Don't get rattled, get educated about local snakes
While most of us do our best to avoid finding snakes, Tom Tyning spends his time looking for Berkshire County's slithering summer residents.
"I mostly employ the bend-and-turn system," said Tyning, a professor of environmental science at Berkshire Community College. "If you want to find a snake, you go out find rocks, logs, boards and you flip them over."
But Tyning -- a lover of the animals since he was in kindergarten, carrying snakes in his pocket to school -- knows most county residents are happy to leave every stone unturned.
"It became very obvious early on that most people are pretty ignorant about local snakes around here," said the professor, who earned his master's degree at the University of Massachusetts studying rattlesnakes.
Every year, about this time, the chorus of snake calls come in, locals asking Tyning to come out and identify the snake found under their front porch, or warming on a pile of rocks in their backyard. With 14 species of snakes in Western Massachusetts and only nine or 10 living in Berkshire County, Tyning said he is still amazed people remain ignorant about the local snake population.
"They are common questions, but they seem to never change," he said of the phone calls, usually asking if the snake is dangerous. "In other words, we haven't taught everybody enough about these things -- and there's still tons to know about it."
The first fact Tyning likes to point out for those with a fear of the cryptic animals is there is only one type of venomous snake in Berkshire County, the timber rattlesnake, which is found only in the most southwestern part of the county, according to Tyning.
"This is an animal that's declining and most people would say, ‘good,' " he said. "But the reality of them being dangerous to people is that they are no more dangerous than an automobile is. If you stand in front of one that is moving you are likely to get hurt; if you grab a rattlesnake, you're likely to get hurt."
While the idea of coming across the snake with the infamous tail with rattle attached might scare most people, Tyning said learning the facts about these animals can help with the fear. In the history of the state, only three human deaths are attributed to the timber rattlesnake, two occurred in Western Massachusetts -- one in 1761 and the other in 1850. And, in recent years, only three bites have been reported, two of which Tyning was on the scene for because the animals were being handled for research.
"They're not dangerous to people, not really a significant problem," he said. "And treatment is almost entirely effective."
For the sake of the local snake population, Tyning encourages residents to learn about their ectothermic neighbors -- meaning they use external heat sources to regulate their body temperature -- in an effort to support local conservation efforts.
"I'm trying to convince people the only snakes that can be a problem are venomous snakes, and they are such a non problem, historically and currently, that there's every reason to give them the understanding that bald eagles have, that wolves and whales have. They are endangered and going extinct, and no matter what the animals are, we should be worried about biological diversity."
So you come across a snake, what should you do? First, leave it alone, said Tyning. But a close second is grab your camera or smartphone and take a photo of it, so you can help Tyning identify the snake for data purposes. Then call the Division of Fisheries & Wildlife to come and take care of the snake.
You can contact the Western Massachusetts district office, located in Dalton, at (413) 684-1646.
Helping identify and track snakes locally will go a long way to helping scientists, like Tyning, find out more about these nocturnal animals that are so difficult to find in the wild. There's still so much more they don't know about snakes, he said.
"Trying to learn more about snakes might even help people who are nervous about them," he said. "It's fascinating to know more about what these [snakes] are."
Still not convinced? Don't worry, according to Tyning, you can plan on hiking from Halloween to the first day of spring and you won't find any snakes. But right now, after spending five to six months underground, these animals are looking for warm and shady spots to regulate their body temperatures, and for some light fare, since they haven't eaten since last October. Common snakes, like the gartersnake with its bright yellow side stripe, will often show up in the same area of your yard, perhaps a favorite crack in the sidewalk, while rattlesnakes will sometimes travel 2 miles from their winter sites. All species, however, somehow find their way back to the same exact den each winter.
"We know shockingly little about the behaviors of these animals," he said. "Part of the issue is most people aren't interested in reptiles, so funding isn't available. You get a lot more money to study panda bears than you can to study garter snakes."
There are 14 species of snakes in Western Massachusetts and only 10 of those that call Berkshire County home. Help local conservation efforts by learning to identify snakes. Here is a list of the state's slithering reptiles, with descriptions provided by Tom Tyning. For more information, and to see more photos of the snakes, visit his website at westernmassnaturalist.org.
*Common gartersnake: Rough-edge dorsal stripe; brighter yellow side stripe that blends with the yellow belly scales. Often with dark and light checker-board pattern. Keeled scales.
*Eastern ribbonsnake: Crisp, smooth-edge dorsal stripe; brighter yellow side stripes that are above the yellow belly scales. Long tail (about 1/3 its body length). White crescent in front of eye.
*Smooth greensnake: Green above and below. Smooth scales; slender snake
Eastern wormsnake: Smooth, glossy scales; under 10 inches total. Brown on top, pink underneath. Pointed tail tip.
*Dekay's brownsnake: Keeled scales, tan belly. Light dorsal stripe.
*Red-bellied snake: The underside is always red. Top can be gray, brown or reddish. Keeled scales. Don't be fooled by the enlarged yellow/orange spots on its neck that are so close together they look like a ring - especially on neonates.
*Ring-necked snake: Solid gray on back; yellow ring behind head; mustard yellow underside. Smooth scales.
*Northern black racer: Glossy black with smooth scales; gray, unmarked belly (adult). White snout, usually, and dark iris (especially useful to distinguish juveniles). Energetic tail vibrations in leaf litter can sound like a rattlesnake.
Eastern ratsnake: A large constrictor, often coiled on tree branches. Most dorsal scales are keeled and the belly is off-white with lots of dark blotches.
Eastern hog-nosed snake: Thick bodied, keeled scales and great behaviors. Check out the upturned snout.
*Milksnake: Pattern on head; smooth scales. Gray body with reddish bands; red tongue and iris; checkerboard pattern beneath; often vibrates tail and may strike (especially juveniles).
*Northern watersnake: Thick bodied, keeled scales. Bold and complex pattern on the belly. Dark eyes. Usually found in and near wetlands, but can overwinter in upland dens. Erroneously called "moccasin."
Copperhead: Solid, unmarked top of head. A pink/orange body color with darker orange blotches. Neonates with bright yellow tail tip.
*Timber rattlesnake: Variable colors, from bright yellow to pattern-less black. All have saddles and blotches and a black tail with a rattle attached. Segments may be few or many.
*Snakes found in Berkshire County
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