THE TIME HAS COME TO THINK ABOUT SNAKE SAFETY

by Whit Gibbons

March 29, 2009


About this time of year, snakes begin to emerge from winter dormancy, and questions about snakes and snake safety follow. A few I received during the past week include, "What are the odds of being bitten by a venomous snake in the United States?" "Are most snakes in the South venomous?" "I live out in the country. How can I avoid being bitten by a snake?"

Most U.S. snakes are harmless; the chances of receiving a serious bite from a venomous snake are extremely low. The average American probably sees fewer than three snakes a year, and many people never see even one. To be sure, in every natural habitat in the Southeast, snakes are all around--underground, beneath logs and rocks, or perfectly camouflaged in leaves or pine straw--but each year most of us pass by many more than we see. If you do see one, what are the chances it will be venomous? Slim. In the Southeast, six of the 50 native species of snakes are venomous. But many environmental variables can influence what species you encounter, and where you happen to be can make a big difference.

Snakes are an important part of southeastern ecosystems, and their presence and diversity are indicative of environmental health. Snakes deserve our respect, but they need not be feared if we follow certain basic safety procedures and recognize that most snakebites are avoidable. The following are suggestions for anyone who lives in the Southeast. They are especially important for people who spend a lot of time outdoors in natural habitats as well as in many suburban areas where a few venomous snakes persist.

1. Know the snakes in your locality. If you are concerned about the potential danger of snakebite, find out which venomous snakes might be around and what they look like by checking out websites such as www.uga.edu/srelherp or consulting a field guide. The six venomous species in the Southeast are cottonmouth (water moccasin), copperhead, coral snake, and three rattlesnakes (pygmy, canebrake or timber, and eastern diamondback).

2. Use common sense. If you see a snake, observe it from a distance of a few feet, but do not try to catch it or disturb it in any way. Many people have been bitten trying to kill a large venomous snake in a natural area when they could have simply watched it then walked away. If you are in an area that venomous species are known to inhabit, watch where you step and be careful where you put your hands. Rock ledges and fallen logs are prime real estate for snakes.

3. Wear proper attire. When walking through areas known to have venomous snakes, such as swamps and thick vegetation, the safest approach is to wear long pants and high-topped boots or even snake leggings. Leather shoes are too thick for most snake fangs to penetrate.

4. Keep your car keys and cell phone handy. Having access to a vehicle that can transport a snakebite victim to an emergency care facility and a cell phone to call ahead are smart precautions to take. Of course, such forethought would be helpful in any emergency.

The variables associated with whether a bite is serious or minor are numerous. But venomous snakebites are rare. One fact to remember is that a high proportion of U.S. bites occur when someone picks up the snake. In those instances in which the person did not see the snake until too late to avoid being bitten, up to half, perhaps more, of the bites are "dry bites." That means no venom was injected. The potency and amount of venom injected and the tendency of the snake to strike are variables that depend on the species of snakes. For example, an eastern diamondback has venom 10 times as potent and can deliver a much higher quantity than a copperhead can. However, a copperhead is far more likely to strike a person than is a rattlesnake.

Dangerous snakebites are uncommon and most can be avoided. With a few simple precautions you can get outside and enjoy the snakes along with the rest of spring.


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