Forestry & Wildlife
AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – Snakes are found just about anywhere. Inevitably, humans and snakes will cross paths. Like everything in nature, snakes play an important role in their environments. While many people may have a fear or dislike the slithering creatures, there are many tasks they perform that help keep the natural balance. Understanding the roles they play in the environment may help open people’s eyes to see the importance of these creatures.
Nature’s Pest Control
Many snake species are fairly opportunistic when it comes to their prey. However, Bence Carter, an Alabama Extension forestry, wildlife and natural resources regional agent, said things normally in a snake’s diet are things considered pests in a family’s home or garden.
“Depending on the species, a snake’s diet can range from insects, other reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds and mammals,” Carter said. “The obvious pest that many people think of snakes controlling are rodents.”
People associate snakes, such as red cornsnakes, gray ratsnakes, kingsnakes and rattlesnakes, more often with controlling rodents. However, snakes, such as the brownsnake, will control other pests like slugs, spiders and snails.
Controlling Other Snake Populations
Because of the opportunistic nature when it comes to their prey, sometimes snakes will actually eat other snakes.
“Species, like the black racer and Eastern coachwhip, among others, will sometimes eat other snakes,” Carter said. “However, people often recognize Eastern kingsnakes (and subspecies) as being a major predator of other snakes, particularly venomous ones.”
Researchers have observed that Eastern kingsnakes appear to have a physiological resistance to certain pit viper venoms. The Eastern indigo is also believed to have some resistance.
“The Eastern indigo snake, another major predator of venomous snakes like Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes and copperheads, are not constrictors like Eastern kingsnakes,” he said. “They will actually crush the skull of their prey with their powerful bite.”
A World Without Snakes
Many use the phrase, “the only good snake is a dead snake.” But, what exactly would a world look like without snakes in it? According to Carter, in addition to the obvious implications, there may also be indirect effects of removing snakes from an ecosystem.
“Snakes are a major part of food webs, and when removed, prey species populations can increase and cause major problems within the ecosystem,” Carter said. “Snakes provide an important service of rodent control in the ecosystem. If these rodent populations are left unchecked, rodent diseases or tick-borne illness, could also likely increase.”
It is also important to remember that snakes aren’t always just the predator in an ecosystem. They are often prey for many bird species, such as hawks, and some mammals. Removing snakes from an area could disrupt the food chain for many animals.
According to Carter, there are unfortunately several species of snakes in Alabama that are at risk of population decline.
“In many situations, population decline is due to habitat loss or degradation, or persecution,” he said. “Certain species, like the Eastern indigo, pinesnake and Eastern diamondback, have extremely specific habitat requirements.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have federally listed the Eastern indigo snake (1978) and black pine snake (2015) as threatened species. Both are provided federal protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Carter said the state of Alabama lists numerous snake species as protected under the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Administrative Code, Chapter 220-2-.92 Nongame Species Regulation. This regulation states
“It shall be unlawful to take, capture, kill, or attempt to take, capture or kill; possess, sell, trade for anything of monetary value, or offer to sell or trade for anything of monetary value, the following nongame wildlife species (or any parts or reproductive products of such species) without a scientific collection permit or written permit from the Commissioner, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources…”
Species protected under this code include the
- Pine snake (Black pinesnake, Northern pinesnake and Florida pinesnake)
- Eastern indigo snake
- Eastern kingsnake
- Speckled kingsnake
- Eastern coral snake
- Gulf saltmarsh snake
- Prairie kingsnake
- Rainbow snake
- Southern hognose snake
Leave Them Alone
In addition to forests and wooded areas, snakes are often found hanging around sheds, barns, flower beds, gardens and wood piles. Snakes are most likely to be in areas that provide cover or shelter for them and their prey.
In general, snakes are not aggressive, but when put in the right situation they can become defensive. This is why in most cases it is better to leave the snake alone, rather than try to pick it up and move it. Carter said if homeowners are worried about snakes being around their home, they should remove the areas that may provide them shelter.
“Instead of taking drastic measures to remove a snake from around the home, simply remove these types of areas from around their house,” Carter said. “While this will not eliminate their presence completely, it will certainly help reduce the possibility of them being there.”
The Alabama Extension publication Identification and Control of Snakes in Alabama is a great resource for information on snakes living in Alabama. For more information, visit www.aces.edu or contact the Alabama Extension forestry, wildlife and natural resources regional agent in your area.