May 31, 2021
A Daunting Defense
- as seen by -Eric Januszkiewicz
Gopher snakes, or bullsnakes, are a common snake species found in arid regions of the western United States. They are known for a defense display that closely mimics that of a rattlesnake, and only those familiar with this species would likely be able to tell the difference.
While on a research trip in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, I was driving along a dirt road when I noticed what looked like a stick in the road. By the time I was able to register that it was, in fact, a snake, I did my best to make sure I did not run it over. I hit the brakes and jumped out. To my amazement, I had managed to miss it.
I was able to quickly identify it as a Great Basin gopher snake (P. catenifer deserticola) and moved it off the road in the direction it was going. Snakes can often be found lying on roads for their warmth, however in this case, I am assuming it was just crossing to the other side since it was just a dirt road.
When I relocated this bullsnake, it put on quite the defensive display for me. It flattened its head, rattled its tail against some nearby vegetation, and reared up in a striking position. To most people, it would be easy to mistake this for a venomous rattlesnake. The vibrations of its tail against the vegetative debris even sounded like the rattle of a rattlesnake. However, bullsnakes are non-venomous constrictors.
The mimicry used by this species was quite impressive, and I was fortunate enough to see it in action.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Eric is currently working on his PhD in biological education. He has carried out genetic research on rattlesnakes.