posted in: Uncategorized | 0

 I received the following questions recently. The answers are pertinent for the season.

Q. I will be visiting family in Alabama, Florida and South Carolina and like to look for snakes for fun wherever I am. How likely am I to find one? What is the most common poisonous snake someone is likely to run across? What should I do if I get bitten?

A. Unless you know of a particular locality where snakes are common, finding a snake is a hit-or-miss affair anywhere in the country. Most people never see a snake all year. Most U.S. snakes are born in August and September from eggs laid in early summer or from live-bearing species. So that is when the most snakes are present. Most snakes mate in the spring and adults are more apparent then because they are out moving around. A few also mate in late summer and fall. Your chances of finding a snake in spring or fall are better than they would be in summer.

Incidentally, “poisonous” generally refers to situations in which a toxic substance is consumed, whereas “venomous” refers to animals that inject toxin into the bloodstream. Mushrooms are poisonous. Snakes, stingrays and spiders are venomous.

If you visit the western states, the venomous species you are most likely to encounter would be rattlesnakes. In the East, the copperhead is the most common venomous snake from New England to Missouri and south to the Gulf Coast. Oddly, copperheads are absent from almost the whole state of Florida. Copperheads can be found alongside lakes and streams but rarely enter the water. These snakes bite more Americans each year than any other species of snake. Yet most copperhead bites require no extended hospitalization, and few mortalities have been recorded. The venomous snake you are most likely to run across in Coastal Plain aquatic habitats is the cottonmouth.

The eastern states boast four kinds of rattlesnakes. One, the small massasauga, is not found in the Southeast but is found in northern and midwestern states. Southeastern states are home to six kinds of venomous snakes, including copperheads and cottonmouths. All six are found somewhere in every coastal state from North Carolina to Louisiana. Reaching lengths approaching 7 feet, the eastern diamondback is the largest rattlesnake in the country. I once saw one that had just eaten a full-grown cottontail rabbit. It was as thick as a football. Of all the U.S. snakes, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes have, drop for drop, some of the most potent venom. It’s worth noting that most bites occur to people who pick up the snake or try to kill it. Virtually no snakebites from these magnificent creatures have been recorded to hikers, hunters and bird watchers who left the snake undisturbed.

The most geographically widespread rattlesnake, being native to all eastern states except Maine and Michigan, is the timber rattler, known as canebrake rattler in the South. Canebrakes mate in early autumn and large males in search of females are frequently encountered crossing roads both day and night. The pygmy rattler, closely related to the massasauga, is the smallest rattlesnake and can sometimes be found to be abundant in small colonies. Their small size and excellent camouflage allow them to persist in neighborhoods for years without the human residents even being aware of their presence.    

 Another venomous southeastern snake is the eastern coral snake. This beautiful red- yellow- and black-ringed member of the cobra family can deliver a deadly bite that affects the nervous system. Almost all known bites from this species have resulted from someone handling the snake, as they are highly secretive and are not likely to strike at a person who is simply walking by.

The generally accepted procedure for someone bitten by any native venomous snake in North America is to head as safely as possible to the nearest hospital, preferably with someone else driving. Old-fashioned remedies such as applying a tourniquet and cutting, freezing the bite area or shocking it with a stun gun are not recommended by most of today’s medical authorities.

Copperheads are the most common venomous snake throughout much of the eastern United States. Photo courtesy Parker Gibbons.