03/26/10 — Marsh: Snakes not as scary when seen in captivity

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Marsh: Snakes not as scary when seen in captivity

By Mike Marsh
Published in Sports on March 26, 2010 1:47 PM

While many people have a fear of snakes, Morgan Wilson of Hampstead showed little hesitation as she reached out to touch a northern pine snake with her fingertip. The 6-foot snake was strikingly handsome, marked with contrasting bars and diamonds of black and white.

"I liked it," said the six-year-old kindergarten student at Topsail Elementary School. "It felt rough."

Keith Farmer of the North Carolina Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC) said the reaction was typical for someone who hasn't been taught to fear snakes and amphibians. He held the pine snake for Wilson's examination and the snake was as docile as a sleeping puppy. The pine snake was among several non-venomous snakes resting across the tops of some cages holding venomous snakes on a table at the Second Annual Cape Fear Wildlife Expo, which was held at the Wilmington's Coastline Convention Center March 20-21. The cages were marked with the names of timber rattler, cottonmouth and copperhead.

Resting calmly on top of the cages along with the pine snake were other snakes similar to dangerous snakes that pose not threat to humans. A pair of corn snakes, which some people may mistake for copperheads, rested peacefully under bright lights that kept them warm and illuminated the exhibit for easy viewing.

"I volunteer with PARC for educational events like these," Farmer said. "We try to save habitat for reptiles and amphibians. We teach people the difference between dangerous snakes and harmless snakes so they won't fear them and kill them. Snakes are important to our ecosystems so everyone should learn more about them."

Farmer spouted off the names, both common and scientific, for amphibian species such as the red salamander, Pseudotriton ruber, as easily as a cook names spices that go into a favorite recipe. He said the marbled salamander, Ambystoma opacum, has a unique life cycle. Like the pine snake, these salamanders are native to North Carolina, yet are seldom seen by people who don't look for them in the right places.

"Once you learn more about them, frogs, turtles, snakes, lizards and salamanders are fascinating," Farmer said. "I've been poking around in the swamps ever since I was young."

Farmer told about some of his finds, which included three pythons in Pender County.

"I got a call from the police in Burgaw," he said. "There was a large snake that turned out to be a bald python. People turn things loose that they shouldn't all the time. We really need better laws preventing that sort of thing."

Asked whether pythons, such as the Burmese python that has made national news since colonizing the Everglades National Park in Florida, will ever become established in North Carolina, he said it was just a bunch of hype.

"They've done studies where they've placed pythons in outside pens and they didn't survive here," he said. "I don't think they will get up this far, although they certainly have established a foothold in Florida."

Non-indigenous animals such as pythons are another danger that threaten native reptiles and amphibians since pythons and other constrictors prey on native species. But direct human impacts, such as killing them intentionally or through practices that alter or destroy their habitats, are the more pressing threats to native amphibians and reptiles. Several laws aimed at protecting native reptiles and amphibians have been passed by the N.C. legislature in recent years, limiting the number of reptiles and amphibians that can be possessed and tightening protection of some venomous snakes, including rattlesnakes and coral snakes.

For more information about reptiles and amphibians in North Carolina visit the NCPARC website at http://www.ncparc.org and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission website, http://www.ncwildlife.org. A book, "A Guide to The Snakes of North Carolina" is available from the N.C. Wild Store at the commission's website.