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Cold Blooded Creatures

Cold Blooded Creatures Step into the world of a herpetologist at the Virginia Living museum and meet Travis Land who cares for the museum's many cold-blooded creatures!

Identifying Common Snakes

July 28, 2016

I recently posted an instructional guide on what to do if/when you find a snake in your yard. Today, I thought it’d be a good idea to briefly introduce a few snake species so that homeowners might better be able to identify the snakes that most commonly turn up in local yards. Virginia is home to more than thirty species of snakes, but I’ve narrowed this post down to just a handful of species that are encountered most frequently around local homes and gardens.

Eastern Rat Snake:

More commonly known as the Black Rat Snake, this snake is Virginia’s longest native snake, capable of reaching up to 8 feet in length! It is one of the most commonly encountered snakes on the East Coast, and can regularly be found in close proximity to humans and their homes. While their sheer size makes them formidable, Eastern Rat Snakes are actually very docile, and will typically flee at the first chance when encountering people. As their name suggests, they feed predominantly on rodents, drawing them closer to people where mice and rats are most active. They are generally black in color, though some, like the photo, may still retain some of their juvenile coloration (young rat snakes are grey with black splotches), and have a black and white “checkerboard” pattern on their belly. They are a very arboreal species, commonly found in trees, barns and the occasional attic.

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Eastern Garter Snake:

The eastern garter snake is a very commonly seen resident of Virginia. Though it doesn’t grow nearly as large as the rat snakes, it can still reach a respectable four feet in length when fully grown! Garter snakes are beneficial to people because they consume small rodents and insects that we deem as pests, but may also feed on fish, worms, frogs, eggs, leeches and even other snakes. If disturbed, a garter snake may bite, but will generally also release a foul smelling musk, prompting a predator to release it. The are easily identified by three yellow strips running down the length of their bodies, with a checkerboard pattern of spots between the stripes. Home owners will not find garter snake eggs on their property, as these snakes actually bear live young and do not lay eggs at all!

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Rough Earth Snake:

The Rough Earth Snake is a very small, fossorial (burrowing) species, typically only found when gardening or doing yard work that requires digging. At first glance, they may be mistaken as an earthworm, as even the largest specimens are generally less than 10 inches in length! Although they may be encountered in small groups, earth snakes are completely harmless and have never been known to bite even when handled (If necessary, these snakes can be safely picked up and relocated, but like any wild animal, one should avoid handling as much as possible). Rough earth snakes may be brown, gray or even reddish but have no patterns or coloration except for a light band around the neck in juveniles. If they encounter a predator, Rough Earth Snakes may lie still or play dead until the threat passes.

Eastern King Snake:

The Eastern King Snake is an average sized snake, generally maxing out around 3 1/2 – 4 feet. Like the eastern rat snake, the king snake is mostly jet black in color, but is easily identified by the presence of white bands or a chain-link pattern. Though they are nonvenomous and fairly docile, king snakes may bite if cornered or handled, and should be left alone whenever possible. If disturbed, a they may shake their tail much like a rattlesnake and discharge a foul smelling musk. Despite this, many homeowners appreciate the king snake because it feeds largely on other snake species, including venomous species like copperheads and rattlesnakes!

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Northern Brown Snake:

Also commonly called the Dekay’s Brown Snake, the Brown Snake is another small species of snake, rarely attaining more than a foot in length. It is generally brown or gray, with a central light stripe running down the body bordered by two rows of black spots. Like garter snakes, Brown Snakes feed on a host of invertebrates, most notably earthworms, slugs and snails. Commonly found in yards and gardens, the Brown Snake is completely harmless and docile!


By and large, the snakes we most commonly encounter near our homes are nonvenomous and completely harmless. They are beneficial animals that do much for us in the way of pest control, and we can live comfortably alongside these species with little to no comflict. To learn more about these snakes, and the other snake species of Virginia, come check out the Virginia Living Museum and see them up close! And don’t forget to be on the lookout for these awesome guys the next time you’re relaxing outside, doing a bit of yard work or looking for your next Pokemon!

