Have you seen a snake in far southwest Virginia recently? Let us know!

As we’ve written about recently, it’s snake season both on and off the trail in southwest Virginia and the surrounding Cumberland Mountain region. Since that earlier post, we’ve received a ton of comments and photos of snake sightings from local trails. And, most encouragingly, most of these folks have reported leaving snakes be and not killing or otherwise disturbing these critters at all, which is great.

We’ve received such an impressive number of responses, in fact, that we’d like to go a bit further. Why? Southwest Virginia, in particular, is plagued by what biologists refer to as “data deficiency,” a phenomenon that occurs when we have little to no data on local wildlife that can help us make informed decisions on wildlife management and fuel scientific research. These data can include what habitats local species prefer, how these species respond to human disturbance, and even where they live in the first place.

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Something as seemingly common as this Black Rat Snake can actually be a county record for parts of our region, thanks to the fact that large parts of Southwest Virginia have historically gone unsurveyed for some snake species.

That’s especially true for snakes in southwest Virginia, since very few large-scale scientific surveys have been performed across the region for our various snake species. This situation is so bad that a handful of our counties only have around 20-30% of the snakes that likely live within their borders officially catalogued by scientists. And that matters because we can’t effectively study those species – and understand how they potentially interact with people – without knowing that they’re there in the first place.

That’s why we need your help. If you run across a snake on the trail or even at home, we would love to hear about it – it might even be a new record for a local county or the entire region. Plus, we’d like to learn more about how frequently people are running into snakes in our region, and your observations can help us out. If you do see a snake and want to participate, here’s how you can help:

  1. Take a photo of the snake from a safe distance. If you run across a snake on the trail or at home, snap a quick photo with a camera or cell phone. A shot that includes all (or most) of the snake’s body and that clearly shows any patterning on the snake’s back will work best. Just be sure to take your photos from a safe distance – there’s no need to get overly close to the snake or make it change its behavior to get a shot.
  2. Send us your photo. There are two ways you can share your observations with us. You can either upload your photo of the snake to iNaturalist (a free citizen science platform for sharing wildlife observations) or send them directly via email to Dr. Walter Smith at whs2q@uvawise.edu. We also need the following with any submitted photos: when the photo was taken, where it was taken (as specifically as you can remember), and any unique observations about the snake (its behavior, interactions with other nearby species, etc.). If you’re using iNaturalist, it will ask you for this info automatically. We’re only looking for submissions backed up by a photo, also – verbal recollections of snake sightings don’t count.
  3. Remember that we’re only looking for incidental photos. This means that we only want to see photos of snakes that you run across randomly on the trail or at home. Please do not actively go look for snakes if you want to participate, and don’t handle, disturb, or kill any snakes that you see in order to get a closer look or photo. It is actually illegal, in fact, to kill any snake in Virginia that doesn’t pose an immediate threat to your personal health and safety (and no, simply seeing a snake and being scared of it doesn’t count as an immediate threat).

If you submit a particularly interesting observation, we might contact you via iNaturalist or by replying to your email to get more on the story of what you saw, but all you really need to do is follow the above instructions to take part. An old observation from several years ago is just as good as one from last week, as well, provided that you remember most of the info listed above. Thanks in advance, and we’re excited to hear about what you’ve seen!

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