Snakes are closely related to lizards and belong to the class Reptilia. 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 is harmless and provides 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 a snake outside, there is no reason to feel fearful or to harm him in any way. Simply give the snake plenty of room and allow him to go on his 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 her 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.
North America is home to approximately 250 species of tortoises and turtles, both freshwater and sea turtles, ranging from the three-inch-long bog turtle to the seven-foot-long leatherback sea turtle. Turtles belong to the family reptilian, and like all reptiles, are cold-blooded and depend on outside sources of heat to regulate their body temperature. Turtles have protective shells, scaly skin, good eyesight and hearing, and an excellent sense of smell. Depending on the environment a turtle lives in, she will have special characteristics that help her survive, including claws for digging and webbed feet for swimming.
Massachusetts is home to 16 species of turtles: eleven freshwater turtles and five sea turtles. Unfortunately, the majority of these species are in danger of disappearing and are listed as “threatened”, “endangered”, or “of special concern” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and/or MA Wildlife (Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife). In Massachusetts six out of the eleven freshwater turtles are listed as threatened, endangered, or of special concern; and all five sea turtles are listed as either threatened or endangered. There are only three turtle species in Massachusetts whose populations are not dangerously low: the snapping turtle, eastern musk turtle, and the painted turtle.
For more information on “endangered”, “threatened”, or “of special concern” animals and plants in Massachusetts, visit the MA Wildlife website.
Sea turtles live in the ocean and eat a variety of foods, ranging from jellyfish to crabs to seaweed. Freshwater turtles live in a variety of places, including ponds, streams, wetlands, marshy meadows, bogs and wet woodlands, and eat various types of insects, frogs, fish, and carrion.
Whether a turtle lives in the ocean, pond, or marshy meadow, all turtles lay their eggs on land. Depending on the species, the female will lay anywhere between four eggs (for a wood turtle, lives in fresh water) to almost 100 eggs (for a leatherback, lives in saltwater). The female digs a nest, lays her eggs, covers them and then leaves them to incubate on their own. The temperature of the sand/soil around the eggs plays the key role in determining the sex of the incubating eggs. Cooler temperatures produce males and warmer temperatures produce females. Many turtle species are endangered due to a high egg and juvenile mortality rate, and human-related threats, including habitat destruction, water pollution, netting and commercial pet trade.
POSSIBLE CONFLICTS & SOLUTIONS
Turtles are not high-conflict animals and since most species found in Massachusetts are in danger of extinction, we should do whatever we can to help their species recover.
Most turtles require multiple habitats to fulfill all of their survival needs – a unique habitat is needed for breeding, for nesting, and for feeding. In order to access all of these habitats, turtles often need to cross roads. If you see a turtle trying to cross a road, using common sense and street smarts, you can help her reach the other side safely by carefully picking her up with a shovel, carrying her close to the ground to the other side of the road, and placing her down gently. Remember to place the turtle down on the side of the road to which she was heading. If you put her down on the side of the road from which she came, the turtle will re-enter the road to get to the other side.
If you see an injured turtle in the road, there are two things to consider: the turtle shell may be able to be repaired in an effort to save the turtle and/or the turtle may have eggs inside of her that may have a chance of survival. Both of these possibilities require immediate veterinary attention. Safely and carefully move the turtle from the road to a transport vehicle with a shovel or cardboard box and bring the injured turtle to the nearest wildlife rehabilitator. Please call first to make sure that they treat turtles.
PUBLIC HEALTH CONCERNS
Salmonellosis is a bacterial disease caused by the bacterium Salmonella which is associated with reptiles, including lizards, snakes, turtles, and tortoises. For information regarding turtles and salmonella read:
The Center for Disease Control‘s (CDC) fact sheet on diseases from reptiles.
Massachusetts Department of Public’s fact sheet on salmonellosis from reptiles.