ABOUT THIS ISSUE
Published by Emporia State University
Prepared and issued by The Division of Biology
Editor: Robert J. Boles
Editorial Committee: Gilbert A. Leisman, Tom Eddy, Robert F. Clarke, John Ransom
Online format by: Terri Weast
The Kansas School Naturalist is sent upon request, free of charge, to Kansas teachers, school board members and administrators, librarians, conservationists, youth leaders, and other adults interested in nature education. Back numbers are sent free as long as supply lasts, except Vol.5, No.3, Poisonous Snakes of Kansas. Copies of this issue may be obtained for 25 cents each postpaid. Send orders to The Kansas School Naturalist, Division of Biology, Emporia Kansas State College, Emporia, Kansas, 66801.
The Kansas School Naturalist is published in October, December, February, and April of each year by the Kansas State Teachers College, 1200 Commercial Street, Emporia, Kansas, 66801. Second-class postage paid at Emporia, Kansas.
"Statement required by the Act of October, 1962: Section 4369, Title 39, United States Code, showing Ownership, Management and Circulation." The Kansas School Naturalist is published in October, December, February, and April. Editorial Office and Publication Office at 1200 Commercial Street, Emporia, Kansas, 66801. The Naturalist is edited and published by the Kansas State Teachers College, Emporia, Kansas. Editor, Robert J. Boles, Department of Biology.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Robert Clarke is Professor of Biology at Emporia State University. Reptiles are his research interest, and he has numerous publications in this area. He is also an accomplished artist. His Naturalist (Vol. 5, No.3) on the poisonous snakes of Kansas has been one of our most popular issues.
Thirty kinds of harmless snakes and six species of poisonous snakes are included in this booklet. Some of these are extremely rare or difficult to find; others are large and common, so are easily and often seen. There is a mistaken belief that all snakes are harmful, but that is not true at all, for most of the snakes that a person would ordinarily come in contact with are non-poisonous, harmless snakes. Not only are
most of the snakes harmless to man, but also some are definitely beneficial. Although the others cannot be shown to play a distinct role favorable to the economy of man, they are part of the intricate web of relationships that causes their environment to function, where each, and all, organisms have dependence on all others. Thus, it is not good ecological judgement to destroy any member of an ecosystem, although snakes are often killed when discovered.
Snakes are reptiles, as are lizards, turtles, and crocodilians. No snakes has legs, ear openings, or eyelids. All snakes are covered with scales, which may vary in size, shape, or number, depending upon the species. The tongue of snakes is forked and is utilized for testing the environment by the tongue constantly flicking out of the mouth. Minute particles of materials may be taken from the air or some object by the tip of the tongue and transferred to tiny pits in the roof of the mouth, where sensory cells relay messages to the brain. This functions as a taste-smell system. Although snakes cannot hear air-borne sounds, they are
quite sensitive to vibrations carried through the material that supports their body.
Snakes mate usually in the spring immediately following emergence from hibernation, and several weeks later, depending upon the species, eggs are laid in a selected spot in the ground, in rotting logs, or
under surface cover, such as rocks. Not all snakes lay eggs; in Kansas, live-birth is characteristic of such groups as water snakes, garter snakes, and all poisonous snakes.
Probably no other group of animals has been so grossly misrepresented as has the snake group. From the mildly incorrect concept that a snake is "slimy" (actually, they are dry to the touch) to the whoppers about serpents swallowing ships, there is a gamut of mistaken observations, legends, distorted facts, and deliberate falsehoods. Here are a few usual stories. . . but everyone has a new one.
A persistent tale involves a person coming across a mother snake with a brood of young. Upon seeing the intruder, the mother opens wide her mouth and the young all rush inside. The mother then glides away,
with the youngsters "safe." If this tale is true, it has never been documented by photos or by accounts of persons who are continually involved with snakes. An explanation given as a possible way that this story
could arise is by misinterpretation of an observation. For instance, quite a few common species of snakes give birth to living young. If a female is killed by being struck with a stick or axe, the abdomen might rupture, spilling out the young, which, if near full-term, would be quite active. The inference that might be drawn is that this is evidence of the snake swallowing her young, although the intruder did not actually see the swallowing performed.
