Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Yellow-bellied Racer

I was out walking the field behind our camp that had just been freshly mowed by a friend of mine when I came across a decapitated eastern yellow-bellied racer. Some may be reading this thinking "snakes in the middle of December?" Well you've got to understand the weather in Southeast Texas. For instance, during the winter it can be in the upper 70's one day, and then down in the 30's a few days later. Needless to say our winters here are never really harsh, which I have no problem with.
I've come across these snakes several times in the past and never have been able to grab one. Coachwhips, one of its close relatives, which I've captured, are fast but racers are extremely fast. They flee in an almost jerky, eclectic fashion and can cut on a dime. They can also move fluid-like through shrubbery which I’ve experienced first hand. I had been hiking along a fence row that was overgrown with thick shrubs when I spotted one draped across the thin limbs. It saw me at the same time and weeded its way through the thickness with unbelievable speed and fluidity. Once it hit the ground it literally vanished. Unfortunately this particular one wasn’t fast enough to escape the whining blades of the bush-hog.
It measured a tad over four foot and was in overall good shape except for where its head had once resided. Coloration in this snake is pretty bland except when they're juveniles, in which they present a more colorful, patterned appearance. Mainly a diurnal snake it has been known to feed on insects, small mammals, lizards, skinks, other snakes, nestlings taken from nests, and frogs. This area has a large supply of voles which not only acts as a food source, but also a supplier of underground burrows which this snake at times utilizes for egg laying.
It does all of the usual snake stuff when cornered- first vibrating its tail to make you think its got a rattle and is poisonous, and if that doesn’t work it will then strike with a vengeance. If you go a step further and decide to grab it you may regret it. In their book “Texas Snakes- Identification, Distribution, and Natural History” Werler and Dixon state: “If facing an agitated racer on the ground is an unpleasant experience, picking one up can be unnerving.” Also, the famous American naturalist, Raymond Ditmars said in his book "Reptiles of the World" that "as a rule, they are viscous and untamable". Its biting style is said to be "insidious" in that when it bites it immediately jerks its head back causing a tearing action by its backward curving sharp teeth. Past the teeth comes another line of defense, which I’ve spoken about before and have experienced numerous times, in that it will express its displeasure by the expelling of waste and musk from its cloaca, which has a horrible, if not reeking odor that would turn the most toughest of stomachs. On top of all this they will thrash about wildly even to the point of allowing the end of their tail to brake off if that’s where you’ve latched on to them. All in all you must be a lover of snakes if you want to handle this particular reptile, and to tell you the truth I’d rather go through all of the above aforementioned chaos than to be holding a dead one.


Ditmars, Raymond L. Reptiles of the World © 1944. The Macmillan Company, New York.

Werler, John E. & Dixon, James R. Texas Snakes- Identification, Distribution, and Natural History © 2002. University of Texas Press, Austin, TX.

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