Reptiles

Snakes, large lizards, and alligators will all bite or scratch you if you pick them up if they are either frightened or angry. Or sometimes just because they want to. That’s just how it is.

The small lizards you see in and around your house are likely anoles. As you may see from the link, there are several kinds of them. The Cuban anoles are a darker shade of brown and appear to be replacing the Florida type, probably through a combination of interbreeding and displacement of the other species. They all eat spiders,  ants, and love roaches or crickets.

You can’t ask for more. Leave them alone…. Besides, if you grab them by the tail, they will shed the tail, leaving it to writhe about like a berserk worm. It is thought that this distracts a predator. Unfortunately, if the predator is you, the anole is now defenseless against the next predator until his tail regenerates in a month or so. A poor reward for ridding your lanai of ants and roaches.

Yes, they can get into your house. Where, unless you have an ample supply of ants or other bugs, they will starve to death behind a couch or something. They’re too small to make a noticeable stink and will just mummify to be sucked up in the vacuum cleaner assuming you notice.

Anole on swim float

Anole lizard, on swim float

Alligators are all over Southwest Florida. Anywhere you see a pond, canal, or any body of water, chances are it has a resident ‘gator.

We have a twelve footer living in our lake, along with several smaller ones. Some of these are six feet or so. None of them are anyone’s pet and they  deserve respect.

The twelve footer who lives in the lake

Swimming in any of our lakes after dark is not the best idea. About every other year, someone does and suffers the consequences.  These incidents are often called “accidents.” I don’t think so. The gator knew exactly what he was doing, even if the person did not.

There is a fine of up to $10,000 for feeding alligators and crocodiles. Feeding them causes them to lose their natural caution around humans, with often unfortunate results. Just look at them. That ought to convince you they don’t need any help through supplemental feeding. If it doesn’t, try to remember the fine.

The ‘gator brain in our 12-footer is about the size of a walnut or maybe a pecan.  Most of it is given over to processing sensory data and controlling movement. There just isn’t much left for the gator to use to contemplate the state of the universe, or even to worry whether you are his friend. In fact, he has no friends, having eaten the last erstwhile one awhile back.

He lives in a perpetual state of mild anxiety,  possibly because he, too,  was the object of predation before he got too big for that. Even now, a salt-water crocodile can send him scurrying. His world is composed of the potentially edible and the inedible, tempered with that natural caution.  It is difficult to impossible for him to grasp much more than that.

Guess which part of his world you occupy.

In case you guessed incorrectly,  let me help. His state of anxiety and natural caution is about all that stands between you– as–all–you–are and you-as-lunch.  That’s why the fine for feeding him is so high.

Iguanas are not native but have successfully established themselves in the local ecology.  The adults, which can be three or four feet long,  look absolutely ferocious– like a throwback to the dinosaurs.  They are, however, vegetarians.

The large ones  have long claws which can do you some serious damage, even if the iguana didn’t actually mean to do it,  if you try to pick one up (what did I tell you about that?).  Cold weather is not their friend.

Other exotic reptiles include several species of python, boa constrictors,  and Nile monitor lizards.  The large snakes are seen mostly in the Everglades where they seem to have established breeding populations. If you see any of the large exotic snakes elsewhere, they are probably someone’s escaped pet, which is also the original source of the ones in the ‘Glades.

In 2010, a special hunting season was established to help deal with this problem.

The Nile monitor has established itself in southwest Cape Coral and on Sanibel/Captiva.  Likely elsewhere, too.  They are efficient, deadly predators, dangerous to small mammals, including your pets.  Call the Division of Wildlife if you see one.  They can grow to seven feet or so. Fortunately there aren’t a lot of them around here.

Gopher tortoises are about as benign an animal as they get.  The Calusa Indians  ate them often and, I suspect,  put some on the several islands up and down the coast to have them when they camped on the islands.  Those tortoises’ descendants are there today.  They range all up and down the mainland, too,  although they are becoming increasingly scarce.  Gopher tortoises are a protected species in decline mostly due to habitat destruction.

The tortoises excavate and live in burrows.   They don’t like a lot of activity right around the burrow and are not much of a threat to move into your yard,  preferring vacant lots.

If you see one laboriously crossing a road,  this offers one exception to the “Do not handle” rule.  Pick him up by lifting his shell from both sides and gently place him out of the roadway on the side that is in the direction in which he was headed.

  • Be sure it is a gopher tortoise and not a snapping turtle,  which also may cross roads looking fo water in the dry season.  The snapper needs no help, wants no help, and is in a perpetually bad mood….
  • Do not put the tortoise in the water as it can’t swim.  It will sink like a stone.

Snakes are probably no more numerous in Florida than in the adjoining southern states.  That goes for the poisonous species, too.  But everyone seems to think there are more snakes in Florida.

I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee– in town. In summer, I remember seeing more varieties of snakes more often than I have in eight years of Florida summers.  It may be that they seem more numerous here because the protracted warm weather keeps them active pretty much year ’round.

Anyway, we will not burden you with every species found here.  I’ll try to cover the common snakes and point out the dangerous species as well as a weird one or two.  Keep in mind that the color variation within species is very broad.  It is rare that any two snakes will offer  exactly the same colors or offer exactly the same pattern even if they are of the same species.

Some general points about snakes:

  • They are stone deaf.  Snakes have no external ears.  They can sense vibrations through the ground and will respond to motion, which gives the illusion of hearing… like the snake charmer’s flute.  It does no good to talk to them.  Or to scream, for that matter.
  • They are cold blooded, which means they require an external source to warm up.  That’s why you might think they are showing affection for you when you hold them.  They’re just enjoying the warmth.
  • Affection is a foreign emotion to a snake.  Fear, anger, and seasonal lust about covers the snake’s emotional repertoire.

