Wednesday, February 1, 2017

What Species of Snake are Venomous?

Western Diamondback
Boston Science Museum, 2010
If you are attempting to decide whether or not a snake is venomous, it is important to remember that not all venomous snakes are easily recognized. There are thousands of species of snakes on the planet and hundreds of these species are venomous. It is also important to note that some venomous snake species closely resemble their non venomous cousins and vice-versa. If you are planning to attempt to handle a snake, you should seek an education in the handling and identification of these animals. You should never, under any circumstances, handle a wild snake that you don’t positively recognize to be harmless, unless you are an experienced snake handler.

The only way to be sure a snake is venomous is to be aware of what the species looks like. There is no universal red flag that tells you a snake is venomous, so be careful. There are four families of snakes that include venomous species. These are the Colubridae, Viperidae, Elapids and Hydrophiidae. Here we will discuss some of the characteristics of each family and some of the venomous species found within these families.


Hydrophiidae are more widely known as Sea Snakes. Every species of Hydrophiidae that has been found thus far is highly venomous. These snakes are very dangerous to humans, so do not disturb them. Usually they would rather not bite you, but they will if they are threatened. It is relatively easy to recognize a Hydrophiidae because they all live in salt water and have flattened tails for swimming.


Colubridae make up around 75% of the world's snake population and it has been estimated that around 20% of them are venomous.  Twenty percent may not seem like a lot, but that is hundreds of species of venomous Colubrids. These snakes are found all over the world, so it is a good idea to educate yourself on the Colubrids in your area so that you can tell the difference between a harmless garter snake and a venomous Colubrid.


Every snake species that belongs to the Viperidae family is venomous. They have hinged fangs that fold back when they close their mouths, but inspecting a snake’s teeth is an impractical way to decide if it is venomous. However, many of these species have triangular heads and slender necks. This is not a surefire way to tell if a snake is venomous, but if you see a snake does have this triangular shape to its head, it is a good idea to leave the area carefully.

Species of Viperidae include all rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, the bushmaster, and of course vipers. Pit vipers are recognizable for the pits that appear between their nostrils and eyes.  There is one on each side. However, these cannot be seen from a distance. Rattlesnakes are recognizable for the rattles that appear on their tails. Thankfully, they shake these when threatened and it makes a distinctive noise. Unfortunately, young rattlesnakes can deliver a venomous bite, but they only have one rattle and therefore can’t make the telltale sound. Cottonmouths can be recognized when they open their jaws, which they do when they are threatened. The insides of their mouths are white, hence the name.


All species of the Elapid family are also venomous. They tend to have shorter fangs that are fixed rather than hinged. This group contains some of the most notorious of the venomous snake species, such as cobras, mambas, kraits, taipans and coral snakes. It is very difficult to tell the difference between a coral snake and the harmless kingsnake, because they both have yellow, black and red bands over the entire length of their bodies. A good way to remember the difference between the two is to use this rhyme, “if red touches yellow, kill a fellow, if red touches black, friend of Jack.”

If you plan to spend time outdoors, pick up a field guide on snakes in that area before venturing into snake territory. If you are unfamiliar with the snakes in an area and come across one, you should treat it as if it were venomous. This means leaving the snake alone and allowing it to wander off or, if the snake is aggressive, you can leave the area immediately, being careful not to step on any other snakes.

Try to bring a friend with you whenever you wander outside; this can be helpful if you are bitten. The unafflicted person should try to remember what the snake looks like so they can describe it to a doctor. Ideally the doctor would like to see the snake, but if you cannot catch the snake safely, don’t try. It is also important to know that recently deceased snakes can still deliver venomous bites.


Stillwell, Steven E., Snake Mystique, retrieved 7/4/09,

Abby, Michael, “Viperidae” A Dictionary of Zoology 1999, retrieved 7/4/09,

Colubrids:Colubridae-Physical Characteristic, Habitat, Diet, Behavior and reproduction, Colubrids and People, Conservation, staus-GEOGRAPHIC RANGE</a7>,retrieved 7/4/09, http// 

Garamone, Jim, Dealing with That Snake in the Grass, retrieved 7/4/09,

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Dumbo Octopus: Nature's Disney Character

Opisthoteuthis californiana
photo taken by NOAA
Way, way, waaaay down beneath the ocean's surface is a creature so cute that it was named after a Disney character. Dumbo octopi (Grimpoteuthis) hang out in deep ocean habitats around the world. They live so close to the ocean floor in the coldest, darkest regions of the sea that normal human fishing activity does not affect them. Chilling–quite literally–at 9,800 to 13,000+ feet below has given these roughly 17 species of umbrella octopi some rather interesting adaptations.

