Licking the Edge of the Taxonomic Fight Club: The Eastern Rat Snake of the Gray Variety (FIGHT!)

Pantherophis alleghaniensis, the Eastern (gray) rat snake;
Lowndes county, Georgia (28 April 2012).

Following up on our last post’s taxonomic mayhem regarding Cottonmouths in Lowndes county, Georgia, here’s another one that tends to ruffle feathers of would-be taxonomists these days: The Eastern rat snakes of south Georgia. Oh boy, this one really gets people going… Buckle up; we’re off to crazyland:

Once upon a time, the grayish-colored rat snakes of southern Georgia were considered to be Pantherophis spiloides. Thanks to genetic studies, however, it now seems that these south Georgia rat snakes are, in fact, Eastern rat snakes — Pantherophis alleghaniensis. In Florida, Eastern rats snakes tend to be yellow (or even orange in extreme south Florida) with black stripes. Locally, we call these Yellow rat snakes. Heading north, the yellow pattern fades out to a mottled grayish/brownish pattern. These are regionally called Gray rat snakes, but they’re really just grayish/brownish Eastern rat snakes. Further north, beyond even Georgia, the Eastern rat snakes take on a fairly dark dorsal pattern. Regionally, those have are called Black rat snakes, but, again, they’re just blackish Eastern rat snakes. As you head west, however, you break into Pantherophis spiloides (the Central rat snake) territory and eventually to Pantherophis obsoletus (the Western rat snake). In the Eastern portion of the United States, however, you’re in Pantherophis alleghaniensis territory — whether they’re orange, yellow, gray, or black. P. alleghaniensis is indeed a variable species by region.

That’s not too confusing, right? Welp…

In southern Georgia, where the grayish Eastern rat snakes scratch out a living, it makes sense that they’re generally referred to as “Gray rat snakes,” right? They are, after all, sort of gray-ish. Sometimes more brownish or tannish, to be honest, but some are indeed very, very gray. Well, the only problem is that P. spiloides, the Central rat snake, is more also commonly known as the “Gray rat snake”… P. spiloides doesn’t technically range into this part of Georgia (this region is dominated by P. alleghaniensis), but it just so happens that P. alleghaniensis in southern Georgia looks a hell of a lot like P. spiloides. They’re both “grayish” rat snakes and both generally called “Gray rat snakes,”, but the ones in southcentral Georgia happen to be Eastern rat snakes, not Central “Gray” rat snakes. Alas, confusion! Gah!

Still, that’s not tooooo confusing, right? Grab a beer, take a seat, and buckle up, hominid. It gets worse:

There’s also a remaining motley crew of naysayers who don’t buy the whole Pantherophis genus classifications… Heaps of herpers (usually older ones) still prefer the elder Elaphe genus designation — with a whole variety of species and subspecies ranks. For example, Elaphe obsoleta spiloides is another ranking for the Gray rat snake (like P. spiloides). So too is Elaphe spiloides. Some folks think the south Georgia Easterns rats are Elaphe spiloides; others think they’re Elaphe obsolete spiloides. And if you don’t think you’re having heaps of fun reading this, try reading all this aloud. It’s mayhem. Carnage. Taxonomic cray-cray. Your worst nightmare of a drunken debate in a bar.

Regardless of which Latin terms you may (or may not) prefer, folks still stubbornly insist that the grayish Eastern rat snakes of southern Georgia must (“By God, They Must!”) be Gray rat snakes because of their visual appearance. Thus, even folks who have adopted the current and dominant Pantherophis taxonomy will still argue that these rat snakes must be Gray rat snakes, Pantherophis spiloides, and not Eastern. For reasons not quite understandable to me, these people often have very strong opinions about such designations. If you disagree with them, prepare to be bashed in the face with a barrage of personal-testimony ethos plays (because “what do genetics show? I’ve been there, man“).

