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The Skinny on Snakes: Dispelling Herpetofauna Myths – Jennifer McDaniel

First things first- a simple, straightforward question.  Is this snake poisonous?


If you’re thinking, “Of course it is!” you might want to read the question again and notice the word poisonous.  There is a distinct difference between the words poisonous and venomous when referring to animals, and, once you know the difference, you’ll never confuse them again. Poison refers to a toxin that causes harm when taken into the body, usually through ingestion or direct contact.  Venom, however, must be injected into the body via spines, fangs, stingers, spurs, or other sharp body parts. Let’s try it again: it the above snake venomous? Yes! It is a timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), sometimes called a canebrake rattlesnake. This species is found throughout Georgia and is important for rodent population control and, in turn, keeping tick populations in check. They are vibrantly patterned and are docile until threatened, after which they vibrate the rattle at the end of the tail as a warning signal.

Now that we are fully versed in toxin terminology, which of the following snakes are venomous?


If you answered none of them, you’re exactly right!  The above snakes are found in Georgia and are completely harmless (TL: brown snake; TR: pine snake; BL; ringneck snake; BR: northern water snake).  It’s a relatively common misconception that any snake you might see in your backyard, in the woods, or crossing the road is deadly.  In fact, out of the approximately forty species of snake known to Georgia, only six are venomous.  Georgia’s venomous snakes are largely docile if approached from a distance and will only show aggression when threatened.  Use common sense when participating in outdoor activities and be conscious of where you are stepping to avoid unwanted confrontation and never handle venomous snakes.

In order to understand the importance of snakes and overcome a seemingly resolute fear of snakes, one must understand their biological significance.  Some species are specialists and consume only very specific prey such as toads, slugs, venomous snakes, or rodents, but some are generalists and will consume a variety of animals.  Snakes may not be the only animals that consume mice and rats, but imagine how many more rats would be running around someone’s house or barn if it were not for rat snakes, which are nonvenomous and important rodent predators. Each individual can consume dozens of rats per year and live over ten years!

New taxa and next quiz. Which of the following are lizards?


Only the bottom right, a male eastern fence lizard.  (TL: marbled salamander; TR: red-spotted newt; BL: spring salamander; BR: eastern fence lizard).

Although salamanders and lizards may look similar upon first glance, they are taxonomically and morphologically very different. Salamanders are amphibians, which means they have permeable skin for water transport, a life cycle dependent on water, and no nails or scales. Lizards, however, are reptiles and have lungs, lay shelled eggs on land, and have nails and scales.  Salamander and lizards may look alike, but they’re actually very different and are each fascinating for their own reasons!

Want to know more about reptiles and amphibians? Come to Warnell and learn more than you would ever imagine about these amazing creatures in Herpetology and Vertebrate Natural History!

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