Which Local Creatures Eat Venomous Snakes?
In my job, I get many calls about snakes. Most people want to know how to tell a venomous from a nonvenomous one and how to keep them out of the yard. I was recently reading a new book by Dr. Sean Graham entitled American Snakes and in the chapter on snake defenses, he provided a long litany of local creatures who consumed snakes – some surprised me. Check this out…
First, most who do only consume smaller species of snakes – but the list is still surprising. Spiders… spiders were on the list. He specifically called out the black widow – who probably could kill a small snake, but indicated there were others. Scorpions, centipedes, fire ants, carpenter ants, giant water bugs, crayfish, and crabs made the list as well. Some of these may consume snakes only after they are dead – but some can kill small ones.
From the vertebrate world he mentions the larger salamanders (such as the hellbender), and other snakes (such as the short-tailed snake and the coral snake). There are several mammals including shrews, moles, and even the rodents are consumers of snakes! He describes how hoofed mammals (such deer, goat, and horses) do not consume snakes, but can completely destroy one by raising and stomping on them – leaving only small segments remaining. They have found the remains of snakes in the stomachs of all predatory mammals but the snake’s greatest threat are birds… by a long shot. Species from passerines to raptors have been known to kill and consume snakes.
What about venomous snakes – who consumes rattlesnakes and cottonmouths?
There are surprises here as well…
Bullfrogs… bullfrogs basically consume what they can get into their mouths but this includes snakes – and venomous ones as well (though they would be small ones). From the fish world, both the gar and largemouth bass are known to consume venomous snakes.
Opossums are known to consume at least 12 species of snakes, including venomous ones. They also consume ticks, fire ants, and have a very low occurrence of rabies – a cool animal to have around.
Other mammal consumers of venomous snakes include raccoons, otters, fox, bobcats, coyotes, and black bears. It is understood they must take smaller members of the venomous snake population – but a snake control is snake control.
Most wading birds in our marshes consume snakes, including venomous ones, but it is the red-tailed hawk and the great horned owl that are the masters. Red-tailed hawks are known to consume at least 35 species of snakes, including venomous ones, and – unlike other snake predators – are a larger part of their diet, they seek them out. Great Horned Owls consume at least 13 species, and venomous ones are on the menu.
From the reptile world we begin with the alligator, who has little problem consuming large specimens of both the rattlesnake and the cottonmouth. However, many are snakes… yes, snakes eat snakes and some consume venomous ones. Coral snakes, coachwhips, and cottonmouths have been known to consume other snakes. However, it is the Eastern Indigo and the Kingsnakes who actively seek out venomous species. It is known that kingsnakes have a protein in their blood that makes them immune to the viper’s venoms – and it appears the vipers know this and avoid them. It is not known whether the indigo is immune, but it is known they will seek out venomous snakes and consume. Both of these snakes can take relatively large venomous species.
Of these two, it is the Kingsnake who is the “king” – consuming at least 40 species of snakes. However, both the kingsnakes and the indigo are on the declined. The eastern indigo is currently federally listed as endangered – there has not been a verified record of one in the Florida panhandle since 1997. However, there are anecdotal reports and we encourage anyone who has seen one to send us a photograph. There is an active indigo restoration program going on in Alabama and in the Apalachicola River area. These are the largest native snakes in the U.S. (about 8 feet) and, along with the six-foot kingsnakes, are frequently killed. There is evidence that as the eastern kingsnake populations decline copperhead populations increase, and Vis versa. Some areas near Atlanta are currently experiencing a copperhead “boom”. Clearly, we should reconsider killing both the indigo and kingsnakes. We also understand that habitat loss is another cause of their decline, particularly in the case of the indigo.
When looking at this list of snake consumers we see species that cause other problems – alligators, raccoons, coyotes, and bears have all have had their negative issues. But many we just do not like, such as the opossum, really cause us no harm and control snake populations. Everything has its place in the local environment and not one species seeks out humans for the purpose of harming us – this would include snakes. The negative encounters are for other reasons. But for those who have a deep fear, or are currently experiencing high snake numbers, seeing one of the animals on this in the neighborhood could be a relief.
Graham, S. 2018. American Snakes. John Hopkins University Press. Baltimore MD. Pp 293.
O’Connor, M. 2018. Personal communication.