The Sunshine Snakes

How much do you really know about Florida’s snakes?

Welcome to Florida, snake capital of the United States. That’s right. Florida claims the distinction of having more snake species than any other state in the country.

For someone like Dr. Coleman M. Sheehy III, collection manager for the division of herpetology at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, this is great news.

“For people like me who love snakes, Florida is the best place to be,” says Sheehy.

If you don’t qualify as a “snake lover,” you needn’t pack your bags and leave the state, though. Of the 50 species of snakes found here, only six are venomous and present any danger to humans. (Some non-venomous snakes can grow large and inflict painful bites if handled, and a large Burmese python can be dangerous even though it is non-venomous.)

Florida’s venomous snakes include the Eastern coral snake, copperhead, cottonmouth (water moccasin), Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, timber rattlesnake and pygmy rattler.

All but the coral snake fall into the category known as “pit vipers.” Every other Florida snake species is harmless and plays a vital role in our ecosystem by eating insects, rodents and small prey. So if you see a snake, the odds are, it’s non-venomous. Even the venomous snakes are not aggressive and generally do whatever they can to avoid contact with humans.

“Snakes are an important part of our Florida ecosystem,” says Sheehy. “They deserve to be here and to be protected, not persecuted.”

Venomous Or Poisonous?

Although people routinely use the words poisonous and venomous interchangeably, this is incorrect. Both adjectives refer to toxic substances; the difference lies primarily in whether that toxin is delivered actively or passively.

Venom typically must be actively injected into the victim by creating a wound of some sort. (Think fangs, barbs, pincers, stingers, spines, spurs, etc.) Just placing venom on unbroken skin isn’t enough. 

Poisons, however, are harmful when the victim touches or consumes a poisonous organism. (Think poison ivy, oleander, certain wild mushrooms, various frogs and toads, etc.) The act of poisoning is passive because the plant or insect doesn’t do anything to deliver the poison.

“There are actually two examples of poisonous snakes, and at least one of them is also venomous,” observes Sheehy. “One is a sea snake that lives in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and the other lives in Southeast Asia. However, there are no poisonous snakes in Florida, or even North America.”

Snake venom is made up of various proteins that have different effects in the victim’s body, affecting almost every organ in some way. A common reaction is the breaking down of red blood cells, which can be particularly catastrophic to the cardiovascular system. Death of tissue in the area of the bite (local necrosis) and even organ failure leading to death can result if the person does not receive medical treatment.

But just because someone is bitten by a venomous snake does not mean they’ve been envenomated, which is the correct term to describe what happens when a venomous snake uses venom when biting.

Come again?

Venomous snakes can choose whether to inject venom when they bite. The snake uses his venom supply for hunting prey to eat, so he doesn’t want to waste it. When a venomous snake is cornered, provoked or handled, he may bite to defend himself, but he doesn’t always inject venom. This is referred to as a “dry bite,” and it’s common. Herpetologists report that more than half of all rattlesnake bites turn out to be “dry.” This doesn’t mean it won’t hurt, but the victim isn’t envenomated.

Photo by Kristen Grace – Florida Museum

Common Misconceptions

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 7,000 to 8,000 people in the United States are bitten by venomous snakes each year. Of those, only five or six actually die, so although you don’t want to be a statistic, it’s comforting to realize that death is extremely rare, even if you are bitten.

In the majority of cases, snake bites can be completely avoided. There’s a reason a high number of snake bites occur on a person’s hands and arms. It’s because they were handling the snake.

“Usually it’s because the person is trying to catch or kill the snake,” says Sheehy. “Just go the other way! If you see a snake, leave it alone; 99 out of 100 times, if you leave it alone, you’ll never see it again. Trying to kill or catch it puts you at significant risk.”

And just because a venomous snake is dead doesn’t mean it’s safe to touch. People are often bitten when they pick up the severed head after killing a snake by chopping off its head. That’s because the snake’s bite reflexes remain active for hours after death.

Sheehy says that one of the biggest myths about Florida’s snakes is that they are dangerously aggressive and will chase you. This is often said of cottonmouths, but Sheehy says it simply isn’t true.

“Snakes can be defensive, but there’s a difference between defensiveness and aggression. If you’re cornering a snake and trying to catch it, it’s going to be defensive,” he explains. “On two occasions, I’ve had a snake crawling toward me, and when I stood still, it coiled up between my feet, thinking of me as a hiding place.”

People also erroneously assume that any snake in the water is a cottonmouth and, therefore, venomous.

