For those of you out there on the fence about snakes, here is my tale of overcoming ophidiophobia - the fear of snakes.
Until very recently, I have been terrified of snakes. Not just snakes but twigs, belts, shoe laces..pretty much anything that could look like a snake in my peripheral vision. I'm not sure where this (at times) debilitating phobia originated, but since I was a kid my fear of snakes was as much a part of my identity as my red hair, freckles, and love of every other critter. As a wildlife biologist, this irrational fear of snakes has lead to many hilarious over reactions on may part, including a time a friend "thought I had broken a femur" after happening across a garter snake breeding ball. I have insisted on long detours around snakes and generally refused to return to areas where I had previously seen one. It was a silly fear.
And then I ended up in the Everglades...
I had been working as a traveling wildlife technician for about five years when I got the idea in my head that I needed to go to graduate school. After a few frustrating years of turning down projects that didn't fit and being passed over for others, I resolved to accept the next offer that came my way. My health issuance through my parents was about to run out, and I was not about to get a real job. And so, through a random string of events that involved a proposal to nauseate Grand Canyon ground squirrels, I ended up a student at the University of Florida. My project was ostensibly a study of the life history of a common but neglected mammal in south Florida - the marsh rabbit. Yes, there was this other part of the project that was about giant invasive snakes - but there was another grad student working on that. I was there for the mammals.
Quickly, I learned that Florida, even the parts without a breeding population of Burmese pythons (Python molurus bivitattus), is infested with snakes. There are more cotton mouths than you can imagine, black racers that stand their ground, and rattle snakes as think as your arm - all slithering in and out of the trees and grasses of Big Cypress National Preserve, Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, and every place in between. I had a choice, deal with it or quit. There were times when I thought I couldn't do it, that the anxiety of seeing a snake would stop me in my tracks and halt my research. However, the longer I was out there, the more I realized that the anxiety of seeing a snake was much worse than any real snake encounter. The cotton mouths mostly ignored me, only tipping their chins up to alert me to their presence or at worst gaping at me to demonstrate their capacity and their restraint. The fat rattlesnakes were more interested in eating the rabbits than in eating me and the racers, for the most part, earned their names by quickly disappearing into the under brush.
I made friends with herpetologists, and soon I was even starting to timidly touch the beasts. I started on a legless lizard and eventually graduated to king snakes. Then the floor dropped out and I was suddenly in charge of THE ENTIRE PROJECT - even the part with the massive 18-foot serpentine predators. However, after only a few weeks tracking trans located marsh rabbits in the Everglades I was secretly rooting for the pythons instead of my reintroduced bunnies. Burmese pythons, while invasive and massively disruptive to the Everglades ecosystem (http://news.sciencemag.org/environment/2015/03/pythons-wipe-out-rabbits-and-probably-much-more-everglades) demand our awe and respect. Amazingly effective predators, pythons can go long periods of time without food, breed rapidly, and all but disappear in the thick sawgrass of the Everglades. I challenge any radio-collared 50lb mammalian predator to avoid detection when human are within two feet of it. On more than one occasion I stood nearly on top of an 8-foot snake without realizing it was there, only betrayed by the steadily beeping radio collar it had ingested along with my study rabbit. Pythons are capable of some amazing feats including parthenogenesis - the ability to breed without a mate - although this has only been observed in captivity and is apparently rare. Python moms are also stand outs in the serpent world and are dedicated parents, defending their clutches for weeks and incubating them by constricting their muscles around them. The more I read about them and observed them in the wild I developed a deep appreciation and love for these exceptional creatures. From their fascinating digestive system to their amazing homing ability pythons are astounding creatures. While the invasive population in south Florida threatens the functioning of that world heritage site, and requires extensive eradication efforts, Burmese pythons are threatened in tier native range.
So today - show some appreciation for these amazing critters that slithered their way into my heart.