Another good story is about the "Hoop Snake." This creature apparently lives in hilly country, for the story, in one variety or another, goes that a person is walking down a wooded path and hears a noise behind him. Upon looking around, he sees a snake that has emerged onto the path. Immediately, the snake throws itself into a loop, grasps its tail in its mouth, and flips up "on edge"-hoop-like. It then begins to roll downhill toward the observer, with ever-increasing speed. Upon which, the observer decides that he has
seen enough, and takes off downhill, also. The gap between the two rapidly decreases and, at the last moment, the intended victim dodges behind a tree. The snake slams into the tree, inbedding a "stinger" on the end of its tail into the tree. Subsequently, the tree dies. Again, there is no definite record of this type of encounter (although a colleague of the author almost got "whupped" by an old Arkansas native for
expressing disbelief of what the old timer described as an actual observation of such an event). There is, in southern swamps, a snake called the Mud Snake which some people think may have given rise to this tale or that could, improperly, be used as "evidence" that Hoop Snakes exist. This medium-sized black and red snake has a spine on its tail, but which has no venomous properties. Apparently the spine, a pointed tail tip, is utilized in assisting the snake in holding aquatic salamanders, which are a staple item of the snake's diet. In addition, this snake often forms itself into a coil when in semi-hibernation, so that when uncovered, there it is -- a Hoop Snake!
The "Milk Snake" really exists. That is, a snake exists that has this as its common name. It has a wide distribution, including Kansas. Milk Snakes belong to a group of snakes which, collectively, are called King Snakes. King Snakes feed upon a variety of animals, including other snakes, but one main element in
their diet is small mammals -- rodents. Since mice are found around barns, so are Milk Snakes that are where the food happens to be. Sometime in the past, a farmer's milk cows became "dry." This in itself is
not an uncommon occurrence, but this time the farmer saw a snake in his barn and, because snakes are capable of all sorts of dastardly deeds, this snake must have sucked the milk from the cow. The story has continued though the years, with elaborations, and many persons do believe that these small snakes are the cause of cow "dryness." So far, no snake has been induced to drink milk, and, can you imagine the shape of a small snake filled with the quarts of milk which a cow may contain at a milking? The mouth of a
snake is lined with needle sharp, back-curving teeth, so imagine, also, what that cow would do when those teeth latched onto the spigot!
Other stories continually crop up, such as a swimmer diving into a Kansas pond, quarry, or pit that, unknown to him, was filled with poisonous cottonmouths, resulting in the swimmer's death; or that Whip
Snakes actually "whip" with their bodies; or about a father killed by a rattlesnake that bit through his boot, and, years later, his son dies when he puts on the boot and the fang was still imbedded in the leather; or
that if you kill a snake, its mate will seek revenge. Don't believe them!
There is a snake in Kansas that does an injustice to itself because of its behavior. The Hognosed Snake, an inhabitant of loose soils and sandy areas, is a small to medium sized snake that exhibits characteristics
generally associated with poisonous snakes in the public mind. These snakes are stout-bodied, with a broad "triangular" head. When disturbed unexpectedly, they rear the front part of the body from the ground and spread the ribs of the neck region into a "hood." They hiss loudly and may even strike, but with the mouth closed. Continued disturbance will cause the snake to appear to go into convulsions, ending in "death", with the snake on its back. It may be handled or pushed around without eliciting a response, but, if turned over onto its stomach, the snake will promptly roll over onto its back again! Soon after being left undisturbed for a short time, the snake will raise its head, look around, right itself, and crawl away. An amazing recovery! The Hognosed Snake is not a snake dangerous to man. They feed on toads, for the most part, but they are unwisely persecuted because of their unfortunate appearance and behavior. There is even the belief that the breath of the snake is poisonous! (Thus another common name: Puffing Adder).
