By Les Harrison
Wakulla County Extension Director
Words are a curious human creation. Each has at least one meaning or implication to the listener.
The terms used today date back to long before recorded history began. Countless academics have postulated and theorized as to how these oral identifiers have migrated and evolved through the millennia to arrive at the languages used today.
Most are used to convey simple concepts for the benefit of both the speaker and listener, and spoken without any sense of urgency.
There are, however, some words which illicit an immediate and often abrupt response, based on how they are uttered. Snake is one of those words which often prompt a startled response and an instinctive reaction.
The reaction can come is a variety of forms which are fairly predictable. A quick retreat to perceived safety is the initial step, which is usually followed by an assessment of options for eliminating the threat.
For the snake, who does not likely grasp the nature of this recurring scenario, sudden destruction commonly follows. Small snakes which are difficult to identify are especially vulnerable to this terminal application.
One such reptile is the rough earth snake (Virginia striatula). This native snake is rarely stumble upon, but is widely distributed across the southeastern United States.
This small, secretive snake is encountered in a variety of earth tones. Commonly brown, but it may be reddish-brown or gray and can easily be mistaken for a large earthworm.
Usually under ten inches, the head has a distinctly pointed snout useful for plowing through the soil. Sometime a faint light-colored ring around the neck is present.
This species is found in a variety of forested habitats with plenty of ground cover or decaying logs. It can also be present in home landscapes under mulch and leaf litter where it spends its days in search of a meal.
Like all snakes, the rough earth snake is a carnivorous predator. It primarily hunts and consumes earthworms, but will eat ant larvae also.
The problem, at least for the snake, comes when it is unintentionally unearthed and identified as a snake. The dark coloration and tiny size may cause confusion as to the identity of the species.
Anyone unfamiliar with this reptile may misidentify it as a baby cotton mouth water moccasin or a copperhead, not the venom-less snake that it is. Fortunately there is an easy way to differentiate the venomous species from the harmless.
Both moccasin and copperhead juveniles have tails which are distinctly tipped yellow. This coloration allows them to use the tail as a lure to attract prey during their formative growth stage.
The rough earth snake and the other harmless small snakes in north Florida do not have this characteristic marking. There are several other unique features which separate the species, but are too small to easily see.
Given their lack of defensive capabilities against larger animal which prey on them, the rough earth snake will normally lay still when dug up. While they do have teeth, their jaws are far too small to nip any part of the human anatomy.
Hopefully, the words used to describe this snake will be beneficial species. It would end many unfortunate endings.