I often encounter people on my adventures that aren’t quite as informed as they could be about the environment that that are exploring. It could be that they are unfamiliar with the area and it’s wildlife, or, as in many cases, they have gained their knowledge through tall-tales passed on from others.
On a recent camping trip to Torreya State Park, I met a young man of about 12 years old who had a deep fear of lizards. It quickly became apparent that his experiences were colored by his kindly old grandpa who had been spinning him stories of poisonous lizards clouded with a generous dose of venom spitting dinosaurs borrowed from the most recent Jurassic Park movie. I spent a good part of my weekend trying to dispel all of the misinformation that he had been given.
The poor boy had been told that the “striped lizards with blue tails” around our campground were deathly poisonous. First, an animal may be “venomous” but it is never considered poisonous. Poisonous refers to toxins that must be ingested, inhaled or touched (such as in Poison Dart frogs.) Venom is a toxin that is injected into something either through a bite, sting or stab. Secondly, the bright blue tails of many Racerunners and skinks (which is what the striped ‘lizard’ was) is a common trait of juveniles. These bright colors give a predator something to focus on allowing the juvenile lizard or skink the chance to break off its tail and flee.
Fact: The ONLY venomous lizard in the United States is the Gila Monster located in the southwestern U.S.
Another misconception that surfaced was that the native Florida King snake (non-venomous) reaches lengths of up to 9′ long and that the Burmese Pythons that have infiltrated the Everglades are over 33′ long. The record length for a Florida King Snake is 69.5 inches, or 5.7′ feet long, and Burmese Pythons can grow as large as 18-20′ feet in length.
More facts vs fiction:
- Coachwhips do not whip their victims to death with their tails.
- The “Hoopsnake” (actually a misidentified Mud Snake) does not take it’s “poisonous” tail into it’s mouth and roll downhill to attack and sting it’s victims. Not only is the Mud Snake non-venomous, but snakes do not have stingers.
- A snake cannot sting you with its tongue.
- Cottonmouths and water moccasins are the same snake, and although they can be aggressive, they do not chase their victims. The only way it might appear that way is if they are traveling in the same general direction as the offender. They can bite underwater.
- Mother snakes do not defend their young, nor do they gather them into their mouth to protect them.
- Toads will not give you warts. Warts are caused by a virus that has nothing to do with toads.
- Myth: A Snapping turtle will not let go until it thunders. Snapping turtles have very powerful jaws and they are incredibly tenacious at holding on. It has nothing to do with the Sky Gods.
- Snakes do not travel in pairs. The only time you might find them together is during breeding season or if there is a good food supply available.
- Snakes do not drink milk, nor do they suck milk from cows. Their mouths aren’t designed for it.
- Snakes are not slimy. Their skin actually feels more like a soft, mostly smooth leather.
- Rattlesnakes do not add a button rattle every year. In fact, they can add a button every time they shed, which can be several times a year.
- Myth: A decapitated snake won’t die until after sundown. Nerves in the snake’s body can twitch for hours after it’s death.
- A dead snake can still bite you. Keep your fingers away from its mouth.
- Turtles cannot crawl out of their shells. It is a permanent part of the structure and they will die without it.
I spent a considerable amount of time that weekend explaining things to the boy and his grandfather, and I also suggested that they both invest in a reputable reptile and amphibian guide. For all of my efforts over that weekend I earned the title of Snake Girl. I suppose that’s okay. I do tend to like most reptiles over humans. Moral of the story: if you’re not certain about something, do some research on the topic. You may walk away learning something amazing!