Note: The snakes of Virginia inhabit different ranges and may occur more commonly in certain areas than others. This post focuses on just a few of the most common species found in Newport News and the Tide Water region. For more information, please consult local field guides on the species native to your area.


Timber Rattlesnake Feeding (Video)

Most people have a basic understanding of how snakes kill their prey; some snakes, such as boas and pythons, constrict their prey, squeezing it to death before consuming, while others, such as cobras and vipers, envenomate their prey with deadly toxins. But then what happens after the hunt? How does a snake eat its prey without the use of arms of legs? And how on earth do they swallow prey larger than their own heads? Well the herpetology department filmed the following video to show you just how they accomplish it!

(NOTE: The following video features a Timber Rattlesnake eating a small rat. The Virginia Living Museum does NOT feed its snakes live prey.)

All snakes are carnivores and consume their prey whole. Their jaw is double jointed, so when eating the jaw can “unhinge” and open as wide as 150 degrees! This allows them to stretch their head to accommodate large prey. In humans, our upper jaw is fused to the skull, where as a snake’s upper jaw is attached to the rest of the skull by muscles, ligaments and tendons, allowing the two sides of the jaw to move somewhat independently of each other. The bones that make up the lower jaw are not fused at the front, meaning the lower jaw can separate and move independently as well. As you can see in the video, once the snake has the prey in it’s mouth, it “walks” its jaws forward, one side pulls the prey in with curved, gripping teeth while the other side stretches forward for the next bite. For the rattlesnake in the video, this entire process only took about 9 minutes! Once in the esophagus, muscles will begin crushing the food as it moves into the digestive tract. Snakes are able to digest their prey whole…fur, bones and all!

The Virginia Living Museum herpetology department feeds its snakes just once a week. Each snake receives food relative to their body size; small snakes will get a small mouse while large snakes, like our rattlesnake, will get a rat. All of our snakes are fed frozen rodents that have been thawed and warmed up, and do not eat any live prey (it is much easier for them to eat food that is already dead!).

If you enjoyed the video, be sure to visit the Virginia Living Museum this summer and check out all the awesome adaptations exhibited by our snakes and other animals! You never know what you’ll see them do!

So You Found a Snake in Your Yard

Many of us spend a good chunk of our summer outside, whether its doing chores, gardening or simply relaxing in the sun. But we’re not the only ones enjoying the summer heat, and encounters with reptiles are far from uncommon. With the warm, sunny days, many people worry about stumbling across snakes while they are out and about. So, what exactly should you do if a snake turns up in your yard?


1.Back away and give the snake its space. More often than not, the snake will take this chance to escape and you may never see it again. None of the snakes in Virginia are actively aggressive, and they prefer to retreat rather than facing conflict. If the snake approaches you, allow it more space; you may be between the snake and a known escape route that the snake is trying to reach. If the snake feels trapped, it may try to defend itself as a last resort. Many non-venomous snakes will loudly hiss, rattle their tails, or flatten their heads to mimic venomous snakes in an attempt to scare us away.

The nonvenomous Pine Snake will vibrate it's tail, mimicking a rattlesnake when threatened. Photo credit: Karl Rebenstorf

The nonvenomous Pine Snake will vibrate it’s tail, mimicking a rattlesnake when threatened. Photo credit: Karl Rebenstorf

2. If the snake cannot escape or is basking, it may not immediately retreat. Again, if you leave the snake alone for a bit, it will most likely be gone when you return. However, if the snake remains and you suspect it to be a threat, FROM A SAFE DISTANCE try to identify the snake. You should never approach a snake if you don’t know exactly what it is (even if you do, it’s best to just leave them be). Look for the tell-tale signs of a venomous snake: rattle, slit pupils, and triangular head (remember that a non-venomous snake’s head may look triangular if it is trying to mimic a dangerous species).

