SPRING MEANS SNAKE SEASON

by Whit Gibbons


April 2, 2006


Sure signs of spring have become apparent in the last couple of weeks. The days are warmer. Neighborhood plants are approaching full flower. And the surest sign of all--people are beginning to ask questions about snakes. So, as usual about this time of year, a word needs to be said in behalf of this thrilling, yet maligned, wildlife group.

You need not touch snakes, keep them as pets, or even look at them if they make you uncomfortable. You should, however, accept their right to exist in the natural world. Like other wildlife, snakes should be allowed to live in peace in their native habitat. An ecologically educated community accepts snakes as an integral component of natural environments.

Snakes fascinate almost everyone, but some people fear them more than they do any other animal. Snakes serve as a barometer of regional environmental attitudes. The extent of misinformation and inappropriate attitudes about snakes unquestionably exceeds that of any other group of animals on earth. Fortunately, superstitions, exaggerated stories, and irrational fears about snakes are on the wane as Americans are becoming more educated about our native wildlife and more ecologically aware.

U.S. snakes are highly overrated as a human threat. More than 50 native snake species live in the East, but only 7 are venomous, the rest harmless. Three of the venomous species are the copperhead and the 2 small rattlesnakes (massasauga and pygmy). The bites of any of the three are rarely if ever lethal to humans. Even though copperheads bite more people in the U.S. than do other species, their venom is less potent than that of most other venomous species, and a bite usually causes minimal damage to the victim. The other four venomous snakes of eastern North America are the large pit vipers (diamondback rattler, timber or canebrake rattler, and cottonmouth or water moccasin) and the eastern coral snake. Any of these can be potentially hazardous. Nonetheless, unless you pick up a snake, you have a diminishingly small chance of receiving a serious bite. Even rattlesnakes do not want to bite people except in self-defense as a last resort.

Coral snakes are small, rare, and unlikely to bite anyone unless handled. Perhaps the greatest danger is to children who might find a brightly colored red, yellow, and black snake attractive enough to pick up. Of course children should be taught never to pick up any snake without supervision by a knowledgeable adult. Children, and apparently some adults, should also be taught that snakes only bite humans in self-defense and that all snakes deserve our respect. Snakes will strike out when cornered, but they do not come looking for you. No U.S. snake will intentionally pursue a person with intent to harm. Although the claim has been made many times, no herpetologist has ever verified the "chased by a snake" phenomenon. No evidence of such aggressiveness exists for any venomous snake in North America.

A legitimate snakebite is one in which a person unintentionally and unknowingly provokes a venomous snake and is bitten. When someone gets bitten while trying to catch, kill, or handle a snake, the bite is termed illegitimate.

One reason that snakes are a maligned group of animals is that most people know little about their basic biology. Being unfamiliar with something you think might hurt you can lead to fear and distrust. Educating the public is probably the single best step toward the conservation of snakes. Anyone who is interested in snakes or has questions about them should go to www.uga.edu/srelherp. You can learn about southeastern snakes and also link to other sites about snakes in general. An email address is provided for asking questions. If you want to find out what kind of snake you have seen, email herp@srel.edu. Send a digital photo if possible, and always give the exact location of where you saw the snake.

Snakes are a natural part of the world; therefore, snakebite is a possible--though highly unlikely--hazard if you venture outdoors. The risk of being snake bitten outdoors in the United States is incredibly low relative to the benefit of experiencing springtime and all the flowering plants and active wildlife, including the snakes.



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