When I was a kid, I thought all snakes in this part of the country fell into four groups:
If it was dark, it was a blacksnake.
If it had stripes, it was a garter snake.
If it was on a pond bank or in the water, it was a water moccasin.
If it had any kind of patch-work pattern on its body, it was a copperhead.
Those were my guidelines for identifying snakes, and I know I wasn’t alone. Some area residents still use similarly broad – and in many cases, incorrect – classifications to categorize the 49 species and sub-species of snakes found in Missouri.
Snakes have been showing up in some unusual places in recent weeks, very likely the result of being displaced by recent flooding.
It’s the kind of above-mentioned generalization that has led to much misidentification and misunderstanding about snakes over the years. That’s too bad because behind many people’s fearful image of a snake is an animal that performs valuable pest-control services for humans and, with the exception of a few species, is relatively harmless.
Here are a few snake facts: Snakes are reptiles, which mean they’re in the animal group that includes lizards, turtles, alligators and crocodiles.
Snakes move forward either by moving their body side-to-side or by literally walking on their ribs. All snakes can swim, and any one of a number of species may be found near water because of the abundance of prey that frequents ponds and streams.
Speaking of snakes and water, here’s a snake misnomer and a mystery. “Water moccasin” is often a term used to describe a cottonmouth but, technically, it is not the name of any specific snake species.
“Water moccasin” and “moccasin” are terms that have been used to describe venomous snakes in North America since the 18th century, but it’s unclear how a term for Native American footwear came to be associated with venomous snakes.
One theory is that “moccasin” – a word describing shoes that allowed a silent and stealthy approach — became associated with a reptile that had a similar noise-less way of traveling. Another theory is that the distinct pattern displayed by copperheads and rattlesnakes was similar to the colorful decoration found on many Indian moccasins. (However, this doesn’t explain its connection to the cottonmouth – a dark snake with rather non-descript body markings.)
As a final puzzling footnote, the taxonomic name of a sub-species of copperhead found in the eastern U.S. is Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen. “Mokasen” is thought to be a derivation of a Native American word, but there’s no evidence this word had anything to do with snakes.
Moving back to things we do know about snakes brings us to its well-known tongue. A snake’s long, forked tongue may look sinister, but it’s actually quite harmless and very functional for the snake. Snakes (and lizards) use their tongues to pick up odors that are transferred to special sense organs in the roof of the mouth.
The smallest snake native to Missouri is the flathead snake, which is approximately 7 to 8 inches long. The largest is the bullsnake, which can get up to six feet in length.
Missouri has five venomous snake species. Four of these – the copperhead, western cottonmouth, western pygmy rattlesnake and timber rattlesnake – are found in southern Missouri. The fifth, the eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, is found in the northern part of the state and is an endangered species.
Several species of non-venomous snakes are commonly mistaken for copperheads in Missouri. Probably the most ironic case of misidentification is when prairie kingsnakes are mistakenly killed because people think they’re copperheads. The kingsnake’s blocky brown marks cause many people to think it’s a copperhead, but, in actuality, kingsnakes prey on other snakes – including copperheads.
As stated earlier, snakes can be beneficial to humans by preying on rodents, insects and other things that can be problematic for people. Nevertheless, few people like to have a snake in or near their house.
Snakes, like other wild animals, should be admired and observed from a distance. When a snake moves under the deck of your house or onto your enclosed porch, it doesn’t matter what species it is – the snake has to go.
But, often, there are non-lethal means of dealing with snake problems.
The best way to keep snakes away is to eliminate what they’re looking for – food and shelter. By sealing cracks and holes in the foundation of your house, and getting rid of piles of boards, fence posts and other scrap material, you’re getting rid of settings that attract snakes and animals they prey upon.
Also, make sure you have no loose-fitting windows, doors or any other gaps that could provide snakes entry points into your home. If you do find a harmless snake, sometimes it’s possible to safely capture it and release it in an isolated and safe habitat that’s well away from your house.
An important key to understanding snakes is to be able to identify them.
(Francis Skalicky works for the Missouri Department of Conservation in southwest Missouri. He can be reached at 417-895-6880.)