All of Virginia's venomous snakes are pit vipers, like this Timber Rattlesnake. Photo credit: Karl Rebenstorf

All of Virginia’s venomous snakes are pit vipers, like this Timber Rattlesnake. Photo credit: Karl Rebenstorf

3. The snakes in question almost always turn out to be non-venomous. However, if you truly believe it to be a venomous snake DO NOT TRY TO CAPTURE, MOVE, OR KILL IT. This is for your safety as much as the snake’s: many of the annual venomous snake bites occur when people try to capture or kill venomous snakes (you should never approach ANY wild animal). If you can, try to wait for the snake to leave. If you have major concerns about the snake, such as pets or children, or you believe the snake to be an immediate threat, there are options to safely remove the snake. Many professional individuals and businesses can be called to capture the snake and release it far from human activity. A happy ending for all parties involved!

Handling venomous snakes, like this copperhead, requires the right equipment and years of experience. Leave it to the professionals! Photo credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Handling venomous snakes, like this copperhead, requires the right equipment and years of experience. Leave it to the professionals! Photo credit: Karl Rebenstorf

4. Once the snake has left or is safely removed by professionals, you can return to enjoying your summer day. But should you worry that more snakes may return? While it is virtually impossible to deter all snakes completely there are steps you can take to limit their activity in your yard. Remove debris or woodpiles if you can; snakes seek shelter, and if you have any sort of cover in your yard, they will be drawn to it. Rodents will also seek out these shelters, and the snakes may come to hunt them. If you can limit rodent populations on your property, snakes will have no reason to stay. A snake will only remain in an area as long as food is available; if you cut off the food supply, they will have little reason to hang around.

Though our museum snakes, like this milksnake, are used to human interaction, most wild snakes will do their best to avoid areas of human activity! Photo credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Though our museum snakes, like this milksnake, are used to human interaction, most wild snakes will do their best to avoid areas of human activity! Photo credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Remember, though snakes may be frightening, they are actually of huge benefit to us. They hunt the rodents that frequently reside in and around our homes. Small snakes are friends to gardeners, feeding on destructive insects and voles. If you feel safe letting it be, having a snake in your yard can actually be a very positive experience, and you will likely never have any negative interaction, so long as you give them a little space. If you are unsure what snake species may reside on your property, stop by the Virginia Living Museum and check out the native snake species that call Tidewater Virginia their home. The VLM staff are always happy to help you try to identify wild snakes if you are able to bring us photographs (again, without putting yourself in harms way). So drop on by and learn what cold blooded creatures may be living in your own backyard!

Garter Snakes, common in Virginia, are voracious insectivores, and protect gardens from unwanted pests! Photo credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Garter Snakes, common in Virginia, are voracious insectivores, and protect gardens from unwanted pests! Photo credit: Karl Rebenstorf

NOTE: In Virginia it is illegal to kill any species of snake, unless that snake represents an immediate threat to one’s personal health or safety!



Herp Highlight #7: Eastern Cottonmouth

Virginia’s swamps and marshes are home to a huge variety of reptiles, but few are as feared or disliked as the Eastern Cottonmouth. Perhaps the most common venomous snake in South East Virginia, this species is commonly found in our region and in close proximity to human activity. But just how dangerous is the Eastern Cottonmouth?

Cottonmouth basking at Newport News Park. Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Cottonmouth basking at Newport News Park. Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Despite their fearsome reputation, the dreaded “Water Moccasin” is actually a fairly docile snake. If approached or bothered, these snakes may stand their ground and act in defense, but they are largely non-aggressive, preferring to flee from predators or attempt to scare them away. The cottonmouth will hiss loudly, while exposing the white interior of its mouth which gives the cottonmouth its name. If you encounter this snake in a defensive posture, give it space and it will likely move on.


Eastern Cottonmouths are an semi-aquatic pit viper, possessing the same heat pits as the Copperhead and Timber Rattlesnake. Like the other pit viper species, cottonmouths are a stout, thick-bodies snake with a wide, triangular head and slit-shaped pupils. This particular species can be identified by a dark band that run across their eyes like a mask. While their bite is painful and potentially fatal, bites generally only occur when people attempt to capture, kill or handle them. Cottonmouths are typically found along the edges of swamps, marshes or other wetlands, basking or hunting prey.

