There is probably no animal that has both frightened and fascinated mankind more than the snake. Traditionally the snake has been a symbol of the devil, but also of healing and medicine, due to the snake’s ability to shed its old skin and apparently renew itself. Some evolutionary biologists believe that fear of snakes is actually instinctive to all human beings. Regardless of the origin of this fear, it is largely unfounded. The vast majority of snakes are not venomous; snakes are actually very beneficial predators to have in the ecosystem because they feed on mice and other small nuisance mammals. In agricultural areas, this benefits farmers who would otherwise have to their crops partially destroyed by the rodents and insects that snakes feed on. Venom from certain snakes is also used to create treatments for many serious health ailments like cancer, heart disease, Parkinsons, and many more; snake venom is also used to make serum (antidotes) that can be given to persons who have been bitten by poisonous snakes.
The snakes of Michigan
There are many different types of snakes in Michigan, though there is only one that is venomous (Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake). The 17 species of snake found in Michigan are:
- Black Rat Snake
- Blue Racer
- Brown Snake
- Butler’s Garter Snake
- Common Garter Snake
- Copper-bellied Water Snake
- Eastern Hog-nosed Snake,
- Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake
- Eastern Milk Snake
- Fox Snake
- Kirtland’s Snake
- Northern Ribbon Snake
- Northern Water Snake
- Queen Snake
- Red-bellied Snake
- Ring-necked Snake
- Smooth Green Snake
Snakes are ectothermic, which means that they regulate their body temperature by taking heat from or giving it to the environment. They are inactive during periods of both extreme hot and extreme cold. Snakes are cold blooded, which means they rely on their activity to keep themselves warm. On hotter days, they will seek shade to cool off; on cooler days, they will come out into the open to sun themselves on rocks. This explains why many snakes are seen on the road – they are attracted by the heat being emitted from the pavement.
Snakes have a unique skeletal system. Their skeletal system is very light and flexible, allowing the snake a tremendous versatility of movement. Their jaw is attached to the skull with a very malleable ligament that allows snakes to open their mouths wide enough to swallow prey much larger than their head.
Snakes track prey with their forked tongue, which they use to “smell” by picking up odor particles from the air.
Snakes will lay eggs in out of the way damp places, where they will hatch in around two months. Some snakes lay eggs and hatch young within their body, giving birth to live snakes. Snakes abandon their eggs after they are laid, as infant snakes hatch fully able to look after themselves.
Snakes in general are not aggressive and would rather shun contact with humans than provoke a confrontation. Many snakes will hiss and behave aggressively if cornered, but this behavior is only designed to frighten away a threat; the snake would much rather slither away without having to strike. While only the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake is poisonous, all snakes in Michigan have teeth and may be carriers of salmonella. Anytime you are bitten by a snake, even a non-poisonous one, keep in mind that you could get infected because all reptiles tend to carry a lot of bacteria.
Shedding of skin
Snakes, like all reptiles, shed their skin, a process called ecdysis. The ancients saw this process as a type of regeneration, a process by which the snake was able to continually renew its youth. This is not entirely untrue; while a snake does not shed its skin to “stay young”, the shedding is a natural process of growth and regeneration. The skin of a snake is different from the skin of a mammal in that it does not grow along with the animal. As a mammal grows, its skin gets bigger as well, growing with the animal. By contrast, snake skin has a limited capacity for growth. Thus, when a snake outgrows its skin, it will shed the outer layer and start afresh. Snakes will only range a limited distance from their holes, so if you find a snake skin on your property, you most certainly have a snake living nearby.
Usually when we get a snake call, it is because a snake has gotten into a residence. Because most reptiles are protected by state and federal laws, removing the snake manually may be the only option to solving a snake problem. If a snake does get into your home, you should probably seek professional assistance.
Though it may not be possible to remedy the fear of snakes, you can reduce the chance of running into one by modifying your environment. Like other nuisance wildlife, snakes get into the home through entry points that our technicians can pinpoint and seal. When keeping snakes out of the house, preventative maintenance is key.
Snakes gone wild
A growing problem in recent years has been that of domesticated exotic snakes going wild. Many people keep exotic snakes as pets; a good number of these snakes will end up escaping or being intentionally released into the wild. These snakes are often much larger than indigenous snakes and can be much more dangerous. Boa constrictors and pythons are two of the most popular exotic snakes used as pets. Despite the novelty of owning a large, exotic snake, these are dangerous creatures that should not be handled lightly. They have the capability to kill domesticated animals, and occasionally pet snakes have even killed their owners. Handling exotic snakes without proper training could lead to injury or death. Many people do not realize that it is actually illegal to own venomous snakes without the proper license. Unfortunately, irresponsible care of snakes often leads to their unintentional escape; sometimes tenants moving in or out of apartments will release their exotic snakes into the wild when they are unable to bring them to their new residence. We do not get these calls too frequently, but they do happen; one time we had to remove a five foot boa constrictor from an apartment garage in Dexter; another time we got a call for a python in an Ypsilanti neighborhood.
If you own an exotic snake, please take especial care to keep it secure. If circumstances compel you to get rid of the snake, please do not release it into the wild, as it can upset the ecosystem. Contact your local zoo, or try to relocate it with another owner rather than releasing it into the wild.