Snakes are closely related to lizards and belong to the class Reptilia (reptiles). There are approximately 250 species and subspecies of snakes in the United States, with only four of them being venomous: copperheads, coral snakes, rattlesnakes, and water moccasins. Snakes are found in many types of habitat and play an important role in the ecosystem, as they are both predators and prey.
Snakes inhabit a wide range of habitats, including forests, farmland, fields, lakes, streams, wetlands, ponds, hillsides, and residential neighborhoods. Snakes travel along the ground, up trees, through water and underground. Although some snakes burrow, most do not and are just traveling through existing holes that were created by chipmunks, mice and other small mammals. Snakes hibernate in these burrows as well as in rock crevices and hollows.
Like many animals, snakes mate in the early spring when they come out of hibernation. Some snakes are egg layers while others give birth to live young. Most snakes are born or hatch in the late summer, at which point they are on their own. Young snakes receive no protection or food from their parents. They mature when they are one to two years old and can live up to twenty years in the wild.
Depending on the species and its size, snakes have a variety of food sources, ranging from slugs and worms to birds and small mammals. Snakes are toothless carnivores who swallow their food whole. They locate their prey by sight, scent, and sometimes temperature. While some snakes have very good eyesight, others have very poor eyesight and depend on other senses to find their prey. Snakes have an extraordinary sense of “smell” that is detected by a highly specialized organ found on the roof of the mouth (called the Jacobson’s organ) that can detect subtle chemical changes in the environment. When a snake flicks her tongue in and out of her mouth, she is gathering and processing chemical information in the environment.
Snakes are referred to as “cold-blooded” animals because they are unable to maintain their body temperature. In order to keep warm enough to function, they are dependent on outside heat sources such as the sun, which is why snakes are seen basking in the open on warm, sunny days.
As people are learning more about snakes and the ecological benefits they provide, attitudes about snakes are slowly changing.
POSSIBLE CONFLICTS & SOLUTIONS
The majority of snakes found in Massachusetts are harmless and provide ecological benefits. Homeowners who tolerate snakes living in their yard will benefit because snakes prey on rodents and garden pests such as slugs and certain soft-bodied insects. If however, you want to discourage snakes from living in your yard, you must remove food sources, such as bird feeders, as well as potential hiding places, such as brush piles, rocks, wood or other debris.
If you encounter snakes outside, there is no reason to feel fearful or harm them. Simply give them plenty of room and allow them to go on their way.
If you find a snake indoors, remain calm and try to avoid scaring the snake into a hiding place. Removing a snake can be as simple as gently guiding it out an open door.
There are no safe, effective snake repellents. However, if a snake is living in a small, confined area, you can temporarily drive the snake out by placing a few moth balls near the entrance, making sure not to block the entrance. Once you are sure that the snake is out, you can seal the entrance.
PUBLIC HEALTH CONCERNS
Snakes are not usually aggressive, but like all animals, they can bite if threatened or handled. If a non-venomous snake bites you and the skin is broken, thoroughly wash the wound with antibacterial soap and contact your doctor. If you think that a venomous snake has bitten you, or if you are not sure whether the snake bite is from a non-venomous or venomous snake, call 911 immediately.