Secrets of Snakes

The heart of ASP’s work is education using stories to illustrate cool snake behavior and busting myths and misconceptions when answering questions about snakes. Although they tend to change over the years, at any given time people have the same questions:
“Are rattlesnakes rattling less?”
“Are babies more dangerous than adults?”
“How do you tell good snakes from bad snakes?”

Secrets of Snakes by David SteenDavid Steen also spends much of his time answering snake questions and clearly wrote Secrets of Snakes to tackle the most common ones (each of the above examples has its own chapter). This is the perfect book for anyone interested in learning more about snakes. Although not designed for experts, even I learned some new things about snakes (they can be territorial!). This is a quick and enjoyable read, science-based, but not at all dense. Here are some highlights:

“Nature is too complicated and messy for reliable shortcuts”

Part 1, Identifying Snakes, debunks the many rules you’ve probably heard for identifying venomous snakes and shares how biologists identify and name animals. In this section, Steen pondered whether anyone has ever been bitten by a venomous snake for relying on the head rule. Actually, yeah, I got a story about that.

A few years ago I was giving a snake talk to a group that had come across a snake earlier in the day that they couldn’t identify. As they were scrolling through their phones looking for a photo, they described what sounded like a familiar species to me. They also explained that they had spotted the snake crossing the road in front of their car and had picked him up and moved him out of the road. Bill, the guy who moved the snake, had gotten bit, but not to worry — the snake didn’t have a triangular head, so definitely wasn’t dangerous. Also, where’s Bill?

Turned out Bill was in the hospital. As I suspected from their description and confirmed in their photos, Bill had been bitten by a Ridge-nosed Rattlesnake. Like all the small rattlesnakes that live in the mountains of the southwest United States, Ridge-nosed Rattlesnakes don’t have very wide, triangular heads. A painful way to learn about a cool exception to that rule.

“We can never know how many quiet and peaceful snakes we walk by.”

The discussion on snake aggression in chapter 17 is fantastic; I’d like to submit it in response to every article (and there are many) titled “snake attacks _____.” In chapter 10 you learn why the number of snakes you see in your neighborhood does not equal the number of snakes living in or near your neighborhood. Snakes are pros at hiding from their predators (including us) and are difficult to find even when you’re looking for them. They do not magically appear, but have likely always been around and this is one reason why it doesn’t make sense to kill or relocate them.

“Are rattlesnakes rattling less?”

In the last few years the most common thing I’m asked about is if rattlesnakes are rattling less (though it’s stated as fact as often as a question). In my area the cause is most often attributed to humans rather than hogs but the clear and thorough discussion in chapter 18 applies to both theories. In short:

  • there is no evidence that this is happening;
  • no studies have investigated this question; and
  • it is an unlikely scenario.

You can read the blog post that inspired the chapter here.

“Killing them one by one is not a long-term solution to sharing your land with rattlesnakes; it’s just an isolated and dangerous activity repeated over and over.”

Chapters 22 and 23 discuss why moving or killing unwanted snakes in your yard doesn’t make sense for you or the snakes. Because we’re all relying on the same research, these chapters echo what our Living With Snakes website covers.

“Science is a process. We are always learning new information about the natural world around us.”

The overall attitude of this book is refreshing. Scientists are often perceived to discount non-expert stories and questions with condescending certainty. But, as Steen states in the book, “science moves slowly and we are always learning new things.” So when we hear something that seems wrong, responding that it is “not consistent with what we know now” or “not documented yet” is not only kinder, but also more accurate. That was probably my biggest takeaway from the book and what I will strive to remember when I’m answering questions about snakes.

Get Secrets of Snakes at your local bookseller or if you’re an Amazon shopper, choose ASP at AmazonSmile and we get a small cut of the sale (same price as regular Amazon).