Sunday, April 15, 2012

Bullsnake, Mouth Rot and a Listing

This beautiful patterned snake is the increasingly rare Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi). In years past this snake was quite common and most every farmer boasted of having a resident bullsnake controlling rodents in their barns or bins.

Last Friday, March 30, 2012 I received a phone call from one of our agents, Jason. He had paid a call on one of the residents of the county he patrols. This man had in his possession a large bullsnake. Jason wanted to know if I would like to have the bullsnake to use as an exhibit snake for a period of time. I was thrilled by the prospect and told him "yes, I would definitely like to see the snake and keep it for awhile." The man who found the snake agreed that when we were done with the snake he would re-release the snake back on his property. I knew Dr. Mills our local herpetologist had been on the look-out for this species and had not found one in the entire 14 years he has lived in this area, other than one found on the road dead. I could hardly wait to let him know we had a bona fide bullsnake coming into out office, and not just any bullsnake, but a LARGE one.

That afternoon our herpetology class was planning a field trip to Squaw Creek NWR, so I told Dr. Mills I would bring the bullsnake along so the students could see it. He was anxious to see it and show it off the the class. We all met at 2:30, and as expected the students were impressed with this large snake. When it first came into the office it hissed loudly and rattled its tail, trying very much to sound like a rattlesnake. We could not get it to repeat the defensive behavior they are famous for in front of the students, perhaps he suddenly felt shy?

Dr. Mills took the snake out of its enclosure and showed off his unique snake wrangling abilities.

He gently places the snake between his legs and slowly feeds the snake towards the front of his legs as he feels for the head. When he feels the head he grips it firmly but gently to keep it from biting. A snake as large bodied as a bullsnake can and will give a painful bite. This particular snake however calmed down almost immediately once in hand and did not offer to bite or act aggressive. We were able measure his length, but did not have time to take further measurements before we were confronted with the wildlife biologist and the Massassauga he had captured and wanted to show the class.

Dr. Mills telling the class about the bullsnake.

Students assisting Dr. Mills in measuring the bullsnake, he has a SVL of 171 cm (nearly 5.5 feet)

The bullsnake behaving very calmly as it is being handled. 

Bullsnakes are the largest snake found in Missouri and may reach lengths up to eight feet, with 6 to 7 feet being common.They range in color from yellow, tan to white with approximately 41 dark brown or black blotches. Most of the specimens I've seen in previous years have been yellowish with brown blotches. They occur in traditional prairie habitats  throughout most of Missouri.

In the past 15 years their numbers have drastically fallen and they are becoming difficult to find. Joey and I raised hogs from 1990 until 2000. We had a couple of bullsnakes that hung around near the farrowing house, in large part because of the rats and mice that were there. With all the grain we had around to  feed the hogs, we had no shortage of rodents. These bullsnakes soon learned that an easy meal could be had and they stayed pretty close to the building. When we got out of the hog business, the snakes left  and I have not seen one since. In fact, I have not seen a bullsnake at all anywhere, and I am out looking for snakes all the time. Dr. Mills moved to St. Joseph in 1998 and said he found a bullsnake dead on the road and that has been the only specimen he has seen in all these years. So, to say he and I were excited about this bullsnake that suddenly came into our possession would be an understatement.

Bullsnakes are famous for their large size and the hissing sound they make when disturbed. They puff their body up to look bigger and then let loose with a hiss that will make you take a step back and reevaluate the situation. Do you want to get closer? Is this thing venomous? Will it hurt me? It is doing what Mother Nature designed it to do, mimic a rattlesnake. It will even shake its tail in leaf litter or dry grasses to carry the ruse further. Truthfully this species is harmless, however if you grab one it may earn you a bite. When I was in high school I remember one of my classmates was putting up hay and got bitten by a large bullsnake. He ignored the bite and continued to work in the hay. The superficial mound he received became infected from sweat, dirt, hay and the bacteria from the snakes mouth keeping the wound dirty. He spent some time in the hospital seriously ill from infection. Had he taken a few minutes to wash the bite and wrap it, this most likely would have turned out different for him. A snakes mouth carries bacteria from the things it is feeding on. Anytime you are bitten by a snake, it requires attention. If it is a venomous bite, seek medical help IMMEDIATELY! If it is non-venomous take a few minutes to clean the bite and wrap it. Putting an antibacterial topical ointment like neosporin is a good idea as well.  Better safe than sorry.

Several days after acquiring the snake, myself and several others noticed it was holding its mouth funny, it was slightly agape and he was drooling. Snakes don't drool, Bulldogs do! I contacted Dr. Mills and explained my observations and he said he thought it sounded like Mouth Rot. I had never heard of such a thing, and did some research. I soon discovered this can be quite serious and may even kill the snake. I contacted several local vets, and none knew anything about it or how to treat it. A friend of mine from Squaw Creek NWR suggested a vet named Dr. Roy Wilson from Mound City. He and his wife run Rafter Cross Veterinarian Care. I called him and he knew how to treat it. I took the snake to him and after looking him over, he determined it was indeed mouth rot.

 (Photo By: Carrie Wilson)

 He weighed him (4 pounds) and gave him an antibiotic shot. He sent me home with four more doses of antibiotics to administer and then wanted to see him in a week.

 (Photo By: Carrie Wilson)

Eight days later and 3 more shots later I returned to Dr. Wilson with our patient. He said he thought the mouth looked some better, it at least had better color. The snake however developed thrush (A type of yeast infection of the mouth) brought on by the antibiotic shots. Dr. Wilson cleaned a bunch of dead tissue out of the snakes mouth, gave him another antibiotic shot and an additional shot of an anti-inflammatory. He then tube fed him an electrolyte cocktail. He also applied an athletes foot/jock itch ointment to the mouth to help with the thrush. I will continue to give him another round of antibiotics and apply the ointment for another week then return to the vet in ten days. Hopefully this poor snake will be well on the road to recovery. I will try to feed him a small mouse tomorrow to see if he has any interest in eating. The sooner he eats the better and faster he will heal.

I contacted the man who found the snake and told him this snake could not be returned to him to be released on his farm. Once we began administering antibiotics we have no way of knowing how long those antibiotics will remain in the system of the snake. Dr. Wilson said in good conscience he could not recommend releasing it. If a predator such as a owl, eagle or hawk were to try and feed on this snake and in turn consume the antibiotics we don't know what the affects would be on them. The gentleman was fine with that and was happy for us to give it a home. This snake (should it survive) will be used as an ambassador of his kind in education.

I spoke to our state herpetologist and was told by him that there is a very good chance that this species will be listed as threatened in the state of Missouri as early as next year. This is a decision I support whole-heartedly, as do many of us in the herping/conservation community. We recognize the rarity of this species and know that protecting it may bring it back from the brink of extinction in Missouri. To have this snake extirpated from our state would be sad indeed. With humans encroaching on the habitats of the snakes in their desire for more strip malls, housing additions, agricultural ground and various other human related construction/destruction the snakes are finding it more and more difficult to hold on to what little remains of their natural habitats.

I will update later and keep everyone posted about this snakes progress.