As for myself, I’m no geneticist or professionally trained taxonomist, so I simply try to adhere to the current, dominant tides of taxonomy that seem to carry the most scientific merit. We live in an era of change and of discovery. Thus, we live in an era of uncertainty and growth. I’m okay with that. When I photographed the snake featured here in April of 2012, I totally thought it was a Gray rat snakes — Pantherophis spiloides. Since then, I learned more about our understanding of these snakes and have upgraded my mindset, if you will, to Pantherophis alleghaniensis for the south Georgia rat snakes I worked with and photographed.

I had a guy on iNaturalist actually call me a “coward” for updating my classification tags of my south Georgia rat snake photographs from P. spiloides to P. alleghaniensis. In his view, I was a coward who buckled beneath the bullying might of the bullshit science people. Heh. Like I said, people go batshit crazy over New World rat snake classifications. Bat-sheet-cray-cray.

Anyhow, I won’t engage in a fight with anyone about this taxonomical debate anymore. If somebody wants to call them Gray rat snakes, have at it, lad. You can call them “Tinseled Pine Cone Snakes with a Twist of Lemon” if you’d like. I’m fine with that. As for myself, I simply go with the Eastern rat snake, Pantherophis alleghaniensis, and possibly with a healthy, swanky mix of DNA from across the region and across the genetic spectrum.

Indeed, the single best lesson I learned in my two years in Valdosta, Georgia, a region dominated by intergrades, hybrids, and transition zones between species, is that taxonomical divisions rarely play as binaries in the real world we live in — a real world dominated by regional terminologies and exceptions to the rule. I also learned that there are some debates you simply shouldn’t touch unless you’re doing the gene studies yourself (or are highly literate in such areas of study) because people can be frakkin’ mental about this stuff.

Eastern rat snakes very well may be calm, cool, and collected serpents, but the people who like to call them this or name them that can be absolutely mental. As for myself, I’ll continue to follow along, and I’ll continue to update my own thinking in response to the work of those who know far better than myself what makes these snakes tick and how they are genetically related. Call me a coward!

Next up? Another cool South Georgia serpentine variant — though not one that carries a rage-fueled taxonomic debate (thank god).

A Young Florida Cottonmouth Stays Cool in the Heat of the Taxonomic Debate

Agkistrodon conanti, the Florida cottonmouth,
aka Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti;
Lowndes county, Georgia (22 April 2012).

A few years back, I lived for in Lowndes county, Georgia, for a short spell. About 25 miles north of the Florida/Georgia line, it was a fascinating place to look for and observe wild snakes. This range of extreme southern Georgia is essentially an intergradation zone between many of the “Florida” taxa and their “Eastern” or “Southern” counterparts. When you dig into the literature and scholarship, the typical arguments about taxonomy and classification are magnified immeasurably in extreme southern Georgia because of intergradation or hybridization. Further, I keep running into people (online and in the flesh) who have very strong opinions about various species/subspecies in this region. When it comes to cottonmouths, rat snakes, and watersnakes, boy howdy, there’s some serious disagreement when it comes to naming things in southern Georgia.

With that in mind, featured here is a young cottonmouth photographed in Lowndes county, Georgia, back in April of 2012. Most range maps consider cottonmouths in this area to be Florida cottonmouths, but some do register them as intergrades between Florida cottonmouths and Eastern cottonmouths. Not too much of a difference, right? Well, that depends on where you stand on species taxonomy of cottonmouths… Some folks consider the Florida cottonmouth to be a subspecies (Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti (conanti being the subspecies rank). Other folks, based on more recent scholarship, think of the Florida cottonmouth as being its own distinct species, Agkistrodon conanti (conanti being the new species rank), separate from the Eastern cottonmouth (classified merely as Agkistrodon piscivorus).

