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Contains articles and advice on a wide variety of venomous snake species. Answers and addresses questions on species husbandry, captive status, breeding, news and conservation issues concerning venomous snakes.

Rattlesnakes – an Overview of the Most Highly Evolved Serpents

The subjects of today’s article, while not suitable pets under any circumstances, still hold great interest for reptile enthusiasts. Today we’ll take a look at some of their unique characteristics.

Rattlesnake Central

Growing up in NYC, I had the distinct pleasure of easy access to the Staten Island Zoo’s Reptile House, which was lorded over by the man known worldwide for introducing a generation of aspiring herpetologists to snake keeping – Carl Kauffeld. At the time, the zoo boasted a collection containing every known Rattlesnake species. Several years ago, I was thrilled to be chosen as consultant on the Reptile House renovation, and today Rattlesnakes again take center stage there (please see photo below). Read More »

Snake Escapes – Recovering Cobras and other Snakes in Zoos and Homes – Part 2

coiled snakePlease see Part I of this article for some cobra and python escape stories set in NYC.

The “Ditmar’s Trap”

I first became aware of snake traps through The Reptiles of North America, written by legendary Bronx Zoo curator Raymond Ditmars.  Mr. Ditmars recounted capturing Northern Watersnakes (Nerodia sipedon) by securing fish to strings that were anchored to stumps in likely locations…a feat I was later to repeat successfully on several occasions (snakes have trouble backing off prey once it has been swallowed, and Watersnakes are especially ravenous feeders).  If you have collected Watersnakes by hand, you’ll understand the attraction of a method that spares one’s skin!  Read More »

Snake Escapes – Recovering Cobras and other Snakes in Zoos and Homes – Part 1

Anaconda at the surfaceSnakes have a well-deserved reputation as escape artists and, once at liberty, they are nearly impossible to find.  Almost always, the escapee shows up by accident, no matter how hard one searches – even quite large snakes can virtually disappear in relatively small areas (please see photo – the 16 foot long anaconda pictured there “vanished” in about 6 inches of water on the Venezuelan llanos; I took over an hour to find her despite “knowing” where she was!).  However, there are a few tricks that can improve your chances of recapturing a lost pet…but first, if I may, a few related stories:

Cobras “Helped” out of Their Exhibit

My most dramatic snake escape/recapture began not due to carelessness but rather via a deliberate act of vandalism.  Amazingly, a visitor to the Bronx Zoo’s Reptile House (where I worked as an animal keeper) lifted his son up so that the boy could kick in the glass of the Spitting Cobra Exhibit!  This insanity took place on a crowded summer afternoon…when all such incidents seem to occur.  Read More »

Cannibalism and Carrion-Feeding in Rattlesnakes (Genus Crotalus) and Water Moccasins (Agkistrodon piscivorus) – Research Update


Writing in the current issue of the journal Animal Behavior, researchers from the University of Grenada report that female Mexican lance-headed rattlesnakes frequently consume infertile eggs and non-living young after giving birth.  This is said to be the first documented case of cannibalism among rattlesnakes (please see below for my observations, however).  Interestingly, with a sole exception, the females did not consume young that were born alive, even though these remain inactive for several hours after birth, and appear (to us, at least!) to be dead.

Rattlesnakes bear live young, and females use up a great deal of energy and body mass during gestation (they do not feed while gravid).  It is theorized that consuming those young which are dead upon birth helps them to recover their strength.

Rattlesnake Cannibalism in another Species

While working with the comprehensive rattlesnake collection at NYC’s Staten Island Zoo, I had the opportunity to participate in breeding efforts for a number of species.  Most births occurred at night and were not filmed, so I cannot say if females of other species ever consumed non-living young.  However, newly born Neo-tropical rattlesnakes (Crotalus durissus) did consume litter-mates on two occasions.

