As a boy growing up in rural Alabama, I made contact with plenty of snakes and lesser desirable species. I removed a few problem snakes that took shelter in a boat and attacked our dogs, however the more encounters I had with them, the more I began to realize even the most dangerous species seemed to be harmless if left alone. Reptile shows were a common annual assembly in the gym at my high school. I quickly learned to identify which were venomous at an early age. I was fortunate enough to have some very knowledgeable people explain the role of these animals in the ecosystem and develop a respect for their place in nature. I grew to respect that in most instances, they simply do not want to be disturbed. The reaction of fear towards all species of snakes is fairly common. The attitude of “The only good snake is a dead snake” is one that should only be shared by those who enjoy having mice in their kitchen.
There are many subspecies of rattlesnakes, but most tend to mainly feed on rodents. Although the sound of their rattle strikes fear into the hearts of men, they don’t really bite people unless accidentally stepped on or purposely harassed. The New England Journal of Medicine estimates roughly 8,000 people are bitten by snakes annually, and a half dozen of those bites prove to be fatal. The rattle itself is a warning indicator, and the fear is mutual. While their camouflage is useful to them as predators, their patterns also make them more difficult to detect. The sound of the rattle often gives them away to those who intend harm upon them.
In recent history, a growing phenomenon has been witnessed. Steve Reaves, licensed through the Arizona department of Game and Fish to remove rattlesnakes says “Less and less rattlesnakes are rattling” in a report to an ABC affiliate in Phoenix, Arizona. Terry Phillip, a naturalist at Reptile Gardens in Rapid City North Dakota says in an interview with NPR that he’s noticed a rise in snakes with curled, atrophied tails, unable to make the distinctive warning sound.
“The snakes that are discovered are the ones that have a strong muscle next to their rattle so it functions like it’s supposed to.”
Recessive traits of deformed, lesser or non-existent rattles are becoming more prevalent. He goes on to say that:
“The snakes that have that genetic defect are surviving to reproduce and passing on that genetic defect to their offspring.”
Furthermore, he believes that these snakes without a rattle are more aggressive due to their lack of being able to make use of their natural warning signal, which is all the more reason to leave the ones that give fair warning alone. In another report from the San Francisco Gate, Joe Slowinski, an expert on venomous snakes at the California Academy of Sciences says,
“The snakes that never rattle are more likely to survive human predators.”
While rattlesnake habitat is mainly composed of rocky, arid, desert areas, they inhabit lowland swamp areas in the Southeast. With the opening of spring turkey season, hunters often encounter these pit vipers as they emerge from hibernating in dens for the winter. Be prepared by wearing snake boots when entering the woods. Since most snakes can only strike half the distance of their length, a majority of snakebites occur below the knee. In an interview with an NBC affiliate in Montgomery, Alabama, hunter Chad Cross credits remaining calm and using a venom extraction kit for saving his life when he was bit by a rattlesnake while turkey hunting.
Field and Stream also offers some good advice to snakebite victims:
Don’t lance a snakebite wound or attempt to suck out the venom with your mouth. Don’t apply a tourniquet. Don’t apply ice. Constricting blood vessels can lead to amputation. Don’t drink alcohol or take any medications. And don’t try to catch or kill the snake (although a digital photo can help doctors ID the snake and determine proper antivenin use). What you can do is wash the wound with soap and water. Remove wristwatches, rings, or anything constrictive. Keep the wound below heart level, and immobilize the affected limb during evacuation. According to American Red Cross guidelines, it’s O.K. to wrap a pressure bandage 2 to 4 inches above the bite—loose enough to stick a finger underneath. (The Sawyer Extractor is a powerful suction device that can remove significant amounts of venom at the site of a bite. However, it is not universally recommended by the medical community.) Snakebite impairs motor functions, so if you’re bitten and alone, don’t drive unless you have no choice. Call 911 or contact the nearest hospital ahead of your arrival. The rest is just pain and suffering. Thanks to antivenin, odds are about 400 to 1 that you’ll live; you just won’t want to for a few days.
Water mocassins mainly inhabit swamps and wetlands. This pit viper species is commonly known as “cottonmouth” for it’s defensive display of a wide open contrasting white mouth. A threatened water mocassin will also hiss, and puff out it’s body mass to appear larger to would-be predators. This, along with a vibrating tail, similar to rattlesnake species, is a warning indicator. A study at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory found that:
“When confronted, 23 (51%) of 45 tested tried to escape, and 28 (78%) of 36 tested used threat displays and other defensive tactics; only 13 of 36 cottonmouths bit an artificial hand used in the tests.”
The copperhead on the other hand has a tendency to freeze when threatened, depending mostly upon its camouflage for protection from would-be predators. While they are non-aggressive, their smaller size and lack of a warning indicator makes them more difficult to detect and likely to strike an unknowing victim.
Another rarity among venomous species is the coral snake. Due to their reclusive nature in uninhabited areas, they are rarely sighted. The rarity of these snakes also means that the antivenin is not widely available. The coral snake’s venom contains powerful neurotoxins that paralyze respiratory function. Encounters resulting in bites are rare, and as with all American venomous species, the coral snake only strikes as a last resort. The rarity of this species, it’s habitat, and short fangs are several factors that result in very few encounters and bites, roughly one or two dozen annually. The age-old saying of “Red touches yellow will kill a fellow” refers to the distinct banded pattern these snakes possess, not to be confused with a similar pattern exhibited by a harmless scarlet king snake or “milk snake,” to which the saying goes, “Red touches black, you’re alright, Jack.” If this is the first time you’ve heard these phrases, chances are you were raised in an apartment.
While there are plenty of field guides and identification charts for snakes, and you could spend an eternity learning the characteristics to identify different species, it’s best to just leave them be, dangerous or not. Many incorrectly identified species are killed simply because they are snakes. As mentioned earlier, this attitude of “The only good snake is a dead snake” is one that should only be shared by those enjoy having mice in their kitchen. Beyond mice, some species of non-venomous snakes prey upon venomous species, like the “King Snake,” which gets it’s name from it’s immunity to other snake’s venom, as well as it’s diet consisting of venomous species. Even if you have an intense fear of venomous snakes, harassing or killing one you can’t identify may actually increase your chances of encountering a venomous species.
Fish and wildlife regulations in many states protect all snake species under a blanket clause that it is illegal to kill any non-game species reptile that is not directly endangering your personal safety. Many states have strict regulations against killing non-venomous species as well. Learn to identify and respect those regulations, these creatures and their place in the ecosystem. In the worst case scenario of an actual snakebite, you will at least be able to give the doctors enough information to provide you with the correct antivenin to save your life.