So, which is this one? Well, I’ll just call it a Florida cottonmouth and leave it at that. I know some folks who swear by the almighty trident of Poseidon that Lowndes county cottonmouths must (“By God, they must!”) be Eastern cottonmouths if not intergrades of Easterns and Floridas, but, hey, since we can’t even agree whether or not Easterns and Floridas are related species or related subspecies, I’m just gonna say “Florida cottonmouth” for now and call it a day. We’ll let the ever-continuing gene studies sort this out over time.

As for this little Florida cottonmouth, it’s a fine example of a juvenile cottonmouth: very bright with thick contrasts, a yellow-tipped tail, and patterning to beat all bands.

I remember a guy walking by us (the snake and myself) on the boardwalk trail and exclaiming that this must (“By God, it must!”) be a copperhead, which is an entirely different species altogether (Agkistrodon contortrix). The copperhead is a species that doesn’t reliably range in this part of southern Georgia, though some people will definitely disagree with that assertion (“By God, it does!”).  I’m not kidding: passionate taxonomical disagreement is more rampant in southern Georgia than shotgun racks and church services. It’s insane.

One thing that wasn’t insane, however, was this juvenile cottonmouth. Despite being a juvenile disturbed somewhat by the massive, lumbering hominid with a dip net and a Nikon magic box, this young snake kept its cool the entire time I worked with it. No aggression, no mayhem, no carnage, no panic, no violence. Nada. Yet again, this young individual proved how agreeable and cooperative so many cottonmouths truly can be. Though venomous and deserving of great respect and caution, I honestly don’t understand how or why people think this species is so aggressive. I’ve never once seen a truly aggressive cottonmouth, though I have seen some hyper and/or stubborn ones. Rather, whenever I see a cottonmouth around other people, it’s the people who prove themselves to be aggressive and grotesquely misinformed.

Fortunately, after a quick round of shots as seen below, the young cottonmouth slinked off the elevated boardwalk and dipped back down into the water — free and clear of humanity, its aggression, and its taxonomical fury.

The Southern Ringneck Snake, 29 March 2014

Diadophis punctatus punctatus, the Southern ringneck snake;
Lake county, Florida (29 March 2014).

The Southern ringneck snake, Diadophis punctatus punctatus, is a small, reclusive species averaging only about a foot in length; I usually see them a bit shorter. Preying primarily upon slugs, earthworms, salamanders, and the occasional wee lizard, Southern ringneck spend most of their time somewhat covered beneath surface debris such as leaves, palms, and the like. I usually find them on open ground either at night or after a good, solid rain. Note the brightness of the ventral scales — especially along that bottom of the tail. Presumably as a defensive measure, the Southern ringneck will flash and coil the underside of its tail, wiggling it around, I suppose, to distract a would-be predator from hitting the part that really matters: the Ringneck’s head. Not a bad move to have in your pocket if you’re a teeny-tiny little snake, right?

The Carolina Green Anole, 31 August 2011

Anolis carolinensis, the Carolina green anole;
Lowndes county, Georgia (31 August 2011).

Here are some simple shots of a simple Carolina green anole, Anolis carolinensis, simply basking in an ocean of fluid greenery. So much green!

The Eastern Garter Snake, 09 April 2014

Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis, the Eastern garter snake;
Flagler county, Florida (09 April 2014).

The Garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis, is one of the most wide-ranging snake species on the North American continent. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the southern border to beyond the north, Garter snakes are remarkably adaptable organisms. There are currently a dozen or so recognized subspecies of Garter snakes — by some measures, at least. In Florida, we have the nominate subspecies: Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis, known regionally and commonly as the Eastern garter snake.

In east and northeast Florida, especially within the coastal counties, our Eastern garter snakes often carry a bluish-green tone to their patterning. Eastern garters further north and even to the south don’t necessarily have such a bluish-green shine to their coat, but I have seen this design elsewhere from time to time. It’s simply more common here, it seems. This provides an exceptional example of “Ordinary but Extraordinary.” Seriously, as common as garters may be, I’m always thrilled to see a wild one in Florida. You’d be hard pressed to find a more attractive snake in Florida (at least if you like blue-green tones).

