Jeff Briggler: Ironically, the venom that snakes produce that can be harmful to us is actually very beneficial for human medicine. And a lot of our drugs have some part of venom in them for cancer research, diabetes, heart disease. Snake venom is probably one of the most studied toxins in the world, just because of its practical use for a lot of medications and stuff.
Jill Pritchard: Hey there, and welcome back to another episode of Nature Boost. I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Is there an animal that you just can't deal with, a member of wildlife that really freaks you out? For me, it's Canadian geese.
But that's a story for another day. If you're like many, snakes are your phobia.
Snakes can be intimidating and frightening, especially if you come across one unexpectedly. But respect, not fear, is the best way to approach snakes. That's according to MDC's State Herpetologist Jeff Briggler. We caught up while hiking his property in Calloway County over the summer.
Snakes can be a very polarizing member of wildlife. There are some people who really, really love snakes. And then there are some people who just want nothing to do with them. So how do you kind of reconcile that? You know, what do you say to people who have that fear of snakes?
Jeff Briggler: People love or hate them. And that's why when we produce brochures, everybody wants those brochures because they want to learn more about them, or more about how to get rid of them. How to reconcile that is really, I mean it's how I was raised. I feared snakes. I would never have touched one when I was a teenager. Now I'm catching them all the time. I've gotten over my fear. I definitely understand that fear. But you can get over it over time.
I was raised in rural Arkansas. I mean just like any rural area, you're kind of raised to fear snakes when you're young, and kill them. That's what we did when we were young. I was always interested in the outdoors. I liked to hunt and fish all the time. And as I kept getting my degrees and stuff, I wanted to learn more about plants and the birds. And when it came time to work on my masters degree, I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I looked at bird projects, a few mammal projects. Luckily the forest service had a study on pond breeding amphibians they wanted somebody to do. I told my major professor in graduate school that I really don't know anything about these animals.
And I said I'm very curious, so I really wanted to study them. And then after I did my masters degree, I realized how cool these amphibians are. They're interesting lifecycles, how they differ. There's animals that we rarely see in our backyards, but you guys just got to know when to go out and find them. So I went ahead and got my PhD on amphibians, and then I applied for the job here at the Conservation Department in 2000, and actually got my dream job. So it came about kind of wanting to learn more about a group of animals that I knew very little about, and escalated into the job I think I was meant to be in.
Jill Pritchard: I've actually heard several people say that who work at MDC, that this is their dream job, and how lucky you must feel to be able to say something like that.
Jeff Briggler: Yes, I mean it definitely is. I mean especially for this conservation agency, I mean their herpetologist job was known around the nation as one of the premier jobs. And I replaced a guy that worked here for over 23 years that was hired in 1978 as the first state herpetologist. So I had big shoes to fill. But at the same time, it's a very important job. And every day, I'm still learning more about these animals, even working for over 20 years with the department.
Jill Pritchard: So Jeff, how many different species of snakes are there found in Missouri?
Jeff Briggler: There's actually 43 different species of snakes in the state. The majority are harmless, like 86 percent of them are. And. The venomous, we actually, there's actually six species of venomous snakes. Recent genetics had divided up massasaugas, but one we considered extirpated. So we actually have five that are still occurring in the state.
Jill Pritchard: Copperhead is one?
Jeff Briggler: Copperhead, cottonmouth, timber rattlesnake, pigmy rattlesnake, and the prairie massasauga.
So, snakes in general when they feed, most of our snakes will just grab their prey item and consume it alive. But then others, especially those that eat mammals and larger predators like our venomous snakes, I mean they inject venom to kill that prey item. And then after it dies, they consume it. That's safer for the snake, because you don't want to eat a squirrel that's going to rip out your mouth, still alive, with its claws. And then like king snakes and black rat snakes, and those snakes are constrictors. Again, they're going to be eating rodents that have claws and stuff, too. So they kill by constriction. So, they basically get their body, wrap it around the prey item, and in some cases they're suffocating it. But more of the data is showing that they cut off the bloodflow to the heart, and they just basically have heart failure. And then once it dies, it consumes it.
So, it depends on the type of snakes. But the majority, like if you came across a rough green snake, they're going to be eating a grasshopper or some type of insect. They're just going to grab it and eat it immediately. Or a water snake might grab a minnow or a frog and just consume it alive. There's 43 different types of snakes in the state, and they range in a wide range of sizes, patterns, colorations. But our smallest snake is called the flat headed snakes. They only get up to about seven or eight inches in size. They're smaller than a pencil diameter. I mean they never get bigger than that. And then you go all the way up to what's called the bull snake for a big snake. They can potentially get up to seven to eight feet in length, although I've never seen one that large in the state because a snake that large would likely be killed. But there is definitely a wide range of sizes.
