February 7th, 2005

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The Hard Science of Biting Behavior in Poisonous Snakes

By Everette Busbee

We are a fraternity, or sorority-fraternity, so a pleasant brotherliness and sisterliness flavors most of FAOL's content. However, this goodwill is not impervious, and it can fall prey to the same subjects that undermine a well-prepared dinner -- politics, religion, and snakes. Nevertheless, we at FAOL pride ourselves on being part of a system for sharing relevant knowledge. Snakes, especially the poisonous and aquatic cottonmouth, ought to be allowed as a scientific subject, given that we fly anglers are a semi-aquatic species. Of course anyone is free to reject the knowledge that I think I might have.

Roger Stouff wrote a delightful tale of encounters with cottonmouths. Those of us who write know about exaggeration for effect. Literary exaggeration has a long and honorable and delightful history, with Mark Twain one of its masters. A problem can arise, however, if the reader does not recognize this exaggeration. (In fact, if enough people in a nation fail to separate exaggeration from truth, there can be great political consequences, but that is another matter.)

Some members have gently and generously interpreted Roger's article as a fisherman's tall tale, but others insist on a literal interpretation: Roger said it happened to him, the literalists say, so it indeed happened to him. This is quintessentially postmodern: One man's reality is as valid as the reality of any other, including the reality of the old herpetologist who has spent 10,000 hours out there with the snakes and lizards and frogs, not even counting all the summers he probably spent with the animals when he was a kid.

If I were to write about catching a 37-pound largemouth bass, I hope those same members who came so quickly to Roger's defense would come to mine, and that they would contend that I said it happened, so it happened. To be honest, though, there is a difference between the bass story and the snake story. You bring in a bass, and weigh it, it is either 37 pounds or it isn't. The snake stories involve a detailed description of the complex behavior of snakes and the interpretation of that behavior's significance. (The intricacy of animal behavior is, by the way, a central issue for us anglers: Why do fish bite certain of our flies that are presented in certain ways, but not others. Some swear that life-like imitations of local minnows are bass killers, while others say bass merely decide if the fly looks good to eat.)

Animal behavior, primarily that of the vertebrates, was my area of expertise for quite a while. We learned early on that it is one thing to describe what an animal does, and it is another to figure out why it does it, if in fact it is even knowable. On a lazy afternoon I was once kneeling by an Arkansas creek bank near the Mississippi, changing lures, and some large thing came up out of the water with a huge splash and bounced off my leg. Talk about the warm liquid not being a leak in the waders. I saw that is was a bowfin, grabbed it as it flopped around, and measured it before releasing it. 26 inches.

Why did it jump up on the bank? How the hell should I know? A misjudged lunge at a minnow? An uncontrollable joy of life? A low IQ? A brain tumor? One thing I am quite sure of is that, in spite of its ferocious set of teeth, the bowfin did not lunge out of the water with intent to do me bodily harm. I can, however, imagine my mother looking at it that way if she had been there.

Interpretation is influenced by our worldview. Some research from the 50s, I think it was, involved a short strip of film being shown to subjects who were later asked to describe it. The film shows a crowded bus, and suddenly a white man pulls a knife on a black man just as the film ends. A majority of the subjects (all white) reported seeing the black man pull a knife on the white man. They saw not what happened, but what they expected to happen. This sort of thing is a fact of life among our species. An attempted escape by a snake might even be interpreted as an attack by that snake.

At the approach of danger, the first thing an aquatic snake tends to do is head for the water. But if a boat unexpectedly bumps into a bank full of sunning snakes ("Fangs seemingly the length of daggers gleamed everywhere."), those snakes' lives have suddenly become more complicated. One option is to remain motionless and hope for the best. Another is to try to escape by heading away from the boat (and away from the water), but this is a potentially dangerous choice. Another is for the snakes to say to hell with the boat and hightail straight past it for the water and perfect safety. To an occupant of the boat, this could look like a mass attack.

In addition to our worldview of snakes, our psychological state affects our interpretations. One reason Roger's story was so pleasant to read was the effectiveness with which he presented himself as panic-stricken. He even says he was "hallucinating badly." This state of mind might make for an unscientific interpretation of snake behavior.

As proof of cottonmouth aggressiveness, members have pointed out the species' habit of coiling and showing the white lining of its mouth that gives it its name. To an animal behaviorist, coiling and showing the "cotton" are the opposite of aggressive, they are transparently defensive. It's the big bluff about being the meanest mother in the valley. In truth, if these snakes were capable of wearing waders, theirs would be as full of warm liquid as the typical fly fisher's. All the snakes want is for you to leave.

