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UP snakes — harmless and beneficial

Northwoods Notebook

The eastern garter snake, above, and western fox snake, below, are the most commonly observed species in the Dickinson County area.

A reader recently suggested a column be devoted to snakes in the region.

“I watch the pine snakes and garter snakes who live in and under my little greenhouse patrolling my garden and am glad they are there to eat mice, slugs and insects. But every week I see another person — usually a young person but not always — killing one of these harmless, helpful critters, throwing rocks, stomping on or slashing them with shovel or hoe.”

So while I suspect this will not be everyone’s favorite topic, snakes do merit trying for a little more understanding to overcome the fear and hostility so often directed at them.

For being this far north, the U.P. still manages to have at least 14 species of reptiles, according to the Michigan State University Extension Upper Peninsula Forestry Extension. That includes four turtles and one lizard — the five-lined skink — that has been found in Menominee and Marquette counties, according to the Michigan Herp Atlas, www.miherpatlas.org.

The other nine are snakes: the northern water, eastern garter, northern red-bellied, smooth green, blue racer, western fox, eastern milk, northern ring-necked and eastern hog-nosed. The Michigan Herp Atlas also shows the northern ribbon snake as being recorded in four counties, including Marquette, and the northern brown snake in two counties in the far eastern U.P.

(Betsy Bloom/Daily News photo)

On this side of the Upper Peninsula, only the fox, garter, hog-nosed, smooth green, red-bellied and ring-necked can be expected.

The latter two can be tough to find, as they are small forest snakes and “very secretive, so difficult to monitor,” according to the Michigan Herp Atlas. They are, however, fairly easy to identify when seen, as both are well-named — the ring-necked has a yellow or orange ring around its neck, the red-bellied an underside that usually is bright red but can range from pink to orange.

The hog-nosed snake perhaps is best known for its habits of, when confronted, flattening its neck to appear almost cobra-like, then if still pressed playing dead by flipping onto its back and dangling its tongue out of its mouth. It has been found in Dickinson County but is not considered common here.

In most cases, the snake that turns up in the yard or garden either is the fox, often referred to locally as “pine snake,” or garter.

The fox snake is the larger of the two, ranging between 3 to 4 1/2 feet in length, while the garter snake has a maximum of about 3 feet. Though it can have a reddish or orange head, the fox snake gets its name from the musk it releases when threatened, which is said to be similar to a fox’s odor. It’s among the most boldly patterned of the U.P.’s native snakes, with dark blotches against a lighter brown background.

It is an egg-layer, with the female producing a clutch of about a half-dozen to almost 30 eggs from late June to early August. The young hatch from late August through October, according to the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web site.

In contrast, the garter snake bears its young live, incubating them in the lower abdomen for two to three months before giving birth to an average of 10 to 40 young, depending on the size of the female, between late July and October, according to the ADW site.

Both snakes favor habitats that are near water but have become used to more suburban and urban living, even sometimes venturing into homes and outbuildings. This can put them in close proximity to humans, a potentially dangerous situation — for the snake.

While the fox snake may shake its tail like a rattlesnake when threatened and has a reddish “copper” head — the real copperhead does not occur in Michigan or Wisconsin — it is not venomous and not inclined to bite unless cornered and provoked. Given a chance to escape, it will flee rather than fight.

The fox snake poses a threat only to small mammals, birds and amphibians. It kills by constriction, wrapping its prey so tightly in its coils the animal can’t breathe and suffocates.

The garter snake, however, may actually be venomous but not to the level it could harm a human. It doesn’t use constriction but seizes prey with sharp teeth and an ambush strike; its saliva may be slightly toxic to its prey so it can be swallowed more easily, according to the ADW site. Its diet includes earthworms, leeches, amphibians, slugs, snails, insects, crayfish, small fish and other snakes, plus occasionally small mammals or baby birds. “They seem immune to the toxic skins secretions of toads and can eat them without harm,” the ADW site states.

Both the fox and garter should be considered “harmless and beneficial,” according to the Animal Diversity Web. Having snakes around can help keep rodents and other pests in check. Yet the first instinct for some people is to kill snakes on sight; it’s evident in some cases by how far off the road a dead snake is that a driver deliberately swerved to run over the creature.

Thankfully, that reaction seems to have faded over the past couple decades, said Jim Harding, a retired herpetology instructor and adjunct wildlife specialist at the Michigan State University Museum.

“There’s been quite a softening of attitudes,” Harding said. “Younger people, they’re more open to the idea these snakes are harmless.”

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 240, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.

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