This spring and summer many people will be reluctant to go on a float trip because of their fear of snakes. Missouri’s snakes play a vital role in nature, eating other animals like mice, and disease carrying rats, lizards, toads and frogs while serving as a source of food for hawks, owls, mink, skunks and herons. Unfortunately, many people are afraid of snakes, frequently killing those that are harmless. The more you know about snakes, the more you’ll appreciate their role in nature and overcome your fear of them.
Missouri is home to 51 different species and subspecies of snakes. Snakes are reptiles, with bodies that are covered in scales and the same temperature as their surroundings. Half of them lay eggs while half give birth to young that are completely developed. All snakes can swim and shed their skin as they grow, three to five times a year. Snakes are legless and have no external ear opening. Harmless snakes will bite to defend themselves, merely leaving simple scratches.
What scares most people about snakes is venom. Missouri’s venomous snakes are members of the pit viper family. These snakes have a characteristic pit between their eye and nostril on both sides of their heads. Venomous pit viper snakes have elliptical shaped pupils and a pair of well-developed fangs. People often mistakenly identify snakes as poisonous because of a triangular shaped head, especially when many harmless snakes like the water snake, garter snake and hognose snake can flatten their heads and appear triangular in shape. Harmless snakes lack the pit and fangs venomous snakes have and their pupils are round. The most common venomous snake in Missouri is the copperhead. Other venomous snakes include the Osage and southern copperhead, cottonmouth, massasauga rattlesnake, western pygmy rattlesnake and timber rattlesnake. So far, there is no record of anyone dying in Missouri from a copperhead bite.
Benefits of Missouri’s Snakes
Missouri’s beneficial snake species needs more than just understanding and needless killings by misinformed people to survive. Shelters like brush piles, rock piles and logs provide snakes with the security and the availability of mice, native rats, lizards, toads and frogs they need. Building ponds near forested areas that are well maintained will also benefit many kinds of snakes. Missouri’s snakes are as much a part of the landscape as its squirrels and deer. By the same token, there are simple ways to discourage snakes from coming near buildings and campsites. Avoid keeping burlap, dump heaps, piles of boards or rocks, fence posts, slabs of bark or scrap corrugated steel roofing near buildings and campsites as they provide hiding places for snakes and the food they eat. Keeping areas tidy is the best way to keep snakes away from the premises. You should also check for any openings around doors and low windows where snakes could enter. If you do encounter a harmless snake, use a hoe or stick to relocate the snake unharmed in an isolated, safe habitat.
Encountering snakes along Missouri’s rivers and campsites is rare. You can do your part to avoid such encounters by keeping your campsite free of debris and piles of bark, rocks and boards that attract snakes and their prey. A better understanding of snakes can help you to overcome your fear and better enjoy your Missouri float trip.