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Run for Your Life - It's a Snake!!
By Kris W. Thoemke

No doubt you have heard these words or uttered them yourself at some time in your life. It is the typical reaction of someone who has just seen a snake, any snake including the harmless ones like the ringneck, garter or corn snakes. We have become a generation of believers that the only good snake is a dead one. That's too bad because snakes play an important role in nature. Many eat mice, rats and lizards; other critters that make people's skin crawl.

Florida has 45 species of snakes, six are venomous and only three of them are ones you are likely to encounter in south Florida. The fearsome three some are the water moccasin or cottonmouth, eastern diamondback rattlesnake and dusky pigmy rattlesnake.

All are members of the pit viper family. The name comes from a pair of opening (pits) located on the head of the snake between each eye and the nostril at the tip of the head. Seeing the pits is a sure fire way to determine if the snake is poisonous but they are not always easy to see unless you are close, probably closer than you want to be, to one of these snakes.

Cottonmouth (Water Moccasin)

Is it a cottonmouth or a watersnake? These two snakes - the former poisonous, the latter not, are often confused. Both are common around swamps, lakes, rivers or any other places where there is standing water.

Moccasins can grow to over five feet in length with the body of the snake ranging from olive green to nearly black. Depending on how darkly colored it is, you may or may not notice the crossbands on its body. Watersnakes are similarly colored and patterned and, at first glance, are very difficult to distinguish from a cottonmouth.

Ways to determine if you are looking at a cottonmouth include looking for the pits, viewing the snake from above to see if you can see the eyes (it's a watersnake, if not it's a cottonmouth) or to look at the tail (the moccasin's tail tapers abruptly while the watersnake's tail tapers gradually).

When disturbed moccasins may coil, tilt their head back and open their mouth revealing the cotton-white interior lining. From this position the snake could strike and it is clearly warning you to back off. If left alone, chances are good the snake will quietly slither away since this species is considered the least aggressive of the three species. Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

Perhaps the most easily recognized of all Florida snakes, this rattlesnake has a distinctive yellow-bordered diamond pattern on its body and rattles on its tail. But, contrary to popular belief, diamondbacks do not always rattle before they strike. Researchers from the Florida Museum of Natural history report that the percentage of non-rattling snakes may be on the increase because the diamondbacks that rattle are more likely to be detected and killed by humans.

Adult diamondbacks are from three to six feet in length. They prefer dry land where there are pine trees and palmettos. But rattlers also inhabit coastal islands thus dismissing the notion that these snakes cannot swim across open stretches of water.

If you encounter one of these snakes, it is best to keep your distance and not provoke the snake by poking or prodding it with a stick (Believe it or not some people actually do this!). If threatened the diamondback will coil and can strike out up to two thirds of its body length. This means a six foot snake can strike out four feet. If you are closer than this and the snake strikes at you, it is likely you will not be fast enough to avoid being bitten.

Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake (Ground Rattler)

By comparison, the pygmy rattler is a much smaller snake than the diamondback. Seldom more than 18 inches in length, this snake has a rattle but at full tilt, the sound is more like an insect buzz and may not be heard or recognized if it can be heard at all. This snake is fat for its length and has a gray body with a series of reddish spots along the middle of its back that alternate with dark spots that also extend to the sides of the body.

Ground rattles are found in similar habitat to rattlesnakes. Their color pattern, like diamondbacks, allows them to effectively blend into the surroundings.

This snake, despite being the smallest of the three, is the most aggressive. It is more likely to strike out but fortunately its bite, while painful and bound to cause swelling around the bite marks, is seldom life-threatening. In fact, there are no known human deaths from the bite of this species.

Pigmy rattles are sometimes confused with the hognose snake. The pattern on a hognose is similar to a ground rattler, but the hognose flattens its head and neck when disturbed or threatened. This attempt to mimic a rattlesnake often scares people away. If the snake's first attempt to scare you off fails, it rolls over on its back and feigns death.

Avoiding a Snake Bite

Snakes bites, which almost always occur on the extremities, are most likely to occur when a person accidentally steps on a snake, walks to close to one or tries to pick one up. In these instances the snake is acting in self defense and may strike. To reduce your risks of being bitten by a poisonous snake commit these rules to memory:

  • Never pick up any snake. Even nonpoisonous snakes bite.
  • Look where you are walking especially along the water's edge, in any swamp or in tall grass and through stands of palmetto.
  • Don't stick your hands in dark places such as hollow logs or gopher tortoise burrows. Rattlesnakes use them as refuges and resting areas.
  • Step on fallen logs not over them and look on the other side of the log before stepping down.

If You are Bitten

The venom in these poisonous snakes is a neurotoxin designed to paralyze the snake's prey so it can swallow it. If you have the misfortune of being bitten by a snake, it is best to seek medical treatment as soon as possible. The doctor may decide you need a shot of antivenin. If treatment is not readily available the American Red Cross recommends minimal treatment in the field. If possible, wash the area of the bite with soap and water and immobilize the site and keep it lower than the heart.

Things NOT to do include:

  • Applying ice or a cold pack to the bite.
  • Using a tourniquet. Doing so might cut off blood flow the extremity and result is the loss of the limb
  • Cutting around the bite site and try to suck out the venom

There is a percentage of the population that is hypersensitive to snake bites. For these people a snake bite can be fatal. Persons who know they are allergic to snake bites, should always carry a doctor-prescribed emergency kit with them and make sure the people you are with know how to use it in case you can't care for yourself.

 

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