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Virtual McLib Presents "Snake Road: Secrets of Successful Snake Watching"

1599px-eastern_ribbon_snake_-_flickr_-_gregthebusker__1_.jpeg
Greg Schechter
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Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
Joshua Vossler's upcoming Virtual McLib Live presentation will discuss Snake Road, snake watching tips, and techniques for identifying mystery snakes.

The McCracken County Public Library presents "Snake Road: Secrets of Successful Snake Watching" as part of its Virtual McLib Live series. Joshua Vossler, associate professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, will lead the online presentation. Vossler speaks with Tracy Ross about Snake Road, common snake misconceptions, and what inspired him to write Snake Road: A Field Guide to the Snakes of Larue-Pine Hills.

Fear of snakes is foreign to Joshua Vossler. "I'm drawn to it," he begins. "It's beautiful. I want to be closer. I want to be able to appreciate its sinuous movements and look at its scales and how they interlock like some ancient knight's armor. I've always loved them. It is completely emotionally alien to me to be at all frightened or disgusted by these, to me, fascinating and magnificent creatures."

Vossler's love and admiration of snakes eventually led him to Snake Road, a 2.7-mile stretch of gravel road that acts as a herpetological hotspot every spring and autumn. "I moved to southern Illinois to take a 10-year track job at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. I'm from North Dakota, so I was going off of stereotypes and misconceptions because that's how people are. When I thought about Illinois, I thought, okay, a bunch of windswept cornfields. There's nothing to do here."

"Then I got to southern Illinois and realized this place is amazing," Vossler continues. "It is gorgeous." While researching the southern Illinois area, Vossler's mother discovered Snake Road. "They'd come with me to settle me in, and I think we might've gone the following day. This was in the middle of summer, so the migration wasn't going on. We didn't see much except for a couple of North American racers across the road as we drove. But I was just entranced with this idea of this place where you could go and expect to see lots of snakes."

Southern Illinois is centrally located in the United States, creating uniquely diverse habitats of animals found across different parts of the country. "What really makes Snake Road special," Vossler explains, "is that it's located on a road running north and south. On the east side of the road is Pine Hills Bluff. This is a limestone bluff; limestone is important. Limestone is water-soluble, so over time, these bluffs develop these deep fissures and cracks. They're pretty small but big enough for things like reptiles and amphibians to get into and hide below the frost line during winter. So, this is a huge, safe place for them."

"Because the bluff faces directly west, it basically turns into a battery. The sun hits that bluff for a huge amount of time each day, and that absorbs all this heat. Not only do the cracks allow the snakes to descend away from the frost line, but the bluff itself stays relatively warm. During the summer, it stays relatively cool. It's this very stable anchor in the habitat."

"To the west of Snake Road," Vossler continues, "you have Larue Swamp. You've got all this water, frogs, birds, all these animals that are able to live there. You have this wide variety of habitats. Each spring and fall, [the animals] cross Snake Road in order to get to the bluff for safety and then leave the bluff to go about their lives. Since we have this wonderful gravel road...they have to cross, they're easy to see as they do. It's this nice, acceptable place where you can walk up and down this road and see all these different animals as they go back and forth."

Snake Road might be at the top of many people's "Do Not Go" lists, but Vossler says apprehension around snakes is largely due to common misconceptions, of which he says "there is a laundry list." Because so many of the snakes which migrate over Snake Road are cottonmouths, Vossler addresses cottonmouth misinformation first.

"Cottonmouths are semi-aquatic pit vipers. They're venomous. They have this reputation of being these nasty, aggressive snakes that will come after people and follow them and try to bite them. It's absolute hooey. I've spent around 1,000 hours outside in the field in close proximity to cottonmouths, photographing them, taking notes on them, being very close to them, sometimes in large numbers. These snakes ignore you if they possibly can. If you get too close, they will open their mouths--what we call gaping--to show you the white interior of the mouth."

This act of gaping is "fundamentally polite," Vossler adds. "It's drawing attention to itself. It's saying, 'hey, here I am, I'm a venomous snake, you might not have seen me a moment ago, which might be why you're too close to me. But now you're too close for comfort, so I should introduce myself to you. Hi, please step back.' That's what that snake is saying to you."

"There was a study a few years back where researchers would stand next to a cottonmouth, they would step on a cottonmouth--gently, they're not trying to hurt it--and pick up a cottonmouth, and they found that these snakes were very reluctant to bite. Now, they would eventually, but we're talking a less than 50% chance of biting when you're stepping on the snake. That is not the action of a vicious, nasty thing that wants to hurt you. In my opinion, that's pretty polite. If I'm just sunbathing, and you come up and put your foot on my chest, I'm going to bite you a whole lot faster than that snake would."

Vossler will lead McCracken County Public Library's next Virtual McLib Live presentation, "Snake Road: Secrets of Successful Snake Watching," this Wednesday, May 12th, at 7 pm CST via Zoom. Vossler will dive deeper into Snake Road and review best practices for successful and safe snake watching and techniques for identifying mystery snakes. 

For more information on the upcoming presentation, visit the McCracken County Public Library's website. The Zoom meeting is free and open to the public. Meeting ID: 865 0667 5126. Passcode: snake. For additional information, contact Adult Programming Coordinator Bobbie Wrinkle at bwrinkle@mclib.net.

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