Eastern indigo snake, Bindi, is an education ambassador at the Conservancy. Visit her on exhibit in the Dalton Discovery Center.

Snakes Alive!

Nicki Dardinger, Conservancy Director of Education

Snakes are amazing animals. While they are often feared and misunderstood — they are truly unique creatures that serve an important role in the ecosystems of Southwest Florida.

Florida is home to over 50 species of native snakes, only six of which are venomous. And only four venomous species call Southwest Florida home — the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the pygmy rattlesnake, the Eastern coral snake, and the cottonmouth.

Cottonmouths are one of six venomous species found in Florida. These large-bodied snakes are often found in wetland habitats and eat a variety of animals including fish, frogs, lizards, small mammals, small turtles, birds, other snakes — and even baby alligators! Photo courtesy Ian Easterling.
While their pattern looks similar to the venomous Eastern coral snake, this scarlet snake is non-venomous and is “fossorial,” meaning that it spends much of its life underground. How can you tell it’s not a venomous coral snake? Remember — “red on yellow, kill a fellow, red on black, friend of Jack.” Coral snakes’ patterns have red and yellow bands touching, while scarlet snakes have red and black bands touching. Photo courtesy Ian Easterling.

Let’s talk about what makes a snake a snake!

First, snakes are reptiles. Like all reptiles their bodies are covered with protective scales. They are also ectotherms, meaning that their body temperature is based on their external environment, rather than maintained by their metabolism. While most snakes lay eggs, others, like the rattlesnakes, give birth to live young. Snakes are also recognized by their lack of limbs, eyelids, and external ears.

Yellow rat snake, Sheldon, gives children the opportunity to see a snake up close and learn more about how they find, catch, and eat their food.

You might be thinking….why should I care about snakes? Well…here’s why!

1) Snakes are a natural form of pest control. Is your home free from mice and other rodents? Thank your neighborhood snake! Depending on size and species, an individual snake can eat dozens of mice, rats and other rodents each year.

2) Balance. No, not yoga. Ecosystem balance! As mid-level predators (meaning — they eat other animals, but other animals also eat them!), snakes help to keep the number of prey species from sky-rocketing, and also provide a food source for larger predators such as raptors and coyotes.

Raptors such as red-tailed hawks are important predators on snakes. Some raptors are even able to catch and eat venomous snakes without being injured!

3) Diversity isn’t just for people — it’s crucial for nature too! Biodiversity — the number of different animals and plants in an area — is critical for the health of an ecosystem. Having a variety of animals and plants helps to ensure that ecosystems can adjust to disturbances such as hurricanes, floods, and fires. This diversity is also what makes the Earth a habitable planet. Whether it’s an oyster helping to clean water or a tree producing oxygen or a bumblebee pollinating a plant — animals and plants are essential!

Red rat snake, Peaches, helps the Conservancy educate the community about the importance of snakes and how we can help protect their habitat.

What should you do if you find a snake in your yard? Take a picture. Watch it move across the landscape (without legs! Can you do that?!). Admire the pattern of its scales. Give it some space.

What should you NOT do? Kill them.

These animals are often quite shy and usually more scared of people than we are of them. If left alone, they will move along without causing any harm. Even the venomous snakes are unlikely to strike unless provoked, picked up, or stepped on. Snakes are beautiful, fascinating, and IMPORTANT animals; and while we may be frightened of their quick movements and unblinking eyes, they deserve our respect and protection.

Despite their lack of limbs, several species of snakes — including black racers — are quite skilled at climbing trees and other vegetation. Photo courtesy Ian Easterling.

Want to meet some of Southwest Florida’s native snakes up close? Visit the Conservancy Nature Center to meet Lola, Sheldon, Leroy, Peaches, and Semi and see for yourself how amazing and beautiful these animals can be.

Lola, the red rat snake (left), and Sheldon, the yellow rat snake (right) help the Conservancy teach about the animals of Southwest Florida and the ways that people can help make a difference for our region’s wildlife and the habitat they rely on for survival. Photos courtesy Katie Ferron.