In his 23 years at the Woodlands Nature Station in Land Between the Lakes, lead naturalist John Pollpeter has found that snakes get the worst reputation amongst nature-goers -- more so than bats, coyotes, or spiders. Pollpeter speaks with Tracy Ross about the divisive species, including which kinds can be found at LBL and their crucial role in their ecosystem.
Ophidiophobia is the fear of snakes, and it is one of the most common fears in Western societies. Pollpeter says that mainstream naturalists like Steve Irwin helped ease the general anxiety and misconceptions surrounding reptiles, although many people still feel skittish when seeing a snake in the wild.
"I think one of the big [misconceptions] is snakes are out to get you," Pollpeter explains. "Yes, they will defend themselves if they feel threatened or cornered. But we are a much bigger threat to them than they are to us. Every time that I've ever had to deal with a snake, the first thing it's trying to do is get away."
"They may look like they're going to strike you; they take some fearsome poses, and for most animals in nature, that makes a difference. A coyote or bobcat is going to think twice. For us, that's a threat, and we want to eliminate it. Often, the snake comes out on the losing end of that. When it comes to venomous snakes, I think people think if they come out into the woods, they're going to step on them, and they're everywhere, but that's just not necessarily the truth. There are lots of venomous snakes when you go hiking here in the South...but they are mainly nocturnal...off the beaten path...and want to stay away from us. They feel our vibrations as we're hiking, and they want to get the heck out of there."
Out of the 26 snake species found in Land Between the Lakes, only four are venomous. The most common snakes people might come across while hiking are water or black snakes. Black snakes are "all harmless," Pollpeter says. "Black snakes are good snakes because they're the ones that typically are competitors for venomous snakes or they eat venomous snakes. Black kingsnakes will eat other snakes, including a rattlesnake. Black rat and black racers eat the kind of foods that a copperhead or a rattlesnake may eat and thus make their populations a little less likely in that area." Water snakes, as the name implies, are mostly found close to the water. "Unfortunately, they kind of look like some venomous snakes. For instance, the northern water snake, also known as the banded water snake, [is often] confused as a copperhead."
Several physical characteristics can help identify whether a snake found in the wild is venomous or not. "The most prominent is their triangle-shaped head," Pollpeter explains. "Most of our venomous snakes are big-bodied, very thick. This is not always the best characteristic to look for, I don't want you to get close enough to look at it, but venomous snakes have a cat-eye. Non-venomous snakes have a round eye. What that tells you is that that animal is active at night. Most people are active during the day, especially at Land Between the Lakes."
While it is unlikely, the possibility of running into a snake in the wild remains. Pollpeter advises anyone who finds themselves close to a snake, venomous or not, to "stop and watch what the snake's activity is. It's probably aware of you because of the vibration. You can kind of sit there and see if it moves on. If not, just slowly step back. A venomous snake has a strike zone about a third or sometimes half the size of his body. It's not a large strike zone, so you really have to be quite close to that area." Even non-venomous snakes can assume threatening postures if they feel cornered. "They may rear back, they may open their mouth, they may rattle their tail a little bit. It's important to not be too frightened and panic every time you see a snake in the wild."
"It's been my experience working here at the nature station in Land Between the Lakes...that as close as we've been to venomous snakes being in the backcountry, we've never really been struck at by any of them," he continues. "Their last defense is to bite somebody. It's expensive to make venom; they don't want to do it. A lot of times, they won't do it unless they're feeling threatened, like if you stepped on one, for instance. But the last thing they want to do is that."
If you or someone you're with does get bit by a snake, the best thing to do is stay calm, Pollpeter says. "It's going to hurt if you get envenomated, but stay calm. Get to a doctor as soon as possible. In many cases, it's not like you see in the movies where the cowboy gets bit by the rattlesnake, and he plops over dead off the horse. Some people may have -- like a bee sting -- an allergic reaction, and that's a little more serious of a situation. But for the most part, you should have no trouble getting to an emergency room where you can be taken care of."
"In Kentucky, the Kentucky Poison Control [1-800-222-1222] could also be a good resource to call during an emergency. They can give you some instruction on what to do as well as what to worry about. They also take a lot of good statistics. Last time I checked with them, we don't have an awful lot of people that get bit by venomous snakes. Maybe about sixty per year, and of those, the majority of them are copperheads. They're the least venomous of the venomous snakes. Most people that get bit by a venomous snake in the state of Kentucky...are either trying to kill them or capture them. It really is something that can be easily avoided."
"I think it's important to realize the importance of [snakes] in our ecosystem. They do take care of a lot of the pests that tend to bother us and spread disease. There's some recent studies that have come out that in areas that have a good, healthy snake population...tick populations, particularly disease-spreading ticks, are much more lower because they eat a lot of the vectors that help spread the ticks that hurt us. Mice can be detrimental to crops, so they can be detrimental to a lot of things. They eat a lot of insects. So they can be an important part of our ecosystem and something to kind of enjoy in our yards," Pollpeter concludes.