Solving Tulsa’s regional identity crisis—with snakes
Is Tulsa in the Midwest? This is the question I have been most frequently asked since I moved here from Wisconsin in January. My kneejerk reaction is to say no, but I am the kind of Midwestern purist who doesn’t consider Kansas to be part of the Midwest (the Great Plains are a separate region!) and will only grudgingly include Missouri. After growing up in Wisconsin, I went to school in Iowa, and later moved to Chicago, all of which are so solidly Midwestern that it’s hardly worth discussing. But in Oklahoma, the central hub where so many geographical regions—Midwest, Southeast, South, Southwest, West—converge, our regional identity is much more ambiguous.
Oklahoma as a whole is not part of the Midwest, that much seems certain. The western half of the state has more in common with New Mexico’s high desert plains, while the southeastern corner so closely identifies with the South that it calls itself “Little Dixie.” But Tulsa—maybe?
In a 2012 essay for This Land Press, “South by Midwest: Or, Where Is Oklahoma?” TTV contributor Russell Cobb—similarly perplexed by the Midwestern question—examined Oklahoma’s regional identity crisis through a variety of metrics like dialect, religion and politics. But the Tulsa question deserves its own consideration.
To determine where Tulsa truly belongs, we could use any number of measures—music, food, architecture, climate—and perhaps arrive at as many different conclusions. But when I was most recently confronted with this question, the first thing that came to my mind was … snakes. Specifically, the cottonmouths who were then haunting Tulsa’s flooded streets. The Midwest doesn’t have venomous water snakes, but Tulsa does. Therefore, I argued, Tulsa belongs to whatever region has the most venomous water snakes.
This line of thinking made me consider how much could I learn about Tulsa by investigating its creepier, crawlier residents. Could I figure out which region Tulsa belongs to by researching who might try to bite me?
Well, I could certainly try.
Of the 46 species of snake native to Oklahoma, only seven are venomous, and of these, only four—the copperhead, northern cottonmouth (also known as the water moccasin, among other names), timber rattlesnake, and western pygmy rattlesnake—live in Tulsa County. They share overlapping ranges across the southeastern United States. While the cottonmouth and pygmy rattlesnake spread across the Gulf Coast region and up along the South Atlantic, the copperhead and timber rattlesnake’s ranges cover the entire American South and even stretch into parts of the Mid-Atlantic. Based on our venomous snake population, Tulsa is part of the greater American South.
Verdict: The South
There are at least 32 different species of spiders in Oklahoma, but the three most vexing are the brown recluse, black widow and Oklahoma brown tarantula. (Unlike the other two, tarantulas are not venomous, but they are extremely large.)
The easiest way to describe the tarantula’s range is that it covers Oklahoma and every state that Oklahoma touches, plus Louisiana, which means that it stretches from the Mississippi River in the east to the Four Corners in the west. Brown recluse spiders significantly overlap tarantulas, but their range extends much farther east, nearly to the Carolinas, and does not extend past Oklahoma in the west. Based on our brown spiders, Tulsa belongs to a region I’m calling the Southern Middle.
Black widow spiders are the outliers here. Central Oklahoma marks the southwestern tip of their range, which extends north and east through Appalachia and into the Mid-Atlantic, reaching all the way into southern Ontario. In fact, recent studies suggest the black widow’s range has been moving north over time, and may soon reach as far as Montreal. Based on these spiders, Tulsa belongs to the Upland South, and possibly Canada.
Verdict: The Southern Middle and Upland South
Oklahoma is home to a number of tick species, several of which pose a threat to livestock and poultry, but there are four species most likely to bite humans: the American dog tick, also called the wood tick; the black-legged tick, also called the deer tick; the Gulf Coast tick; and the lone star tick. (With regional differences and overlapping identifications, tick names can be confusing. I’m using names from the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension.)
Of the four, the American dog tick and the black-legged tick cover the most ground: Their ranges stretch across the entire eastern half of the country, from Mexico to Canada and from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Ocean. The lone star tick has the next-largest range, also covering the eastern half of the country but not quite reaching into the upper Midwest. However, recent studies indicate that the lone star tick’s range may be larger than scientists originally believed, and currently expanding. The Gulf Coast tick has the smallest range, which—as the name suggests—stretches along the Gulf Coast and South Atlantic states, plus Arkansas and Oklahoma. In other words, we share the majority of our ticks with the eastern half of the U.S., but our Gulf Coast ticks get us into a much more exclusive club.
One more interesting bit of tick-related data: While Oklahoma has high incidences of a number of tick-borne illnesses, including Tularemia, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Ehrlichiosis, we have a very low incidence of Lyme disease, which shows up most frequently in the Upper Midwest (Minnesota and Wisconsin) and Northeast.
Verdict: The East and Gulf Coast
Bonus Round: Alligators
Tulsa does not have alligators, but Oklahoma does: There is a small nesting population in the Red Slough Wildlife Management Area in McCurtain County. (Sightings have also been reported in Lake Texoma.) Like the Gulf Coast tick, the American alligator’s range includes all states along the Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic, plus Arkansas and Oklahoma. Unlike the Gulf Coast tick, the American alligator can grow to be more than 11 feet long and weigh close to 1,000 pounds.
Verdict: Absolutely not the Midwest
Based on this data, Tulsa has the most in common with the southeastern U.S., and specifically with the states along the Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic. As I mapped it out, I was struck by an invisible line that kept appearing to divide the species of the eastern half of the country from those of the west. As it turns out, this line, approximately following the 100th meridian west, has long been considered the boundary between the humid east and arid west. Tulsa, of course, is on the eastern side of this divide, so it makes sense that we share more species with the warm wetlands of the Gulf Coast than with the dry deserts and grasslands of the West and Southwest. However, recent data suggests that this invisible line has been moving slowly eastward due to climate change—which means that Tulsa may one day find itself on the other side.