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Though they do not represent a significant threat to people, cottonmouths are killed in large numbers due to human fear and ignorance. And they are not alone; many harmless aquatic snakes including brown water snakes and red bellied water snakes are killed simply because they are misidentified as venomous cottonmouths. The easiest way to tell these species apart is to watch them swim; non-venomous snakes swim with only their head above the surface, while the entire body of a cottonmouth floats!

Cottonmouth floating on the water's surface. Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Cottonmouth floating on the water’s surface. Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

If you want to get a safe,up-close view of a cottonmouth, be sure to stop by the Virginia Living Museum and check out our exhibit in the Cypress Swamp habitarium. Learn to recognize these beautiful snakes, and tell others how amazing the Eastern Cottonmouth truly is!

Did you know?

The Cottonmouth is a very powerful swimmer. They are even known to occasionally swim out into the sea! They have successfully colonized islands off the Atlantic and Gulf Coast. (Don’t worry, you won’t run into these guys during your next trip to the beach!)

Herp Highlight #6: Eastern Painted Turtle

Lazily swimming in the Woodland Pond exhibit is a colorful little reptile known as an Eastern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta). Named for their vibrant red and yellow colors, these aquatic turtles are the most widespread native turtles in North America, and are commonly found all throughout Virginia. They are easy to identify by the two yellow blotches on each side of the head, and the reddish bands that run across the shell.


Painted turtles are omnivores and eat both meat and plant matter. They often prey upon worms, insects, leeches, snails, crayfish, frogs, tadpoles and fish. When hunting, these turtles lumber about the bottom, jutting their head in and out of vegetation to stir potential prey out into the open water where they will hunt it down.


During the winter months, these small turtles burrow down into the muddy bottom of a body of water. Special adaptations allow the turtle to survive extreme lactic acid buildup and even acquire some oxygen through its skin. Because of this, the painted turtle may go as long as 5 months without breathing…longer than any other air-breathing vertebrate!


Fun Fact: Painted turtle fossils have been found as far back as 15 million years ago! They have played a large role in Native American culture; traditional tales of the Algonquian tribes often portray the painted turtle as a trickster!


Snapping Turtle Feeding (Video)

Few turtles are as iconic and as well known as snapping turtles. Famous for their crushing bite and imposing size, these native turtles can grow to massive proportions, making them formidable predators.

The Herpetology department is proud to announce that one of our Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) has been placed on exhibit, alongside our American Alligator (The same turtle featured in the video below!). Voracious eaters, our snappers eat a large variety of foods, but show preference towards catfish fillets and smelt, as seen in the video (FUN FACT: The animals in our collection are fed what we consider to be quality food for human consumption. Our smelt, trout, and catfish are delivered fresh by Sam Rust Seafood Inc, the same company that supplies many local seafood restaurants!).

Snapping turtles are largely ambush predators; rather than actively hunting their food, snappers lie in wait for prey to swim within reach. The snapping turtle can extend its long neck with incredible speed, making an easy meal of any unwary fish. Fortunately for those of us who like to swim, snapping turtles are typically docile in the water, and will only show their aggression on dry land where they feel vulnerable.

Herp Highlight #5: Eastern Hellbender

The frigid waters of Virginia’s mountains seem  inhospitable for any cold-blooded critter, but even here herptiles find ways to survive the harsh temperatures. Our Mountain Cove Habitarium is home to a very special and very rare amphibian: the Eastern Hellbender.


The Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) is a large salamander that can only be found in the cool streams of the mountains. And when I say large, I mean they are the largest salamanders in the United States!


These salamanders are entirely aquatic, typically found in clear, fast running streams. They prey upon small fish, worms, insects and their favorite food, crayfish, which they snap up with powerful jaws. Typically slow moving, Hellbenders spend most of their day hidden under rocks, waiting for prey. Their entire body is photosensitive (able to sense light), so the Hellbender is aware if any part of its body is uncovered.


