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UF experts' book demystifies Florida snakes

Published: April 2010, The Gainesville Sun

Besides Florida's wild alligator stories, Floridians love to tell tales about their slithering snakes.

Huge snakes, venomous, slithering serpents crawling over every bump and blade of grass, and even the ones that end up in our bathroom sanctuaries make for fearful tales told to weary visitors.

Two University of Florida experts, however, were tired of the bad reputation and death sentences snakes were getting because of the few dangerous ones and set out to make a guide to help both the snakes and the people live together peacefully.

Steve Johnson and Monica McGarrity have been working with reptiles and amphibians since they were children. Together they wrote the "Identification Guide to the Snakes of Florida," identifying all 46 snake species, including the six venomous species.

"A lot of people don't hesitate to kill a snake in their yard," said Johnson, an assistant professor at UF. "They have the attitude of 'the only good snake is a dead snake.' We hope people will use this guide to identify a snake in their yard so they know if it's dangerous or not."

According to McGarrity, a biological scientist at UF, "The main goal [of the guide] is to reduce conflicts with humans and wildlife. With snakes we focus on venomous snake safety."

Both Johnson and McGarrity are part of UF's extension efforts to research wildlife and educate the public about what they find. Both recall times when they were asked if there was a good guide to help non-experts identify all the different species of snakes in Florida.

"There wasn't at the time, but now there is," Johnson said, and he also mentioned possible updates to the book.

"It wouldn't need updating, except new, invasive species, like the African Rock Python, are being introduced."

According to Johnson, more and more people who are uneducated about animals are buying reptiles and amphibians on a whim. These people often realize that the once-small snake or monitor lizard they bought years before has turned into a 6- to 20-foot predator that they either cannot take care of or become bored with.

"These animals take a lot of time and dedication and people don't realize that," Johnson said. "They release these huge animals and it's not ethical, not legal and not responsible. They think they're doing a good act for the animal, but it's probably going to die. It shouldn't be here."