Sunday, May 17, 2015

Snakes: Friend Them or Fear Them?


The tongue of this Garter Snake is picking up air-born microscopic particles to deposit on the Jacobson organ in its mouth.  The snake senses food, enemies and mates with this organ.

Snakes at Morris Arboretum
Snakes 
are a natural component of many sustainable landscapes where they serve important ecological functions. Snakes excite interest and occasional fear at the Morris Arboretum. They live here on land and in the waterways, occupying the diverse habitats of our gardens and managed Wissahickon Valley landscape. They should be respected, enjoyed and left alone.    


Visitors will most often see two snake species (Eastern Garter Snake and Northern Water Snake) from March to November as the reptiles search for prey, try to escape to cover or bask in the warm sun. Other snakes are more likely to be seen by staff and volunteers while gardening.

None of the serpents typically found here are seriously venomous. Garter Snake does have mildly venomous saliva that may cause a rash or swelling in humans. Northern Water Snake has a reputation for a bad disposition and can give severe repeated bites if threatened. Its saliva contains an anticoagulant to promote blood loss. All our snakes do have numerous teeth to hold their prey, but they don’t chew their food. They swallow it whole. Many local snakes emit a foul smelling secretion as a defense.

Snake Watching Tips
  • Observe. Enjoy their company but let them go their own way. 
  • Do not disturb the snakes. They provide valuable services in the garden, consuming many pests. Snakes, in turn, are snacks for other creatures such as hawks, fox, raccoon and other snakes. 
  • There is a lot of scientific information and folklore available about snakes that you can research to enhance your nature encounters and amaze your companions.
Look for these four locally native snakes at the Morris Arboretum:
  1. Eastern Garter SnakeThamnophis sirtalisMay be seen almost anywhere in the garden.  They eat a lot of earthworms and other small prey.  It is easily recognized by the three, pale-colored stripes along its body.  The stripes resemble patterns on the garters once commonly worn by men.
  2. Northern Water SnakeNerodia sipedonis commonly seen basking on the rocks at the Swan Pond and near other water bodies. It can grow four feet long eating fish and small animals. They defend themselves viciously. 
  3. Northern Brown SnakeStoreria dekayi, is a secretive snake rarely seen by visitors, but often  observed by staff working at earth level in the moist understory where it hunts slugs, larvae  and soft-bodied insects.
  4. Northern Ringneck SnakeDiadophis punctatus, is rarely seen as it is most active at night.  It has a distinctive yellow or orange band around its neck.  
Local snakes that have been reported but not seen recently at the Morris Arboretum include the Eastern Rat Snake, Elapheobsoleta, Northern Black RacerColuber constrictor and Eastern Milk SnakeLampropeltis triangulumThere are a few other snakes that we might yet document here.  

Robert R. Gutowski, Director of Public Programs, Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania. 
 The blue eyes of this Garter Snake are a temporary result of shedding its skin.
The Northern Brown Snake is a small snake of secretive habits. This one was disturbed while I was weeding a perennial border.
Northern Water Snakes are commonly seen basking at the Swan Pond and are often confused with the venomous Copperhead or Water Moccasin. In either case, it is best not to disturb them.

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