Snakes Alive

The snakes of South Florida range from tiny blind snakes, often mistaken for worms, to the giant indigo and equally bulky Eastern diamondback rattler, both of which can grow to more than eight feet. Smaller species eat insects. The big boys take mammals and birds. Often a snake's value to collectors increases in relation to the life form it consumes. Garter snakes, which subsist on small fish and amphibians, are cheap. Rat snakes, which eat rodents, are more expensive. Indigos, which swallow almost anything from rabbits to rattlesnakes, are priceless.

Below are brief descriptions of the most common species in South Florida. Some source material was drawn from Frank S. Bernardino, Jr.'s two-year survey in the southern portion of Everglades National Park.

Ribbon snake: More hyper than its cousin the garter, and equally common. Often three-feet long, slender, dark green with three yellow, lengthwise stripes and pronounced scales. They eat earthworms, insects, fish, and amphibians.

Garter snake: Bigger and easier to tame than ribbons, decent starter snakes for young aficionados. South Florida specimens of the widespread species grow to four feet, and they consume the same things as ribbon snakes.

Banded water snake: Reddish-brown patched, thick bodied, and wholly unspectacular. Eats fish and frogs, found near ponds, lakes, and canals.

Cottonmouth water moccasin: Identifiable by its triangular head with white around the face. Black and wide-bodied, it is a pit viper with long fangs and tissue-destroying venom. Stay away from them, they'll stay away from you.

Black racer: Fast and sleek with light throat patches and underbellies. Eats mammals, birds and their eggs, frogs, toads, snakes, and insects, simply biting and munching small prey, using its body to hold down larger meals while swallowing.

Scarlet snake: This rare and pretty animal does poorly in captivity. Some collectors have been able to persuade them to eat lizards or their eggs. Scarlets can grow to about 30 inches.

Ringneck snake: Chances are you have one or more of these in your yard. Only a few inches long, black with a vibrant collar of red and yellow. Extremely reclusive, they eat bugs and are completely harmless.

Mud snake: Occasionally reaching six feet in length, muds like moisture, and that is one reason they make poor pets. They're also selective eaters in captivity, requiring certain eels and amphibians (their staple in the swamp).

Florida king snake: Arguably second only to the indigo as best pet. Yellow-and-black speckled. Preferred diet: mice, and especially other snakes. A tame breed, five-foot specimens are not uncommon, readily adaptable to captivity.

Scarlet king snake: Tiny and beautiful with distinct alternating bands of red, yellow, and black, sometimes mistaken for the venomous coral snake. Breeders usually feed these kings "pinks" (newborn mice) or baby lizards. In the wild they eat lizards, small snakes, and occasionally mammals such as baby mice.

Green water snake: Close relative of the brown water snake, large serpents, fat and often longer than four feet. They eat fish and amphibians.

Mangrove water snake: Found primarily in brackish and saltwater areas, they are similar to the other water snakes, though smaller.

Rough green snake: Also known as the grass snake. Bright green, two or maybe three feet in maximum length. Food: crickets, earthworms, mealworms, and the occasional lizard.

Crayfish snake: A small, obscure animal that is virtually impossible to keep in a cage due to its constant need for a moist environment.

Pygmy rattlesnake: Extremely small and very common. Mammal and lizard eater often found curled around the bases of plants. The poisonous species most often encountered in an urban environment.

Brown snake: Also known as DeKay's snake, this is a tiny, insect-eating recluse of little interest to collectors.

The rat snakes: Wonderful pets, rat snakes supplement their rodent intake with small birds and lizards. The red rat, also known as a corn snake, has red saddles over a gray and/or gold background. The yellow, generally less docile, is ochre with brown stripes. The Everglades rat snake has more pronounced coloration but is similar to the yellow.

Indigo: Like the nearly extinct Florida panther, this handsome beast likes room to roam, particularly sandy flats. They are so docile some people have claimed indigos actually show affection toward humans. Perhaps because it makes the best pet in the world, the indigo is protected by state and federal laws. Strikingly lustrous, glistening black with lighter coloration (often red) on its chin, a solid build, and a potential length of more than eight feet. They eat birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, sometimes fish. If it weren't illegal to keep them, indigos could be recommended as the quintessential companion.


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