Cicadas make great snacks for copperhead snakes, experts say

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The famous Brood X 17-year cicadas have emerged in East Tennessee.

Lynda Taylor’s yard in south Knoxville was filled with little holes, and at least one of her trees was covered with opened exoskeletons. Taylor and her family even found a few adult cicadas out of their shells.

“It’s a lot of them. So, and I think we’re going to have a lot. I think it’s going to be pretty noisy out here,” Taylor said.

Taylor said she didn’t know much about cicadas, but she does know to expect the extremely loud mating calls soon.

“I’ve heard them 17 years ago. They were louder, so they weren’t that loud last night,” Taylor said.

She did not know that cicadas can be a yummy snack for some venomous predators.

“Copperheads eat cicadas the same reason we eat fast food. It’s really cheap and quick,” David Hutto, herpetologist keeper at Zoo Knoxville, said.

Hutto said copperheads will only eat them when the cicadas have the perfect consistency for them to snack on. He said that’s right after the cicadas pop out of their molten nymph exoskeleton.

Dr. Frank Hale, a horticultural crops entomologist, described that process like this:

At first, the adults are a cream color and the exoskeleton is somewhat soft and not hardened yet.  These are called teneral adults. 

Dr. Frank Hale

Hutto said at that point, the cicadas are soft enough for copperheads to eat.

“They’ve got to hang on the tree for a little while, while their bodies harden and their wings fill out, and that makes them really, really easy prey for copperheads,” Hutto said.

Hutto said that doesn’t mean copperheads will flock to trees filled with the teneral adult cicadas.

First of all, he said that copperheads in East Tennessee tend to stay in places that aren’t busy with humans and are not common in Knox County.

“So further east toward the Great Smoky Mountains, you might start to encounter a few more copperheads, especially in more rural areas,” Hutto said.

Secondly, he said the copperhead population isn’t going to increase just because more cicadas (possibly trillions) will be out.

“Copperheads aren’t going to move that far in search of cicadas. If they have a little spot where cicadas are kind of, you know, plentiful, they might go from tree to tree or bush to bush, just to kind of see what’s around, but they’re not going to start making these massive movements,” Hutto said.

He said you might see a few more when they are out and munching on those cicadas at night.

Fortunately, for those who would rather not see the venomous snakes, Hale said the cicadas grow their wings and harder exoskeletons fairly quickly.

“Over a few hours to a day or so their exoskeleton will darken and become harder. They can then fly away and will be mainly up in the trees from then on,” Hale said.

At that point, copperheads won’t be able to eat the cicadas anymore.

“Once their exoskeletons harden, it’s a little bit harder for a snake to catch and swallow one…and once they can fly, a copperhead’s not going to really be able to catch that easily,” Hutto said.

He said copperheads can’t climb up into the trees, and that’s where cicadas will be once their exoskeletons harden, and their wings are fully grown.

Hutto had some tips to reduce the chances of copperheads coming to your hard, such as removing debris sooner rather than later as copperheads like to hide out in more rocky areas and often near streams.

So, keeping your yard clutter free and don’t give the snakes places to hide.

If you do come across a copperhead, Hutto said just leave it alone and give it distance.

“I guarantee you they want a lot less to do with you than you with them. We’re a big, large-body, warm-blooded mammal, and to them, we may be something that wants to kill or eat them. So, they’re going to try to stay away from us,” Hutto said.

As for Taylor, most of the cicadas already popped out of their molten exoskeleton, and the teneral adults weren’t anywhere to be seen.

So, she might be in the clear when it comes to copperheads snacking in her yard.

That also means she could very soon start to hear the adult male cicadas and their mating calls.

“Every day I’ll probably come out and check to see what’s going on,” Taylor said.

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