“Cottonmouths are semi-aquatic, but all snakes can swim,” says Sheehy. 

And what of the old wives’ tale that says only venomous snakes swim on the water’s surface? 

“A cottonmouth will commonly swim across the water with its head slightly raised and its body on the surface,” notes Sheehy. “Water snakes (which are non-venomous) most often will swim underwater, but they can also swim on the surface.”

Sheehy adds that one very common misconception is that a coral snake has fangs in the rear of the mouth and has to chew to inject venom. 

“This is completely false,” he says.

The Eastern coral snake does have fangs, but they are rigid and tiny (no longer than one-eighth-inch) and located at the front of the mouth. Coral snakes aren’t in the rattlesnake family, and they don’t coil up. They pose almost no danger unless someone tries to pick one up or capture it.

Sheehy adds that there are two non-venomous Florida species that mimic coral snakes because they also have red, yellow and black bands. Unfortunately, king snakes and scarlet snakes are often killed by people mistaking them for coral snakes.

On an Eastern coral snake, the red and yellow bands touch, but on the king and scarlet snakes, the red and black bands touch. Just remember “red on black means venom lack.” Another way to remember it is “red on yellow can kill a fellow, red on black is a friend of Jack.”

While we’re on the topic of misconceptions, if you’re fortunate enough to find an entire shed snakeskin, this doesn’t actually indicate the length of the snake. 

“The skin stretches when the snake sheds it,” says Sheehy. “So if you find a six-foot-long snake skin, it doesn’t necessarily mean the snake was exactly that long. But that was still a big snake!”

Staying Safe

Just so you know, there’s no product out there that effectively repels snakes. Commercial snake repellents are, in Sheehy’s words, “a total joke.” There are certainly things you can do to discourage snakes from hanging around your property, but they don’t include scattering mothballs or using “snake-be-gone” sprays.

If snakes have a place to hide and food to eat, they’re happy to stay, so the main thing you can do is eliminate places where snakes can crawl under and hide (wood piles, tarps, lumber, thick vegetation, debris), especially if these also attract food for snakes, such as insects and small rodents.

You may be thinking, OK, that’s fine for around my house, but what about when I’m out hiking?

If you’re walking in the woods, you’re in a snake’s habitat, so be aware. Wear closed-toe boots or sturdy shoes when walking in wooded areas or near water such as ponds to avoid a potential bite if a snake is accidentally stepped on or kicked while exploring. Avoid deep grass and brush, and if you spot a snake, simply leave it alone and head in the opposite direction. And don’t worry. He’s not going to come after you. 

Treatment Protocol

If bitten by a venomous snake, seek immediate medical attention so the attending doctor can determine if treatment with antivenom is needed. Because antivenom itself can cause side effects, sometimes severe, it’s usually only administered in situations when there’s significant toxicity or a high risk of toxicity following a venomous snake bite.

Antivenom is typically given in a series of injections to stop the progression of symptoms. There is no set amount. The doctor determines on a case-by-case basis how much is needed.

When antivenom is not required, the wound will be thoroughly cleaned and the patient is usually given a tetanus vaccine. 

Learn More › For help identifying snakes, check out https://bit.ly/2N5o452 or email a photo to [email protected] and Dr. Sheehy will identify it.

Snake!

What to do if bitten by a venomous snake:

  • Seek immediate medical attention. 
  • Once you get medical help, describe the snake (or show a photo if you took one with your phone), as knowing the kind of snake can aid in treatment. 
  • Remain quiet and calm.
  • Remove any rings or jewelry that could restrict circulation if swelling occurs.
  • Keep the bite below the level of your heart.

What not to do:

  • Don’t try to capture the snake.
  • Don’t apply a tourniquet.
  • Don’t cut the wound open.
  • Don’t apply ice or soak the bitten area in water.
  • Don’t drink/take/do anything that accelerates your heartbeat or thins your blood (aspirin, caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes).
  • Don’t wait to see if you develop symptoms before seeking medical help.
  • And by the way, never try what you’ve seen in those old Western movies, slashing an “X” over the bite area with a knife to try and suck out the venom. It will just make the wound worse.  

The following general symptoms may occur following a venomous snakebite, but again, you should seek medical attention right away and not wait to see if any of these develop:

  • Two puncture wounds
  • Swelling and redness around the wounds
  • Pain at the bite site
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Blurred vision
  • Sweating and salivating
  • Numbness in the face and limbs
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