By Kelsie Huss

Principia is blessed to be located in an area with an abundance of biodiversity. While everyone marvels at the outstretched trees surrounding hiking paths or tries to catch glimpses of beloved furry mammal friends, there are still certain animals that are discredited and feared by a large portion of the campus. 

Near the beginning of the semester, there were a few different snake sightings on campus. One snake was spotted on the road near the Science Center during New Student Orientation, and a different snake was spotted near the library early in September. For some students, this is frightening. However, professor Scott Eckert, chair of the biology and natural resources department, explains just how harmless these creatures are. 

While there are approximately 40 snake species in Illinois, there are only three venomous species within the local area, said Eckert. Only two of these venomous species actually live on the campus property: Copperhead and Timber Rattlesnakes. 

In fact, only the Copperhead snake is venomous enough to actually kill someone, and it is best to slowly walk away if you spot one. Not only are these venomous species rarely spotted on campus, but Timber Rattlesnakes are a threatened species in Illinois, and it is important to help save this keystone species. 

Timber Rattlesnakes are rather timid and generally try to avoid human contact by hiding themselves under bushes or logs, and in tall fields of grass. Therefore, they (along with Copperheads and many other snake species) are rarely seen above ground, seeing one out in the open is not a serious concern for us. 

Student Haley Martin pictured holding one of the Biology department’s snakes

Snakes often try to avoid human contact by trying to lay low and camouflaging themselves with the ground. In fact, it is possible that you may have stepped on one without realizing it, since they do such a good job of blending in with their surroundings. Additionally, these snakes tend to stay away from the main campus area, instead living deep in the forests or near the edge of the bluffs.

If you spot a wild snake, it is best to leave it alone — especially if you have no prior experience with or knowledge of that particular species. Snakes tend to be quiet (they just want you to go away!), and they won’t threaten to bite or harm you unless you threaten them. If you happen to find a snake in a building, you should contact the biology department, ask a landscaper, or call campus security so that someone can come out and remove the snake from the premises. Always err on the side of caution and remember that snakes are a necessary component of our ecosystem. 

As of September, all of the snakes within the area migrated back to their dens to protect themselves from the cold rush of winter. Going underground preserves their body temperature. According to radio tracking, they don’t come back out until early spring. Radio tracking has illustrated that snakes tend to forge and hunt in the same exact area year after year and return to the same den each season. 

Since very few snakes are actually seen on campus, and snakes tend to stick to their previous paths, this means that we should continue seeing very few snakes on campus in the future. In fact, Eckert theorizes that the only reason there was a snake near the library earlier this semester was because its old home was destroyed by the addition of the parking lot, and the snake was forced to relocate. The only time you need to be especially wary of snakes (specifically Timber Rattlesnakes) is in the early spring when they are newly awakened out of their dens; they just got out of hibernation and don’t tolerate as much since they are grumpily readjusting to their surroundings. 

All in all, keep in mind that snakes are creatures of God, and that they won’t bother you unless you threaten them or infiltrate their territory. Their intentions are harmless, and the odds of you accidentally spotting one on the middle of campus is slim-to-none, especially during the upcoming winter months. Something that many people find very relieving is that a snake’s striking distance is only one-third of their body length. In other words, if you anger a 6-foot long snake to the point where it physically attacks you in self-defense, it can only jump a maximum of two feet toward you. So no need to panic!

If you ever have any snake-related questions, you can always hunt down a member of the snake tracking team or biology department.

Image courtesy of Nathan Brantingham