This individual was photographed in Flagler county, Florida. A splendid serpent.

NOTE: This is not the same as Thamnophis sirtalis similis, the so-called Blue-striped garter snake; that sub-species technically ranges along Florida’s west coast within the big bend region. Personally, I don’t put too much stock in subspecies divisions. With no natural barrier between subspecies, phenotypic drift, so to speak, is to be expected. In other words, I think of ours as Garter snakes with some awesome blue-green tones in their genetic makeup.

The Six-spotted Fishing Spider, 01 March 2012

Dolomedes triton, the Six-spotted fishing spider;
Lowndes county, Georgia (01 March 2012).

Ranging across much of North America (including portions of Canada and Mexico), the Six-spotted fishing spider, Dolomedes triton, is an elegant and agile little arachnid. This species is adapted to essentially living on calm bodies of water — namely lakes and ponds. Hunting aquatic-born insects, tadpoles, and small fish, the Six-spotted fishing spider can actually stand on open water, gazing down and waiting for a meal to approach. They are also able to dive into the water — sometimes as a retreat from an would-be predator from above. In Florida, this species can be ridiculously abundant, but they’re often overlooked due to their diminutive status in the Big Scheme of Things.

The Great (Dirty Whitish) Blue Heron, 10 July 2011

Ardea herodias (occidentalis), the Great blue heron (dirty white form);
Monroe county, Florida (10 July 2011).

When you’re in the Florida Keys, you may stumble across a Great blue heron that, though still great, ain’t quite that blue. That’s because many Great blue herons ranging in the Florida Keys are actually a white-morph form: The “Great white heron.” Some folks consider these Great white herons to be an entirely separate subspecies: Ardea herodias occidentalis. Personally, I don’t put too much stock in subspecies differentiations at this point. Even if I did, I’m not exactly up to speed on the data about this particular species and its respective subspecies classifications. Finally, the individual featured here was a half-n-half, if you will… Though it lacked the blue head plumage typical on Great blue herons further to the north in my home territory of central Florida, it still had a bit of a faded blue dorsal tone. Given its size, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a kid. Anyhow, issues of subspeciation aside, I found this particular heron to be an absolute visual delight. A lovely and understated beauty backdropped by that fantastic Keysian water. Not a bad way to scratch out a living on this raging marble we call Earth, right?

Ardea herodias, 10 July 2011). (1)

The Great Blue Heron, 12 January 2014

Ardea herodias, the Great blue heron;
Flagler county, Florida (12 January 2014).

This is a fairly typical Great blue heron, Ardea herodias, a common avian staple throughout the entirety of Florida and much of North and Central America. Fairly large and somewhat regal, the Great blue heron knows how to chillax with style. If you get too close, however, you may be treated with the Great blue heron’s obnoxiously humorous fly-away-call. When they fly away from being disturbed, this species sometimes makes the most godawful racket. In a sense, they remind me of fourteen year children who have no problem letting you know exactly what a pain in the ass you are to them. Wah-wah-wah-wah-wah-WAH! Still, a lovely bird to look at… in silence.

 

The Key Deer: A Miniaturized but Not Weaponized Morsel of Cute; 09 July 2011

Odocoileus virginianus clavium, the Key deer;
Monroe county, Florida (09 July 2011).

Since I’m in a Keysian state of mind, let’s skip back a few years, shall we? Featured here are a number of Key deer, Odocoileus virginianus clavium,  a miniaturized (but not weaponized) subspecies of the white-tailed deer. This tiny deer, carrying an average weight of only 45 to 75 pounds or so, scratches out a living in the Florida Keys, feeding primarily on red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle). They’re most focused in the Big Pine Key area, much of which is designated the National Key Deer Refuge.

