Southwestern Field Herping Associates
Venomous Snake Safety
In the United States, we have two basic types of venomous snakes; Vipers and Elapids. The Viper family is represented in our country by Water Moccasins, Copperheads, and Rattlesnakes. The Elapid family of venomous snakes, which in other countries includes Cobras and Kraits, is represented in our country by the Coral Snakes. With a little bit of basic snake knowledge, these four types of snakes can be easy to recognize and distinguish from their harmless relatives.
The #1 key to identifying the vipers among us, and being able to tell them apart from native harmless snakes, is by the shape of the head. Moccasins, Copperheads and Rattlesnakes all have large venom glands in their cheeks which makes their heads distinctively wider than their necks. The shape of the vipers head is often referred to as being triangular, diamond, arrowhead, or heart shaped. In any case, our native vipers have wider heads than their harmless relatives, a characteristic which can be easily recognized.
In the case of the Rattlesnake of course, the distinctive rattle on the end of the tail is a sure give-away to the identification of the serpent, but given the fact that young Rattlesnakes do not have a functioning rattle, or a Rattlesnake may lose a rattle to a predator or to an accident, head shape recognition becomes your best indicator.
There are two types of Coral Snakes in our country, the Eastern Coral Snake, and the Western Coral Snake. Of the two types, the Eastern Coral Snake is the largest and has the largest distribution. It is found in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. The Western Coral Snake is found in New Mexico and Arizona. Both types are brightly colored serpents with alternating bands of red, black and yellow, or red, black and white. There are also several species of snakes in our country that are "Coral Snake mimics", such as the Milksnakes, Mountain Kingsnakes, Scarlet Snakes and Shovel-nosed Snakes, which are all harmless.
The key to identifying the Coral Snakes, and being able to tell them apart from the harmless mimics lies in the pattern or sequence of the tri-colored bands on the snakes body. In Coral Snakes, the red bands are bordered on both sides by yellow or white bands, depending on the species. In the harmless Scarlet Snakes, Mountain Kingsnakes and Milksnakes, the red bands are always bordered on both sides by black bands.
Eastern Coral Snake Western Coral Snake
Scarlet Snake Mountain Kingsnake Milksnake
There is an old rhyme to help you remember this simple color code which basically goes, "Red and yellow, kill a fellow. Red and black, venom lack". There are many slight variations of this rhyme, but all of them are basically the same. If you find a tri-colored snake and it has red bands with yellow or white borders, don't mess with it! Also be aware that this key to Coral Snake identification only applies to the Coral Snakes found in the Continental United States, and does not apply to Coral Snake species native to Mexico, or Central and South America.
There are a few red, black and yellow tricolored forms of the harmless Shovel-nosed Snake found in the deserts of Arizona and California that sometimes have red bands bordered by yellow. The markings on the snakes body are not actually bands, but are described as saddles, as the markings do not go all the way around the body like the way a ring encircles one's finger. But, the little Shovel-nosed Snake could be mistaken for a Coral Snake to the untrained eye.
Contrary to stories you may have heard around the campfire, or read in some "true" adventure magazine, Moccasins, Copperheads, Rattlesnakes and Coral snakes do not attack people, and will seldom if ever attack any other animal large enough to harm the snake. Dogs and cats are usually bitten as a result of being too curious and getting a little too close, causing the snake to react out of fear, and strike in an attempt to protect itself. Most people who are bitten by venomous snakes are bitten while handling the snake or attempting to capture it, and in many cases there is a substantial amount of alcohol consumption involved, usually not by the snake!
What To Do When You Encounter A Venomous Snake
If you spend much time out of doors in our parks and other natural areas, chances are that someday you will encounter a potentially dangerous snake. The most important thing for you to do in such an encounter is to stay calm and not panic. The snake WILL NOT ATTACK YOU.
IF YOU SEE THE SNAKE - Stay calm, move slowly away from it, and keep your distance. The snake will not attack you.
IF YOU HEAR THE SNAKE BEFORE YOU SEE IT - DO NOT MOVE until you see the snake or know exactly where it is. Move slowly away from it, and keep your distance. Again, the snake will not attack you.
Always remember that when you are in the field, the safest policy is to never handle a snake that you cannot positively identify.
What To Do and What Not To Do In The Case of A Venomous Snake Bite
WHAT TO DO
Call 911 for medical assistance, or get the victim to a hospital.
Remove rings, watches and anything else in the area of the wound that may restrict blood flow.
Slow down the swelling of the bitten limb by wrapping it with an elastic bandage (Ace bandage) tight enough to create some constriction, but not tight enough to restrict blood flow.
Use a splint to restrict movement of the bitten limb.
Prepare a cold washcloth or an icepack to apply to the victims forehead to help reduce nausea
The absolute best course of action is to get the victim to a hospital or get medical assistance to the victim ASAP.
A working cell phone and a GPS make up the best “snake bite kit” you can carry with you. If you frequently work or play in areas that lack cell phone coverage, a Satellite Phone or a Personal Locating Beacon (PLB) can save your life!
A venemous snake bite cannot be treated properly in the field. The only effective way to combat the harmful actions of the venom is with antivenom, and antivenom should always be administered by a doctor or someone who knows what they're doing. Getting medical attention as quickly as possible is the key to a good outcome of what can be a very bad situation.
WHAT NOT TO DO
DO NOT PANIC - Immediately call 911, calm the victim – help him or her relax.
DO NOT apply a tourniquet or attempt to restrict blood flow.
DO NOT attempt to cut and suck the venom from the wound.
DO NOT drink alcohol as a painkiller
DO NOT drink caffeinated beverages
DO NOT take aspirin or ibuprofen
DO NOT expose the area of the bite to cold or apply an ice pack to it
The only treatment for an envenomation is the use of antivenin which must be administered by medical professionals.
Things You Should know
Large venomous snakes are more dangerous than small ones of the same species. It’s all about volume! The notion that young snakes are more dangerous because they can't control the amount of venom they inject is unfounded. Big snakes produce more venom than small ones, and have larger fangs with larger ports through which to inject venom.
In many places you may visit or live, especially in the coastal regions of Southern California, Rattlesnakes are often active every month of the year.
Nearly 35% of all reported Venomous Snake bites are dry bites – meaning that the snake delivered no venom. This occurs because snakes use their venom to kill prey, not as a defense mechanism, and certainly not to intentionally kill people. When a snake bites a human, it's usually out of fear of being injured by a potential predator much larger than itself. The snake is only defending itself, and in its excitement, it forgets or simply fails to inject any venom.
Of the 7,000 to 8,000 snake bites reported each year in the United States, only an average of 5,000 of them are confirmed bites by venomous snakes.
Of the average confirmed 5,000 venomous snake bites recorded each year by the American Association of Poison Control, only 3 to 5 cases are fatal. That’s less than .1% (one-tenth of one percent). This statistic tells us that if we are bitten by a native venomous snake species here in the USA, our chance of survival is extremely high as long as we stay calm and react properly to the injury. This is not to say, however, that the bite from a venomous snake is not a very serious matter. The damage caused by the effects of the venom to muscle and nerve tissue can be very serious and easily result in the loss of a limb, or loss of normal muscle and nerve function. Therefore, it is important to treat these creatures with respect and caution.