Jill Pritchard: Why would you say a snake that large would likely be killed?
Jeff Briggler: Well, when a snake gets that big, it's more exposed to predators, or to potentially people that may think we should kill that snake. And it's harder for it to find a place to get away from you, because when it's larger, there's only so much available habitat for it to hide in.
Jill Pritchard: And speaking of habitat, where do they usually make their home?
Jeff Briggler: Well all the snakes are different, just like any other wildlife. If you have dogs and pets and stuff, you know they're all different on what they do and their habits. So, we have some snakes that are statewide found in prairies, woodlands, forests, like the western rat snake or the yellow-bellied racer. But then we have a lot of snakes that are more like habitat specialists, like the flat headed snake are only found on these rocky glades. Or the western mud snake, it's only found in the bottomland swamps of southeast Missouri. Or the hognose snakes, which most people are familiar with. They can be found in a variety of locations through the state. But they really like the areas where there's a lot of sandy deposits so they can slide and hide in the sand.
Jill Pritchard: So, it really just depends on what type of snake we're talking about.
Jeff Briggler: The type of snake you find. So, like where we're at right now on a rocky creek with flowing water, this is prime habitat for the rough green snake, the one we all see that's bright green. They look like a vine. They like to hang out on the edge of these creeks, just about eye level or so in the bushes. But I can search all day for that snake, and they blend in so well and I'd be lucky if I find one or two.
Jill Pritchard: Yeah.
Jeff Briggler: I mean their camouflage is just perfect for that environment. And that's another reason why some of the snakes are where they're at. They blend in well with their environment. There are different patterns to blend in well. I'm sure as we walk down here, we'll pass snakes we have not seen because they blend in well. I mean a lot of people also ask me, like how many snakes are in Missouri? How many black rat snakes? That would be impossible for us to answer because you can't study them that much to know how many snakes are out there, because they're so cryptic and they hide from us, and very well at it.
Jill Pritchard: How good is their eyesight?
Jeff Briggler: That's a good question! Typicall,y if you have very large eyes and round pupils, you're more active during the daytime and in the evening time period. So, like the racers, they're very visually orientated. That's why they periscope looking for their food. That's saying like a lot of the venomous snakes that use heat sensing pits, they see an infrared color of their prey. Their eyesight is not the best for that, but they visualize that differently to strike that prey. So, they all have adapted something different.
But typically, on most animals when you see big, bulging eyes, they're more visually orientated.
Jill Pritchard: What about, they don't have ears, right?
Jeff Briggler: No. They sense vibrations. So, when you're walking, don't think a snake doesn't know you're coming from a long ways away. They can feel the vibrations in the ground from you walking. And of course, they're still going to use their visuals where they can. But they're really going to rely on camouflage so you don't see them, and avoid them. And most of the time, I mean you startle them probably, too, sometimes. But we're more startled by them because they're going to remain motionless in most cases, and hope you just move along and don't bother them.
Jill Pritchard: Of course, their tongue, that's how they smell.
Jeff Briggler: Yeah, they have a forked tongue. So, and that really freaks people out when they see a snake tongue comes out. And some of them can be very bright red. And you can see them very plainly. I think it's really cool when you can get a photograph along with his tongue stuck out. But that's how they taste. They're tasting the air. They're smelling the air. So, they're pulling in air particles back in on their organs inside their mouths. And so, if a rodent went by, and they want to find it, they smell it with, they taste the air. And if the right fork of their tongue senses more of the odor, they go that direction. So, it's usually, it's for directional orientation to locate their prey, too. Or to locate a mate that's releasing pheromone that they want to mate with. So that's their way of smelling.
Jill Pritchard: I didn't know that. I think that's cool. It kind of tells you which way to go.
Jeff Briggler: How long do snakes live? And that's going to vary, again. When you're typically a very small snake, like a flathead snake or red-bellied snake, I mean we have several species that never get over 10 inches in size. Most of those probably don't live more than 8 to 12 years of age. But our larger snakes, like the western rat snake, have known to live up to 30 years. Some of the timber rattlesnake records out there are now approaching 40 years of age. So, it really depends on the different type of snakes. But some of them can be very, very long lived.
