Snakes in the City: An Ecologist's Experience

By Isaac Cohen, December 7, 2020

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When you live in a major city, it never crosses your mind that you might find yourself face-to-face with a dangerous snake.

These reptiles live in mountains or forests, far away from our busy urban lives, or at least that’s what we want to believe.

On my first visit to one of the major parks in Shenzhen, the Shenzhen International Garden and Flower Expo Park, located in the heart of the city and frequented by hundreds of citizens on a daily basis, I encountered a noteworthy warning sign on the walking path, showing the image of a threatening king cobra snake; this immediately rang my biologist alarm bell.

It occurred to me that I have never seen such a warning in any other city before, at least not in a city with such a high-level of urban development, so I started reading, looking for information about the various species of snakes that could be spotted around Shenzhen.

Many months passed, and it actually became a running joke with my birding buddy, due to the fact that despite the multiple warnings around Shenzhen, we had seldom seen any snakes around, and we had to just be content with hearing stories about other people’s encounters with these amazing reptiles. 

One day, out of the blue, I had my first experience.

It was a sunny spring morning, and I was birding at the Shenzhen OCT Wetland park, when I saw it – a beautiful yellow-spotted keelback (Fowlea flavipunctatus), a nonvenomous semiaquatic snake that can be found in ponds, lakes and rivers around the city. I still remember my excitement when I first saw it, which further increased when I was able to get a photograph and register it in my personal collection.

After that encounter, I started to be more alert and aware of snakes every time I went out birding; the truth is that if you are focused on birds you will only see birds, so my entire mindset had changed in terms of starting to look in different nooks and crannies, rather than just pointing my camera up, as I usually did before.

One day, I was with my friend looking for a bird we had never seen before in the city, when the security guard at Bijiashan Park shouted at us, “she!” (snake) inviting us to see it slithering in the pond. It was precisely that day when my luck with being able to spot snakes in the city was going to change.

It was a snake parade: one after the other, coming and going as the sun started to shine over the pond, taking advantage of the lack of predator birds. We found a paradise for these fantastic animals, spotting that morning alone more than 10 individuals belonging to at least four different species, including the previously mentioned yellow-spotted keelback and the Oriental ratsnake (Ptyas mucosa).

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One of the most special encounters I have had in the city came at the same place a few days later; we already knew that the red-necked keelback (Rhabdophis subminiatus) was around. This snake is a one of a kind species due to a very particular feature: it is both venomous and poisonous! What is the difference? Basically, venomous refers to the snake’s ability to produce proteins by using a special gland and injecting it using its fangs, while poisonous refers to some toxins being expelled throughout the animal’s skin, a product of the metabolism of substances consumed by the animal. Despite its toxicity, however, this species is not aggressive and seldom represents a threat to humans.

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In total, Shenzhen has registered at least 20 species of snakes in the iNaturalist database, including diurnal and nocturnal, venomous and nonvenomous, large and small species of snakes, but the truth is, we all need to work together in preserving and protecting them and here are some reasons why.

Snakes are a key part of the food network dynamic in every ecosystem, including the fast-growing urban ones we have in our cities. It is important to understand that these forked tongue animals help control the growing expansion of certain populations of animals, like frogs and rats, which can become a problem for humans, especially in major, densely populated cities.

However, being a predator is not their only role in the endless cycle of life. Their function as prey is also a great contribution to our beautiful ecosystem. Snakes are an important part of the diet of several animals, including birds, mammals, and even other snakes, so getting rid of them will directly and severely impact other species’ populations, affecting our immensely dynamic urban ecosystem.

Snakes may be scary, dangerous and perhaps even disgusting for some people; nevertheless, these animals deserve our respect and care. Snakes are facing a very difficult time due to the rapid development of urban areas, so the last thing they need is humans further threatening their lives.

Snakes are not a direct threat to humans and would seldom attack a person. Most snake attacks are related to unfortunate incidents, like walking off the path and accidentally stepping on one, or someone putting their hand into a hole in the ground. In fact, most bites occur when people are actually looking for snakes, in which case it is due to ignorance and lack of proper equipment to handle these animals. By the way, my Biologist advice is that the best way of handling snakes is by not handling snakes!

So next time you decide to take a walk in the park or take a hike in the mountains, if you happen to have the amazing experience of spotting a snake, just admire it, don’t get too close and let it continue on its way back to safety.


Isaac Cohen holds a BS in Biology, Ed.S Pedagogy and M.S Continental Hydrobiological Resources and is based in Shenzhen. Follow him on Instagram at @cohenwildlife.

[All images via Isaac Cohen]

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