Printed in the Oct. 20, 2004 edition of the I.V. News
Snakes always seem to have a negative impact on peoples minds. From the beginning, according to the Bible, snakes have been in need of a good public relations expert. I will try to change some ideas about their importance. Its true that many are poisonous. But the only poisonous snake in our area is the rattlesnake, and even the rattlesnake performs a beneficial service to mankind by eating lots of rats, mice, rabbits, and squirrels.
No snakes are vegetarians and eat our crops or damage our gardens. Besides the rattlesnake, the other large snake, the gopher snake, also eats rats, mice, rabbits and other warm blooded prey. Racers, king snakes, garter snakes, and even the rubber boa eat various sizes of lizards, other snakes, frogs, worms and even insects, which means that they cause no harm to human beings.
There are two fairly small snakes, rarely over a foot long, which are found in moist habitats, such as rotting logs and densely forested areas of the Illinois Valley. They are very docile, are easily handled, and both are beneficial to humans. The ringneck snake is usually olive or gray-green in color on the back or dorsal surface. The belly, or ventral surface, is a vivid orange color and this color forms a ring around the body just behind the head. There is also a series of black spots all along the upper part of the orange area. This is the basis for its scientific name which is Diadophis punctatus. Diadophis is derived from the Greek word “diadem,” which means headband and “ophis” which is Greek for snake. “Punctum,” the source of the word punctuate, is Latin for spots. Therefore it means the spotty snake with a headband.
Ringneck snakes normally feed on salamanders, lizards, frogs, and earthworms. They also are known to eat slugs which should make all gardeners happy to have them in the area. They are usually active only at night and will secrete a smelly mucous from their mouth when disturbed. I’ve never seen that trait and have handled them many times when they were brought to school.
The other small snake in our area is known as the sharp-tailed snake. This snake is a dull reddish-brown color with faint white stripes along the length of both sides. The name is based on a noticeable sharp spine at the tip of its tail. The function of the spine is not positively known but seems to serve as an anchor when it struggles with its prey. That prey, which is their main food, seems to consist almost entirely of slugs but small salamanders may be eaten as well. The sharp-tailed snake also has long thin fangs which help in gripping the slimy slugs. By the way, no snakes are slimy. They are smooth and dry, but they produce no mucous in the skin as do salamanders and frogs. They may be wet because of wet grass or coming out of water. Hopefully, this information may help make some people more inclined to hold them in their hands.
The scientific name of the Sharp-tailed snake is Contia tenuis. It was named “Contia” to honor John L. Leconte, a herpetologist (a scientist that studies reptiles and amphibians). LeConte collected many reptiles and amphibians for the United States National Museum. “Tenuis” is the Latin word for narrow or slender. Predators of both snakes are abundant and varied. They would include jays, opossums, other snakes, shrews, skunks and even scorpions and spiders on occasion.
My main objective in writing this article is to show that snakes are generally beneficial as far as humans are concerned. Finding a snake in the woods, even a rattlesnake, is not an excuse to destroy it. They are usually not considered a cuddly pet but they are an important part of the ecosystem. The natural ecology thrives if all species are left to fill their niche in the environment.