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Celebrating Virginia’s Snakes in Honor of National Reptile Awareness Day

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Child holding an Eastern Kingsnake. Photo by John White.

Every October 21st is National Reptile Awareness Day, a day created to promote education, conservation and appreciation for reptiles. Reptiles are a group of animals that include snakes, lizards, turtles, crocodiles, and tuataras. Reptiles are characterized by having dry scales that are shed periodically. The vast majority of reptiles are cold blooded, which means that they cannot generate their own body heat and depend on outside sources to raise their body temperature.

In honor of Reptile Awareness Day, we are celebrating Virginia’s snakes, a group of reptiles which play an important role in our environment, but are often misunderstood. There are 32 species of snakes in the Commonwealth, of which, the vast majority are considered harmless. Snake species occur across Virginia, from coastal marshes to mountain ridgetops and even in urban areas under buildings.  There are only 3 species of venomous snakes occurring in the Commonwealth: Northern Copperhead, Eastern Cottonmouth, and Timber Rattlesnake.

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Festival participant holding a Cornsnake at the Great Dismal Swamp Birding Festival. Photo by Jessica Ruthenberg.

Snakes differ from other reptiles by having no legs, ears, or eyelids, and by possessing only one functional lung. The most notable characteristic of a snake is its long, slender body. A snake’s muscular body and flexible spine allows it to climb effortlessly, swim, and slip into the smallest spaces. Although snakes lack ears and cannot technically hear, they do have the ability to detect low frequency vibrations from the air and ground.

Depending on the species, Virginia’s snakes may mate in the spring, summer, or fall.
Leathery shelled eggs are usually deposited in May or June, with young hatching in late summer. But not all snakes lay eggs; the young of many of Virginia’s snakes are actually born alive. With young that are born alive, the eggs are held inside the body and live young are born in late summer.

Snakes play important roles as predators and prey.  All snakes are carnivorous, which means that they eat other animals and do not eat plants. Snakes possess the special ability to

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Eastern Kingsnake eating a Copperhead. Kingsnakes are immune to the poison of Virginia’s venomous snakes. Photo by Tricia Pears.

swallow their prey whole because they have two independent lower jaws connected by aligament that can expand greatly. Major prey items include invertebrates (animals lacking a backbone), fish, amphibians, other reptiles, birds, bird eggs, and a variety of mammals. Snakes play an invaluable role in our environment by controlling many pests, including mice and rats. Snakes also play a key role in the web of life; they are food for a variety of predators including certain mammals, birds, and other snakes.

Snake Conservation

The greatest predators of snakes are humans. Misconceptions about snakes have made them among the most persecuted of all animals. Hundreds, if not thousands, are needlessly killed every year in the Commonwealth. A common reaction to an encounter with a snake is to kill

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State Endangered Canebrake Rattlesnake. Photo by J.D. Kleopfer.

it on sight whether or not it poses a danger. However, the fact is that most snakes are harmless, and even dangerous ones would rather flee than fight.  Once we begin to learn about snakes, we can replace our misconceptions with facts and our fears with curiosity, and we can begin to appreciate their important roles in our natural environment.

Fourteen of Virginia’s 32 snake species are included in Virginia’s Wildlife Action Plan as Species of Greatest Conservation Need, including the State Endangered Canebrake Rattlesnake (the southeastern Virginia population of Timber Rattlesnake) and the Northern Pinesnake. A century ago, the Northern Pinesnake was considered common in several parts of Virginia, but there have been no sightings of this species in the last 25 years, so it’s been presumed extirpated from the Commonwealth. The extirpation of this species is most likely due to fire suppression, habitat

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Festival participants admiring a Cornsnake at the Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival. Photo by Jessica Ruthenberg.

loss and fragmentation, and human persecution. The Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (DGIF) recently participated in an investigative study that demonstrated Northern Pinesnake habitat (dry open slopes with vegetated cover) is still available in Virginia and that it would be feasible to reintroduce this endangered species into its historic range.

