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The Herps of LaCrosse

Living With Herps

Easy Herp Monitoring

Herps as Pets

General Herp Info

Suggested Reading and Bibliography


About Me and Contact Info

Part I: In defense of the misunderstood serpent

Hixon Forest Nature Center Friends Newsletter. Sept.-Oct. 2001 Issue. Pg. 10-11

    Herpetology is the study of amphibians and reptiles.  To many, these are slimy, terrible creatures that instill fear and disgust.  Even the word herpetology is derived from the Greek word herpeton, which literally means "something that crawls".  Not a very nice image.

    Despite their social reputation among the general population, amphibians and reptiles, also called "herps", are the source of intrigue and wonder for those who study them (herpetologists).  Some may wonder why anyone would wish to be a herpetologist.  The answer, for me, is simple: no other animals are as elegant, beautiful, or interesting as herps.  However, if you are one of the millions who are afraid of, dislike, or are indifferent to herps, I hope that my words might persuade you to at least respect them.

    Before I continue, I must express why I believe herps are largely forgotten when it comes to conservation.  In my mind, it's because appreciating birds or mammals is inherently easier than appreciating amphibians or reptiles.  Birds display their colors vivaciously and project their songs boldly for all to witness.  Likewise, one can't help but see a baby mammal, such as a bear cub, and think of it as being "cute".  These supposedly more charismatic animals are much easier for people to conserve.  With herps, however, it's not so simple (good luck convincing someone that a timber rattlesnake needs conserving!).

    Therefore, during the next few months, I will be presenting a series of editorials about herps, and will argue for the conservation of these often-ignored animals.  Perhaps, if you can see them the way a herpetologist does, you can learn to respect these wonderful animals the way I do.


    Snakes have been given a bad reputation for centuries.  It is easy to fear snakes, for they are very different from us.  Snakes appear slimy.  Snakes can move quickly, yet have no limbs to guide them.  Snakes have long, thin tongues that flick about as if frantically attempting to "taste" something.  Finally, a small number of them are venomous.  For these reasons, snakes are often feared and are even killed by people who do not understand them.  In an attempt to help people appreciate snakes, I will make an effort to dispel some of these myths.

    Snakes are not slimy.  In fact, they are actually quite dry unless recently in water.  It is the reflective nature of their scales that makes them appear wet.  A snake may also feel smooth to the touch, which can also give the illusion of something that is slimy.  This texture, however, allows snakes to glide over many surfaces with ease.

    The muscles and scales of serpents are also amazing.  Snakes propel themselves by contracting and relaxing very strong muscles in a sequential fashion.  This, along with their belly scales, help snakes grip the surface that they move along and allows them to "slither" forward.

    Also, while snakes frequently flick their tongues inquisitively, this is not to determine if you would make a good meal.  A snake's tongue is actually its primary source of smell.  The tongue itself catches tiny scent particles from the air and pulls them into a special organ, called a Jacobson's organ, located in the snake's mouth.  Here the information is collected and then sent to the brain for processing.  Basically, a snake flicks its tongue to determine if you are a threat, not a meal.

    Of the more than 20 species/subspecies of snakes in Wisconsin, only two are venomous-- the massasauga and the timber rattlesnake.  In addition, these venomous species have very small ranges within the state and are uncommon in areas where they do exist.  This means that you would be lucky to even see one.  Look at it this way: from 1892 to 1999 only one rattlesnake related fatality has been reported in the state of Wisconsin.  You are probably at a greater risk while driving to work in the morning than you are of being bitten by a rattlesnake.

    Despite popular belief, snakes are beautiful.  Look at the patterns that adorn their scales.  They are an amazing mosaic of bands, stripes, and colors that glimmer like a fresh coat of paint.  For example, the milk snake, a native of Wisconsin, possesses amazing reddish brown blotches outlined in black, laid over a gray background.  In other areas of the U.S., subspecies of the milk snake are even more vibrantly colored.  The reddish browns are replaced with bright red and accompanied by bands of yellow and black.  If not for the fact that it is a serpent, Many might consider the milk snake a thing of beauty.  Likewise, the smooth green snake, also found in our state, is a sleek and attractive snake that exhibits a shade of green so bright and vibrant that it would be difficult to find a more handsome animal in our area.

    Snakes occupy an important niche in nature as both predator and prey, yet seem to frequently appear near urbanized areas.  Why, you ask?  Because, aside from the fact that we indiscriminately build our dwellings on snake habitats and they have nowhere else to go, snakes found near homes or barns are probably there looking for food.  In the case of many serpents, that food is rodents.  Rodents (including gophers, moles, mice, and rats) are considered delicacies to such Wisconsin natives as the fox snake, bullsnake, milk snake, racer, black rat snake, and even the timber rattlesnake.  In many parts of the world, snakes (even venomous species) are appreciated for their ability to control the rodents spread disease and destroy crops.  Perhaps we too should adopt this reverence for serpents.  That milk snake hanging around your barn isn't actually there to steal milk (as the myth that resulted in the snake's common name suggests).  It's there to eat the rats and mice that live in your hayloft and eat your livestock feed.  A snake in the barn is a good way to reduce the numbers of these pesky rodents, while being of little risk to humans.  Snakes won't bite unless provoked.  They are no danger to your livestock.  Most snakes, even rattlesnakes, are, in fact, harmless if left alone.

    Therefore, if you see a snake on your land, please leave it be.  Attempting to harm or handle, or accidentally stepping on a snake, are the only ways you are likely to be bitten.  If you leave them along, they will offer you the same courtesy, while diligently ridding your property of mice that eat cattle feed or gophers that plague your garden.

    Joshua M. Kapfer
Graduate Student, River Studies Center
University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse

Special thanks to:
    Daniel R. Sutherland (Ph.D.), and Paul E. Drevnick, University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse for review and the personnel at the Hixon Forest Nature Center for the opportunity to write.


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