DO WE KNOW ABOUT CORAL SNAKES?
April 10, 2011
I receive many questions about venomous snakes from people throughout
the Southeast. Answers to some recent questions will be provided in this
and next week's columns.
Q. I hear
a lot about the danger of rattlesnakes and copperheads in the South but
no one provides much information about coral snakes. Are they really different
from the other poisonous species?
qualify as one of the world's most fascinating group of creatures with
which virtually everyone is familiar. A snake on a playground will nearly
always attract a bigger crowd than any bird, with the exception of, say,
an ostrich or an albatross. People are intrigued with snakes of every
size, in part because we know that some of them are potentially dangerous.
Yet only six of the 52 species that occur naturally in the southern United
States east of the Mississippi River are venomous. Of the remaining 46,
all have teeth, and a few will bite if picked up but even these can be
people, the words "venomous" and "poisonous" are synonymous.
The technical distinction is that venom is injected into the bloodstream;
poison is typically injected or absorbed through mucous membranes. As
far as I know, no snakes are poisonous to eat, although I have only tried
a few so cannot speak with certainty about all of them. The copperhead,
cottonmouth, and three kinds of southeastern rattlesnakes, all venomous,
are known as pit vipers. The heat-sensitive pit is located between the
nostril and eye. If you are using the presence of this pit to determine
if a live snake in the woods is venomous or not, you are probably too
close to the snake. The coral snake is distinguished from the pit vipers
in several ways. Nonetheless, despite many people's misconception, coral
snakes have hollow fangs in the front of the mouth with tubular connections
to venom sacs located in the head, as do pit vipers.
are the only North American snakes in the cobra family. The type of venom
they inject, generally referred to as neurotoxic, is distinctively different
from that of most other U.S. snakes. The venom affects the nervous system
and results in muscle paralysis. As the venom effect progresses through
the body, the muscles of the diaphragm can become paralyzed, resulting
in difficulty in breathing. If that difficulty continues, the result can
From a human
safety standpoint, southeastern coral snakes are small, rare, and unlikely
to bite a person unless picked up, which no one other than a herpetologist
should do. An accidental bite from an unseen coral snake is a truly rare
event. The greatest likelihood of a coral snake bite is to a child who
might pick up a brightly colored red, yellow, and black snake because
it is pretty. The eastern variety, which is one of the 70 species of coral
snakes found in the Americas, is found in the Coastal Plain from Louisiana
to the Carolinas and throughout Florida.
the potency of coral snake venom, a victim has plenty of time to get to
a hospital. According to the book "Venomous Reptiles of the Western
Hemisphere" (2004; Cornell University Press) even "the onset
of symptoms usually begins during the first 2-6 hours following a bite"
and "may require 48 hours to reach the maximum effect." Ample
time would be available anywhere in the country to reach a medical facility.
I have firsthand
knowledge of two eastern coral snake bites (to a young girl and an adult
male); both of them had happy endings. Each person was bitten on the finger.
Numbness and paralysis slowly progressed up the arm; the attending physician
told me the man could not feel a needle stuck into his hand. When each
victim was given coral snake antivenin, the process immediately reversed
itself and the paralysis gradually disappeared. Why the man picked up
a coral snake in the first place is a question he will now be able to
answer for the rest of his life.
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