2017-05-04 / Nature

Poisonous Snakes Rare on Island

By Charles Avenengo

The familiar garter snake is the most commonly encountered snake on Aquidneck Island. (Photo by Carmen Rugel) The familiar garter snake is the most commonly encountered snake on Aquidneck Island. (Photo by Carmen Rugel) For openers, there haven’t been any sighting of poisonous snakes on Aquidneck Island or anywhere in Rhode Island in three decades. Massachusetts and Connecticut both have them, and even remote Hawaii has a poisonous sea snake that occasionally washes ashore. But Rhode Island, along with Alaska, are the only two states seemingly without poisonous snakes.

The Ocean State once had timber rattlesnakes. Until 1905, they were reported at the northwestern part of the state in Foster. There was also a stronghold in Tiverton, where a granite ridge called “Rattlesnake Hill” once served as a wintering den or hibernaculum for them. But they haven’t been seen there since the late 1970s. The last reported occurrence of rattlers in Rhode Island was in Adamsville in 1986.

Currently, Rhode Island has a dozen species of non-poisonous snakes, but only three types are currently known to be present on Aquidneck Island.

Eastern milk snake. Eastern milk snake. One is the garter snake. This is the most widespread snake on both Aquidneck Island and in Rhode Island. It is the species most likely to be encountered. Although garter snakes vary in color, they are recognizable by three longitudinal yellowish stripes that run the length of their bodies. The adults vary from 16 to 42 inches, but are usually in the two-foot range. They are found in a variety of habitats, including gardens and homes, where they can be seen basking in the sun on concrete or rocks, and occasionally can even be spotted in basements. Excellent swimmers, garter snakes enter water to eat fish and tadpoles, although their primary prey are earthworms and amphibians, such as frogs, toads, and salamanders.

The second species we have on the island is the brown snake, the second most commonly encountered snake in our area. Brown snakes have a single light stripe that runs down the back and is bordered by parallel black lines. Paired black dots along each side form somewhat of a checkerboard pattern. They vary in color, from dark brown to tan or beige. Adults are generally around one foot long. Similar to garter snakes, brown snakes are widespread on the island and may be found around dwellings and under debris. Their primary food is earthworms and slugs.

A catbird boldly squaring-off with a brown snake. (Photos by Bob Weaver) A catbird boldly squaring-off with a brown snake. (Photos by Bob Weaver) Finally, there is the milk snake. Although seldom encountered, this species is the most commonly misidentified of the island’s snakes. This harmless milk snake is often confused with venomous snakes like the coral snake, copperhead, rattlesnake and nonvenomous species like king and corn snakes. None of those types of snakes are on the island. A handsome species, milk snakes are light in color with boldly patterned reddish-brown blotches bordered in black. Viewed from above, these blotches look like white and red bands. Milk snakes are the largest of the land snakes, normally growing to two to three feet, with some reaching more than four feet. Primarily nocturnal, they prey on small mammals, including rodents. Because of this, they are considered beneficial.

There is a remote possibility of up to four more species on the island, although two of these types haven’t been seen here for more than a century. According to State Herpetologist Chris Raithal of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the DEM has specimens from around 1900 of both the black racer and smooth green snake, which were known to inhabit Newport. Raithal said that specimens in their collection from a third type, the ringneck snake, also date from around the turn of the century. However, Aquidneck Island’s senior naturalist, Bob Weaver, added that he encountered a ringneck snake as a boy scout in 1960 at the Norman Bird Sanctuary. So, make that 57 years since its last sighting.

“The other mystery snake that should be here, but I have no information about, is the ribbon snake,” Raithal said. “It would not surprise me if they were found on Aquidneck Island, because they are on Jamestown and Patience Islands.

In the unlikely event that these snakes are encountered, Raithal encourages people to contact Newport This Week. Photographs are preferred.

Most humans have an innate fear of snakes, which is understandable. But because our snakes here on the island are harmless and even beneficial in pest control, there is no need to go bashing them on the head, should you encounter one.

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife about for more than 40 years.

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