Saturday, February 1, 2014

Coachwhip - A "How to" Video

Coachwhips are one of North America's longest and fastest snakes.  They are also very striking and beautiful.  However, these reasons are not why I am so fascinated by them.  I can't get enough of coachwhips because they are extremely intelligent.  I even believe they have the intelligence of some birds.  As an example, I will describe some of the defensive strategies of coachwhips.

Defensive strategies

Coachwhips may just be one of the most difficult to catch snakes.  This is because they have some pretty unique defensive strategies and are just plain smart.


Like all snakes, their first strategy is to flee which they do with very high success.  These snakes can travel 3-4 mph (maybe faster on a hard surface) in a straight line.  Most humans can casually walk 2-3 miles per hour so you have to run to catch a coachwhip.  Well, the majority of fleeing coachwhips head straight to the nearest dense shrub, hedgerow, or hole and quickly disappear.

The coachwhips that can't find a briar laden hideout aren't a piece of cake to capture though.  These snakes zip side-to-side and even double back on themselves.  I have seen racers and coachwhips even go through their pursuers legs before.  You just can't anticipate or judge what they are going to do when being chased.


If you know me, you know I firmly believe that snakes are not aggressive.  By definition, aggression is the intent to harm or injure without cause.  So how do you define the behavior of a cornered coachwhip?

A cornered coachwhip is a sight to behold.  They typically will climb the nearest shrub or tree and then turn to face you.  Once at eye level, they will repeatedly strike at your face and eyes.  How do they know where you are the most vulnerable?  It is because they are intelligent.  I call this an offensive defensive behavior.  Coachwhips would not strike at you (offense) unless you are chasing and cornering them (defense).  This shows intelligence.


If fleeing and offense don't work to deter a human predator, coachwhips resort to death feigning.  They just go limp.  They die right there in your hands and if you haven't experienced it before you really would think they are dead.  A coachwhip's death feigning is not the writhing, shitting, and flipping back over that a hog-nosed snake does.  Coachwhips just die.  Have you ever held a dead snake?  It is like a heavy limp rope that just dangles there.  Experiencing this with a coachwhip is really weird because they are such a fast, agile, and incredible snake in life.  However, if left on their own, they will wake up and quickly disappear.

Western Coachwhip playing dead
Same Coachwhip as above 30 minutes later upon release
So how do you catch a coachwhip?  If they can remain camoflauged even when bright pink/red, zoom away quickly into the briar patch, or bite you in the face when you corner them, they certainly must be a tough snake to catch.  While on a trip to New Mexico, the coachwhips had been eluding the other herpers with me.  I finally decided that I needed to show them how to catch a coachwhip.  Armed with my GoPro strapped to my chest, I began to walk the sandy areas surrounding the Canadian River where I knew there would be lots of snakes.  Within five minutes, I was on the trail of a coachwhip.

Watch the video below - you have to move fast, dive without hestitation, and ignore the slashing bites of a coachwhip.  This may be one of the biggest thrill of snake catching.

There is a consequence of catching coachwhips and that is that most will give you a slashing bite.  Coachwhips do not chomp down on you like a ratsnake or kingsnake.  Instead they grab whatever they can and pull back causing their teeth to cut you rather than puncture you.  A bite from a coachwhip bleeds more than hurts but it still is an incentive to let go of it.  Another smart way of getting away.

Once caught and held properly (support the snake and let it move how it wants to - NEVER hold a snake behind its head - this just causes them to struggle which is stressful to the snake), coachwhips quickly calm down.  This can be witnessed by the photos of the two snakes above being held without biting by children.

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