Our current topic: Reptiles
Summertime. There are lots of things stirring in the forest right now including reptiles. First, what is a reptile? A reptile is an animal class that has a backbone (called a vertebrate) and they have: scales, claws (except snakes) and eye lids (except snakes). I know it’s a little confusing. Some folks get amphibians and reptiles confused. Reptiles are snakes, lizards, crocodilians and turtles. Frogs, toads, and salamanders are amphibians. Herpetology is the study of both. We have about 72 reptile species in Virginia. We covered two common lizards in NATURE NOTE #1 back in August, so let’s talk about a few snakes in our area. Most important are our two venomous snakes.
1. The Copperhead is fairly common in parts of our area, especially in the forests, mountains, around old buildings and piles of logs or firewood. They are somewhat common on the Blue Ridge Scout Reservation. They are often quite well camouflaged in the leaves and they are active at night as well as day. While not aggressive, they will stand their ground and quickly go into their strike position when disturbed.
2. The Timber rattler has a “black” phase and a “yellow” phase, but usually is a combination of both colors. Normally larger than a Copperhead, they are less common but it is not unusual to find one on the reservation or other mountainous areas. They are a little more noticeable than Copperheads in that they will USUALLY give a warning with their uniquely sounding rattles when disturbed. It’s a sound that once heard is not forgotten.
All snakes are ectothermic, or cold blooded, meaning that they cannot generate their own body heat. They rely on the sun for warmth, so on a cool summer morning they are likely to be lying on a rock soaking up some rays. On a chilly day or if it is very hot, they might be UNDER that rock or log, so use caution when tuning over that log.
Scouts need to be taught what these snakes look like and avoid them whenever possible. Go to the internet and pull up several pictures of these snakes in different settings and show these to the scouts. If encountered, it is best to leave the snake where it is and avoid it. At camp, notify camp staff and have them deal with it. DO NOT allow scouts to poke it with sticks or irritate it. If it starts to crawl away, assign an older scout to watch it until someone comes to collect it. A review of first aid treatment of snake bite by an adult is probably a good idea before you venture out into their habitat. BE PREPARED. Bites are seldom fatal, but can be very painful and need to be treated by professional medical care as quickly as possible.
A few of the harmless snakes you are likely to find in the BRMC area:
The northern water snake (some will call it a water moccasin - it is not). It is found in, or very near, lakes and streams, and is an aggressive snake that you do NOT want to handle. It has a very mean, but non-venomous bite. Garter Snakes, green snakes, and rat snakes are quite common. A field guide can describe these and many other snakes and reptiles.
My recommendation is that most scouts avoid handling any snake. If someone in the group has experience handling snakes, OK, but remember that most snakes will bite when irritated and infection is always a risk. Some snakes will omit a foul smelling musk when handled. Never push a scout to handle a snake if they are afraid to do so. A good first step to overcome any fear is to let them just touch it and find out that it is not slimy. Keeping a captured native snake in captivity is not a good idea most of the time. If you do keep one for a short while, turn it loose near where you found it so it can get back to being part of that nature network where it belongs and where it can feed.
If you are outdoors much in the summer, you will find snakes. Teach your scouts to recognize and use caution with the venomous one. Teach them to recognize and respect the non-venomous, but enjoy these critical, but often misunderstood, parts of natural. Identifying reptiles can be used to meet Second Class Requirements, Nature Merit Badge, and for those scouts with more interest, encourage them to earn the Reptile and Amphibian Study Merit Badge.