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Snakes in the Cumberland River Basin 101

April 16, 2021

Spending your summers outside in Middle Tennessee means you have a high likelihood of running into three things that can make your hair stand up. Ticks, poison ivy, and snakes. I won’t attempt to change your mind on the first two, but snakes play an important role in our area and pose a far less severe threat to us than we do to them. So far this year, our staff has had more than a few run-ins with our slithery neighbors while we’ve spent so much more time than we typically do at home. That, paired with some calls coming in from residents full of concern with the snakes they’re finding, made us feel like it’s time to give advice on what to do when you find yourself nearby a snake.

Leave it be! Obvious, isn’t it? Don’t know if a snake is venomous or not? Spooked and startled with a spike of adrenaline kicking in? Take a step back, and take out your phone to snap a pic. Outdoor apps like iNaturalist are a great way to identify just about anything you find in the wilderness and will geotag your location to narrow down what species it may be. This way you get all the enjoyment of understanding what you’re looking at while keeping a safe distance for both you and the snake. Several of the staff members at the Compact have done this very thing on their own iNaturalist pages, like Ross. A great way to avoid getting unexpectedly too close to a snake is to always step on top of logs and rocks and then take a nice long stride off of it to give yourself plenty of space from where they like to hide.

Good Snakes vs Bad Snakes. First off, it should be stated that there is no such thing as a “good snake” or a “bad snake.” The current understanding of serpent morality suggests snakes lack said morality. What is important to know is which snakes in our area can cause you more harm if bitten by one than others. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has identified 32 species native to our state, only 3 of which are venomous and reside in the Cumberland River basin. These three are the copperhead, the timber rattlesnake, and the cottonmouth. Before we continue it must be noted that there is a difference between “poisonous” and “venomous.” The three snakes listed below, like all pit vipers, are venomous, as they are not toxic to swallow (which poison is) but are toxic when injected into tissue under the skin.

      • The Copperhead can be found in every corner of this state. It’s so well known that it has a street named after it, which has a song named after it, which has a dance that goes along with it that you know you’ve seen before. Copperheads often get confused with the various non-venomous water snakes of Tennessee. One thing to look out for is the easily identifiable “Hershey kiss” shaped back pattern on the Copperhead’s body that gives them away. Here is an observation by the Compact’s Jed Grubbs that shows that even if you see a snake by water, and it looks similar to what a Copperhead could be in color, it doesn’t guarantee that it will be venomous
One of these snakes is a Copperhead, while the other is a non-venomous Northern Water-Snake. Can you tell which is which?
      • The timber rattlesnake can also be found nearly everywhere in Tennessee. As recent as last year one was spotted in Percy Warner Park on the outskirts of Nashville! Perhaps the easiest species of snakes to identify in the country, the classic rattle gives them away in an instant. Field Observations Supervisor, Will Caplenor, identified one of them on iNaturalist last year. What should be noted is that the harmless rat snake, while sometimes sizable and intimidating, will often shake its tail in the leaves as a defense tactic to scare you off and make you think that they’re much more dangerous than they really are.
Timber rattlesnakes’ rattle makes them hard to miss-identify.
      • The least common, with more rare sightings, venomous snake in the Cumberland River basin is the cottonmouth/water moccasin. Found sparingly in Cheatum, Williamson, and Davidson county, these may be the most physically intimidating of the three venomous snakes. You’ll know just what snake it is if you get too close and it sits back and exposes its cotton-white mouth. They are also built like they’ve had one too many meals and seem rather wide for their length. That, along with a black horizontal mark across their eye, is the best way to identify this species of snake. They’re found near bodies of water, and it’s encouraged to pack up your things and find another water hole if you see one.
A thick midsection and a black horizontal eye stripe are two ways to identify this snake from far away.

Who’s to be feared? With the destruction of habitat, killing off their prey, and killing them due to misplaced fear we present a far greater threat to snakes than they do to us. More people die by lightning strikes each year than they do snake bites.

*You’re 9 times more likely to die via lightning than you are from a venomous snake in the US.

Snakes play a critical role in an ecosystem like the Cumberland River basin and ensuring their safety and preservation will go a long way in protecting the basin as a whole. Killing any snake you find is against state law, as they are a protected species, venomous or not. If you find a harmless snake in your yard it’s suggested that you leave it be, as they are excellent hunters of rodents that could be a nuisance for you and your property. If you find a venomous snake in an area where you don’t think leaving it there would be safe you can spray them with a garden hose as the cold water will send them scurrying off. There are also snake/pest removal companies that can come and remove the snake for you also. Again, snakes are crucial in assisting us to preserve our ecosystem and should be thought of as more of a legless, armless outdoor neighbor, rather than a threatening menace.