This week on our exploration of edible critters, we’re going to talk about what is probably one of the least-recommended food groups: reptiles. While reptiles tend to be high in protein and easier to catch than some other animals (namely birds and mammals) they are also more likely to be toxic, venomous, or just downright disgusting. A finely seasoned and roasted rattlesnake may be an exotic treat, but in the wild you are going to want to be as far away from one as possible. Nothing spells disaster like a diamondback bite with no supplies and no way of reaching a hospital, and the nonvenomous snakes you are likely to encounter will probably taste like the inside of a bike tire.
As we touched on in the first article of this series, hunting for meat is one of the last things you should do in a survival scenario (shelter, fire, and water procurement should always come first). This scenario also assumes that you are cut off from the wider world, have almost no supplies, and no way to contact rescuers. You can also read our (probably less dangerous) guides on eating insects and mollusks here, or fish and amphibians here.
The biggest worry with lizards is toxicity and bacteria. Some lizards, such as the Gila monster, are venomous and can produce a neurotoxin just as potent as the kind produced by coral snakes. Others pack a bite infused with harmful bacteria, which could be lethal when away from medical supplies. However, the vast majority of lizards in North America are relatively harmless and can be edible, although you should be wary of bacteria like salmonella.
Trapping lizards can be somewhat difficult, and if you are in a position to build a trap, you should probably target more tempting animals. Lizards can be readily harvested by spear or arrow. Keep in mind that the kind of lizards you will want to hunt will be on the smaller side and only offer very little meat.
Regardless, sometimes lizards are the only source of meat available, and more than one person owes their survival to eating some of these overlooked critters. As recently as 2013, a deer hunter in California survived three weeks eating nothing but the lizards he could catch, along with frogs and squirrels.
When it comes to eating lizards—and pretty much everything else—you’re going to want to cook them. Lizards can be eaten raw, but doing so increases your risk of contracting bacteria and parasites. When preparing reptiles, make sure that your hands have no cuts where bacteria can directly enter straight into your bloodstream. The lizard’s head and guts should be removed and animal boiled in hot water to sterilize it. Afterwards, you can cook it by roasting, frying, or just about any other way you can cook meat in the wild. One method can be seen below.
Nearly all snakes are edible, even the venomous ones. However, snakes are probably the food source most likely to kill you on this list.
Normally most snakes give humans a wide berth. That goes out the window when you begin to actively hunt them. For this reason, many survival experts will not recommend snakes as a food source and will instead teach students how to correctly identify venomous species, many of which you will find here.
That said, snakes are among the easiest critters to catch, especially on rocky terrain. If you ever spot a snake out in the open, simply take a large rock and bash it over the head. Grady Gaston, a crew member of a B-24 bomber that crashed in the Australian wilderness during World War II, supposedly survived months by using this method—and picking the occasional berry. Note that he did this in Australia, a continent with some of the most dangerous snakes in the world and where everything is almost literally trying to kill you. Not surprisingly, Gaston also lost about a third of his body weight during the ordeal.
When facing more aggressive speciesm you can distract them with a long stick while you spear or apply the aforementioned rock method. Since snakes are so slender and fast, a traditional spear may not do the trick. Instead, consider using a forked stick that pins the snake to the ground while you dispatch it with another weapon.
You can watch Bear Grylls take on some venomous snakes (not recommended) by using his hands (very much not recommended) below.
It is perhaps ironic that many people consider venomous snakes—especially rattlesnakes—to taste better than their nonvenomous cousins.
Once you harvested a snake, cut of its head and removed the skin with a knife or sharp rock. You can do this by cutting into its underside and peeling the skin off. Be extra careful around the head though, it can still bite you even after it’s dead. Internal organs should also be removed. The snake can now be cooked in whatever method you like, although some survivalists have recommended against smoking.
Turtles make up a more practical part of this list and are considered by some to be an important survival food. This is because turtles are generally very easy to catch, have versatile meat, and can even be kept alive like livestock—if fancy running a private turtle ranch in the middle of nowhere.
Building a simple turtle trap requires nothing more than your fingers and some bait. The easiest to make is essentially a hole about a foot deep and a foot wide with very steep walls so it can’t climb back out. Place the bait in the middle (leafy greens, fish, or animal entrails) and the turtle will mindlessly topple into it. The standard split-stick box trap is also effective.
Many turtles are also slow enough to catch by hand, but some species can bite and claw you. When it comes to critters like the alligator snapping turtle, the last thing you want is to lose a few fingers while trying to get dinner. These species should be held securely behind their necks and at the tail rather than by their side where they can bite you. Certain species are also toxic, such as the common box turtle, which can ingest poisonous mushrooms. Cooking does not remove the poison.
One way to prepare turtle is the method used below. The video, as can be expected, is a bit graphic.
Next week we will discuss birds and bird eggs.