Are Your Neighbors Freaking Out About Snakes?

A herpetologist weighs in on all the snake sightings.

Corn Snake Lying on Bark
Corn snakes are not venomous but they will bite to defend themselves. Joe McDonald / Getty Images

Do you have snakes in your news feed?

If my neighborhood social media posts are any indication, we’re being overrun with the slithery reptiles. Depending on what you read, they’re either all poisonous and going to kill us. Or they’re helpful and harmless and everyone’s a worrywart.

Anytime someone spies a snake, they post a photo—often with lots of exclamation points—asking for help with an ID. And so many people weigh in with “expert” advice.

But not all this advice is very helpful, it seems.

Spring and fall are typically the busy time of year for snake sightings, herpetologist Whit Gibbons, professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Georgia, tells Treehugger. This isn’t necessarily a busier-than-usual year for snakes.

“Snakes may seem more common now than in previous years, but most people base their perception of abundance on a handful of observations. Seeing no snakes in one year and five in another is mostly chance, not an increased abundance of snakes,” Gibbons says.

“Everyone who gets outside walks within a few feet of dozens of snakes they never see. Also, once someone sees a snake in their yard, they are more likely to be on the lookout for another one.”

And unless you know your snakes, you’re most likely going to want to know what kind of creature you just spotted. The biggest question is whether it’s dangerous. 

The experts dishing out advice online say it’s simple: Look for the shape of its head or the markings on its body. But Gibbons says it's not always that easy.

“No single characteristic can be used successfully to distinguish between venomous and non-venomous snakes in the U.S. other than venomous snakes have fangs,” he says. And you probably don’t want to get close enough to look.

He says the one way to know the difference is through reputable field guides. (He has his own Snakes of the Eastern United States, for example.) They point out characteristics that differentiate various species.

But rules about head shape or markings don’t always hold true, he says.

“Harmless watersnakes and hognose snakes can expand their heads to look twice as large as normal,” he points out. “Venomous coral snakes have proportionately small, rounded heads.”

Instead, the best thing to do is to keep your distance, no matter what the snake looks like.

“The safest approach with any snake you are not certain about is to pretend it is venomous and stay a few feet away," Gibbons says. "No U.S. venomous snake will chase a person."

Dogs, Kids, and Garages

Wild Southern copperhead snake (Agkistrodon contortrix) in North Florida
A venomous copperhead in North Florida. Kristian Bell / Getty Images

Some people worry about snakes because they are afraid they will tussle with their pets or bite their children.

Each year, approximately 150,000 dogs and cats are bit by venomous snakes. There aren't statistics for non-venomous bites because these rarely need veterinary attention.

“Many dogs will attack or get too close to a snake, and many are bitten in the face. If the snake is venomous, the dog will be injured or even killed, depending on what kind of snake it is,” Gibbons says.

“Children should be taught to walk away from any snake unless a knowledgeable adult is present to identify it.”

(Here's how to snake-proof your yard.)

Also, it’s a lot easier to ignore a snake when it’s outside, but not so simple when it’s in your garage.

“A snake might wander into a garage or any open building in search of food or to escape hot weather in summer or in search of a hibernation site in winter,” Gibbons says. “Many garages have boxes or other stored material that make good hiding places. Also, mice or rats are likely to enter garages so that snakes enter to get a meal.”

Conquering Snake Fear

Black Rat Snake on Fence
Rat snakes are not venomous. Joe McDonald / Getty Images

Gibbons gets a lot of emails and texts from people asking for his help identifying snakes. He says it’s so much easier with cellphones instead of people just describing a snake to him.

When I first reached out to Gibbons, I sent him a funny image someone had posted on the neighborhood bulletin board Nextdoor of a snake wearing a bonnet. The person asked for help IDing the snake, joking they saw it after church in their front yard. There were comments that the snake was seen carrying deviled eggs or potato salad.

He's so used to getting snake photos that he missed the joke at first.

“Ball python. Constrictor but not venomous,” he immediately replied.

Then a few moments later, Gibbons said, “and, yes, also funny.”

Although people joke about snake sightings and tease those who are afraid of them, Gibbons says getting informed about snakes is the best way to become less afraid of them.

“Many people get over an irrational fear of snakes by learning more about them through books, visiting nature parks, or talking with someone familiar with snakes in their region,” he says. “Like other forms of paranoia, people often lose their fear when they become familiar with what they are concerned about.” 

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