A federally protected subspecies, there aren’t heaps and heaps of Key deer remaining. I’m not sure what the official estimate is today, but it’s probably still between 700 and 800. That being said, we damn near lost the subspecies altogether in the 1950s, and, all things considered, they’re made a fairly impressive recovery. It’s not uncommon to find them lounging about along the mangrove shorelines and neighborhoods of the Big Pine Key area — where they frequently encounter humans. As you might gather from these photographs, they’re also fairly comfortable around humans.

In the Water at Bahia Honda, 26 July 2018

Bahia Honda State Park;
Monroe county, Florida (26 July 2018).

During my lightning-fast, solo-romp through the Florida Keys in search of lizards and adventure, I stopped at a few places to try my iPhone’s camera in some open water. The iPhone X is waterproof, but I’ve largely been a coward about getting it wet and trying to use the camera. I decided to finally try it out in some relatively calm water. The results? Not what I’d call spectacular photography, but good heavens… my freakin’ phone took these?

Check out a few results below (including):

  • Thalassia testudinum, Turtle grass;
  • Haemulon parra, the Sailor’s choice;
  • Abudefduf saxatillis, the Atlantic sergeant major;
  • Chaetodon ocellatus, the Spotted butterfly fish;
  • A marine worm of Suborder Sabellida;

Article: Discovery of New Dimorphic Anolis/Chamaeleolis from Cuba

A brand spanking new species of Anolis/Chamaeleolis? Yes, please.

Check it out:

Screen Shot 2018-08-06 at 9.12.54 PM

Zahradníčková, Veronika Holáňová. (5 Aug. 2018). Discovery of new dimorphic Anolis/Chamaeleolis from Cuba. Anole Annals, http://www.anoleannals.org/2018/08/05/discovery-of-new-dimorphic-anolis-chamaeleolis-from-cuba/.

 

A Most Uncooperative Florida Cottonmouth, 26 July 2018

Agkistrodon conanti, the Florida cottonmouth,
aka Agkistrodon piscivorus conanti;
Miami-Dade county, Florida (26 July 2018).

In my experience, you can generally divide snakes into two camps from a photographic perspective: the sort-of-cooperative snakes and the not-cooperative-in-the-gotdamn-slightest snakes. For example, Southern black racers are generally less than uncooperative while Yellow rat snakes often are fairly cooperative. It’s not a hard-line rule on either end, however. There are always exceptions to the standard. I’ve encountered a few fairly placid Southern black racers in my time, and sometimes I come across a Yellow rat snake with hellfire and madness in its veins. Still, some species are generally more cooperative than others when you’re trying to snag photographs.

Interestingly, and despite their reputation, Florida cottonmouths more often than not also fall into the soft-of-cooperative side of the equation. Personally, I find Florida cottonmouths to be generally patient and cooperative when I’m trying to photograph them. Despite popular opinion, they’re not really aggressive at all. That being said, this little cottonmouth was the stark exception to the standard. Though still not aggressive, this little viper was not cooperative in the gotdam slightest. Heh.

I came across the snake crossing a south Florida road fairly late at night and after a nice round of thunderstorms. Once it spotted me (headlamp and camera and all) coming, this little Cottonmouth decided to get the hell out of dodge. Nothing I did eased its desire to get the hell out of the road. It never stopped moving — even when I was in front of it. No matter what I did, how I moved, or where I positioned myself, this little fellow just wouldn’t simmer down. No defensive posturing from this one. Just MUST-GO! MUST-GO!

Rather than meddling with the determined Cottonmouth extensively, I was content to snag a few quick shots as we danced/slithered back and forth across the pavement. With other cars soon to come, I soon let the snake go about its way and, yes, get the hell out of dodge. This was definitely one of the rowdier Florida cottonmouths I’ve encountered, and good for it. When it comes to people, Florida cottonmouths should get the hell out of dodge. Unlike Cottonmouths and snakes more generally, people are more than eager to go out of their way to aggress upon wild animals and slaughter them needlessly.

Happy trails, uncooperative-Cottonmouth. My the road rise up to meet your scales for many more days to come!