FORT KNOX, Ky. – They tend to get a negative reputation, but Kentucky snakes provide a vital benefit to the environment, say authorities.
Jared Handley, a wildlife biologist at Fort Knox, admitted he himself once misunderstood them.
“I grew up on a farm where if you saw a snake, you killed it,” said Handley. “Then when I went into wildlife biology in college, I took herpetology because I wanted to learn what was dangerous and what wasn’t. I ended up then doing my master’s work in herpetology and now love snakes.
“Education takes away the fear.”
The keys to distinguishing the venomous from nonvenomous reptiles comes down to a few simple identifying factors, according to Handley.
“You can see it if you know what you’re looking for,” said Handley. “With our native species, venomous snakes have vertical pupils and nonvenomous have round ones.”
He warned the other two ways to identify differences would involve getting too close, which Handley does not advise. Those include a single row of scales down the underside of the tail and facial pits on venomous snakes. Conversely, nonvenomous snakes have a double row of scales down the underside and no facial pits.
One method of identifying whether or not a snake is venomous is not recommended by Handley: head shape. The misconception is that venomous snakes typically have a triangular shaped head.
“That’s a very unreliable method to use,” said Handley, “because any snake that feels threatened will flatten out their body and their head, and can actually look [like] a venomous snake’s head.”
While there are many different snakes throughout Kentucky, wildlife biologist Jimmy Watkins said there are only two venomous types in the Fort Knox region, both of which are pit vipers: eastern copperheads and timber rattlesnakes. He added that oftentimes local nonvenomous snakes are mistaken for a particular venomous one that does not reside in this area.
“People see a snake in water and automatically thinks it’s a cottonmouth or water moccasin, which are the same snake,” said Watkins, “but they do not occur here.”
The most frequently misidentified is the common water snake. Watkins said even though most snakes encountered are harmless and nonvenomous, sometimes fear gets in the way of remembering the important service snakes provide.
“They’re eating machines,” Watkins said. “Small rodents, insects, other snakes; they have their place in the food web. Other things also eat them like owls, crows and hawks.”
Handley said even the venomous snakes serve a greater purpose.
“Timber rattlesnakes eat 2,500 to 4,500 ticks a year, and that’s mostly them eating rodents that have ticks. This helps suppress illnesses such as Lyme disease,” said Handley. “It’s functionally saving us a great deal of money each year in pest control.”
Both biologists agreed it’s best to let snakes be, not only due to their important role in the ecosystem, but also because it’s only when people get too close that snakes can pose a danger.
“The overwhelming majority of people who go to the hospital with a snakebite were ones that were trying to kill the snake,” said Handley. “All they had to do is just keep on walking.”
Area residents can view photos taken of actual snakes on the installation at the Fort Knox Fish and Wildlife Facebook page. Handley said his office has created several albums of regional animals, including one for snakes.
“People can go through it and see multiple variations of the same snake, and see how they vary,” said Handley. “Once you know how to identify them, it takes that fear factor out.”
The overall message when encountering a snake is straightforward, according to Watkins:
“Leave them alone. They’re here for a reason.”