Monday, October 15, 2007

Canebrake Rattlesnake: Long Distance Swimmer

On a recent trip to Lake Oconee, my husband Walt and son Justin were escorting me in a pontoon boat as I was sculling from the Redlands Wildlife Management Area boat ramp to the Old Salem Park. The first section of this trip takes me through a sunken forest on the east shore of the lake. The pontoon boat can’t follow me through this area so Walt and Justin cross the lake and travel along western shore to meet me at the railway bridge from which point we can travel together.

Normally the pontoon boat makes its way slowly but deliberately from the boat ramp to the railway bridge. This day, however, the pontoon boat was not where I expected to see it. I looked back up the lake along the route they would take and could see the boat making its way back and forth along a short section of shore. Only later did Walt and Justin explain what they were doing – with pictures to prove it.

As they were making their way through the area marked by the arrow, they saw a snake swimming purposefully across the lake. It was approximately one-quarter way across the lake when they spotted it and there was no doubt that it was a rattlesnake.

As the boat approached cautiously, the snake turned, assumed a more defensive pose and raised its head out of the water to face the intruder. When the boat was about 6 feet (2 meters) from the snake, it coiled into a striking pose. In both of these photographs, the ripples from the motion of the rattle are clearly visible on the water surface. When the boat retreated, the snake continued its way across the lake. Based on the brown stripe running down its back, they identified the snake as a canebrake rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus atricaudatus).


Canebrake rattlesnakes inhabit flood plains and swampy areas; their cousins, the timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus horridus) tend to inhabit drier forests. These rattlesnakes are not aggressive by nature. I’ve heard of other encounters and have wrangled both baby and adult canebrake rattlesnakes while they were photographed. These snakes showed no aggressive tendencies; they showed little tendency to coil or to threaten or strike even when they were corralled for a considerable length of time.

hese snakes are currently common in Georgia but are subject to being killed on roads particularly in the vicinity of homes in rural areas. I have seen many killed on roads in rural areas. In some cases, these snakes were not killed ‘accidentally’ but, based on where the carcasses were located, motorists had deliberately driven out of the normal traffic lanes to run over them. As development encroaches on rural areas, habitats in which these snakes live will be destroyed. More frequent encounters can be anticipated between man and snake as rural areas are increasingly developed. These encounters will inevitably result in an increased reduction in their numbers over time.

What is most intriguing about this encounter, however, is that the snake was not simply swimming along the shore; it was swimming quite deliberately across the lake. After the encounter, the snake continued on its way - in the direction it was going when first sighted. How did the snake know that there was something on the other side to swim to? Had it swum from the other side to this side? Was it on its way back? Did it make this journey frequently?

Photographs: Walter W. Knapp; Maps: Google maps


Kind of Curious said...

These are great photos. I don't think I would have gotten as close as you did, especially with him rattling, but it was worth the photos since you didn't get bitten.

JSK said...

Actually, these were taken from a pontoon boat with a telephoto lens - not by me in my rowing shell. The photos look impressive but the snake didn't pose any danger to the photographer.

In my experience, the timber rattler is not aggressive on land. It might be a different case in they water where they might feel considerably more vulnerable.

I did have an encounter with a very large snake in Rutledge Lake in Hard Labor State Park some years ago. I was sitting perpendicular to the shore. The snake swam along the shore out just behind the boat and then angled back to the shore and went on its way. I was quite nervous and didn't take my eyes off it until it was gone. It was - probably a water snake - might have been a different story if it was a cottonmouth.