FROM OIL RIGS TO TEN-GALLON HATS, Texans pride themselves on being the best—and the biggest. Our massive sprawl of land encompasses a diversity of regions, ranging from the moist pine-oak forests of East Texas to the hot, dry deserts of West Texas, enabling more than seventy different non-venomous and venomous snake species to thrive in all corners of the state. You guessed it. Texas boasts the largest number of snake species in the United States.
For those with an intrepid fear of snakes, read on. Contrary to menacing Hollywood depictions and cowboy lore, snakes are helpful loners hesitant to face off with a human intruder. Most snakes found in Texas pose no threat to people, yet many of us fight the urge to destroy these benevolent creatures. After a bit of research into snake fauna, that same fearful urge within myself turned slowly toward affection for these shy and timid reptiles, and a hope to dispel snake myth once and for all.
Myth: A snake’s forked tongue stings venomously.
A snake’s fangs, not its tongue, deliver the deadly venom. The snake tongue is actually soft and fleshy, much like our own. But of the 72 snake species found in Texas, only 11 pose a serious threat to humans, leaving the state crawling with a number of strikingly patterned reptiles that feed on burgeoning rodent populations, small birds, and other snakes. These non-venomous snakes, which belong to the families Leptotyphlopidae and Colubridae, range from the wormlike plains blind snake, dominant throughout Central and South Texas, to the lengthy Texas rat snake, measuring up to 72 inches long. The plains blind snake and its close relative, the New Mexico blind snake, can hardly engage a human fingertip with its weak bite, making the snakes practically harmless. The shiny Texas glossy snake, with a pattern of dark-edged, reddish-brown blotches set against a pale tan or yellow background, once roamed abundantly throughout South Texas. Herds of these three-foot specimens littered Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Laredo until their steady decline beginning in the sixties. The prairie ring-necked snake, common in Central and north Texas, has an unusual body pattern of a striking black, olive, or gray background with a solitary yellow or orange collar around the neck. Its lips, face, and throat are speckled with black dots, and its pale orange tail turns scarlet red underneath. Fairly small at 10 to 14 inches, this gentle snake rarely bites, even in self-defense. Despite their non-poisonous venom, many of these “safe snakes” can appear dangerous to predators. The Texas rat snake likes to mimic a rattler instead of fleeing in the face of danger. Forming its body into a tightly wound S, the Texas rat snake stares down its enemy and vibrates its tail to produce a slight buzz, though when it strikes, it usually misses. The amateur snake hunter should avoid confrontation with any snake, though, until familiarized enough with each species to distinguish a potentially poisonous snake from a harmless one.
Myth: A camper should surround his fire with a horsehair rope to keep a rattlesnake out because the rope’s stiff hairs will scratch an invading rattler’s belly painfully enough to make it turn back.
It turns out that rattlesnakes have grown accustomed to the sharp cacti of their desert home and go unscathed by such tactics. Two families of poisonous snakes reside in Texas. Family Elapidae includes the Texas coral snake, which can easily be distinguished from its innocuous look-alikes by remembering the rhyme, “red touch yellow, kill a fellow; red touch black, friend of Jack.” The saying refers to the snake’s brightly colored red and black bands separated by smaller yellow bands. Found throughout East Texas and as far south as Brownsville, coral snakes prefer wooded, debris-filled areas, though sightings in urban regions are not uncommon. A Texas coral snake will usually flee when offered the chance, but if touched, it may jerk its body aggressively to alert predators of its highly toxic venom.
Family Viperidae includes three types of copperheads, several rattlesnake species, and the desert and western massasaugas. Like true vipers, each has a wide, triangular head, elliptical pupils, and long, hollow fangs supporting a sophisticated venom delivery system. Copperheads, which pose the lowest threat to humans, are camouflaged so well by their gray, tan, and brown bands in the forests of East Texas and the tree-filled mountain canyons of the Trans-Pecos region that most bites occur when a human accidentally steps or sits on the shy creature. The venomous timber rattlesnake, popularized by the Revolutionary War flag “Don’t Tread on Me,” can be found in the forests and vegetated lowlands of East Texas. Characterized by a gray background, dark cross-bands, and a tan stripe along its vertebrae, the timber rattlesnake also poses little threat when left alone. More deadly is the western diamond-backed rattlesnake, which can be identified by its black and white rattle. Responsible for more bites than any other snake in the U.S., the western diamond-backed rattlesnake makes its home everywhere but East Texas and the northern Panhandle. Their prevalence prompted the Department of Transportation to post signs along U.S. 281 and Texas Highway 16 warning passersby to “beware of rattlesnakes.” With its four-foot span, unusually long fangs, and hearty venom supply, the western diamond-backed rattlesnake can deliver a fatal blow. To avoid a bite from one of these powerful Texas snakes, steer clear of hiding places such as stacked logs and rock piles.
Myth: A snake will chase you.
Though a snake may defend itself if provoked, a snake has never been known to chase a human. However, folks have been known to do some snake chasing at a variety of statewide events. Sweetwater hosts a Rattlesnake Round-Up the second weekend of March, when thousands of amateurs and pros grab a sack, roll up their sleeves, and catch a rattler for dinner. The affair, which began as an effort to control mounting snake populations in the area, has grown and now includes carnival rides, a flea market, and a midway. Much of the same goes on in Taylor at the Taylor Jaycees National Rattlesnake Sacking Championship the first weekend of March. Aided by professional snake handlers, teams compete for the best and biggest of area rattlers. After the competition, the snakes are fried and enjoyed by all.