Size. Snakes are almost always described as
larger than they really are. Stories about New England
water snakes eight and ten feet long are simply not true.
Northern water snakes rarely exceed three and a half feet in
length, with the largest stretching only four and a half feet.
black rat snake, our largest native snake, can reach lengths
of just over eight feet, most New England snakes are less than
three feet long.
Poisonous Snakes. The regularity with which
people kill a snake first and ask questions later might lead you
to believe that the world is overrun with venomous snakes. In
fact, venomous snakes only make up about 10 percent of snake
species worldwide, and in Massachusetts only two of the state's
fourteen species of snakes are venomous (timber
northern copperhead). Both are rare, reclusive and generally
confined to isolated areas.
Folk Tales. Folk tales about snakes are
handed down from generation to generation and include such
things as snakes that charm prey, swallow their young for
protection, poison people with their breath, roll like hoops,
and suck milk from cows. These folk tales could be just
interesting and amusing stories except that many people still
believe them. As we learn more about the true nature of snakes,
we can begin to base our perceptions of them on fact rather than
Myth: When frightened, hoop snakes will bite
their tails and roll downhill like a wagon wheel.
Reality: Anatomically, snakes are not well
equipped for rolling and there are no reliable accounts of this
ever occurring. The hoop snake myth may have been associated
originally with mud snakes found in the southern United States.
Mud snakes will occasionally lie in a loose coil shaped like a
hoop, but they slither away from danger like other snakes.
Myth: When confronted with danger, mother
snakes swallow their young, spitting them out later once danger
Reality: Parental care is not very well
developed in snakes and there is no evidence that mother snakes
protect their young in this way. The myth may result from the
fact that some snakes eat young snakes of their own species or
of other species, though usually not their own brood.
Myth: Snakes have the ability to charm prey,
especially birds, so they cannot flee.
Reality: There is no evidence that snakes
charm their prey. Small animals may become "frozen with fear"
when confronted by snakes but they are not charmed. Birds may
flutter about in front of a snake in an attempt to lure it away
from their nests; occasionally a bird may actually be captured
by the snake, giving the impression that it was charmed. The
fact that snakes never blink may also have played a role in this
Milk snakes are so named because of their ability to suck
milk directly from the udders of cows.
milk snakes are common around barns that house cows, they
completely lack the anatomy necessary to suck milk (or anything
else for that matter). Barns are attractive to milk snakes
because they provide abundant food in the form of small rats and
Myth: Puff adders (hognose
snakes) mix poison with their breath and can kill a person
at a distance of twenty-five feet.
Reality: Although the bite of a
hognose snake can produce swelling and a burning sensation,
these snakes rarely bite people and are not considered venomous.
When confronted, they do puff themselves up and hiss, but their
breath is harmless.
Cottonmouths in New England
Myth: Swimmers in New England are advised to
watch out for venomous cottonmouths, also known as water
Reality: Simply put, there are no water
moccasins in New England. The cottonmouth, or water moccasin, is
a venomous snake of the southeastern United States that occurs
no farther north than the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia. Many
people mistake non-venomous
water snakes for water moccasins.