ARE PIT VIPERS?
April 17, 2011
I answered a question about coral snakes. The following addresses the
major group of venomous snakes found in the South-pit vipers.
has five species of pit vipers. All five--three kinds of rattlesnakes
plus the copperhead and cottonmouth--are found in parts of every coastal
state from Louisiana to North Carolina. Each species is distinctive in
behavior, habitat, and venom capabilities, but all have one common characteristic,
a heat-sensitive pit located on the side of the head between the eye and
the nostril. A pit viper uses the pit in total darkness to detect the
presence of warm-blooded prey such as mice or rats and to strike that
prey with unerring accuracy.
viper that typically bites the most Americans every year is the copperhead.
That's the bad news. The good news is that copperheads have one of the
mildest venoms, being determined in one study to be only 1/10th as potent
drop for drop as that of the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. As far as
I am aware, despite bites by copperheads to hundreds of people over the
years, no one has died from the bite of a wild copperhead. Although a
copperhead bite usually causes minimal damage to the victim, a trip to
the hospital or doctor's office is still advisable.
are quite abundant in some localities. However, their presence often goes
unnoticed because of body coloration. Dark brown crossbands on a lighter
brown background provide very effective camouflage when the snake is coiled
on a ground cover of fallen leaves. At least two harmless snakes, banded
watersnakes and corn snakes, are often mistaken for copperheads because
of similar banding and coloration, but only copperheads have crossbands
that resemble the shape of an hour-glass. Copperheads are common in the
mountains and also in many coastal areas, but they can show up anywhere
within their extensive geographic range in the eastern United States.
Interestingly, the species is absent from all of the Florida peninsula
and most of the panhandle.
is the copperhead's closest relative and by far the most common venomous
U.S. snake associated with water. The bite of a cottonmouth can be serious,
but the snake's aggressiveness is overrated. Many bites from cottonmouths
occur after someone has picked the snake up, and most of the snakebite
cases I know of with these species have been to herpetologists who did
just that. Hard to blame the snake for that outcome.
Of the three
southeastern rattlesnakes, the smallest is the pygmy; a large one is only
two feet long. The largest is the eastern diamondback, which can reach
almost eight feet. The third species, called canebrake rattler in the
Coastal Plain and timber rattler in the mountains and most other areas,
can be more than six feet long.
the chances that a hiker, hunter, or other outdoor nature enthusiast will
encounter and be bitten by a pit viper? And what about children? Children
should be taught never to pick up any snake without supervision by a knowledgeable
adult. They should learn to enjoy snakes by watching them. Of course,
the same advice would apply to most adults, as many U.S. snakebites occur
because someone picked up the snake. People who see a snake and then simply
observe it from a safe distance (a few feet away) virtually never get
bitten. And if you do encounter a snake in the Southeast, the odds are
10 to 1 that you need not be concerned. More than 50 species are harmless
compared to only five that are pit vipers.
you identify southeastern pit vipers and what should you do if someone
is bitten? The book "Snakes of the Southeast," published by
the University of Georgia Press, has numerous color photographs of all
southeastern snakes and is the most authoritative nature guide on the
topic. Here's the advice given for snakebite victims: "The best snakebite
kit is a set of car keys, a cell phone, and a companion" to get you
to the hospital.
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