Sadly, like most amphibians, the Hellbender is highly sensitive making it extremely susceptible to pollution and sedimentation. They absorb toxic substances through their skin during respiration which has had a profound impact on their populations. Today the Eastern Hellbender is a federal species of concern, and conservationists are working to protect the few rivers where these rare amphibians can still be found.


So stop on by the museum and check out one of Virginia’s lesser known river-dwellers! Learn what you can do to reduce the stress put on these amazing amphibians and help bring back the Eastern Hellbender!


Fun Fact:

The Hellbender’s skin may look wrinkly and rough but they are actually extremely slimy and slippery. The thick mucus that covers their skin has led to their nickname, the “snot otter”!

Hardworking Herpetologists

October was a busy month for the VLM Herps team and November is shaping up to be equally challenging. In addition to the multitude of daily, weekly and monthly tasks performed by the department, the herpetology team has branched out, working on special projects to improve our animal husbandry, guest experience, and professional relationships with other facilities. Last week, Herpetology Curator Travis Land and Herpetology Assistant Sonya Marker took on two very different projects with unique challenges and experiences.

Travis seemed to draw the short straw, and set to work on repairing the American Alligator exhibit. As mentioned in my previous post Goodbye Gator!, Travis’ goal was to repair the exhibit glass, smoothing out the myriad of scratches left by a decade of alligator wear and tear. The process was delicate: using an orbital sander, Travis had to sand the acrylic with finer and finer grades of sandpaper, removing the scratches while slowly making the glass clear enough to see through.

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The project has its share of challenges. Keeping acrylic dust out of the water was the first hurdle, and a plastic sheet was employed to catch what was sanded off, preventing damage to the water system and health problems for the numerous inhabitants of the Cypress Swamp. The sanding had to be particularly gentle, enough to remove the deep scratches, but not so much that it drastically changed the thickness of the glass. If any areas are sanded thinner than others, the glass could have a “fun house mirror” appearance.

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Travis expects the project to be completed Wednesday, November 18, but until then he’s absolutely swamped with work! (I won’t apologize for bad puns)

While Travis was wading through the gator exhibit, Sonya Marker was hard at work in South Carolina, working with members of the local AAZK chapter on a project for the Turtle Survival Alliance. The TSA is a group that specializes in rescuing turtle species with a 100 year goal of zero turtle extinctions. They currently house over 650 freshwater South and Southeast Asian turtles and tortoises; of those, 32 species are the most critically endangered in the world due to poaching and collecting for the pet trade and valuable items.


The AAZK group is ready to work! (Sonya is second from the left)

“When the 5 members of the AAZK were there Nov 3-5th, 2015 we helped in the winterizing of their grounds,” said Sonya. “Shade cloths were removed so the sun can penetrate through screen buildings, part of the parameter fence was reinforced after having a large tree fall on it due to ground saturation from floods, and most importantly, approximately 500 turtles and tortoises were weighed and had identifying photos taken of them for documentation purposes. This task alone would have taken the team at least a week to accomplish. All animals were micro-chipped and some were notched by previous facilities, and a few still needed to be ‘pit tagged’ for later identification.”



As an active AZA facility, the Virginia Living Museum is always looking to expand our conservation role and improve cooperation among accredited facilities. Sonya did a fantastic job representing our herpetology department at the Turtle Survival Center! Now the turtles are prepared for the cold of winter!


Herp Highlight #4: Northern Copperhead

Lying motionless in wait for prey in our World of Darkness gallery is a reptile so fearsome that her name alone frightens people: The Northern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix). Everyone is well aware that copperheads are venomous and it is the fear of this species that drives many peoples’ dislike for snakes. But is the Northern Copperhead really as bad or as fearsome as everyone believes?

