Keep Calm; It’s Just a Snake

Eastern rat snake. Photo by J.D. Willson

Compleat Naturalist

By Laura & Hal Mahan

A humorous sign hanging on the post in front of our door at The Compleat Naturalist reads “KEEP CALM IT’S JUST A SNAKE,” meant to be a take-off on the famous British World War II poster, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” To some folks who have a serious snake phobia it is probably less than humorous. What is the real story? Are snakes something to be worried about here in the southern Appalachians?

As naturalists we enjoy all kinds of plants and animals, even ones that some folks may not fully appreciate. A few years ago, we had a couple of resident Eastern rat snakes that we would see in the warm morning sun stretched out lengthwise on our split rail fence next to the driveway. First, it was just one snake that we nicknamed Charlie. A few months later Charlie was joined by a second snake that we wanted to think was Charlene. Then one day we saw Charlie or Charlene squashed in our street. That was a sad day.

We hope that most folks have gotten over the knee-jerk reaction to kill snakes whenever they encounter one. Snakes play a very important role in the natural environment—keeping rodent populations in check. They are generally long gone before you see them, and most are harmless to humans. Of the 23 species of snakes listed in the guide, Reptiles & Amphibians of the Smokies, only two are venomous: the northern copperhead and the timber rattlesnake.

Local naturalist Scott Dean is out hiking the trails all over the mountains on a regular basis. We asked him how often he sees snakes. “I see them fairly routinely, but that’s because I’m out in the woods a lot,” he says. “With my classes, not a quiet environment, we’ll see two or three a year, primarily rat snakes, garters and, occasionally, a corn snake. I like them a lot, but don’t disturb them except for a teaching moment now and then. Sightings of the venomous guys are much less common, and I’m fine with that!” He said that he has seen timber rattlesnakes more often than copperheads.

Snakes are mostly such shy, secretive creatures that they require a person to have extremely sharp eyesight and a very quiet approach to see them at all. Most are so very well camouflaged that you could likely walk right past them without knowing they are there. They also hide under rocks and logs, so be sure not to stick your hand into these places in case something is hiding there. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is visited by more than ten million people a year, only a handful of venomous snake bites are recorded each year, and there is no record of a person ever dying of a snakebite in the park.

Snakes are a fascinating part of our herpetofauna and need not be feared. Just keep calm and know that they are undoubtedly more afraid of you than you are of them!

Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit or call 828.274.5430.

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