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.
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?
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……?
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.
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.