Florida’s Snake Population, venomous and otherwise

Six Venomous snakes, all preferring to never have to deal with a human, yet reality is that we all occupy this planet in encroaching proximity.

snake biteFirst of the bat, if you don’t like snakes, you may have picked the wrong state to live in. There are no less than 45 species of snakes in Florida, 6 of which are venomous. They live in a variety of habitats, some aquatic, some land-based. All snakes are carnivores, and feed on a variety of small prey. Snakes can prove beneficial in reducing rats and mice, but many people prefer not to encounter snakes at all. It is worth noting that the venomous snakes are rare, and only 4 of the 6 venomous species live in Florida. People commonly misidentify snakes which is why it is highly recommended to not provoke or attempt to handle any snake that you cannot properly identify – it may be a venomous snake. If you are bitten by a venomous snake, you should immediately seek medical attention at a hospital.

Last week’s highly publicized “diamond back snake attack” in St.John’s County was a bit of a fluke, as the bitten man was actually trying to save the snake from potentially being killed by ignorant assholes, as it tried crossing the road.
Let me be up front, I’m not hugely fond of snakes, mostly because I’m too, brainwashed by media attention, folklore and the stupendous story of Eve getting us evicted from Paradise after being coaxed by a snake into eating the apple. The devil appearing as a snake has doomed the fate of snakes since history began and being called “serpent” has not added to us understanding the species’ importance in keeping rodent populations on earth under control. But I’m learning and fascinated.
Therefore if you set out to go and kill a snake in your yard or impulsively decide to swerve your car to kill one, you are an ignorant jerk in my opinion, with the emphasis on ignorant. Seriously, the only people who kill snakes are uneducated idiots who have never bothered to try to actually learn about and understand the world they live in.

Here are my two main reasons to never kill a snake (again):

1 – 85%, of all snakebites occur when people attempt to kill or capture snakes. Did you read that wright?? 85 PERCENT or 17 out of 20 snake bites. Put it differently form the 8,000 snake bites reported annually, 6,800 were provoked by humans. Just leave them alone! They will NEVER strike out of pointless aggression (unlike humans, who are undeniably the world’s most destructive superpredator).

2 – The odds that you actually saw a venomous snake are super slim. Almost all snakes killed by people are not only harmless, but rare and beneficial creatures that have a hard enough time surviving as it is. Remember this: Is the snake big and fat? No? It’s a slim snake? Then it’s harmless!

So here is a bit of snake education

The United States has about 20 species of venomous snakes which include 16 species of rattlesnakes, 2 species of coral snakes, one species of cottonmouth (or water moccasin), and one species of copperhead. At least one type of venomous snake is found in every state except Alaska and Hawaii. It has been estimated that 7,000–8,000 people per year receive venomous bites in the United States, and about 5 of those people die. That is 1/16th of ONE PERCENT!!! And that even includes suicidal idiots like Jamie Coots  and the Wolford clan up in West Virginia’s religious idiot reservations.
Most fatal bites are attributed to the eastern and western diamondback rattlesnake. Copperheads account for more cases of venomous snake bites than any other North American species; however, their venom is the least toxic so their bite is seldom fatal.

Correctly identifying a snake

There are no foolproof methods to always tell if a snake is venomous. Even harmless snakes have colors, triangular heads, and shake their tails. But a picture is worth a thousand words. Look at the below photograph. You will see three of the most common snakes in Florida. First, a common Garter Snake, which is probably the most commonly seen snake in the United States. Next, a Yellow Rat Snake. The Red Rat Snake (corn snake) is also super common in FL. Then a Black Racer, which is the most common snake of them all in FL. Just knowing these three species covers about 75% of snake sightings in Florida.

garter snake shedding

Garter Snake Shedding

Yellow Rat snake

Yellow Rat Snake

Corn Snake or Red Rat Snake

Corn Snake -Red Rat Snake

 

The Cottonmouth, Coral Snake, and Diamondback are three of Florida’s venomous snakes. Get to know what they look like, and voila, you’ve got a good clue about which snakes are dangerous. It’s not hard, because there aren’t many venomous species.

The triangular head test is worthless. Pretty much ALL snakes have triangular heads, from common Garter Snakes, to rat snakes, and water snakes. But the venomous snakes of the US and Florida are almost all pit vipers, and these snakes are very fat. So if you see a super fat snake, then that’s a good clue.

easterndiamondbackEastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

This is the deadliest snake in North America. Most deaths in the United States due to snakebite are because of the Eastern, not the Western Diamondback. The Eastern Diamondback has a very potent venom, and it injects the venom in high quantity. This snake has an extremely fast strike – 175 miles per hour. However, it cannot slither very fast, and it will stand its ground and rattle its tail, and if you get to within 2/3 of its body length when its agitated like this, there’s a decent chance you’ll end up dead. Do not approach this snake for any reason.

Diamondback Rattlesnakes that are found in the United States come in two varieties; the eastern and the western diamondback rattlesnake. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is found in the coastal areas in the Carolinas, Florida and Louisiana. They are often found in wooded areas where there is both land and water. The western diamondback rattlesnake is found throughout the rest of the United States in mountainous and semi-arid to arid areas in states like Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Southern Texas and California. The western diamondback rattlesnake lives in shrubby and rocky areas that it can easily conceal itself, however these areas are common to outdoor sport enthusiasts like hikers, rock climbers and mountain bikers which is where the majority of rattlesnake bites occur.

