For many of you, the snake photo below will elicit a strong visceral response.  The spider photo below might do the same.  While it varies in intensity, humans seem to have an innate fear of both spiders and snakes.  New research now provides further support for the idea that fear of spiders and snakes is something we’re born with, not something we learn.  The European study showed that 6-month-old infants responded more strongly to images of spiders and snakes than of other creatures, even when those images were nearly identical in terms of color and brightness.  It’s a fascinating study to read, and is available for free by following this link.

This red-sided garter snake is about as harmless as you can get.

This big female wolf spider is impressive, but poses no threat to humans.

I handle both snakes and spiders fairly regularly, but I’ll still admit that my first reaction upon seeing one – especially when it’s a surprise – is to step backward.  Then, my logical brain kicks in and I step forward and pick up the cute little critter to look at it more closely.  I may be instinctively afraid of snakes and spiders, but it’s nice to know my brain has the ability to override that instinct – and I think most people have that same ability.  Dating back to my time working at a nature center in college, I’ve probably helped thousands of people overcome that initial fright response and touch, or even pick up, their first spider or snake.

My kids and I came across this bull snake along a gravel road.  We didn’t pick it up because it was acting aggressively, but we did spend a few minutes admiring it before it scooted off into the grass.

I think it’s important to help people understand that most snakes and spiders are harmless, and that even those few that could potentially pose a danger are not actively trying to attack them.  First, it might help save the lives of snakes and spiders living in and around those people’s houses.  That’s great, but probably won’t affect the fate of the world.  More importantly, however, I hope making people more comfortable with snakes and spiders might also help them feel more comfortable wandering out into prairies and other natural areas.

I’m not sure how many people avoid exploring tall grassy places out of fear, but I’ve definitely met people who fall into that category.  It’s hard enough to convince people that prairies are worth visiting without also having to convince them they won’t be ambushed by a vicious snake or spider.  I take every opportunity to reassure people that our prairies are safe, and try to prove it by going out of my way to catch and admire the snakes and spiders we see while hiking around.  Among my prairie conservation outreach strategies, demonstrating the harmlessness of snakes and spiders is surely not the most impactful, but I figure it doesn’t hurt.  If nothing else, people tend to care more about places they’ve visited, so anything we can to do encourage more visits to prairies seems worthwhile.

It would be interesting to know what percentage of people across the world would find this photo to be beautiful versus creepy (or both?).

Photo of the Week – May 1, 2015

Last year, I moved into a nice old house (100 years old this year) with a big lot and plenty of potential.  The kids have been enjoying the yard, the loft above the garage, and some of the new furniture and accessories (including a bison skull named Lefty hanging on the living room wall).  One of the unexpected perks of the new house is some junk wood along our neighbor’s fence.  I found the wood late last fall as I was trimming shrubs.  It was buried beneath what appeared to be several year’s worth of leaves.  My first thought upon seeing it was that it might be a good place to find snakes, but it was late enough in the year that they weren’t around then.  I left the wood in place, figuring we’d check it out again in the spring.



Now that spring has arrived, the wood has certainly met expectations.  The other day we found at least 10 snakes underneath it, and there might have been a few more (they kept moving…).  What would be a nightmare for many people has become almost a daily adventure for my son Daniel (“Dad!  Come look at the snakes now!”) and yesterday he took his older siblings out to join in the fun.

Counting snakes.

Counting snakes.

A big female plains garter waits patiently for us to put her wooden shelter back in place.

A big female plains garter waits patiently for us to put her wooden shelter back in place.

I’m not sure what the wood was used for (an old makeshift door of some kind?), or why it was left behind to rot beneath leaves, but I think it’ll stay where it is for a while longer.  We have a lot of work to do over the next few years to make the yard more friendly to pollinators, wildlife, and other creatures, but the old wood along the fence is a good start.

…I’m not sure I’ll tell the neighbors about it just yet.  That might be a conversation that should wait until I know them a little better.