by Whit Gibbons

April 18, 2010

I receive a version of these questions every spring.

Q: How many eastern snakes are venomous? What should I do if I see one or get bitten?

A: East of the Mississippi River, only seven of more than 50 native species of snakes are venomous. Many environmental variables can influence what species you encounter and how dangerous a bite from one might be. Following are basic guidelines for avoiding snakebite and recommendations for what to do in the unlikely event that someone is bitten.

Three of the venomous species are the copperhead and the two small rattlesnakes (massasauga and pygmy). A bite from one of these snakes is rarely if ever lethal to humans. Copperheads bite more people in the United States than any other venomous species, but their venom is less potent than most of the others and a bite usually causes minimal damage to the victim. The other venomous snakes of eastern North America are the large pit vipers (diamondback rattler, timber or canebrake rattler, and cottonmouth or water moccasin) and the coral snake. Any of these is potentially lethal. But unless you pick up a snake, you have only a small chance of receiving a serious bite. Snakes bite people in self-defense as a last resort. Dangerous snakebites are uncommon and most can be avoided. With a few simple precautions you can enjoy the snakes along with the rest of nature's springtime wonders.

1. Know the snakes in your region. If you are concerned about the potential danger of snakebite, find out which venomous snakes might be around and what they look like. Check out websites such as www.uga.edu/srelherp or consult a field guide.

2. Use common sense. If you see a snake, observe it from a few feet away. 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 walked away from it. If you are in an area that venomous species 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 you walk through areas known to have venomous snakes, such as swamps or 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 a vehicle to 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.

Venomous snakebites are rare, and whether a bite is serious or minor depends on various factors. Many U.S. bites occur when someone picks up the snake-so don't pick up the snake. For bites in which the person did not see the snake until too late to avoid being bitten, half or more of them are "dry bites." That means no venom was injected. The potency and amount of venom injected and the tendency of the snake to strike depend on the species. For example, an eastern diamondback has venom 10 times as potent as a copperhead. But a copperhead is far more likely than a rattlesnake to strike a person.

Snakes fascinate almost everyone, but some people fear them more than they do any other animal. Much misinformation is disseminated about snakes, and they are more maligned than any other group of animals. Fortunately, superstitions, exaggerated stories, and irrational fears about snakes are on the wane as Americans become more educated about our native wildlife. Snakes are a barometer of regional environmental attitudes. An ecologically educated community accepts snakes as an integral component of the natural environment. Do your part to make sure your community falls into that category by learning the basic rules for avoiding snakebite. Then get outside and enjoy the spring.

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