Jill Pritchard: We'll talk more about snakes with Jeff right after this break.
Male: It's a startling sound that can stop you in your tracks. There's no mistaking the rattlesnake's rattle. Just how it makes its scary sound? Some think it comes from inside the tail, like beads in a baby's rattle. The rattle is really made of special hollow scales loosely connected on the tip of the snake's tail. When the rattlesnake vibrates its tail, the scales rapidly strike each other, causing a buzzing sound. A rattlesnake is born with a single button on its tail. Each time the snake sheds its skin, a new segment is added at the base of the rattle. The buzz of the rattle is designed to draw attention. By scaring off predators, rattlesnakes conserve their energy and venom for catching food.
Female: Discover more by signing up today at dscovernaturenotes.com.
Male: The Missouri Department of Conservation, serving nature and you.
Jill Pritchard: And welcome back to Nature Boost where we're discussing snakes with Missouri's top expert, State Herpetologist Jeff Briggler.
Snakes are a very common phobia. Even the internet has dubbed them "nope ropes" and "danger noodles" likely because some snakes can deliver a potentially dangerous bite. That brings us to a quick snake lesson. What's the difference between venomous and poisonous? Well, you use the term venomous when animals bite or sting to unload their toxins. You use the term poisonous when something unloads its toxins after you ingest it.
For example, mushrooms or berries can be poisonous while snakes or wasps can be venomous.
Other big questions we get is how can I tell if a snake is venomous or not? Are there external cues that would specify that?
Jeff Briggler: Yeah. I mean our venomous snakes, they have the elliptical shaped eye, like the cat eye. So, in the daytime when the sun is very bright, I mean it's just a very tight slit. But some people may not want to get that close to them, by far. The better characteristic is their broad-shaped head, triangular shape. I mean it can be very large in size. And once you see that compared to a rat snake, they don't really have a neck. The head goes into the body. Basically, you really need to see head shape, learn colors and patterns, and behavior. Venomous snakes are more likely to coil up very tightly to defend their spot. However, don't be tracked by a racer or another snake. They will “S” curl, or hold their heads up and vibrate their tails. I mean it's a common misconception that if I vibrate my tail, I'm a venomous snake. Yes, rattlesnakes vibrate their tails so you can hear their rattles. They're warning you. But so, does rat snakes. A lot of snakes vibrate their tails, and they're harmless.
Most creatures, even us in general, if you're trapped and you feel threatened, you're going to try to defend yourself, because you feel like you're going to die. So, they become a little more aggressive. But if you allow them to be on their way and walk away from them, they will go on their merry way and everything will be fine.
Jill Pritchard: So, there are some non-venomous snakes who have some behaviors that we associate with venomous snakes in order to deter predators.
Jeff Briggler: Vibrating the tail is the common one. Patterns, think about the red milk snake that's red in color. It's more of a warning color. It's kind of mimicking the coral snake, which does not occur here. But that color pattern tells predators I may taste bad. Please leave me alone. So, you've got these different patterns, behaviors and stuff that help to discriminate between the venomous and non-venomous.
Jill Pritchard: Is it true red next to black, jump back; red next to yellow, cuddly fellow?
Jeff Briggler: [Laughing.] Where did you hear that one?
Jill Pritchard: I heard that on a TV show, and I've always wondered if that was true.
Jeff Briggler: Red black, friend of Jack; red yellow, kill a fellow.
Jill Pritchard: Kill a fellow?
Jeff Briggler: Yeah.
Jill Pritchard: I think there are many who fear that oh, if I encounter a venomous snake and if I'm bitten by a venomous snake, that automatically means that I might die. What really happens if you happen to be bitten by a venomous snake here in Missouri?
Jeff Briggler: In Missouri, we probably get about 100, maybe 150 snake bites a year. Now not all of those might be venomous. It depends. Every bite is a little bit different. Even though a venomous snake bites you, most of our stats show that 25 percent of the time, they don't even inject venom. So, most of the snakes don't. They may not have any venom because they've already used that venom. Or they're an older, wiser snake. They don't want to waste that venom, because you're not a potential prey item for them. They're basically biting you to say get away. But if one does bite you, it can inject venom. The biggest thing, the first thing you need to do if you're bitten is to get away from the situation and not get bit again, and to try your best to remain calm. And that would be very, very hard for anybody once they're bitten by anything.
