Secrets of Snakes (cover)

This is a rule: anyone with any kind of web presence regarding snakes will be contacted by dozens of strangers asking for advice. How to identify snakes (and this snake in particular), how to keep snakes away from their property, how to take care of a pet snake. I launched my website about garter snakes in 2004, and of course I talk about snakes here, and for the last decade and a half or so I’ve been receiving, on average, one to three emails a week from people with questions like these.

Sometimes answering these questions is relatively simple (“yes, that sure does look like a garter snake”). On other occasions I find myself well above my pay grade. The problem is that I’m an amateur enthusiast. One who’s been messing around with snakes for forty years, to be sure, but an amateur all the same. I have no credentials (I’m a historian, not a biologist). And yet, just because I have a website about snakes, I’m repeatedly called upon to offer advice on how to snake-proof a basement, or build a hibernaculum, or identify snakes I’ve never encountered from parts of North America I’ve never been to. I try to be helpful as a general rule, but I’m getting increasingly nervous about getting things wrong.1

Fortunately, I’m far from the only person who gets questions online. David Steen does have the credentials, is a biologist, and absolutely knows what he’s talking about. From his @AlongsideWild Twitter account, among other places, he’s been answering questions, identifying species and debunking snake myths for years. Last year his work took on a more traditional form, with the publication of Secrets of Snakes: The Science Beyond the Myths (Texas A&M University Press, 2019). Its 29 chapters address 29 questions about snake identification, myths about snakes, and other bits of snake information; he also has profiles of three commonly encountered species that comprise the bulk of people’s snake questions: rat snakes, gopher snakes or brown snakes.

A lot of Steen’s questions are also questions I’ve had to deal with, such as several dealing with snakes in the yard. But I’m fascinated by how little overlap there is between the questions he gets and the questions I get. I get a lot about garter snakes, and a lot from Canadians, probably because those are the search terms that bring people to me; he spends much of the book talking about copperheads and cottonmouths. If there’s a southeastern United States bias to his answers, that has a lot to do with where his questions are coming from.

I also find it interesting that Steen focuses more on the questions that get asked today, rather than rehashing old lore that is covered in older books. It turns out that many of the myths that are circulating and need debunking today—that venomous snakes have a triangle-shaped head or cat-eyed pupils, or the coral snake rhyme—are examples of regional lore that were correct in a very specific geographical context, but became wrong when they became the default.

And he also phrases his answers in terms that mere mortals can understand. Which makes Secrets of Snakes a book I can point people to when I say that I’m not answering snake questions any more. My only complaint about it is that there are easily two or three more books’ worth of questions out there that need answering. This is a book that needs to be in every library on this continent.


Secrets of Snakes: The Science Beyond the Myths
by David A. Steen
Texas A&M University Press, 23 Sep 2019
Amazon (Canada, UK) | Bookshop

Notes

  1. And let’s not talk about Quora, where for some reason I’ve been one of the top ten most viewed writers on the subject of snakes, and the most viewed writer on the subject of corn snakes, for some time now.