When I am not at work on Marco Island, I absolutely love giving tours of the Big Cypress Swamp. I mean I really LOVE it!!!! There are several diverse habitats in that area, and they support a wide variety of wildlife. People are positively fascinated to hear the facts about ‘gators, ‘crocs, hawks, eagles, owls…..and snakes.
I try to emphasize in my columns that there is an order to things on this planet, all the way down to the smallest ecosystems. Every plant, tree and animal serves a purpose, even the creepy, crawly things. Just as the smaller fish is eaten by the bigger fish, which is eaten by the bigger fish which is eaten by the apex predator, such is the case with our slithering herptiles in the Big Cypress area. They all have a job to do. Let me tell you about a few of them.
One of the most common snakes is the Southern Black Racer, simply known as the “black snake.” These speedy serpents are very slender with a shiny black skin and can grow to more than 5 feet long. They seem to be constantly on the move and eat an astonishing variety of other animals, including frogs, lizards,mice, insects and even other snakes. They are non-venomous.
The Rat Snake is one of the more colorful species and can vary from gray to yellow or, here in the Everglades area, orange. They also can grow to be 5 feet long and are proficient tree climbers as well as swimmers. Their primary prey is birds and rodents, which they constrict.
Sometimes confused with the Rat Snake is the Corn Snake. The two are similar in color, but the Corn Snake will have reddish-brown spots while the Rat Snake does not. The Corn Snake coils like a rattler if threatened, and even though it is non-venomous, it can bite.
Florida is home to six venomous snakes, two of which are confined to northern Florida. In our area, it is possible to find the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, the Pygmy Rattler, the Cottonmouth (aka Water Moccasin) and the Coral Snake. The first three are pit vipers, which means the venom destroys red blood cells and the walls of blood vessels. The Coral Snake’s venom is the most potent of any North American snake. Unlike the pit vipers, this guy is neurotoxic, which means the venom attacks the nervous system of a victim, bringing on paralysis.
The most common in the BigCypress area is the Cottonmouth, or Water Moccasin. Though primarily found in water or along the water’s edge, it can deliver a bite either in or out of water. It can deliver a bite from any position so it does not have to be coiled. The adults are darker in color than the younger ones, which have distinctive brown and black markings. When swimming its head is well out of the water. It hunts mostly at night and its menu consists mainly of fish, frogs, lizards, other snakes and small mammals.
In summary, all of the above serve a purpose. They have specific menus that keep a number of other species in check. They are here for a reason — another stepping stone to understand the bigger picture of what happens in our surrounding areas.
Always be cautious around any reptile. Even if they are non-venomous, some can deliver a painful bite. Be respectful of them, and give them plenty of room to do what they are supposed to do.
Bob is a Florida Master Naturalist and owner of Stepping Stone Ecotours. He is also a member of the Dolphin Explorer’s 10,000 Island Dolphin survey team and a member of Florida SEE (Society for Ethical Ecotourism). Bob loves his wife very much!