Just a short hike from the mouth of Wildwood Park in Radford, down the paved path and deeper into the park’s thickening summer foliage, Radford High School science teacher Frank Taylor and his scaly menagerie set up shop for the first of many summer nature lectures Thursday evening.
The lecture, which took place under the shelter of Wildwood’s outdoor classroom pavilion, introduced around 70 curious individuals to Virginia’s native snake species and gave anyone with a little courage to smile in the face of slithering stereotypes the opportunity to get a little hands-on with a handful of species of the reptiles.
“Snakes have been a part of human culture, have captivated people since forever,” Taylor said. “People have been interested in them, afraid of them, They’ve shunned them and worshipped them in some cases. Christians to Aztecs to Egyptians — even our modern symbols for pharmacy and medicine feature snakes. They’re probably the most recognized symbols of both help and the arcane. It’s a very interesting mixture.”
Taylor’s collection, on display, included nonnative species ball python, a hybrid king snake, corn snake, and gopher snake. The gopher snake, due to its constant, quick active movement during the presentation, was a crowd favorite. At the end of the lecture, Taylor brought out several snakes to be handled. The snakes, Taylor assured nervous parents and curious children, were very docile and were used to being handled.
At the beginning of the lecture Taylor told his audience Virginia has 30 native species of snake, only three of which are venomous: the copperhead, water moccasin (cottonmouth), and the timber rattlesnake.
“People’s first reactions when they see a snake are usually always to run from it or kill it,” Taylor said. “They’re filled with the misconception that snakes are always dangerous and bad, and that’s just not the case.”
Most often when people attack snakes for just being snakes, Taylor explained, is because they mistake them for, or imagine them, as venomous. Sometimes they’re right, but most often they’re mistaken. All native to Virginia venomous snakes are pit vipers, easily distinguished by the pits on their snouts and triangular-shaped heads. Their bite patterns are distinctly different as well — venomous snakebites are distinguished by two large punctures, while their nonvenomous counterparts’ patterns are almost u-shaped with small, even punctures.
“People call me all the time saying they’ve seen a copperhead,” he said. “It’s never a copperhead. Most often it’s just a baby black snake.”
The biggest crowdpleaser was the eastern hognose, a snake Taylor has been looking for for years but couldn’t find until recently.
“Every year for the last five years I told my students at RHS that if they ever came across an eastern hognose and brought it in, I’d give them $50. No one ever took me up on it,” Taylor shrugged. “I finally stumbled across one on a trail while I was out hiking around. A random bit of luck.”
One of the hognose’ most unique traits is its ability to confuse its predators by playing dead. Taylor demonstrated for the crowd by shaking up, agitating the snake and setting it on a table. In a dramatic display that lasted minutes, the snake flopped itself over and writhed in mock agony, then came to a dead stop, upside down and coiled, its slack mouth open and unmoving. It stayed that way for a good 10 minutes, much to the delight of the children in the front row.
“When in doubt, play dead,” Taylor joked.
The summer lecture series began seven years ago with the completion of Wildwood’s outdoor classroom, Taylor’s brainchild. An old-fashioned barn raising, complete with fried chicken, watermelon and a live string band, was held to put the finishing touches on the pavilion, and it has been used each summer to educate and entertain residents ever since.
Taylor’s next Wildwood outdoor adventure will take a group of adventurous patrons spelunking into the depths of the park’s own Adams Cave. Children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult, and participants are urged to dress appropriately for cold and for crawling on hands and knees. It is also recommended to bring flashlights, wear jeans and bring gloves. The underground adventure will begin at 7:30 p.m. A brief introduction will be given at the outdoor classroom pavilion before hiking to the cave’s entrance.
By Aaron Atkins