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

A very broad, stout snake, the copperhead is not as sleek as her nonvenomous counterparts. Copperheads are much less active than other snakes; rather than hunting down food, they sit motionless for days on end, waiting for prey to come just within reach. Young copperheads even have a bright yellow tail that they use as a lure to catch prey. Their tan and brown patterning allows them to blend in with the leaves, nearly invisible to predators and prey alike. Part of the pit viper family, copperheads have two small heat pits just between their eyes and nostrils, and these heat pits allow the snake to see prey’s body heat, much like thermal imaging.


Northern Copperheads are just one of three venomous snakes in VA (we’ll talk more about the Cottonmouth and Rattlesnake in the future), and their name is feared far and wide. Despite being venomous, copperheads actually pose very little risk to humans. Firstly, their venom is not as potent as many other venomous snakes; when bitten, our immune system is generally able to protect us from the venom. There are no recorded deaths from a copperhead in Virginia despite many urban legends. Copperheads are also very solitary animals, and generally avoid human activity whenever they can. Most meetings are accidental, and even when confronted by humans, copperheads are not quick to bite. Venom requires a lot of energy for the snake to produce, and since they need that venom to immobilize prey, it is disadvantageous for the snake to use the venom to defend itself, and will generally only be done as a last resort. Most copperhead bites occur when people attempt to capture or kill them (if you approach ANY wild animal, you run a similar risk of being bitten); copperheads are non-aggressive snakes that only bite in defense.


Copperheads may not be everyone’s idea of a good neighbor but they are beneficial animals if left alone. They feed primarily on rodents such as mice and rats, and generally when they are found nearby our homes, it is simply because they are hunting the rodents that live close to us. A single snake can do wonders for a mouse infestation, without having to put down traps or poison. Despite their beneficial nature, many people do not feel comfortable with a venomous snake around their home due to children or pets. If a copperhead (or any venomous snake) is found in your yard, it is recommended that you call wildlife services to take care of the animal, thereby keeping you and the snake safe.


Did you know:

The Northern Copperhead has relatively weak venom as far as venomous snakes are concerned. So why is everyone convinced they are so deadly and aggressive? Well, Australia also has a species of snake called a Copperhead, though this species is part of the cobra family, not a pit viper. The Australian Copperhead has more potent venom that is capable of killing a healthy adult, and it is simply a misunderstanding that has led people to assume that our native copperhead is just as deadly.
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Goodbye Gator! (Pt. 2)

With Hurricane Joaquin behind us, we were finally able to move forward with the alligator transfer! On Wednesday, Oct. 21, our large exhibit American Alligator was taken out of the Cypress Swamp exhibit and prepared for transportation. The herpetology department worked swiftly to prep the gator while doing their best to stress him out as little as possible. A final weight of 136 lbs was obtained before the gator transport was loaded into the van.

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After a long drive down to Myrtle Beach, we arrived at Alligator Adventure, a small zoo that prominently features a wide array of reptile species. Caring for over 900 crocodilians ranging from hatchlings to full size alligators, Alligator Adventure has the facilities necessary to care for our growing male. After being released into his new pond, our old gator took right to the water, seemingly eager to explore his new outdoor enclosure (and new alligator companions!)

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After a brief tour of the facility, we were taken back to the veterinary facility to choose a new baby alligator. We opted for the smallest hatchling they had; a little gator that was only about a year old. At such a small size, this young alligator will be available for animal programs and shows for several years to come (be sure to visit the museum to see him early next year!).

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So what about the gator exhibit? Well, since this new hatchling will be going on programs in the near future, our current program alligator will be getting an upgrade. At a little over 4 feet, he has become difficult for program handling, and so only a few of our education staff can use him. He will be transferred to the alligator exhibit soon, where he will spend the next few years growing in the view of the public. Because he is still considered small, he will have a companion in the exhibit: a common snapping turtle.

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So make plans to visit the Virginia Living Museum soon! A new alligator will soon be on exhibit alongside a snapping turtle, as well as a new baby gator for public animal shows (not to mention a new loggerhead sea turtle in the Chesapeake Bay Aquarium!). As for our old male alligator, we wish him well in his newer, larger home!

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf

Photo Credit: Karl Rebenstorf