“Herping” in South Florida: An Expedition to Capture an Invasive Species Creates an Opportunity to Appreciate Natural Florida
Bryant Turffs, Contributing Author
It is nearing sunset as we head west from Miami. The glitzy neighborhoods of Coconut Grove and Coral Gables give way to the modest suburbs and eventually to agricultural and natural areas. My sister, brother-in-law, and I are prepared for a long night ahead. We are decked out in long sleeves to protect us from mosquitos and the remaining space in our car is jammed full of equipment. The plan is to spend the night cruising the remote roads of the Everglades in search of snakes
cottonmnouth water moccasin Agkistrodon piscivorus
The cottonmnouth water moccasin Agkistrodon piscivorus. Photo: B. Turffs
Enthusiasts of reptiles and amphibians are known as “herpers.” This rather unappealing moniker comes from the term herpetology, the study of this group of organisms, which itself is derived from the latin word “herpein,” meaning to creep. I suppose this is a fitting term for our legless quarry. Reptiles, in particular, are a polarizing class of organism. For some people, such as my mother, snakes inspire naked fear. Others, such as my sister, develop an appreciation for snakes that sometimes borders on an obsession. Our primary goal is capturing invasive pythons. My sister is permitted to collect these snakes, which are native to South Asia, but have taken hold in Florida after being released by irresponsible pet owners. Though we would be unsuccessful in finding pythons this evening, we would have many encounters with and opportunities to photograph native Florida species.
Those who can look past their fear of snakes find them beautiful for many reasons. Their diversity of appearance, habitat use, and lifestyle offer us insights into evolution. Many snakes are objectively beautiful, possessing artistic colorations that serve to camouflage them against predators or warn of their potential lethality. Even the venom of some species is of use to humans. Snake venom has been used to develop medicines that treat everything from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease.

We did not wait long for our first sighting. On a stop intended for birding, we come across an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus adamanteus. This most feared of native species paid us no heed as it went about its own business. Later, in an estuarine environment, we encountered three species of water snake. Their intraspecific color patters varied in appearance as much as their interspecific forms. We encountered rat snakes, ribbon snakes, garter snakes, racers, cottonmouths, and an exquisitely beautiful scarlet snake, which though harmless, mimics the venomous coral snake. We found thirteen species in total, a successful night for a nature lover, and a testament to the wonderful biodiversity in our backyards.
everglades rat snake elaphe obsoleta rossalleni
Everglades rat snake Elaphe obsoleta rossalleni. Photo: B. Turffs.
salt marsh snake Nerodia clarkii
The salt marsh snake Nerodia clarkii. Photo:B. Turffs
Most of these species were encountered on the road after dark. Our roads attract reptiles as dark asphalt retains heat that these cold blooded organisms need to keep their energy levels up. This is of benefit to those who search for them. Its much easier to spot a snake on a road than when camouflaged in its natural habitat. It is, however, a significant danger to the organisms, which often fall victim to passing cars. We were reminded of this frequently as we passed a dead animal for every few live ones.
As is true for most imperiled species today, humans are the primary threat to snake, reptile, and herpetofauna populations in general. This group of organisms not only falls victim to cars, but also to habitat loss, climate change, and is singularly persecuted because of our fear. Given their beauty, utility, and my belief that they have an intrinsic right to exist the same as humans, it is a shame that we often fail or are unwilling to understand and peacefully coexist with these incredible organisms.

In order to create the images accompanying this article, I photographed these organisms where they were found, mostly on the road. Many herpers choose to capture, relocate, and pose their subjects. This technique allows for incredible images of the organism and its natural habitat to be created, but I believe that minimal contact is best for the animals welfare. A fast lens and flashlight held above the specimen created the atmosphere of these images, which I find pleasing. The technique creates an almost studio like quality in its ability to isolate the subject from the background. Afterwards, a little coaxing moves the specimen off the road and out of harms way.
eastern diamondback rattlesnake Crotalus adamanteus
The Eastern diamondback rattlesnake Crotalus adamanteus. Photo: L. Wood
scarlet snake Cemophora coccinea
The scarlet snake Cemophora coccinea. Photo: L. Wood
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