Northern Copperhead (agkistrodon contortrix mokasen) on leaf litter – taken in New Jersey

I wrote about snakes a couple of years ago but since it is that time of year when they come out of their dens from brumation it seems timely to feature them again.

Yes, what snakes do is called “brumation.” Snakes do not hibernate the way that some mammals, such as bears, do.

Brumation is not as deep a sleep as hibernation and snakes do not require the same amount of sleep as in hibernation. Snakes will wake up and need to forage for food and water during this time. When necessary, they will go and find food and water and then return to a state of brumation.

Snake brumation can begin anytime from September to December and last until March or April, depending on weather patterns. In addition, snakes may come out of brumation if a warm front changes the weather. Warming their blood makes them more active.

Snakes will sense when the outside air is warmer or will likely notice the weather change once they leave their den to forage. This means that it is still possible to encounter a snake at almost any time of year although less likely in winter.

Upon encountering a snake people will often ask “What kind of snake is it?” Oftentimes, an answer might be given by using the scientific name and/or common name with a description of “harmless” rat snake, king snake, or another type of snake.

However, I have always been troubled by descriptions such as “harmless” for some snakes as opposed to others. If some species of snakes are harmless, then by implication others are harmful. We humans have a long history of eradicating to extinction any species we might consider harmful to us.

I maintain, however, that there is no snake as a species that is harmful – if we humans just leave them alone. Snakes serve a very important function for ecological balance and it is their elimination that may be harmful.  They can keep pests such as mice and rats in check. And they can also provide food for birds, mammals and even other snakes!

Having said that, some snakes – such as rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasin and coral snakes – that are indigenous to the Lowcountry can inject venom through hypodermic-like needle fangs that they use for both hunting and immobilizing prey and for defense.   

No doubt a close proximity venomous snake can be dangerous. You don’t want to get bitten by a venomous snake. But you wouldn’t want to get bitten by a raccoon, fox, squirrel, or any wild animal.

John Riolo lives in Moss Creek and is past president of the Nature Club of Moss Creek.