OMG! HYBRIDS!

There is no shortage of folklore surrounding snakes. Nests of moccasins. Rattlesnakes chasing people down at top speed. Snakes which hoop up and roll away. I’ve heard all of them over the years and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few, too. Most of these tall tales are absolutely untrue. Others have a grain of truth but have been overly exaggerated by fearful people. This blog entry will focus on one particular (and infamous) tale, the story of the hybrids!

What is a hybrid?

noun, plural form: hybrids

(general) Any of mixed origin or composition, or the combination of two or more different things.

(biology) An offspring resulting from the cross between parents of different species or sub-species.

http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Hybrid

For our purposes, the biological definition applies. When two separate species produce offspring, those offspring are a hybrid. So, for example, let’s say a Gophersnake (Pituophis catenifer) mated with a California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getulae). The young that are produced would be hybrids. Here’s a suspected Gophersnake / California Kingsnake hybrid :

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Notice I used the word “suspected”? That’s because this snake never had it’s DNA tested to determine it’s history (more on that later).

So, back to the urban legends. How many of you have ever heard this story, or a variation of it? Black snakes are breeding with rattlesnakes, producing a hybrid snake that is black and is way more venomous than the rattlesnake!

This is a very common myth that I see and hear frequently when talking about snakes with people. It’s utter nonsense. Why? “Black snake” often refers to a Ratsnake species (Pantherophis), and, of course, we all know what a rattlesnake is ; a venomous pit viper from the genus Crotalus or Sistrurus. The rattlesnake is a much more recent group of snakes, evolution-wise, than the ratsnakes. They are both snakes, yes, but enough time has passed that they are “incompatible”. This means that they have much different behaviors, would not see each other as a potential mate, and, as far as sexual reproduction goes, they literally cannot “fit” together (if you catch my drift). This holds true for any other non-venomous snake mentioned in these tall tales, such as a Racer or Bullsnake. In comparison, this would be like a human trying to mate with a spider monkey ; not going to happen.

BOTTOM LINE, this myth is not true. There are NO venomous / non-venomous SUPER VENOMOUS hybrids.

But, what about two snakes that are more closely related? Can they produce a hybrid? Absolutely. However, in the wild, it’s not very common. At least it hasn’t been verified very often. There are several cases of wild hybrids of snakes of the same genus, and even more rare are hybrids of different genera. One such case are two DNA verified Foxsnake (Pantherophis vulpinus) and Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer) hybrids, one from Iowa, and one from Minnesota. Here’s a photo of one of those snakes –

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BOTTOM LINE. There ARE naturally occurring snake hybrids, normally from (relatively) closely related snakes.

Remember when I said that the snake in the first photo hadn’t had it’s DNA tested? It’s pretty much impossible to determine a genuine hybrid without testing it’s DNA. We can speculate. We can examine the appearance of the snake (morphology). But we cannot say for certain that a snake is a hybrid by those criteria alone. It seems to me that every time a snake appears to be slightly different from “the norm” people are quick to yell out “hybrid!”. Spend enough time in any snake group on Facebook and you’ll see what I mean. Here’s a great example – the following photo is of a typical Eastern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) from Kentucky.

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photo © Will Bird

It’s inexplicable that, nearly every time a copperhead like this is posted, someone states that it’s a hybrid with the Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus). The argument is that, because the pattern resembles that of some cottonmouths, it must be a hybrid. Here’s a cottonmouth that somewhat resembles the above copperhead.

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Because the copperhead has spots within it’s bands, as many cottonmouth also do, people tend to jump to the hybrid conclusion immediately. We simply cannot do this. In this case there are geographic variations in the copperhead that account for it’s appearance.

Are there cases where a hybrid is suspected? Sure. Are most supposed “hybrids” easily debunked by normal variation, aberrant colors/patterns, and other morphological features? In my opinion, yes.

BOTTOM LINE. A true hybrid can only be verified by examining DNA, and not by examining photos on the internet.

CONCLUSION

The subject of hybrids will continue to be a popular one. As usual, there are grains of truth to sift out of the urban legends. True wild snake hybrids appear to be uncommon and the reasons why are not very clear. There is still a lot to learn.

captive snake hybrids are much more common, but that’s a different subject, and I only cover wild snakes here. 🙂

this blog entry is geared toward the average person who is trying to understand the subject of hybrids. What this is NOT meant to be is a technical paper. There is plenty more to learn about the subject of hybrids. I have not covered every minute detail here and I didn’t intend to. Thanks for reading.

For more on the foxsnake / bullsnake hybrid :

Two Naturally Occurring Intergeneric Hybrid Snakes (Pituophis catenifer sayi · Pantherophis vulpinus; Lampropeltini, Squamata) from the Midwestern United States

© 2017 Mike Van Valen

Wild Snakes : Education & Discussion

https://www.facebook.com/groups/snakeED/

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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.

 

 

 

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)

poosigned5

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

newrat

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

…and the old range map

img49497fbe75441

(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…

elaobsobs10

photo © J.D. Willson

…and this snake

blackrat_09_28064_zps39480715

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.

Coexisting With Wild Snakes

Keeping Snakes Away

Wild snakes often appear living around homeowners/business owners property, and sometimes even enter homes. Let’s go over several reasons why this may be.

Food Source : If you are finding snakes frequently on your property that means they are probably finding a food source. In many cases that food source is rodents. Eliminate rodents and you drastically reduce the likelihood of snakes living on your property.

Habitat : Many yards, especially those in wild areas, are attractive to snakes because they provide a suitable home. Piles of firewood, rocks, mulch, tin, plywood, etc. provide great hiding spots for not only snakes, but the food items they seek. Tall grass and brushy areas should also be eliminated.

Overwintering : Snakes often spend the winter in the foundation of houses. Repair cracks in your foundation and/or porches in the summer when snakes are traveling through their home range.

Note About Repellents: Despite what you’ve heard, there is no “snake repellent”. Do not waste your money on worthless products, and please DO NOT use mothballs or other harsh chemicals on your property. They do not keep snakes away and can pose a health hazard for you and your pets.

 Realistically, there is no way to keep snakes 100% away from your home, but following the advice in this article will reduce the number of snakes living on your property.


Safely Observing Snakes

When snakes are seen on your property it is wise to keep a safe distance unless you can positively identify the species as being non-venomous. Wild snakes often seek open areas to bask in the sun and this is when they become highly visible. In most cases the snake will move on by itself.

Children and Snakes : Teach your children to respect snakes (and all wild animals) and to keep their distance. Show them areas on your property where snakes may be found and teach them to stay away from those areas unless accompanied by an adult. Make sure they know not to stick their hands and feet in rock crevices and under logs.

Pets and Snakes : Unfortunately, dogs often cannot resist snakes and many venomous bites occur. Dogs have a certain degree of resistance to venom, but always seek the attention of your vet should a venomous bite occur. A bite from a non-venomous snake will be a lesson, but it is harmless to your dog. There are many organizations that will train your dog to avoid snakes. Please seek one out. Here are some general tips : http://pets.thenest.com/teach-dog-avoid-snakes-11639.html

Venomous Snakes : When you have positively identified a venomous snake on your property it is pertinent to STAY AWAY. Most venomous bites occur when someone attempts to handle the snake. This means DO NOT try to move or kill the snake with your bare hands. In most cases, the snake will move on by itself. In some cases you may wish to have the snake removed.


 

Removing Snakes From Your Property or Home

There are many local organizations and individuals around the country that will come and remove snakes from your property. They do so without killing the snake and will relocate the snake a safe distance away. If you wish to locate someone who will come out to your property, please post in the group and explain your situation. We will do our best to help you.

 If you are comfortable enough to remove non-venomous snakes by yourself, please refer to the following image :

(the snake pictured is a venomous cottonmouth. However, I do not recommend this technique for venomous snake unless you are experienced.)

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Note About Relocation : Snakes have defined home ranges and several studies have shown that they do not do well – and most die – if relocated more than 1/2 mile. If you are relocating a snake please find the closest wooded area within 1/4 to 1/2 mile.


Final Thoughts

Snakes are fascinating creatures! Having them living on your property can be a rewarding and educational experience, especially for children.

 Please take the time to learn the snakes native to your area. In most areas of the United States, non-venomous snakes will be much more common than venomous species.

 All creatures deserve to live and have an important role in the ecosystem. Snakes are no exception. Live and let live.

© 2016 Mike Van Valen

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