Call to protect local wildlife includes snakes at Wildcat Lake

One of the best parts of enjoying a day at Wildcat Lake is connecting to the environment and getting close to nature. Becoming one with this habitat that so many native animals call home is an incredible experience, and all species that make up this ecosystem must be protected for it to stay healthy.

While many people are fond of beautiful songbirds and cute frogs, snakes—which play an especially vital role—are sometimes accused of being unimportant, scary, or even dangerous.

While lake-goers may come across garter snakes, northern water snakes, and occasionally a rat snake, ring-necked snake, red-bellied snake, or milk snake, Program Coordinator for Wildlife Biology Michael Osbourn explained that there are no venomous snakes to be found at Wildcat Lake.

“I hear it all the time, where people just assume water snakes are water moccasins and are therefore a threat. Water moccasins are really not a threat to most people even if you live on the coast, but these water snakes are no issue,” Osbourn said. “Not only are they not venomous, but they're just not going to hurt you.”

Water snakes that live in Wildcat Lake hunt fish, and typically keep to themselves. While some people have a fear of snakes, Osbourn said this fear is generally irrational.

“One of the things I tell my herpetology students is that I feel like snakes are really unfairly maligned. They’re one of the few organisms where it's still thought of as okay to kind of go out of your way to hurt them,” Osbourn said. “There's not any threat from these animals, and snakes along with other reptiles, and amphibians, and really a lot of vertebrates in general, are under a lot of conservation pressure. This is mainly due to habitat loss and alteration.”

A recent intake at the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center has raised concerns about the health of local snakes. When a volunteer at the center noticed a northern water snake behaving strangely and appearing to struggle in the water, they brought her into the Rehabilitation Center for examination.

“It was a really weird case. The volunteer that brought the snake saw her in the water, doing some sort of maneuver. They brought her in, and there were a few scrapes externally, but no major injuries,” Veterinarian and Associate Professor Amber McNamara said. “Other things on the possibilities list were some sort of ingestion of something that wasn't appropriate. She did have some internal parasites which we're treating. It's just an odd situation. When she’s in shallow water she's upright, she can maneuver, but when you raise that water level, and she starts to dive she's going in circles. She's eating decently well, and she's definitely improved.”

While this is an uncommon case, it has begun a conversation about the best ways to protect these creatures and dispel the fear surrounding them. Osbourn explained that these snakes are important mid-level predators in our local ecosystem, as well as prey for birds and some small mammalian carnivores like racoons.

While none of the snakes that live around Wildcat Lake are venomous, there are several venomous species in the region. Timber rattlesnakes live in rocky habitats at high elevations, and according to Osbourn have even been found up on Grandfather Mountain. While he said there aren’t many around campus, identifying if a snake is venomous or not can be helpful in protecting yourself and any snakes you may come across.

“One easy thing to know is that the diamond shaped head is indicative of a viper, so that's useful in these parts,” Osbourn said. “There are places where there are non-venomous water snakes that develop a diamond-shaped head just because they've got wider jaws for swallowing fish, but non-venomous snakes always have round pupils, and vipers will have vertical pupils. A lot of them, like rattlesnakes, are nocturnal because they hunt mammals at night.”

Osbourn and McNamara agreed that the best thing to do if you come across a snake is to leave it alone. The cold-blooded creatures typically stay hidden and may just be venturing out of their habitat to find a patch of sun and get warm. However, if you see a snake that seems injured, McNamara said the first step is to call the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at 828.898.2568.

“In this day and age, it is so easy to take a photograph and get that looked at, and even if we can't tell for certain, we can usually tell what type of snake it is and sometimes tell whether or not they need help,” McNamara said. “We may be able to give them some advice as far as what they can do or whether or not they need to bring them in.”

While the Rehabilitation Center is not equipped to intake venomous snakes, talking with a rehabilitator can also help point the finder in the right direction to get a potentially venomous snake to a facility that specializes in care for those creatures. Both McNamara and Osbourn encouraged finders to snap a photo or give the Rehabilitation Center a call for advice and guidance on injured or orphaned animals of any kind.

Read more about the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

By Maya JarrellAugust 30, 2022
Campus LifeCommunity