Snakes on the Beach!

Crystal Canterbury

Sharks are getting a break from being the most feared animal along the seashore since a video made its rounds online that showed a Canebrake rattlesnake on Ocracoke’s beach.

Snakes on the Beach!
Photos by Sam Corlis
The great footage, captured by Sam Corlis, showed the large snake slithering its way to the ocean and prompted a multitude of questions. “Was there a python on your beach?” “What do you mean poisonous snakes are on Ocracoke?” “Is it safe to swim in the ocean?” “Will a snake come after me if I’m kayaking in the sound?” “How do you know if a snake is poisonous or not?”

The Coastal Plain of North Carolina is home to 37 snakes, six of which are venomous. Quite often snakes are incorrectly referred to as being poisonous, but their bites deliver venom directly into their prey, so they are classified as being venomous reptiles. In order to be poisoned, say by an American toad (which lives up and down the East Coast) or by berries of the Virginia Creeper Vine (which we have here on Ocracoke) you have to ingest, inhale, or absorb the toxin. So, as we continue to discuss snakes, I’ll refer to them as either venomous or non-venomous. Just to make you feel better about the wilderness in general, remember that out of 37 snake species that live in North Carolina’s Coastal Plain, only six are venomous.

Snakes on the Beach!

Pit vipers, named so because of the pit – or depression – between their eyes and nostrils, are broken into sub-species. Along the Coastal Plain and Outer Banks, you could potentially see five: Copperhead, Water moccasin (also known as a Cottonmouth), Canebrake rattlesnake, Pigmy rattlesnakes, and Diamondback rattlesnakes. Pit vipers have a sensory organ called a thermoreceptor located in the depression which allows them to detect body heat from warm-blooded animals. They hunt their prey using their thermoreceptor, or as food presents itself, often chowing down on mice and rats.

The sixth venomous snake found in Coastal Plain areas is the coral snake. This brightly colored reptile is in the same family as cobras and mambas and is often referred to as the American cobra. These snakes eat lizards, frogs, and sometimes other coral snakes.

But, let’s get back to our visiting snake. Sam Corlis was visiting with her husband, Michael, back in mid-August. Hailing from West Virginia, they are longtime Ocracoke visitors, and love to take photos at the beach. She told us about her reptilian encounter in a recent email. "Michael and I love to go to the ends of the island, particularly at the end of most people's beach day," she wrote. "As the sun comes down you can get the spectacular sunsets, of course. But just before that is what we call "the Sweet Light" – the warm, low-angled light that makes for good pictures. Although I have seen several variety of snakes on Ocracoke, mostly in the backwaters and Springers Point, It had never occurred to me, much like a lot of people, that I would come across what I did!"

Snakes on the Beach!

One evening, she went out at low tide to shoot pictures. She recalls that it had rained the night before and the sand was smooth and hard-packed, with clumps of seaweed at the high tide line. Looking ahead, she noticed agitated birds. 

"I kept walking to see what I figured would be some fish or such caught up in the seaweed and the birds were making a meal of it," she wrote. "I was still about a hundred or less yards away when I could see the 'clump' move. Okay! Something interesting to go investigate! I got within maybe 20-30 yards and a most beautifully golden, but LARGE, snake stretched out before me. I had no idea what kind it was, but knew enough to keep a safe distance. I know MY snakes in WV, but not those of NC. I quickly got my camera (Canon sx50 HD) and took advantage of the fact that it has an awesome zoom. I took several pictures, moved a bit closer and must have gotten the snake's attention because it moved towards me!


"I couldn't help but notice the upright angle it kept the tip of its tail. I had only seen that characteristic on the rattlesnakes I had seen in books and on TV. Then, with a closer zoom in, I could see what appeared to be the typical "buttons" of a rattlesnake tail. But there were so few, and maybe, I  thought, something had happened to the tail and it caused scarring that made it Look like rattles.

Snakes on the Beach!


"However, I was not about to allow this big, unidentified reptile to close the gap between us, and I retreated enough to keep a constant safe distance. I assume that the creature felt I was of no great threat because it turned towards the water. With my zoom, I videoed as much of its actions as I could. I was mesmerized! The snake took to the surf and headed out to sea as though it knew what it was doing"

The general consensus is that what slithered across the beach here was a Canebrake snake, which until recently was classified as a sub-species of the Timber Rattle snake. Some people don’t refer to them as Canebrake or Timber rattle snakes but instead call them Banded rattlesnakes.

While it is unusual to see one of these serpents on the oceanside of the island, it is not completely surprising. Most snake encounters happen near or in water and since all snakes can swim they can traverse any body of water. Snakes like to sun themselves (I mean, who doesn’t?) and will give people quite a fright when they fall off a limb and land in grassy areas or make a splash landing in water.

Canebrakes live in unpopulated areas that include rocky hillsides, woodlands, fields, ponds, rivers, agricultural sites, swamps, and marshland areas. Basically, these reptiles know how to adapt and do a great job of thriving in whatever habitat they’re in. For food, Canebrakes remain coiled and motionless until a meal presents itself. They will dine on small rodents and mammals such as rats, mice, squirrels, and rabbits, and sometimes even birds and other snakes after injecting their prey with venom.

Snakes on the Beach!

Canebrakes prefer cool but not cold water, so swampy/marshy areas are just their cup of tea and why there is the potential to see them here. They like to use stumps and ground cover to hide and while they are active both day and night, during the height of summer these venomous snakes are more active at night when it’s cooler.

Unless threatened, Canebrake snakes will leave you alone (remaining motionless either coiled or stretched out) and are considered to be relatively docile in the wild. Despite this, snakes of all kinds are often targets of human fear and aggression, even if the snake is not an imminent danger to anyone or anything. Snake populations are also impacted by habitat destruction and because Canebrake snakes can travel long distances, they often become road kill.

The sighting of the Canebrake on Ocracoke’s beach makes a bit more sense knowing these reptiles can cover a lot of ground and how they thrive in coastal habitats. More than likely, the snake seen here was on his or her to another location, even if going via Atlantic Ocean was the long way ‘round.

Canebrake fun facts:

- They can live between 30-37 years!

- Females reach maturity around 5 years but will not have litters every year.

- Baby Canebrakes are usually born in August and September.

- Females can produce anywhere between 5 and 19 babies in a litter.

- During winter months, groups of Canebrake snakes hibernate together.

- Baby snakes hatch from eggs while inside the female’s body, then once they’re hatched she live-births them.

- Adult snakes can be anywhere from 4-6 feet in length, with the males being at the larger end of that range. Ocracoke's snake was probably a female!


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