Sunday, July 13, 2008

Hurray for Snakes!

I love snakes. I know that this goes against the norm, but I've always had a fancy for them. Maybe it's my soft heart and the way I always root for the underdog. Regardless, I think snakes are fascinating and beautiful animals, which always seem to have a smile on their faces. And even if most folks don't like them, my goal is to at least get people to appreciate snakes for the important roles they play in our ecosytems. The world would be a poorer place without snakes.

So, why the soliliquy on snakes today? Last night I saw a northern ringneck snake (Diadophis punctata edwardsii) as I was leaving the Chris Shaw concert hosted here at the VIC. I was the first to leave (wanting to beat the maddening crowd), and as I walked up the driveway to the parking lot, I saw what looked like a shoelace lying on the gravel. As I got nearer, it resolved into a ringneck snake about a foot long. It looked rather flat, and I feared someone had encountered it on the way into the concert and had stomped it, but as I reached down to pick it up, it slowly slithered off into the grass and woods.

For those who don't know what a ringneck snake looks like, here is a photo from the Univeristy of Georgia website (

The northern ringneck is a small and fairly secretive snake, reaching lengths upwards of about 15 inches. They usually don't get much bigger around than a pencil...maybe a thick pencil. They sport a yellow (or orange) ring around the neck, and here in the north they have a lovely reddish belly (which is why I often confuse them with red-bellied snakes).

Where does one usually find ringnecks? They are denizens of moist woodlands, preferring a somewhat fossorial (under leaf litter/in loose soil - they do not burrow into the ground) existence where they hunt for their favorite foods: insect larvae, salamanders, earthworms and frogs. Red-backed salamanders (extremely common in our woodlands) feature high on the menu.

The ringneck is mostly a nocturnal animal (which is why I found it out and about at 9PM). During the day it seeks shelter under rocks, logs, boards and other debris. And while it does prefer its woodland habitat, it is not unusual to find them in basements up here in the north. If you should encounter one, don't panic! This gentle snake is not harmful to humans, although if picked up it is likely to release a foul-smelling musk, which accomplishes it's purpose when the person grabbing it lets it go!

Unlike most snakes, it seems, the ringneck is a social animal and sometimes can be found in colonies of upwards to a hundred or more individuals. Smaller groups are more probable in most locations.

As with all animals, this small snake plays an important role in the balance of its ecosystem. On the one hand, it is an effective predator of small creatures. Additionally, by moving through the soil and forest debris, is helps with decomposition and the turnover of nutrients in the soil. Finally, it is a food source for other animals further up the food chain.

Because ringnecks pose no genuine threat to people, they should not be harmed when encountered. If a ringneck, or any other snake for that matter, is found in your basement or house, you should simply relocate it outside where it can find suitable food and shelter and go about its daily business.

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