We’ve talked about plants, we’ve talked about bugs… but everybody’s real favorite animal to beat up on is the snake. Evil, slimy, slithery things that have no reason to live, right?
Look, all wild animals deserve healthy respect for boundaries and “personal space”. Almost anything will vigorously defend itself when threatened, and so you need to treat EVERY animal with respect. Most, like with insects and spiders, have no interest in attacking you – they will, by and large, try and get away from you if they can.
I want to focus on snakes here, though, because perhaps no other group of animals is so universally feared, and indiscriminately killed because of it. I know people who pride themselves on killing every snake they find – and I really get frustrated by that. I’m not advocating killing any of them – but I do want to focus on describing the ones that actually pose a threat (via venom), as opposed to the vast majority of harmless reptiles that you might actually WANT around the house! Really!
As before, I’m focusing on North America here, the US in particular – again, sorry to be selfish, but I can’t be comprehensive and still have this article be readable. It is advisable that you do some homework on the local fauna before travelling in the wild, regardless.
There are over 20 species of venomous snake in the US, but they fall into just a few categories. Learn THESE, and you’ll be able to confidently let the rest do their thing.
The largest grouping of venomous snakes in the US is that of rattlesnakes – a dangerous pit viper that conveniently warns you if you get too close. There are many different varieties – Prairie, Timber, Eastern Diamondback, Western Diamondback, Mojave, Canebrake, and Tiger, just to name a few. Their venom covers a wide range of potency and potential danger to humans. If they can, they will warn you as you approach with an unmistakable rattle of modified scales on their tails – this sound, when you hear it, has the effect of going straight to your deep subconscious well of innate fears, honed over millions of years of evolution. Even if you’ve never heard a rattlesnake before, you know it means danger the second you do. It’s startling, and it’s primal.
If you DO hear a rattler – FREEZE. Fight the urge to run until you can positively identify exactly where its coming from, and then back away, slowly. More than once, a rattler hiding out among boulders has been hard to spot, and echoes of its warning make you think it’s actually somewhere else – in these cases, you may not realize your mistake until you’re within striking distance.
Keep in mind – this is a WARNING. It’s not a prelude to an attack. If you back away, the snake will take the opportunity to get to safety as well – away from you. Only if you continue to push your luck and get closer – viewed as threatening behavior from the snake’s point of view – will it attack.
There ARE other species out there that will mimic a rattle. Hognose snakes, Black Racers, and others will often vibrate their tails in leaf litter, and imitate the irritated threat of a rattler – but these are harmless snakes! Again, if you stop, look, verify the source, and back off, you can get your heart rate back where it belongs.
Like all pit vipers, rattlers have sensory “pits” under the eyes, and a roughly triangular or heart-shaped head. Pit vipers also have thick, heavy bodies, relative to their length. Long slender snakes and snakes with tapered heads (that are streamlined with their bodies) are generally not dangerous, with the one exception noted below.
Among venomous snakes in the US, Copperheads are the most likely to bite you. This is partly because they’re very common – but it’s also because they have a tendency to freeze in place and stay motionless at the approach of humans. They’re very well camouflaged, and will sit absolutely still until you accidentally step on them. Despite the potential frequency of encounter, copperhead venom is (again, conveniently) among the least potent. Their bites are generally not fatal, and antivenom is readily available.
There are a few unfortunate species – notably King Snakes, Corn Snakes, and Milk Snakes – that look similar to Copperheads. Please, learn the difference! Copperheads are pit vipers, and exhibit the same pits, thick bodies, and triangular head shape that rattlers do. Their patterns vary, but their dark bands go across the body with irregular curved edges (not in spots like some hognose snakes), and their dark bands are a uniform, or smoothly changing color, while most similarly banded snakes have a darker border along their bands, like they’ve been outlined with a marker. Finally, Copperheads have slit pupils, like a cat’s eye. Despite what you may have heard, not all poisonous snakes have slit pupils, and not all slit-pupil snakes are venomous – but in comparing Copperheads to their look-alikes, this is a good discriminator, IF you happen to be close enough to see this detail. (If you are, it’s probably a good idea to back off).
Some of the harmless look-alikes don’t help themselves – when threatened they will flatten their bodies and make themselves look like vipers! Even down to the triangular or heart-shaped head! But the details – like outlines on the banding, round pupils – should mark them as harmless. In particular, lots of corn snakes get killed because of mistaken identity – ironic since corn snakes are also a very popular pet species.
Cottonmouth (aka Water Moccasin)
Another fat (relative to its length), and heavy-set pit viper with a large, blocky triangular head, pits, and slit pupils, the Cottonmouth is named for its almost entirely white mouth – though if a water moccasin is gaping at you, and you can see this, you’re already in a bad situation. Cottonmouths are also banded, and resemble copperheads when young. As they grow older, and bigger, they get darker, trending to almost entirely black.
Cottonmouths are excellent swimmers, and prefer warmer, wet climates, such as the deep south. When swimming, their entire bodies float, and their heads are held high. Most other water snakes swim with their bodies submerged, and their heads barely breaking the surface.
Again, many harmless water snakes (Brown, Banded, Green) will imitate vipers by flattening their bodies and flaring their heads when threatened. Notice the details – fat body, slit pupil. Harmless water snakes will have slender bodies and round pupils.
In any case, you don’t need to kill them, just keep your distance and leave them alone.
These guys are the exception, in that they’re NOT pit vipers, and so they are different in most respects. They have tapered heads, slender bodies. But the do stand out, thanks to vibrant bands of red, yellow, and black stripes around their bodies. Many snakes mimic this pattern, but in the US, there’s a few often-repeated mnemonics to help identify which one is one of the 3 species of dangerous coral snake – and the key is whether yellow and red stripes are adjacent to each other.
“Red on Yellow: Deadly Fellow. Red on Black: Venom Lack” is one such ditty. You also see, “Red on Black: Friend to Jack”, but who’s Jack? Another handy way to remember it is to think of a stoplight – “Yellow, Red, Stop!” If you see red and yellow together, that’s a coral snake. Keep your distance. If red and black are adjacent, it’s most likely a Scarlet Kingsnake – not only harmless, but it will actually attack and kill other snakes! (Keep in mind, this rule only applies in the US – there are coral snake species elsewhere that aren’t this simple).
You should also know that coral snakes are VERY elusive, rarely seen, and are quick to escape humans. When they DO bite, which is rare, they are hampered by small fangs that can’t penetrate leather. Rather than a viper strike, which is a quick lunge, bite, and release, a coral snake will bite, and hang on while it works its jaws in a chewing motion, trying to make sure those tiny fangs penetrate. You don’t want to let them succeed, as the venom is pretty potent – but again, your chances of actually being bitten are not high.
…And that’s the end of a pretty short list! Again, like we discussed with spiders, there are THOUSANDS of varieties, and all deserve to be left alone. Many snakes are actually helpful, keeping the mice away, and even killing more dangerous snakes (Copperheads tend not to live where there are Kingsnakes about). Don’t just indiscriminately kill them – they play a role in the ecosystem and, besides, generally don’t deserve it. Learn the few venomous varieties, give them their due distance, and don’t panic about the rest. Deal?
Get Out There
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