Knowledge over fear: reptiles slither into biology department curriculum


A Copperhead Snake was one of many reptilian guests to visit Dr. George Cline’s herpetology class. (JoAnna Mitchell/The Chanticleer)

JoAnna Mitchell, Staff Writer

JSU received some special scaly visitors this Monday in Martin Hall room 111. Dr. George Cline of the biology department invited Corey of the Alabama Herpetological Society  to bring a few of his 50 slithering friends to meet the herpetology class. The goal was to introduce students to some of the wildlife they may experience on their upcoming trips to the field. As budding biologists, these students may very well come face-to-face with some of Alabama’s most feared and misunderstood reptiles. Corey’s “friends” included venomous snakes and an alligator.

Cline and Corey are passionate about educating people about these animals. These reptiles may be scary to some, but they play an important part in our environment.

“The ecosystem is a very delicate balance,” said Cline. “Conserving this balance is protecting our habitats as well.”

According to Cline, 60 percent of snakes in Alabama are under some sort of protection concern. This is largely due to the fear people have for these creatures.

Corey believes that educating people will help preserve the animals.

“The only difference between danger and beauty is understanding,” Corey said.

The animals were each brought out and examined while Cline and Corey explained the different identifying features, temperament and other facts about the animals.

The first creature introduced was the non-venomous common corn snake. A camera shy but gentle and brightly colored snake, he was passed around for each student to hold. Due to their colorful scales and mild manners, these snakes are a favorite within the pet trade. This popularity has caused their numbers to decrease in the wild as people catch them and keep them as pets.

“It’s best to purchase any snake from captive breeders,” said Cline. “Snakes bred in captivity are typically less aggressive and have a higher survival rate as wild snakes often die from stress when held in captivity.”

Buying from a breeder also ensures that the wild population remains healthy and strong.

The next animal to greet students was the eastern hognose snake which is easily identifiable by the snake’s upturned snout. The hognose snake, while venomous to frogs and toads, is mostly harmless to humans. If bitten, a person might experience mild nausea and an increased heart rate for a brief period.

This snake is unique in his defense mechanism. When threatened, the hognose will widen its neck and inflate its body while making a hissing sound lending it the common nickname “puff adder.” It is important to note that this animal should not be confused with the venomous viper from Africa which also goes by the name “puff adder.” The eastern hognose, if the threat persists, will roll on the ground, and play dead.

Two baby American alligators also made an appearance, being passed around for all to experience. The range of the American alligator stretches from central America to the southern borders of Virginia and North Carolina. These animals have been known to reach more than 18ft in length and can weigh up to 900 pounds, making them one of the largest reptiles in the world.

The next group of guests are some of the most feared in the state. Corey brought a copperhead, cotton mouth and three species of rattlesnake. The copperhead is identifiable by its copper

colored bands and vertical pupils, and while venomous, their bite rarely results in human fatalities. People may experience tissue damage and even loss of limb if not treated right away.

The cottonmouth, or water moccasin, is a semi-aquatic species of pit viper. Pit vipers have small pits under their eyes that allow them to detect heat signatures. This snake can be identified by its flat, sharp edged heads, a dark line through the eye and oval pupils. Young snakes typically have dark and light bands, but most lose them as they age resulting in a dark coloration with a mottled brown and yellow belly. These snakes rarely bite humans, but their venom does cause pain.

The three rattlesnakes Corey brought were the Timber, eastern diamondback and the pygmy. These are all members of the pit viper family which account for 99 percent of venomous snake bites in the U.S. as reported by The pygmy rattlesnake adult only reaches 14-22 inches. They have a rattle, although it is hard for humans to hear it due to its small size. Its venom is very weak and not capable of killing a human, however it does produce intense bleeding.

Timber rattlesnakes range from Alabama to southern New York and as far west as Oklahoma. This snake is a large species with lengths from 30-60 inches. They are identifiable by their dark bands and chestnut stripe down their back. A bite from a timber rattlesnake can kill a human, but very few fatalities happen in the U.S. each year.

The Eastern diamond back rattlesnake is easy to identify as they have a distinct diamond shape pattern running down their back. This snake has a very loud rattle and does not back down from a threat. They are the most dangerous snake in the U.S., although they are not the most venomous.

If you encounter a snake in the wild, it is best to walk away and leave it alone. These creatures do not want to hurt you but will if provoked. The best way to preserve our ecosystems is to understand and respect the animals that live within it.


All photos from JoAnna Mitchell/TheChanticleer


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