There is a snake that is not a snake -- it is a lizard. The so-called Glass Snake is a legless lizard, which, like many other lizards, has the ability to break off part of the tail when attacked. This particular lizard's tail makes up about two-thirds of its total length, and is so fragile that it may fracture into several pieces. Such brittleness gives rise to its common name. The story goes that if you wait awhile you will see the pieces crawl together and join to form a good-as-new "snake." It cannot accomplish such a marvelous feat, of course, but, given time, like other lizards that drop their tails, a new tail will grow. The new portion of
the tail, however, has an altered appearance and cannot function in the same manner as the old.
No one should carry the burden of fear of snakes. Each person should learn to recognize the kinds of poisonous snakes that might occur in his region and their preferred habitats. Then, whenever in that particular type of habitat, be cautious and keep his eyes open. But do not allow the sight of a harmless water snake or racer ruin a fishing trip or picnic.
This booklet has been prepared in an attempt to provide an abbreviated identification for the snakes known to occur in Kansas. It is not in the form of a dichotomous key as is the usual procedure. Instead, the shortest possible description is given which, hopefully, separates the species. In so shortening the description and deleting pertinent scale characteristics, there may be some confusion of forms. Utilizing all
of the information given for each species, including the generalized distribution in the state, should narrow the choice to one of two kinds, at any rate. I t will be necessary for the user to scan down the entire list,
looking at the distribution in the state, size, and color and pattern. Then, checking each of the descriptions carefully of all that appear at first to fit, until a satisfactory choice is reached.
Sizes are stated for adults. There is considerable variation in size, which makes the stated size categories only approximate. In general, though, small means up to 20 inches total length, medium 20 to 36 inches, and large over 36 inches. The distribution is general and simply gives an idea of where the snake may be found. For instance, if a snake is collected in one of the extreme western counties, but the description seems to fit a snake found only in the southeast corner, you had better check other descriptions, more carefully, of forms whose ranges include the western part of the state. Very little is included on habitat,
other than references to living in or near water or on land.
To clarify some terminology used:
Rough scales are those which have raised ridges lengthwise (keels). Snakes that have "rough" scales appear to have ridges that run the length of the body. Smooth scales, of course, do not have this ridge, and the entire body appears smooth.
The anal scale covers the anal opening on the underside of the snake. It may be divided (look like two scales upon close examination) or undivided. The anal scale indicates the beginning of the tail.
Scale rows are counted about one-fourth the body length back of the head. Count scales across the top of the body, starting on one side at the belly plates and ending at the edge of the other side. It is necessary to count upward and downward at an angle, as shown below. The count should be an odd number.
For better - more complete - identification and other information, see one or more of the following:
Clarke, Robert F. 1959. Poisonous snakes of Kansas. The Kansas School Naturalist, 5 (3):1-16.
Cochran, D. M., and C. J. Goin. 1970. The New Field Book of Reptiles and Amphibians. G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York. 359 pp.
Collins, Joseph T. 1974. Amphibians and Reptiles in Kansas. Univ. of Kansas Mus. Nat. Rist., Pub. Ed. Ser. No.1 283 pp. ($5.00)
Conant, R. 1975 A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America (2nd edition). Roughton Mifflin Co., Boston, Mass. 429 pp.
Karnes, D., R. E. Ashton, and T. Swearinger. 1974. Illustrated Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles in Kansas -- an Identification Manual. Univ. of Kansas Publ. , Mus. Nat. Rist., Public Educ. Ser. No.2. 14 pp.
[The following was from the February 1980 date of this issue; it is included here to provide some history of the KSN.]
The present editor of the Kansas School Naturalist will retire next year after some 40 years of teaching and over a dozen years at the Editor's post. It was always one of his aims (hopes?) to publish an issue in color before he left the Editor's job. Though a few hundred dollars have accumulated in the Naturalist Fund from donations by some of our subscribers, it is still insufficient to meet the costs of color plates for the issue.
Would any of our readers like to sponsor such an issue (e. g., Kansas flowers, Kansas birds, Kansas
scenes, etc.)? The issue would be dedicated to the sponsor(s), and their pictures and a short bibliography
included with the issue. Write the Editor if your are interested. (It will help reduce your income tax!).
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