Last week I was walking in the woods near my work during lunch and for the second time ever, I came across a venomous snake, and once again it was a copperhead. And my reaction was, to the letter, identical to my reaction last time. My first reflex was to freeze, the caveman brain yelling “WATCH OUT! A SNAKE!”- until my me-brain instructed me to access the situation and identify the snake. Indeed it was a venomous snake. My next processed thought was to slowly back away, then after that it was “Quick! Get the camera!” My brain didn’t work so efficiently or as reliably after that. I took a bunch of pictures with different zooms and angles, trying not to disturb the snake, the whole time not realizing the obvious. This picture offers a clue.
Funny, the snake seems to have some flies on him. I finally started to notice that, then wondered if the snake was dead. After poking him with a super-long stick I was pretty sure of it. But I still didn’t want to get bitten by a “mostly dead” snake that might snap suddenly. So I had to keep on jabbing to make sure he was really, really dead. Like the munchkin coroner’s song in The Wizard of Oz.
The problem of transport of the snake was solved by the fact that I had a backpack, plus I had an empty Ziploc bag from lunch. Surprisingly, the nearly-grown copperhead fit into it just fine. The next step was to figure out a way to do a quick formalin fix for this snake in order to kill any gross things on him, plus to keep him from stinking and rotting until I got home. That problem could easily be solved in the lab, but it wouldn’t be so easy to hide exactly what I was doing from everyone else in the lab. I…managed. We won’t talk about how that was done.
I managed to get the pit-viper-in-formalin home, but I’m going to have to wait on attempting taxidermy on him. I’m not entirely confident I can do it, never having taxidermed a reptile before. There were a lot of tutorials on youtube on how to tan his hide, but I couldn’t find a good one for actual taxidermy. I did find a forum on taxidermy.net that had step-by-step instructions on rattlesnake taxidermy, so that will have to do. Unfortunately, my first attempt at pit viper taxidermy will have to wait, because most of my taxidermy supplies has already been packed away to move to the new house. So I carefully skinned him and did an informal necropsy to see what I could learn about him.
There were no marks or any kind on his skin, but he had some blood coming out his mouth. Upon opening the thorax, you could see that his chest cavity had massive internal bleeding. Other than that, there didn’t seem to be anything else wrong with him. This suggests blunt trauma, ie, he was squashed. I wonder how that happened. I’ve seen enough snakes run over by cars to know that he would have been a lot more flattened if that had been the case. He would have been stuck to the road. This kind of trauma was more like he’d been stepped on, but who would be dumb enough to step on a copperhead? If so, did that person get bitten? Copperheads are pretty shy, and they usually only bite if they’re stepped on. Plus his skull was intact, and if somebody were trying to smash a snake on purpose, they would aim for the head and not the thorax, right? Jon suggested a great story- he was swooped up by a hawk (there are several hawks that hang out in Lullwater and we see them all the time), the copperhead bit the hawk, the hawk dropped him from a great height and the snake died from slamming onto the pavement. It was a little odd, after all, that this snake was found right at the edge of the road. Copperheads prefer to hide in the leaves than to sit wide out in the middle of a road in plain view. So maybe he was dropped onto the road, then he used his last ounce of strength to crawl to the edge, where he died. I like this story the best. I’d hate to think somebody killed him on purpose.
In addition to his thoracic cavity filled with blood, I learned that his last meal was a small mouse. Also, his stomach doesn’t look much like a mammalian stomach. It’s really long and narrow, resembling a large intestine more than a stomach. Which makes sense if you’re a long and narrow animal. Also, he had only one lung. This single lung was also very long and narrow. Again, it makes more sense to have one long lung than to have short, wide, paired lungs taking up all that space if you’re a long and narrow animal. I’d read about how many snakes have only one lung, but it was cool to see it in person. Oh, and I found out that he’d been a male snake. Unless those were musk glands. Hard to say.
So now I have this striking and beautiful snake skin, still sitting in my dissection bucket until I can attempt to taxiderm it. I’m not sure what to do with it. I could go the coward’s way and just tan it and have a pretty snakeskin. Or I can be daring and try to create my first reptile taxidermy. It would really be a shame if I messed up though and ruined this gorgeous skin. I guess we’ll wait and see.