNA showed three distinct lineages based on geography and also some minor physical characteristics. also, under this revision, there are no subspecies.

The three species are ;

Eastern Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis)

Gray Ratsnake (Pantherophis spiloides) (sometimes known as the Midland Ratsnake)

Western Ratsnake (Pantherophis obsoletus)

The new map

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(map from Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America, 4th edition)

…and the old range map

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(map from ratsnakefoundation.org)

Well, as you might have guessed, this revision got everyone all upset ; biologists, enthusiasts, lawyers, doctors, celebrity chefs…whoever! Many of those people are stubborn and chose to not accept it, well, because, they just didn’t like it. Still others examined the science and concluded that the authors did not do enough “sampling” to make this kind of decision. (sampling means examining a certain number of snake DNA from all portions of the range).

Despite the rumblings, the two main herpetology groups in North America have accepted the new ratsnake taxonomy. (CNAH and SSAR, respectively). Still, people are stubborn, and many websites and books are still using the older taxonomy. Regardless of which side of the fence you may fall, this causes mass confusion for those who know nothing about snakes and are just starting to learn. Perhaps the most confusing aspect of all is the appearance of these snakes. Take this for example :

Under the new taxonomy, this snake…

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photo © J.D. Willson

…and this snake

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photo © Tim Spuckler

..are two different species. One is from North Carolina (Eastern Ratsnake), and the other is from Ohio (Gray Ratsnake). I’ll let you decide which is which! All of those lovely yellow, black, gray, and everglades ratsnakes on the east coast? Those are all now considered color variants of one species (eastern ratsnake), and out west, the colorful Texas ratsnakes and the more drab ratsnakes from Missouri and Iowa, for example, are variants of the western ratsnake. The point is, although there may be some small physical differences under examination, many of these snakes, to the average person, look exactly the same.

Key Points

  • The three species, which used to be one, are separated by geography and in order to get a definitive identification we must learn the ranges according to the updated map.
  • The main confusion arises from the fact that these snakes can look very similar despite being separate species.
  • many publications and websites are still using the old taxonomy.

For the record, I am not taking sides here in this blog post. That is not my intention. My only intention is that you gain a better understanding of the “ratsnake mess” that may continue to plague us into the foreseeable future. I leave it up to you to decide which taxonomy to accept.

If you still have questions, please join us and ask the Facebook group –

Wild Snakes : Education & Discussion

 

One more thing – my article covers only the ratsnake that was split into three species. All other species of Ratsnake (Pantherophis) are not covered here, and remain untouched. This includes the Cornsnake (Pantherophis guttatus), Baird’s Ratsnake (Pantherophis bairdi), among others.

this blog entry is geared toward the average person who is trying to understand ratsnake taxonomy. What this is NOT meant to be is a technical taxonomy paper. There is plenty more to learn about the history of ratsnakes in North america, and the long list of former nomenclature (scientific names). I have not covered every minute detail here and I didn’t intend to. Thanks for reading.