Simple ways to help conserve and protect snakes and other reptiles:

  • Support efforts to establish and protect natural areas.
  • Provide habitat for wildlife on your own property by keeping portions of it unmowed and ungrazed and by planting native plants.
  • Reduce your use of fertilizers and pesticides in your yard and garden.
  • Recycle and do not litter or pollute.
  • Join a conservation organization.
  • Make a contribution to DGIF’s Nongame Wildlife Fund.
  • Do not kill snakes.
  • Keep learning about snakes and teach others what you learn, so that all may appreciate this unique group of Virginia’s wildlife. More information on Virginia’s snakes may be found in these resources:
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Festival participants learning about a Cornsnake at the Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival. Photo by Jessica Ruthenberg.

  • October 21st, 2016

Motorists, Give Turtles a Brake

Eastern Box Turtle #001Why did the turtle cross the road? Most likely to find a place to lay its eggs or to find a mate. May and June are peak months to see turtles attempting to cross Virginia’s highways and unfortunately, thousands are killed every year in the process. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries would like you to be “turtle aware” and encourage drivers to slow down and safely steer around them. If you do encounter a turtle in the middle of the road and would like to assist, be sure you can safely pull over and move the turtle off the road in the direction it was heading.

To learn more about Virginia’s turtles and their conservation, you can purchase A Guide to the Turtles of Virginia at our eStore.

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  • May 23rd, 2016

Sea Turtles in Virginia

Did you know that five of the world’s seven sea turtle species occur in the Chesapeake Bay and the coastal waters of Virginia? These species include the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta), the Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) sea turtle, the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), the leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), and the hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata).

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Loggerhead sea turtle at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS.

The most abundant and regularly occurring species in Virginia are the Loggerhead and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. Green turtles and leatherbacks are observed in the Commonwealth each year, but they are far less abundant and their distribution is uneven. The hawksbill turtle is the rarest of all species in the region; it has only been
recorded twice in Virginia.

Sea turtles are easily distinguished from other aquatic turtles by their large size and paddle-like limbs or flippers which lack toes. Unlike other turtles, sea turtles are unable to withdraw their head and flippers into their shells. Sea turtles have long been considered the ancient mariners of the sea because of their long migrations across ocean basins.

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Loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings at Back Bay NWR. Photo by USFWS.

Sea turtles typically occur in Virginia from May – October but may stay through late fall/early winter if water temperatures remain warm. The majority of these turtles are juveniles. The highly productive waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the seaside lagoon system of the Delmarva Peninsula represent important developmental habitat for growing turtles.

Virginia represents the northern extreme of the Northwest Atlantic loggerhead sea turtle nesting range. Since 1970, 166 loggerhead nests have been documented on Virginia’s dynamic ocean-facing beaches.

The state’s first and only green sea turtle nest was reported in 2005 and the Commonwealth’s first and second Kemp’s ridley nests were documented in 2012 and 2014, respectively.

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Kemp’s ridley sea turtle building a nest at False Cape State Park. Photo by VA Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The average sea turtle nest contains over 100 eggs, of which very few reach adulthood. After about a 60 day incubation period, hatchlings emerge at night and enter the ocean where they embark upon a life in the marine environment.

Sea Turtle Conservation

All five species of sea turtles that can be found in Virginia are afforded protection under state and federal Endangered Species acts. Loggerhead and green sea turtles are listed as threatened; Kemp’s ridley, leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles are listed as endangered.

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Juvenile green sea turtle discovered in the Chickahominy River near Chickahominy Wildlife Management Area. Photo courtesy of J.D. Kleopfer (DGIF).

The recovery of these species requires a substantial and well-coordinated effort to understand each species’ distribution and abundance as well as its life history and ecology; thus, many of these programs are developed and implemented through partnerships with other conservation agencies and organizations. VDGIF has taken the lead in promoting the establishment of a multi-agency sea turtle nest monitoring and management program that is consistent with other state programs in the US loggerhead nesting range. The Department continues to support sea turtle research that has strong management implications and furthers the conservation of sea turtle within the Commonwealth and beyond.

