Rarely seen rainbow snakes spotted in Berkeley County on Cooper River

Rainbow snakes are seldom seen, but Elizabeth Anderegg of Sullivan’s Island came across three along the Cooper River. She picked up one for a closer look.

Even in the Lowcountry, where exotic creatures abound, spotting a rainbow snake is one of those had-to-be-there moments.

Rainbow snake facts

Rainbow snakes:

Can grow to more than 5 feet long.

Have three red stripes running down a black back; pink or red belly with two or three rows of black spots.

Sometimes are called eel moccasins because they eat American eel.

Are found in the Southeast coastal plain, usually in blackwater creeks, cypress swamps or tidal water.

Are usually docile and don’t bite.

Are seldom seen, spending most of their lives hidden in aquatic vegetation and debris, but occasionally move overland and can be found far from water.

Have spines at the edge of a pointed tail that are used to control prey.

Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, Davidson College Herpetology Laboratory.

And finding a pair is so rare that herpetologists don’t know much about rainbows’ mating habits.

Elizabeth Anderegg of Sullivan’s Island came across a pair of the brightly striped snakes this spring — as well as a third — when she stepped ashore from the Cooper River with a kayaking group.

She quickly grabbed the docile, brighter colored female to the oohs and no’s of the paddlers she was with. “That one was just so big and pretty I couldn’t resist. I had to pick it up,” she said. “Some of (the paddlers) were scared and some of them were, ‘Cool, cool.’”

The snakes “were definitely together. They were a couple,” said Kathie Livingston, of Nature Adventure Outfitters. “These snakes are beautiful.”

Rainbow snakes are all that. And it’s a little dumbfounding that the group came across three on a riverbank bluff. Rainbows are water snakes that feed on American eel. They don’t come out of the water often, said Jeffrey Beane, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences herpetology collector. They’re secretive, and tend to emerge at night.

The snakes are considered native from Virginia to South Florida, but are difficult enough to spot that, while they are thought to be somewhat common in most of that range, there are places where they haven’t been reported for 50 years.

“They’re probably more secretive than they are rare,” Beane said. “They’re kind of a holy grail for a lot of people who like snakes. It’s like chasing a rainbow.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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