Chances are that you are never going to personally see a Dumbo octopus swimming around its natural habitat. (Here's a video, so you can do it from home.) This is kind of a bummer, given that these cute little octopi are roughly 8" to 12" long and have two adorable ear-like fins growing from their heads. The beak even lends to the whole "Dumbo the elephant" thing they've got going on. Beyond that, the resemblance disappears. Dumbo octopi are a blend of yellows, oranges, pinks, browns or even blues. They are largely opaque, giving them a dreamy quality as they float around using their webbed tentacles to steer.

Dumbo octopi may be the deepest dwelling of the octopus species, but that doesn't keep them safe from natural predators. Diving fish and opportunistic ocean mammals may make a meal out of a slow Dumbo. It can use its tentacles to jettison through the water, but there's no way of knowing how successful this method is for them. As for their hunting habits, their beaks allow them to swallow their prey–usually worms and small crustaceans–whole.  They just need to get in the right position for rapid ingestion.

When it comes to reproduction, Dumbo octopi are well adapted. Females have eggs in several states of development throughout the year. Males inject their semen into the females, who can store it until conditions for laying eggs on the ocean floor are right. She will use the sperm when she needs it and move on with her life.

You may not be likely to encounter a Grimpoteuthis, but I think it's worth knowing there are adorable little partially see-through octopi floating around at the bottom of the ocean. It really contrasts my view of hideous anglerfish creeping out of the dark to razor-bite the dookie out of anyone who dares venture into the deep.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Sao Paulo's Snake Island and It's Deadly Inhabitants

Just outside of Sao Paulo, Brazil, in the Atlantic Ocean, there is a legendary island that scares away fishermen and tourists. It is tiny and home to thousands of inhabitants that could kill you with a single bite. They live both on the ground and in the trees. This island is Ilha de Queimada Grande and its inhabitants are golden lancehead snakes (bothrops insularis).

Ilha de Queimada Grande is also known as "Snake Island" or the "Island of the Golden Snakes." Humans do not live on this island for fear of these creatures. In fact, the Brazil Navy enforces a no visitors rule with the exception of some scientists and those who accompany them. This is for the safety of visitors. It is also good for the golden lancehead. These snakes are indigenous to Ilha de Queimada Grande. One disaster could wipe them off the island and the Earth.

The inner part of Snake Island is thick forest. The outer edge is made up of steep, rocky inclines. There are no beaches, so access is limited. Very few other animals exist on this island, so the diet of most pit vipers is out of the question for the golden lancehead. This has made for an unusual adaptation. Golden lanceheads feed mainly on birds. Therefore, they not only spend a lot of time in trees, their venom has notoriously rapid results. Their prey has to be immobilized faster, as birds cannot be tracked on the ground if they fly away from their attacker. What this means for a human is that the necrosis and hemorrhaging caused by this venom occurs faster than that of this creature's equally deadly cousins.

Local fishermen tell stories about the island's last lighthouse keeper and the demise of his family. It is said that snakes snuck into the lighthouse and bit each of them as they slept. Not one survived. Another story is that of a fisherman who went ashore on Ilha de Queimada Grande, was bitten and made it back to his boat only to bleed to death in it before he could leave the island. The former story is rather strange because snakes do not display pack behavior. It seems highly unlikely that the snakes would come into the lighthouse and make it a point to bite everyone inside. The latter scenario is much more convincing. The anticoagulants in this snake's venom are quite dangerous.

Golden lanceheads are close cousins of the fur-de-lance. They can grow to be more than three-and-a-half feet long. Males are smaller than females. They are yellow in color and may have slightly darker, brownish markings. They thrive on Snake Island because they have no natural predators. It is said there is between one and five golden lanceheads on Ilha de Queimada Grande per 1.2 square yards. That is a lot of snakes for an area of that size. However, it is not a lot of snakes for a world population. That is why the IUCN has the golden lancehead on their critically endangered list.


