Snakes: Why We Need to Live Peacefully With Them

Ecologist Nicolette Cagle explores how snakes are crucial to a ‘natural balance’

Climate Change and Snakes video thumbnail
Nicki Cagle with snake
Nicolette Cagle

Nicolette Cagle has been drawn to snakes since she was about seven, and has the love bites to prove it.

In the course of her research, she has been scratched or pricked more than 100 times by the small fangs of non-venomous snake species from North Carolina to Nicaragua.

As the days warm and these shy and elegant creatures emerge from their wintering spots, Cagle wants to help people appreciate the ways snakes serve the natural world – including the contributions science hasn’t yet discovered.

“I’m drawn to snakes, in part because so many people recoil from them,” says Cagle, an ecologist and senior lecturer at the Nicholas School of the Environment. “I see them as an underdog, particularly in the conservation world. They’re extraordinarily under-studied compared to other organisms. We still only understand them at a very basic level and we’re still discovering new species – there’s just so much we don’t know.”

We are also at risk of losing some of them before they’re discovered, says Cagle, who details their ecological and cultural significance in a new book, “Saving Snakes.” The text is a memoir and also a plea to urban dwellers to leave snakes that they encounter alone, or have them humanely relocated rather than killing them out of fear.


Nearly two-thirds of snake species worldwide are threatened by agricultural expansion, Cagle says. In her own field research in Illinois, she found that snake populations had declined 80 percent since the mid 1800s. Back in the 19th century, prairie settlers’ writings detailed their routine of shaking the snakes out of their bedclothes every night before they retired, she writes in the book.

“What we see on the landscape today is just a drop in the bucket compared to the snakes and organisms in the landscape before we urbanized,” Cagle says. Agricultural expansion and urban sprawl continue to threaten species around the world.

Snakes are a critical part of the food web, she says. In some ecosystems, they are the apex predator. In others, they are right in the middle, serving as food to large birds of prey like hawks while also keeping rodent populations in check.

“Increases in the rodent population would be a problem for agriculture, for the spread of disease, for plant biodiversity,” she says. “Snakes are really important to the natural balance.”


Although most people can understand the animals’ value, conservationists like Cagle know they’re also preaching to humans who, research suggests, may be born with some level of innate fear of snakes.

“There’s also research to indicate that our education really influences the way that we see snakes and treat them,” she says. “If someone doesn’t want to have anything to do with snakes, that’s OK. You don’t have to handle them or look at them in order to recognize their value.”

She suggests that mistaken identities are also often a cause of unnecessary fear or killing of snakes. One need only to check Facebook or a neighborhood email list to see a juvenile rat snake, water snake or hognose snake, all nonvenomous species, be mistaken for a venomous copperhead.

The copperhead is the only venomous snake common to Durham County, part of the piedmont region of North Carolina. Contrary to common belief, Durham is not home to venomous water moccasins, also known as cottonmouths, but harmless water snakes can often mistaken for the venomous species, she says.

For those worried about snake encounters around their homes, urban dwellers can avoid unwanted contact by keeping yards clear of tall grass, logs, standing water and other items that could offer the creatures a food source or protective cover, and wearing full-coverage shoes when outdoors. If a snake has made its way into a crawlspace, garage or even a home, Cagle suggests finding a wildlife expert who offers humane relocation.


In many cultures and spiritual traditions, snakes have been venerated creatures, Cagle notes in the book. From medical emblems, to the Japanese deity Ugajin, to Hopi traditions in the American Southwest, snakes have served as symbols of fertility, rebirth and healing, Cagle says. Researchers have theorized that the spread of Christianity, in which snakes often symbolize death, evil and temptation, contributes to negative associations, she says.

A case of mistaken identity

An image of a copperhead, left, overlaid on an image of a northern water snake, right.

Image: Jennifer White Maxwell/Shutterstock (Left), Jeffrey Beane, N.C. State Museum of Natural Sciences (Right)

Whether feared or venerated, snakes have led to medical advancements in blood pressure medication and have the potential to contribute to new discoveries in drugs and diagnostic tools, she says. For example, researchers are investigating the potential of a unique molecular structure in Eastern Coral Snake venom to diagnose Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, she writes.

“What I want people to take away is a sense of empathy,” Cagle says. “If we can expand our sense, our sense of responsibility to snakes, I think we can do anything. We can protect each other. We can be a more inclusive society for people of all identities. We can start to tackle these big issues like climate change and environmental degradation. We could do a lot of good in other ways.”

Cagle spends time sharing these messages with students as adviser to a Duke student wildlife club, and as the science adviser to a volunteer community science project that collects data on reptiles and amphibians in Duke Forest.

Snakes can do amazing things – they can shed their skins and emerge shiny and new, Cagle says. They elegantly move over landscapes, over earth and through water. And when you can stop to observe them, their bodies are unexpectedly gorgeous, she says, some sporting big chocolatey splotches, others with vibrant orange rings around their necks, and yet others with surprising patterns, such as checkered undersides.

“I appreciate how embedded they are in the landscape,” Cagle says. “They’re immersed, bellies to the ground. They can’t escape it. I find that appealing – to be that connected to nature and to the earth.”

Spot the snake

Snakes are such an integrated part of their landscape that it can be difficult to see them. Can you spot the copperhead hidden among leaves and branches in these images?

Image: Jeremy Ginn