Notes from the Curator's Desk:

Close Encounters of a Snake Kind

(6/06) I'm zipping along on my bike headed south along the road that follows the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. I pick up quite a bit of speed when I see something lying directly in the bike's path. I squint to make it out. What is it? Piece of rope? A branch? A snake?


I manage to swing the bike just enough to miss the head of this thing by about an inch. Wow! Interesting! A snake in the road. Must be roadkill. Then, I get the bright idea...

I must be starting to think like a teacher 'cause my bright idea is to recover the snake's body, preserve it in a jar, and use it in class. Now, I really haven't thought this through. I don't know anything about preserving dead stuff, nor do I have a jar with me on the bike. I don't know what I am thinking as far as carrying it. Hang it around my neck?

I manage to turn the bike around and go back to take a look at the thing. By the time I get back there the "dead" snake has moved. Not much. Just a little. The head is now pulled back in an "S" position.

The first thing that strikes me about this is that this means the snake is alive. However, I can see that it won't be for long. It is lying on a part of the asphalt where, when the next car comes down the road, the passenger side tires will roll. The snake obviously does not understand the significance of this. It just thinks it has found the nicest, flattest, darkest, most comfortable rock in the world to sun itself on. What's more, the snake also seems to be too dumb to move by itself when something approaches since it didn't run for the woods when my bike just missed it. Now I'm really concerned for the snake. Being a cyclist and having had too many close calls with trucks, I am sympathetic to road kill ("But for the grace of God there go I").

If the snake stays out here where he is, he's a goner. People hate snakes. I remember reading about a study somebody did a couple of years ago. Scientists were interested in how people react to different animals, so this researcher set up a hiding place by a road and put fake animals in the path of the cars to see what would happen. For "nice" animals, like turtles, they would steer around them. In fact, one lady stopped her car and actually got out to help a little, plastic turtle across the road. Their reaction to the rubber snake was different. People always ran over it. In fact, a few people would run over the fake snake, then back up and run over it again. One fellow ran over the snake, backed up over it, then got out with a gun to shoot it. It was at this point the researcher had to hop out of the bushes to save his rubber serpent from total destruction and himself from a trip back to the fake snake store. Like I said, people hate snakes.

So, I know this little fella hasn't a chance if he stays where he is. Actually, come to think of it, looking at him, he isn't a little fellow. He is over two feet long. That's a pretty big snake. In fact, this may be the biggest snake I've seen where there wasn't a piece of thick glass between him and me.

Well, back to the problem of getting the snake out of the middle of the road. I've watched plenty of episodes of "Crocodile Hunter." Would it be possible to grab the snake by its tail, Steve Irwin style, and move it? I have a brief vision of myself, legs sprawled outward with the tail in one hand and talking to the snake with an imaginary television camera pointed at me. "Here, little fella. Don't be scared. The Snake Hunter is just going to move you off the road!" In my little imaginary drama, the snake is obviously not appreciating this and takes a snap at me, which I (being the famous, experienced snake hunter) easily avoid.

That brings up another question. Could this thing actually be dangerous? I take a close look at the rear end - well, as close as you can get from about ten feet. There doesn't seem to be a rattle. Good. It isn't a rattlesnake. How about the front end? The head forms nearly a diamond or wedge shape and the eyes are vertical slits. Now I seem to remember there is some significance to a diamond shape. Are diamonds bad? Well, I know that expert trails at ski resorts are marked with diamonds. They are bad - at least for me. Does this symbolism carry over to snakes, however?

I rack my brain for a minute and finally it comes to me. The wedge shape head on a snake means that it is a viper! That's it! What else do I know about the viper family? That most of them are poisonous! That's right!

Can I be sure it is poisonous? I remember the other way of telling for sure that something is a poisonous viper is by the little pits - which act to heat detectors - on its cheeks (hence the designation "pit viper"). Can I check for the pits? Doesn't seem like a good idea as that would probably require me getting my face within about a foot of the snake's head.

Finally, the other significance of the head being pulled back in the "S" shape hits me. I got it. It's getting ready to strike.


I don't know what the striking range of a snake is, but I decide that ten feet is too close. In fact, a half mile seems too close at this point, so I decide to ride away. The snake will have to fend for itself.

Some checking on the internet when I get home reveals that my little serpent friend was a Northern Copperhead, the most abundant poisonous snake in Pennsylvania. I also see that it reacts to danger by "freezing," which explains why it didn't move when I nearly ran over it with the bike. However, I was glad to see that, unlike the rattlesnakes, it isn't considered endangered, so I don't have to feel too guilty about leaving him in the middle of the road. In fact, I assuaged my conscience entirely the next night by helping a beaver cross the road safely.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2006. All Rights Reserved.