In 2015, the VDGIF, the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center’s Stranding Response Program and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources drafted the Virginia and Maryland Sea Turtle Conservation Plan (which is still awaiting final approval). The overarching goal of the conservation plan is to enhance the survival and conserve the habitats of sea turtles in Virginia and Maryland. The path to achieving this goal is described in a comprehensive Conservation Outline, which is meant to guide the conservation, research and management of sea turtles in Virginia and Maryland over a ten-year period.

One of the issues facing sea turtles are strandings. Strandings are events in which several hundred sea turtles wash ashore dead or near death. These events occur every year. The causes of strandings are often difficult to determine, but are known to include interactions with fishing gear, ingestion of marine debris, boat strikes, disease and sudden exposure to cold water temperatures.

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Stranded leatherback sea turtle. Photo by the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Center’s Stranding Response Team.

How to report sea turtle strandings: If you encounter a dead or a live, but weakened sea turtle (or a marine mammal), please call the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center’s Stranding Response Team at 757-385-7575 and be prepared to provide information on the location, species (if known), estimated size, condition, and a contact number of a person who will be near a phone. If possible, please take photographs with your cell phone that can be texted or emailed to the stranding team, upon request.

  • May 23rd, 2016

Season of the Snake

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Eastern Ratsnake. Photo credit and copyright: John White.

It’s a good time to talk about SSSSNAKES! It’s a good time to talk about a lot of things, really—frogs, migrating birds, wildflowers, bats, turtles, and much more—but snakes are a particularly hot topic now and in the coming months. Every year around early- to mid-spring, we receive phone calls, emails, and the occasional visitor with questions about, photos of, specimens of snakes. This is the time of year these animals begin to venture out of their hibernacula in search of food, mates, and shelter.

Snakes are overwhelmingly misunderstood and given undeserved bad reputations. They are just built very different from us and many other animals. Meanwhile, they are extremely important to have around to control various pests. Many of our larger snakes eat mice, rats, moles, voles, and other small mammal pests. Smaller snakes eat plenty of bugs, slugs, and other very small pests.

We’re often asked if the snake in question is a “good” snake. The proper response is that all snakes are “good” snakes! Snakes, even venomous snakes, will not bite a person unless it were a very last resort. You have to touch them in some way to get them to bite. Always take common sense precautions to avoid accidentally touching snakes, too.

Common Rainbow Snake (Farancia erytrogramma erytrogramma)

Common Rainbow Snake. Photo credit and copyright: John White.

If you’re outside doing yard work, hiking, or the like, never put your hands or feet where you cannot see. It’s always a good idea to use long-handled tools if you are moving things like landscape timbers, rocks, or piles of mulch, just in case a snake or other wildlife may be hiding under it. When hiking, it’s always good to have a walking stick or similar implement to poke around any tall grass or rocks you are about to venture through to make sure there are no snakes or other wildlife hiding.

Also, rest assured that snakes do not chase people—this is an absolute myth. A snake has no reason to chase you, since you are much too big to be prey for a snake. You are only considered a predator to a snake. There are times when their behavior is misunderstood: when a snake is trying to get to where it knows to hide, you may be inadvertently standing between the snake and that place. Snakes usually do not see as well as people, too, so it may be heading towards you without realizing it. Simply move out of its way, and there will be no problem.

Another misunderstood behavior is snakes being close to people in order to get food from people. Northern watersnakes, which are nonvenomous and common around any type of water throughout Virginia, have been known to learn to find “fast food” when hanging around anglers at popular fishing holes. Watersnakes love to eat fish, and they may hang around an angler’s fishing line hoping to snag a fish that’s caught!

If you are experiencing a problem with snakes or other wildlife, please dial our toll-free wildlife conflict helpline at 1-855-571-9003.

You can also purchase A Guide to the Snakes and Lizards of Virginia, an informative publication available ShopDGIF.com.

Here are a couple of useful links with information on, and photos of, snakes in Virginia:

 

  • June 8th, 2015