As I mentioned in a post, I caught some 25 rattlesnakes in the Californian desert for some minor research, and I found that the most important skill for catching them was stealth. If you aren't quiet, the rattlers are history. However, if you manage to come between them and the only bit a scrub within a few yards, they get awfully nervous out there surrounded only by sand. They coil up and rattle, their version of the meanest-mother-in-the-valley act. All they want is for you to leave. If you just stand there long enough, they will usually try to slip away to the nearest vegetation. They never made a run for me.

The bluff seems to be effective for many FAOL members and the people they wrote about. Uncles jumping out of boats, men fleeing on foot for a half a mile, a fisherman nearly putting a hole in his boat as he got away. We even got the story of a 15-year-old girl unable to stop screaming at the little garter snake in her room, and the snake wasn't even in a bluffing mode.

When a stick is tossed toward a coiled cottonmouth, it may not flee, because if it uncoils and is also facing away from you, it is vulnerable, especially given its slowness. Evolutionarily speaking, these snakes will be more successful if they bluff at the right time and flee at the right time. They are also surely more successful (leave more offspring) when they don't go around indiscriminately chasing humans. What do they have to gain?

At times snakes of course do bite, but people often have to work really hard to get bitten. About half the poisonous snakebites in the US result from young men poking at a snake or trying to catch or kill it. Consequently, they get bitten on their hands or arms. (The other half of snakebites occur when the snake is accidentally stepped on or is approached very closely.)

The research involving the knife in the bus shows that we often see what we expect to see. I expect cottonmouths and rattlesnakes and copperheads to do their best to get away from me, and as I wrote in a post, my teenage buddies and I swam in a huge cottonmouth "infested" swamp and never got chased. We poled along and the cottonmouths (and the water snakes) simply slipped into the water and swam off as we approached. I can't think of any possible good it would have done the snakes for them to approach us while we were cavorting in the water. I guess the snakes couldn't think of any reason to approach us, either.

In those same snaky waters we kids swam in, we would sneak up under wasp nests as big as a small dinner plate and splash hell out of them, swim away under water, and repeat this several times. Then we just swam up under the nests and broke off the piece of bush they were connected to. As scores of wasps circled overhead, we swam away with nests full of enough larvae and pupae to fish for bream the rest of the day. It was less work than digging worms, and more fun, and we never got stung.

Nowadays when a wasp enters one of my classrooms, the screaming is as loud as on a major roller coaster. I simply continue my lecture and wait for the wasp to land, usually on a window. I walk over and get it to walk up on my finger, never breaking the stride of my lecture. I take the wasp to an open window and flick it off. I do this a few times and the students get bored and ignore the wasps for the rest of the semester. (I do not pick the wasp up, nor do I become panicky and swat wildly at the wasp, which is almost a request to get stung. Panic is also our enemy when we encounter poisonous snakes.)

It is helpful to know that snakes, like deer, basically don't see you if you remain motionless. Sit quietly on a bank, and a cottonmouth may well swim toward you. This leads to many stories of people freezing in their tracks for 30 minutes as a snake "looks them over." The snake probably didn't even see them, it was just hanging out.

Granted, we all have our own realities, and who is to say that mine is more valid than the reality of others. My reality is this: First, the cottonmouth tries to get to the safety of the water. If it feels this attempt would be dangerous, it freezes. If further threatened, it tries the big bluff of coiling and opening its mouth. Finally, as in the research I reported earlier, it may bite, but barely over a third of the time even if it is picked up. This model of cottonmouth behavior holds together well for most people who know snakes. It fits the research, and it explains why most years in the US, no one dies of a cottonmouth bite.

Which leads to a question: If cottonmouths are so damned vicious and aggressive, so single-mindedly intent on doing us in, and at the same time are so incredibly lethal, why are they so ineffective at sending us to the cemetery?

This subject of aggressiveness leads to a final question. When a young man is poking at a snake or trying to catch or kill it and gets bitten (which is the situation in about half of all poisonous snakebites in the US), which one is best described as aggressive, the snake or the young man?

When you encounter a poisonous snake, stay cool. Take out your camera, preferably with a tele lens, and get a few shots. Step back, pick out a fly, and tie it on. Sharpen your hooks. Figure out where the fish are. In the unlikelihood that the snake is still there, yell at it and kick some gravel in its direction. Or just give up and start fishing. Just don't forget where it is and accidentally step on it. ~ Busbee

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