Snake Island, retrieved 12/4/10,

Friday, October 28, 2016

Superb Bird-Of-Paradise: A Master of Disguise

Superb bird-of-paradise

Birds of paradise are some of the most colorful and eye-catching exotic birds on the planet. Among them is the striking superb bird-of-paradise or Lophorina superba, which is native to the rainforests of New Guinea. These little creatures measure around 10 inches and are known mostly for the males' frankly hilarious mating display.

When at rest, the male superb bird-of-paradise is relatively normal in appearance. It does have bluish-green iridescent feathers at its chest and head, but that is all that is visible. However, this bird is hiding some special features that he uses to attract a mate. The pretty feathers at his chest are actually part of a shield. Some of the black feathers along his back are part of what is known as his cape. He can manipulate the colored feathers on his head and some black ones along his bill in conjunction with these other parts to masquerade for the ladies.

After meticulously cleaning an area on a branch, the male superb bird-of-paradise calls out to the honeys. When one approaches, he lifts his breast shield, cape, head and bill feathers until they line up to give him the appearance of a deep black elliptical creature with shining blue-green markings. Once he's got the right look, he hops about on his branch, making sure to keep his huge disguise facing his potential mate. While he hops, he snaps his tail feathers together, creating a sharp, repetitive clacking noise.

In contrast, the females and young of the species blend into their surroundings. They have reddish-brown uppers with brown chests and bellies. These ladies don't let their average looks stop them from being notoriously picky. There are more of them than there are of the flashy males, so they feel comfortable refusing up to 20 potential mates before finally settling in to make a family.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Beast of Bray Road: A Curious Cryptid

The Beast of Bray Road is a creature that witnesses claim to have seen in Racine, Walworth and Jefferson counties in Wisconsin. The first reported sightings of the creature happened on Bray Road near Elkhorn, Wisconsin. These sightings are what lent the beast its name. However, sightings do not only occur on Bray Rd. In fact, the beast has not been sighted there since the early 1990s.

No one knows what the Beast of Bray Road, also known as Manwolf, is. Some people believe it is a werewolf, others that it is a Bigfoot and, of course, there are people who believe that it is some heretofore-unknown species. There really is no way to know unless a specimen is found. There is also the possibility that they Beast of Bray Road is, in fact, some creature that we are well aware of that simply scared some people enough that they believed it was something bigger and scarier than it really is. Common theories as to what known animal the beast could be include wolves and bears.

The creature is described as around 6 ft. tall with grayish and brown fur. Its face is said to resemble a wolf, and its ears are pointed. It has three long claws on each hand/paw. It has shiny yellow eyes. Its body has been likened to that of a lean, muscular man that tends to sit back on its haunches or kneel.

The Beast of Bray Road can run and walk on all four of its legs or just its hind legs. It has been seen eating its prey or its scavenged carrion in its hands with its palms facing upward. It has never attacked anyone, but some witnesses claim that it has acted aggressively toward them. This aggressive behavior includes running at people and jumping on their vehicles. The creature’s diet is not known for sure, but it has been seen eating the carcasses of small road kill.

Sightings of the Beast of Bray Road may go back as far as the 1930s. However, it wasn’t sighted frequently or reported thoroughly until 1989 through 1992. Most of the sightings have occurred when one or more people stumbled upon or drove past the animal while it was eating or possibly hunting/scavenging. Sightings of the animal have tapered off since the 90s, but the creature can supposedly still be seen in the woods of the area.

Perhaps the Beast of Bray Road is some cousin of other cryptids in the United States. Alternatively, it could simply be an animal that has yet to be classified or captured, which would make it a true cryptid. It could also be a group of wild animals that has become so adjusted to human life that individuals feel comfortable approaching people and vehicles. It could also be that people are frightened enough to see more than what is really there. Whatever the Beast of Bray Road is or isn't, we will never know until one is captured or it is conclusively proven that the Beast of Bray Road is a case of mistaken identity, which would be difficult to do.


Creature History, Evidence and Happenings, retrieved 11/24/09

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Freshwater Sharks

Northern River Shark
CSIRO National Fish Collection

Most of the world’s shark species are found in the ocean, but there are some elusive and not so elusive sharks out there that live in freshwater. Granted, there are only two types and possibly only five or six species of freshwater sharks, but they do exist and at least one is quite dangerous.

