In the days leading up to Valentine’s, love was in the air at Lake Hollingsworth in central Florida—possibly for the humans who flock to the area to walk or jog, and definitely for the snakes who have taken to mating en masse along the lake’s shore.
Some recent visitors to Lake Hollingsworth were shocked by the sight of the reptiles congregating at a traffic roundabout near a popular trail, reports Gary White of the Ledger. In response to rumors that the snakes were venomous cottonmouths, the City of Lakeland Parks and Recreation took to Facebook to assure locals that the reptiles were in fact Florida water snakes—not venomous, but simply amorous.
“It appears they have congregated for mating,” officials wrote, noting that the snakes are “generally not aggressive as long as people do not disturb them.”
The Florida water snake, or Nerodia fasciata pictiventris, is one of three southern water snake subspecies and indigenous to the Sunshine State. It can grow between 24 and 42 inches and is a “stout bodied” critter, according to the Florida Museum, marked with black, brown or red bands. The species makes its home in just about any shallow body of freshwater (ponds, lakes, rivers, swamps, marshes, streams), happily munching on fish, frogs and aquatic invertebrates.
Water snakes like to slither onto trees and rest on branches that hang over the water. Typically, they are solitary creatures, but during the mating season—which lasts from mid-winter to spring—the Lake Hollingsworth water snakes have been known to form a “quivering mass” around an oak tree by the shore, as Bob Donahay, Lakeland’s director of parks and recreation, tells the Ledger. The sight has been described as an “annual snake orgy,” though the reality may not be quite so saucy. According to Live Science, water snake males, which initiate the pursuit, typically mate with just one female per season.
Though they will bite if provoked, Florida water snakes are not usually harmful to humans. But they are similar in color and size to cottonmouths and can be easily confused with this poisonous species, reports C. Isaiah Smalls II for the Miami Herald. Water snakes are, in fact, often killed in the mistaken belief that they are cottonmouths.
The City of Lakeland cautions that it “cannot rule out the presence of other species” among the water snakes’ lake-side love fest, but notes that the gathering of water snakes along the shore during mating season is nothing new. “It’s a yearly occurrence that happens pretty much in that area, for some reason,” Donahay tells the Ledger. “I know it’s happened the last five years.”
City officials urged the public not to disturb the snakes, since they are “an important part of the ecosystem,” and said they had cordoned off the area where the reptiles were doing their business. “We … are in the process of hanging signs to make the public aware of their presence,” the Facebook post noted. “This is for the protection of the public and the snakes.”
Fortunately for those who would rather not encounter a tangle of lusty reptiles during their morning jog, water snake dalliances are fleeting. “Once the mating is over,” according to the City of Lakeland, “they should go their separate ways.”