Hog Fat and other Unusual Snake Foods

Contrary to popular belief, many snakes consume non-living prey (i.e. carrion) in the wild.  The most unusual incident I recall was a note published in the journal Herpetologica…a water moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorous) was observed stripping fat from a road-killed feral hog!

Of the snakes I have worked with in the field and captivity, moccasins, indigo snakes, black racers and anacondas stand out as taking the widest variety of prey species, and each engages in cannibalism.  One particularly large moccasin I cared for consumed a northern water snake that shared its exhibit (not my idea – I had moved on by then!!).  I’m sure the same occurs in the wild, in areas where moccasins and various water snakes co-exist.

A Collection for Rattlesnake Aficionados

I had the wonderful opportunity of participating in the renovation of the Staten Island Zoo’s reptile house, former stomping ground of legendary snakeman Carl Kauffeld (known to all snake keepers as the author of Snakes, the Keeper and the Kept and Snakes and Snake Hunting).

As in former times, the zoo now boasts an impressive rattlesnake collection…please visit if you have the opportunity.  Pictured here are a few exhibits that I set up for the opening – Neo-tropical rattlesnakes, banded rock rattlesnakes and desert Massasaugas.

Further Reading

Lance-headed rattlesnake photos and natural history information are posted at:




Spitting Cobras (Family Elapidae, Genus Naja): New Research and Personal Encounters


A recent article (Jan. 2009) in Physiological and Biochemical Zoology has shed light on why spitting cobras nearly always hit the eyes of whatever creature they are aiming for, be it secretary bird (a predator), gnu (a trample hazard) or person.

Perfect Aim Not Needed

Utilizing high speed photography and EMG tests, researchers established that the snakes contract their head and neck muscles just before ejecting venom.  The contractions rotate the head and jerk it sharply from side to side, so that the venom forms a complex geometric spray pattern as it approaches its target.  As long as aimed in the general direction of the face, the venom contacts the adversary’s eyes nearly 100% of the time.

Keeping Zookeepers on Their Toes

I have worked closely with several types of spitting cobras.  Like many Elapids (cobras and their relatives), they are alert and quick-moving, and seem, at least on the surface, to be quite intelligent.  These traits, combined with their ability to both bite and “spit”, renders them quite a handful in captivity, and they provide much fodder for zookeepers’ tales.

Perhaps He Thought They Needed Exercise?

In one very bizarre incident from my Bronx Zoo days, a visitor held his son up so that the child could kick in the glass of an exhibit housing 3 black-necked spitting cobras (Naja nigricollis)!  As might be expected, the breaking glass caused a great deal of agitation to both the snakes and some of the other visitors…I say “some of” because nearly as many people were pushing towards the exhibit as were running away (those wacky New Yorkers!).  Fortunately, all emerged unscathed, and the snakes were recovered quickly.

Cobra Hunting to Start the Day

Another zoo adventure began when, still bleary-eyed after a few mugs of espresso very early one spring morning, I discovered that 3 red spitting cobras (Naja pallida) had vacated their holding cage overnight.  The ancient plastic goggles I used around spitters were fine for exhibit work, but rendered me nearly blind in the dim, cluttered recesses of the reptile house’s basement and storage areas.  Lifting the goggles briefly to peek under something was terrifying, but so was leaving them on and seeing only unidentifiable shadows.

One colleague, goggles perched on his forehead, spied a snake and grabbed it with tongs, neglecting to lower the goggles in the excitement.  Fortunately, the trapped serpent vented its wrath by biting the tongs, and not by spitting at my partner’s face!  After a few sweaty, suspense-filled hours, all 3 snakes were re-captured…whereupon I ordered new goggles!

I’ve also had run-ins with the spitting cobra’s much larger relative, the king cobra…please see my article A Close Call With a King Cobra http://blogs.thatpetplace.com/thatreptileblog/2008/06/ for more cobra tales.

Image referenced from Wikipedia, first published by LA Dawson, and shared under the Creative Commons Share Alike-2.5 License.


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