Bull Shark

Bull sharks are typically found in rivers or near warm shores in tropical areas. However, these animals are not strictly fresh water dwellers. Some of them spend all of their time in fresh water, while others swim to salt water for mating and birthing. They are able to transition between the two because they have the ability to control the amount of urea and sodium in their bodies. They also urinate frequently to rid themselves of excess fresh water.

Bull sharks are medium-sized sharks that are grey on their top half and white on the bottom. They have short, blunt noses that they use to head butt their prey before attacking. They weigh between 200 and 500 pounds and can be up to eight feet long. On average, they live about 16 years. Their diet consists of just about any meat that swims near them, so humans should be weary in areas where bull sharks have been sighted. Bull sharks are one of the three most dangerous shark species in the world.

River Sharks

River sharks are some of the most elusive and rare fish species on Earth. We don't know much about them. For the most part, their diet, mating habits, populations, behavior, life expectancy, specific locations and size are all mysteries. It is believed that they eat fish, though not enough research has been done on them to know for sure. They are also believed to spend their entire lives in rivers, making them the only true fresh water sharks in the world. To date, there are only around five known species, two of which may actually be one and the same. Of the five known species of river sharks, the speartooth river shark and the New Guinea river shark may be the same. The other three species include the Ganges river shark, which is critically endangered, the Bizant river shark and the Borneo river shark.

So you see, there are freshwater sharks in the world. In the case of the bull shark, we can only marvel at its adaptations and avoid its aggressive behavior. In the case of river sharks, we can only hope that we will be able to obtain more information about these creatures in the future.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Saint Dane: A Hybrid Sweetheart

Saint Danes are a hybrid mix of the Saint Bernard and Great Dane dog breeds. They are also known as Great Bernards. They are usually bred by mating a purebred Saint Bernard with a purebred Great Dane. A mixture of either of these breeds with a Saint Dane will also produce a Saint Dane.While Saint Danes are not purebred dogs, they are also not mutts. They are not mutts because their lineage is traceable on both sides to purebreds or to Saint Danes who have purebred lineage.  That is what makes Saint Dane a hybrid breed.

A hybrid dog breed’s appearance and behavior is best assessed by looking at both parent breeds. This is a good way to guess how the animal will behave and what their needs will be.

Saint Bernard

Saint Bernards are huge dogs. Their minimum adult height is 2 feet 3 inches and their adult weight ranges between 130 and 180 pounds. They were initially bred as guard and rescue dogs so they are very powerful. They also have an excellent sense of smell.

Saint Bernards are typically white with brown markings all over their bodies. They can have long or short hair and they shed a lot. They need frequent grooming. They also have very large heads and they drool constantly.

Despite their size, Saint Bernards are fantastic family dogs but because of their size, they should be monitored around small children. It is very easy for a full-grown Saint Bernard to inadvertently knock an adult over, let alone a child. They need daily exercise and a lot of space to run around. A properly cared for and exercised Saint Bernard should be a cinch to train.

Great Dane

The Great Dane is also known as the “gentle giant.” Their minimum adult height is 2 feet 4 inches and they weigh between 110 and 170 pounds when full-grown. They were initially bred as guard dogs, but are gentle by nature.

Great Danes can have many different color variations. They can be Blue, Black, Harlequin, Mantle, Brindle and Fawn in coloration. They have short fur and need minimal grooming. They have slender snouts and lean bodies.

Like the Saint Bernard, Great Danes need exercise every day. They are gentle, but also very energetic. They make great family dogs because of their sweet personality, but their size is daunting.

Saint Dane

As you can see, the Saint Danes parent breeds are very similar in size and temperament, but can differ in appearance. Therefore, Saint Danes vary in fur color, markings  and length as well as snout size and amount of drooling. They can have long or short hair, so grooming needs are on a dog-to-dog basis.

Saint Dane owners describe them as friendly and loyal. They share all of the personality traits of the two breeds they are born from. Though, like all dogs, behavior depends largely on their upbringing. These are very big dogs and they should be treated with respect.

If you would like to own a Saint Dane, you should be prepared to take care of him or her. They need a lot of space and plenty of exercise. They also eat an awful lot. They can be a wonderful, loving addition to any family, but only families who can accommodate their needs should adopt them.