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October 15, 2013

Snake similarities spark neighborhood concern

NEW CASTLE — A couple of reptiles found in a Sheep Hill neighborhood this week were mistaken for rattlesnakes.

Two juvenile snakes found on Martha Street in Taylor Township were misidentified by residents as the massasauga rattlesnake, endangered in Pennsylvania. It has been known to have populations in eastern Lawrence and western Butler counties, specifically near Moraine State Park.

But upon closer examination, the two slithering baby reptiles found Sunday turned out to be the juvenile eastern rat snake, a nonpoisonous species, according to information from Jason Poston of the PA HERP identification team.

Mary Christy, 59, of 2158 Martha St., thought she had found a live baby massasauga rattler after her neighbor had misidentified it. She kept it in a bucket, waiting to get in touch with someone from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission for further advice.

She knows the snakes are inhabiting her neighborhood, because her neighbor also had found one in his yard.

“I picked it up with a snow shovel and put it in a deep bucket,” she said of the one found on her porch, explaining the inside of the bucket is slippery, so the snake cannot scale the sides.

She didn’t know yet what she would do with the live snake. But after her son learned it’s unlikely that it’s a rattler, he said he will probably set it free.

Christy estimated the babies each were a foot long.

According to information from various Internet sites, the massasauga rattlesnake has vertical, elliptical pupils and small holes between the eyes and the nostrils, one on each side. The juvenile rattler has a yellow end to its tail.

The massasauga’s head is large, flat and triangular.

The snakes that Christy and her neighbor found have round pupils and no pits between the eyes and the nostrils. Nor do they have the yellow-ended tails.

Poston identified Christy’s snake as the eastern rat snake by viewing an emailed photo from the New Castle News.

The rat snake distorts the shape of its head when it feels threatened, according to the website of the Virginia Herpetological Society. The rat snake also is known to have a vibrating tail, which Christy and her neighbor mistook for a rattle.

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)

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