Sunday, February 21, 2010

Do not poke the rattlesnake

In June 2005, I had a run-in with a snake at one of my favorite places: the dells of the Wolf River in Menominee County, Wisconsin. Slithering about on the billion-year-old Wolf River basalts was this fellow:

The snake then coiled up and began to shake its tail in the underbrush, making a rattling sound. This got my attention, and I took several steps back to establish and more respectful distance. For the next five years or so, I bragged to my friends that I had stared down a rattlesnake.

In a recent visit to the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin, I learned that there are two species of rattlesnake in Wisconsin, and neither occurs anywhere near Menominee County, highlighted in blue on the maps below (range maps photographed at the Vilas Zoo).

This was confusing - I heard the snake rattle! I was traveling Lisa and her parents, so I had to come up with an explanation quickly. The answer came from the kids' section of the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources web site - that's right, the kids' section. Turns out there are at least two non-venomous Wisconsin snakes that twitch their tails in the leaf litter to imitate a rattlesnake: the fox snake (Elaphe vulpina, also known as the pine snake) and the rare bull snake (Pituophis melanoleucus). Humbled!

When I got home, I checked the WDNR's excellent pamphlet, Snakes of Wisconsin, and determined that the handsome reptile in question was in fact a fox snake. The orange head is the giveaway. I'm no biologist, but I think being slightly out of focus is also a characteristic of the species.

While I hadn't faced a hyper-venomous death-serpent, I still consider myself lucky to have experienced this encounter with the herpetofauna of the Badger State. Meanwhile, I'm pleased to announce that I recently did stare down a timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)...

...but this one was behind glass at the Vilas Zoo's reptile house. I'll close with some helpful advice from the good folks at the zoo:

No comments: