At Sweetwater Preserve in Gainesville – where I led a hike this past Saturday – this bike rack sits right off the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail extension to Depot St at the entrance to the preserve’s hiking loop. I’ve never seen a bike rack before that was both strikingly beautiful and an excellent lesson in identifying a deadly snake from a harmless one. Both are found in this preserve.
The coloration on the left is that of the Eastern coral snake, a small venomous snake that inhabits the drier habitats of Florida. The little mnemonic I learned as a kid about the coral snake is “red touch yellow, kill a fellow.” Florida doesn’t have a lot of venomous snakes, but this little guy packs much more of a punch than any rattler or cottonmouth. It’s a myth that its bite will immediately kill you, but the coral snake is in the cobra family. Seek immediate medical attention if bit. I’ve read that they don’t strike, they must chew through skin to inject their venom, and have seen them in the wild, where they have not exhibited any aggression, unlike the rattlers and cottonmoths.
The Scarlet kingsnake is depicted at the right end of the bike rack. It is easily confused with the coral snake because its colors can be the same, but they appear in a different order. The rhyme associated with this snake? “Red touch black, friend of Jack.” Like the coral snake, it prefers drier habitats. It also tends to be larger, both thicker and longer, than the average coral snake. It will bite – all snakes will if threatened – but is non-venomous.
Learn more about the Scarlet kingsnake
Now, I’ve never been bothered by snakes in the wild. Some folks get the willies when they see one, but I was fortunate that my parents introduced me to Ross Allen at a young age – I still have a photo of me as a kid with an indigo snake draped around me at Silver Springs – and that my aunt raised snakes in her basement. I enjoy seeing snakes when I hike, although I prefer not being startled by them.
When you’re hiking, just leave snakes be. Snakes do a wonderful job of clearing out other vermin (like mice and rats) that you don’t want around, and rarely will they bother you if you don’t bother them. Don’t pick up snakes – that’s what gets most people bit.
The Florida Museum of Natural History’s Online Guide to Florida Snakes is an excellent resource for learning much more about these shy creatures.