Summer 2014 certainly didn’t end up being one of my most productive summers on the snake front. Though I did manage to work quite a bit with our numerous local frog species, the snakes of central Florida were somewhat out of reach and seemingly out of time and space. The short explanation is this: I just didn’t manage to get out and hike all that much for snakes this summer (and this is extremely unusual for me). Regardless, with this being Florida and all, I still managed to stumble across a few snakes here and there. In the tangles of the Floridian peninsula, you need not travel far before a snake will likely cross your path. Further, as we’ll see by the end of this post, even the most common snakes can stimulate curiosities and questions.
This post presents two snakes for the price of one: Diadophis punctatus punctatus, the Southern ringneck snake, and Storeria victa, the Florida brown snake. I found both diminutive serpents hidden beneath adjacent concrete blocks in a corner of my parents’ backyard in Mount Dora, Florida (in Lake county). As a self-admitted lover of all-things-snake, I shouldn’t have to tell you how fun it is to one-handedly catch a second snake when you’re still holding the first in the other hand. heh.
So, let’s check out our two snakes from 09 August 2014. Both species are fairly well known on Dust Tracks by this point, especially from Mount Dora in Lake county.
THE SOUTHERN RINGNECK
Averaging between six to ten inches as adults, Southern ringnecks are striking in their pattern and design: A sleek, dark, ashen-black dorsal tone contrasted with a bright “collar” band and brilliant yellow, orange, and red ventral scales.
The Southern ringneck is extremely common throughout the southeast, but is not as commonly seen as other, larger species. It spends much of its time during the day bunkered beneath surface debris, well hidden from both the sun and from the casual observer. At night or on mild days, they’ll emerge from hiding and hunt for GoodEats such as earthworms, tiny frogs, and young lizards.
In the image above, you can see the brilliant tones of the Ringneck’s ventral scales. When disturbed, in fact, the ringneck will sometimes coil up and flash its colorful tale. I’m not sure if this is to move a predator’s attention away from the more-sensitive and generally-more-useful head or if it’s supposed to be intimidating (as reds often are in the natural world). In either case, it’s a beautiful sight.
Ringnecks may be rather small and unassuming to the casual observer, but I personally find them to be stunningly beautiful and well-adapated organisms. I am, after all, a fan of contrast (and yes, it’s possible to be a fan of contrast), and this snake *owns* figure-ground contrast!
Our next species, caught within seconds of catching the Ringneck, is a less contrasty snake, but still a very cool one.
THE FLORIDA BROWN
The Florida brown snake, Storeria victa, is another common-but-not-commonly-seen species of snake ranging throughout much of the Floridian peninsula. Slightly larger than the typical adult Ringneck, Florida browns also spend much of their time hidden beneath surface debris and litter. Its favored prey includes small mollusks (snails, slugs) and earthworms.
Until this past year, I actually didn’t have very much experience with this species. I’d seen a few throughout the years, off and on, but not as many as one might expect. My parents’ backyard, however, seems to have become a haven for Florida brown snakes in the past year. Now I see them fairly regularly when we head over to visit Kid A’s grandparents. For years and years, I saw plenty of Ringnecks in that yard, but I never once found a Florida brown. It’s certainly a different story nowadays. Hell, the Florida browns have probably set up their own post office in the yard by this point.
If I had all the time in the world (not to mention an over-abundance of money), I’d love to actually study the impacts of landscape design in central Florida — in relation to emergent populations of established species in the micro-habitats that are managed backyards. heh. (I’m being serious!) Let me explain:
When I was a little kid, my parents’ house wasn’t yet built; it was an orange grove. My mother and grandparents actually lived in a house next door to the grove, but owned the adjacent lots/grove. I remember working that grove as a kid and regularly seeing bobcats, rabbits, glass lizards, and the occasional dusky pigmy rattlesnake. As time trudged on, the grove eventually gave way to the New House — where my parents now live.
For a time, their backyard still consisted of a decent number of the old citrus trees — the last remains of the grove I labored within as a child. By the mid-2000s or so, however, they cleared the last of the grove and built a lovely chlorine-free pool. Following that, they went all landscape-crazy around the fence lines. A variety of lush tropical and semi-tropical plants now adorn the edges of the yard. From a reptile or amphibian’s perspective, it’s a goldmine of landscaping.
The imported tropical foliage is likely a major reason why my parents’ have an abundance of non-native species in their yard such as the Brahminy blind snake, the Huntsman spider, and the Cuban treefrog. What I’m more interested in right now, however, is what brought the Florida brown snakes –a totally native species I never once saw on this property during the span of decades– to this yard. Were they unintentionally imported with the foliage? Or was there a nearby population that eventually found its way to this yard and found it more than habitable? And what was the tipping factor? Was it appropriate ground cover (managed plants with plenty of surface debris as opposed to semi-open grove land)? Or was it a rise in agreeable prey organisms such as earthworms and mollusks (many of which were also likely imported with the landscaping)? Likely it’s a combination of both.
Now I wonder about other yards in this same neighborhood. How focused and tight is this Florida brown snake population? How expansive is it? Did the population drift from another part of the neighborhood that used to be ideal, but no longer is so? Was it truly introduced via landscaping? Or have they simply expanded from a nearby area? I’m just not sure, and short of surveying everybody’s yards, I’ll never really know.
Regardless, I find emergent populations fascinating — even when the emergent population is a native species. Humans like to tinker with their domestic habitats, and this tinkering can have a deep impact on which organisms move in and which organisms move out. We are inexorably intertwined and impactful of the wildlife and ecologies surrounding us.