After that point, if you are bitten, you definitely want to seek medical attention immediately and go that way. One suggestion I would have on a bite, though, is do not try to kill the snake to take it to the hospital because you're wasting time to get to the hospital, and it doesn't matter. Antivenoms are made for a group of snakes. So that treatment of what you're getting doesn't matter what species of snake bit you in the wild in Missouri.
But one of the real key things you should do if bitten by a snake, and especially on the hand or the leg or foot, remove your wedding ring or your watch, toe ring, anything that's constricting. Because if that snake did inject venom into you, you're going to start getting pain. Your hand is going to swell up. If your fingers are swelling up to the point you can't get your ring off, they're going to be cutting that ring off. And that can do a lot more harm. So, kind of think about those situations, because that might cause more harm in general. But for the US, the stats show in general on an average year, somewhere between four and six people do die from a snake bite. But that's four to six people for the whole nation. The most dangerous things we do is get in our vehicles every day. You are actually 10 times more likely to be struck by lightning than be bitten by a venomous snake in this state. And those stats are true. Yes, it's harmful. It can potentially kill you. Luckily for us, we have great medical attention. But we also need to keep it in perspective that there are a lot of other things more harmful. And for someone like me that's out in the woods all the day, I'm very careful. All the staff that works for the Conservation Department, the hunters and the fishermen that are out in the woods, think about how many people you know actually got bitten by a venomous snake in your lifetime, and then think about, has any of those ever died? And put that in perspective.
Jill Pritchard: Have you ever been bitten by a snake, venomous or non-venomous?
Jeff Briggler: I've never been bitten by a venomous snake. I hope it stays that way. I work with them all the time. I do handle them, but I handle them very safely. But there's always that risk associated with it. Non-venomous snakes, I'm used to it now. I'll just tell you, when I was young, I was deathly afraid of snakes. I had wanted to get over it. I had to learn to get over that fear that's in you. It's just like a child touching a snake at first. But in general, as you learn snakes and learn their behaviors and things, they're just like a lot of other animals. Like how to approach a dog to not bite you and your behavior and demeanor. It's the same with snakes.
I get this question a lot. Why should we care about the animals we have? And there's a lot of reasons to care. I mean sometimes it's because of human nature, how we value certain animals. But like snakes in general, I mean they are an important link in the food chain. They keep nature in balance. They are eating destructive insects and rodents at high levels that would be damaging to our crops. But in turn, birds like hawks, herons, fish, even mammals are eating these snakes. Ironically, the venom that snakes produce that can be harmful to us is actually very beneficial for human medicine. And a lot of our drugs have some part of venom in them for cancer research, diabetes, heart disease. Snake venom is probably one of the most studied toxins in the world, just because of its practical use for a lot of medications and stuff.
And then last but not least, why should we care about these animals? And especially my view is they're very fascinating. And they are a part of our natural heritage in our state. Just like anything, the more you learn about it, I hope you're curious enough to want to learn more. Sometimes when I see a snake, I want to just sit back and watch it. How long did it take that snake to climb that tree? Oh, look at that racer going across my yard, and it raises its head up with those big eyes periscoping over the grass just to see the world around it. Or think about the first time you saw a baby snake hatch out of an egg. Yeah, we might be afraid of snakes. But we all love to see animals hatch out of an egg.
So, they all have their interesting life history traits about them. So, if you stand back and just watch and pay attention, you might actually learn something new in science. Just because we have all these snakes here in this state, and the 43 different species, we still don't know some of their basic biology needs. Some of these animals, we've never found their eggs in the wild. But we know they're reproducing. So that's what makes me curious to learn more about their natural histories, and just to gain more knowledge of them. You do not have to go to the tropics to learn something new about an animal. There is plenty to learn new about animals in our own backyard.
Jill Pritchard: Wherever you fall on the snake spectrum, I hope you learned something new about this often misunderstood species, and why regardless of the creep factor, they're still an important part of wildlife. If you want to learn more about snakes, you can find MDC's Snake Guide at missouriconservation.org.
Thanks again to herpetologist Jeff Briggler for speaking with me. I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation encouraging you to get your daily dose of the outdoors.
How do you respond to people who call you the Steve Irwin of Missouri?
Jeff Briggler: I don't know! I really don't. Do they call me that?
Jill Pritchard: I've heard that.
Jeff Briggler: Really?
Jill Pritchard: Truly.
Jeff Briggler: Really?
Jill Pritchard: No joke.
Jeff Briggler: I'll have to think on that.
[End of recording.]