By Eric Duran
Before our cold-blooded neighbors go into hibernation, I thought I’d take this chance to talk about three non-venomous snakes that are found in the Bellaire-West University area. These three species are relatively common in yards and other greenspaces and are completely harmless to humans.
Snakes are reptiles, like turtles, crocodilians and lizards. They are ecto-thermic (cold-blooded), covered in scales (made of keratin), and most of them hatch from eggs. Snakes have no ears and no eyelids, but they do have a protective clear scale over each eye.
Snakes are all predators, and they swallow their prey whole. They smell with their tongues, and that’s why you see them flicking their tongues most of the time. I find them endlessly fascinating, and hopefully you will, too.
Milk Snakes are coral snake mimics. Coral snakes are extremely venomous and have bright warning colors (red-yellow-black). Milk snakes have similar colors (red-black-white or yellow), but they are in a different pattern. The rhyme many of us learned as children, to help us know the difference goes: “Red touches yellow, kill a fellow, red touches black, you’re okay, Jack!” If you can’t remember, and you see a snake with red and black bands, just stay away.
Milk snakes are non-venomous. They are in a group called the king snakes, and like other king snakes, they feed on other snakes and may be immune to some snake venoms. Lizards and small rodents are also part of their diet. We are more likely to see the Louisiana Milk Snake subspecies on the east side of town, and to encounter the Mexican Milk Snake far to the west of town. It’s suspected that in the Houston area, many or most of these snakes are a hybrid of the two subspecies.
Rough Green Snakes are common in areas with trees, and they are very well camouflaged. Green snakes are thin bright-green non-venomous snakes that can grow to about 45 inches long, but they’re usually much shorter than that. They spend much of their time up in the trees, but can be encountered often on the ground, as well. They’re sometime called “Green Grass Snakes.” Green snakes feed mainly on insects and other small invertebrates. There is another Green Snake, the Smooth Green Snake, which lives mainly in the far northern U.S.
Around most bodies of water, you will find one of our non-venomous Water Snakes, in the genus Nerodia. They are often mistaken for venomous Cottonmouths (another aquatic snake). Cottonmouths have a more triangular shaped head, and water snakes have mouth scales that look like big squarish teeth (a feature which cottonmouths lack). The Broad-banded Water Snake is very common around lakes, ponds, and slow-moving streams. They have brownish, golden, and/or orange bands. Their colors get duller as they mature. This species feeds mainly on fish and frogs, but also eats other small aquatic creatures.
The other local species of non-venomous water snakes are Green Water Snake, Plain-bellied, and Diamondback. All of these species will defend themselves very aggressively, biting. pooping and musking, so they should not be handled, if possible. Many “Cottonmouth attacks” are actually from misidentified water snakes.
The best way to be safe around snakes and to learn the venomous from the non-venomous is to study your local snake species. I highly recommend Clint Pustejovsky’s “Snakes of Southeast Texas” laminated guide or “Texas Snakes: A Field Guide” by Dixon, Werler and Forstner. If you have any questions about local snakes, or other wildlife, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
Duran is the head naturalist at the Nature Discovery Center, 7112 Newcastle Dr., Bellaire.