Here are Florida poisonous snakes and some of the  non-poisonous ones that may be mistaken for them:

Coral snakes have been called the  “American cobra.”  Uniquely among American poisonous snakes, their eyes have round pupils.  The venom is a neurotoxin (as with the cobra).  They are brightly marked in bands of black, yellow or white, and red.

  • I suggest that if you are close enough to determine whether the pupils are in fact round, then either you are a skilled herpetologist or you are playing with fire.
  • The black nose is definitive, although the coral snake will sometimes hide its head either in the sand or under a body coil if it feels threatened.  Don’t make the mistake of poking the snake to get a clearer view….

Coral snakes are, by disposition, shy and reclusive. They are usually found under leaf litter or other debris where they hunt other snakes, salamanders,  or offspring of very small mammals (like mice).  They are not aggressive unless badly frightened and cornered.  When this happens, they  bite and often hang on just to make sure you got the point;  for example,  after being poked and prodded or picked up….

Some mimic snakes include the scarlet king snake, the scarlet snake, and others.

Pygmy rattlesnakes are common and can be dangerous because they can be found almost anywhere.  Fortunately, they are usually quite small and the bite potentially less serious than with larger snakes.  Unfortunately, they have only a vestigial rattle which, in spite of the snake’s best effort (when it bothers to try),  produces no rattle.  The dusky pygmy rattler (note the triangularly shape head) is the common one around here.

Pygmy rattlers can get to a couple of feet long,  which doesn’t seem really small to me, but I don’t classify the things.  I just tell you about them.   The ones you’re likely to see will be about a foot long or so.

Sometimes a bite can be terminal for the snake.

Mimic snakes are mostly various kinds of mottled garter snakes and juvenile versions of other species.

  • One  difference between most of them and the pygmy rattlesnake is the rattlesnake’s head is  is disproportionately large compared to its body and is triangular in shape.  Here is a link comparing the pygmy rattler to a hog nosed snake, which fairly closely resembles it.
  • The body is also thicker (stockier) than most non venomous kinds.

Water moccasins are also ubiquitous, occurring in any wet place with frogs or fish.  This snake is the dispositional antithesis of the coral snake.   It can be aggressive and may actually come toward you rather than try to escape. Most of the time, it  stays in ponds and lakes looking for fish, frogs, birds,  and trying to avoid the alligators and hogs.

Mimics include:  the banded water snake; the brown water snake and many others.

  • Water snakes, both poisonous and non-poisonous,  are generally more likely to bite than the terrestrial snakes.  If that happens,  you’re advised to get a tetanus shot even if the snake is not poisonous. Their mouths are also full of bacteria which could mean a round of antibiotics.
  • Almost all water snakes have a wider head and thicker body than a terrestrial snake, which makes it even harder to distinguish venomous from non venomous ones.

Other rattlesnakes round out the roster of poisonous snakes in Florida.  You are not likely to run across a canebrake rattlesnake unless you spend a lot of time in the northern part of the state.  The eastern diamondback, however, does occur down here.  They have been known to reach eight feet* in length and I can assure you,  a snake that large is not going to be afraid of much at all.

  • Let’s see… that pretty well leaves the really big snake with anger and lust.  I think you can pretty well rule out lust if you encounter one….
  • A  friend who does a lot of hunting and has lived here all his life tells me (somewhat wistfully) there aren’t as many really big snakes anymore.  He believes it is  directly caused by the hog population explosion of the last ten years or so.  Hogs eat them and seem to have developed at least partial immunity to the venom.  This must be a (last) surprise to the rattlesnake, who would have been used to having things the other way ’round.

* A photo on the internet purports to show a 15-foot eastern diamondback caught up around St. Augustine in St. John’s County.  This tale is false. The snake was “only” 7 feet 3 inches, the extra length being an illusion created by camera angles. I don’t know about you, but 7 feet (about 2.25 meters) plus is more than enough for me.  Anyway, the Everglades are said to have really big rattlesnakes, too,  and that’s true. A new, legitimate record may live there.

Treatment of snake bites:  if someone is bitten by one of the venomous snakes,  it is unlikely they are going to die, although children are at a higher risk for death.   It is likely they will suffer debilitating effects and possibly lasting tissue damage if they don’t get prompt medical attention.  Further, the bigger the snake, the more serious its bite.

  • All the local emergency rooms have antivenom and are used to the problem.
  • Do not use your mouth to suck out the venom.  If you have a cut inside your mouth,  you will become the second victim.

Non-poisonous snakes, to remind you, will show  considerable variation in coloration and marking even within the same species.  Most, except for some water snakes, will have a small, oval-shaped head and a slender,  graceful body.  Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Black snakes are the most commonly seen and can be over six feet in length, though most are two to four feet.  We consider it good luck to have one in the yard.  The old wives’ tale has it they keep other snakes away.  I doubt it, but there you are.
  • Florida blind snakes look like black earthworms at first glance.  They are seldom over six inches long  and live underground or in flower pots where they eat ant eggs.  You may see them on walkways or driveways after a heavy rain,  where they’ll often die in the sun before they can find their way back to the flower bed. They really don’t have external eyes.  Plus, they are all females, reproducing via parthenogenesis (I told there would be some weird ones).
  • Ring-necked snakes are usually pretty small, less than a foot long, and are shy snakes living under leaf litter or in drains.
  • Garter snakes can be mottled or striped and vary in color from gray to shades of brown.

This is by no means an exhaustive list.  If you want more, here is the general link to Florida snakes again.