Diamondback rattlesnakes are one of the largest snakes in the United States, and one of the most deadly. Rattlesnakes reach an average size of four to six feet when they are full grown. There have been some diamondback rattlesnakes that have even grown up to seven feet, but this is very rare. The diamondback rattlesnake gets its name from the diamond pattern of its scales that resemble diamonds. These patterns, along with its color which are gray, tan, yellow or red, help it to blend into the background and escape the notice of predators. However, it is because of the rattlesnake’s excellent camouflage, that unsuspecting hikers might accidentally step into its line of attack. The most well known characteristic of the rattlesnake is its rattle that it shakes to warn predators of its presence.

Another striking feature of the diamondback rattlesnake is its triangular head and the very light colored stripe that starts at the corner of its mouth and wraps around the back of the head. This snake is a part of the viper family and has heat seeking sensors under its nose so that it can successfully track prey at night as well as in the day. The prey of a diamondback rattlesnake usually includes anything that it can overpower and swallow in one bite like birds, rodents, lizards, ground squirrels, toads, rabbits and the occasional small pet. The venom that a rattlesnake will inject into its victims attacks the blood, making it thinner and harder to clot, therefore the victim will either bleed out or bleed internally. If the victim should scamper off after it is bitten by a diamondback rattlesnake, the snake can follow its scent trail until the animal falls down dead or is too weak to defend itself.

Young rattlesnakes are born completely independent and will hunt and protect themselves from the day they are born. Diamondback rattlesnakes are mainly solitary, only meeting during mating season and to hibernate.

easterncoralsnakeEastern Coral Snake

Red Touch Yellow, Kills a Fellow – this is the Eastern Coral Snake. But remember Remember that this is not a hard rule, but a general guideline and it only applies to snakes in North America. Some of the snakes that are regularly mistaken for a coral snake include the scarlet snake, milk snake and the king snake.

You can see that it has red, yellow, and black bands. There are several snakes that mimic the color pattern of this snake, but this is the one with the deadly neurotoxic venom. You can see that in the arrangement of color bands, that red and yellow bands do touch.
There are over 70 different species of Coral Snake that range from the Midwest in the United States all the way down through South America. However, in the United States these snakes are more common in southern states such as Florida, North and South Carolina and Louisiana. In these southern states you are sure to find these snakes living in wooded areas in rotting logs, thickets and meadows that are near water sources. Coral snakes are good swimmers, so they like to live near water if they can. Coral snakes can also live in Southern and Southwest states like Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. For coral snakes that live in these states, they make their homes in scrubland, wooded areas, grassland and farmlands but they can also live in rocky mountainous areas also. The coral snake is very resilient and can survive in a variety of regions.

Look at the picture to tell the difference between the venomous coral snake and the harmless copycat colored snakes like the King Snake.

snakerhyme

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Most coral snakes are small and thin, only growing up to three feet long, but have been reported to grow up to five feet long. The coral snakes that live near water will have a flattened tail that they use as a rudder to swim. The fangs of a coral snake are fixed to their upper jaw and do not revert to lying flat when they close their mouths, and this is why their fangs are a bit smaller. However, just because the fangs are small does not mean that their venom doesn’t carry a powerful punch. The coral snake has deadly venom, but because they are elusive there are not very many reported coral snake bites. The snake will use its venom to subdue its prey, but instead of using a strike method, the coral snake will chew its prey to inject the venom. The usual prey of a coral snake includes smaller animals such as lizards, salamanders, skinks, birds, rodents and other snakes.

The coral snake has many predators that affect their life spans. Some of these predators include hawks, owls, coyotes, bigger snakes and larger dogs. A coral snake’s first line of defense is to flee or escape its predator’s grasp, but if it feels threatened it will strike. This is unfortunate for people who engage in a lot of outdoor activities such as hiking and gardening. If you should get bitten by a coral snake, or any other snake, you need to seek medical attention immediately. Fortunately, the coral snake is very elusive, only coming out of its territory during breeding season or after rainstorms. A good thing to remember is they will leave you alone if you leave them alone. Do not go out of your way to rid your property of them (unless you have a nest of them) because chances are that they will move on quickly.

watermoccasinWater Moccasin or Cottonmouth

This is a sneaky snake as it turns color from brownish tan when they’re young to black when they’re adult.
They are members of the pit viper family. Most pit vipers are rattlesnakes that live on dry land, but the Water Moccasin does not have rattles, and it lives in water and swampy areas. This snake isn’t as aggressive as many of the rattlesnakes, but it’ll certainly bite if you get too close and it’s agitated (or if it senses your heat), and the bite is horrible. It’s lethal from a larger snake, and is sure to destroy your tissue and leave you without whatever body part got bitten. Be very careful around this snake.

Water moccasins, or cottonmouth snakes, are found near bodies of water in the southern part of The United States. These vipers are deadly, and received their name because of the way they present themselves when threatened. The cottonmouth will hold itself erect, opening its mouth. The inner tissue is white; a sharp contrast to the dark skin of the snake. There are no clear origins for the name water moccasin, though people attribute it to Native Americans and their experiences with the semi-aquatic snake. You will rarely have nuisance concerns with water moccasins. These snakes do not see people as prey, and they will leave humans along if the snakes are not harassed. The cottonmouth feeds on the animals that live in and near the water. It is capable of attacking its prey underwater as well as along the shore. These venomous snakes are often confused with brown water snakes. The main difference is that brown water snakes swim with most of their bodies submerged. Cottonmouths are very buoyant, and their length is visible while they swim. Because of the time spent in the water, the body temperature of these snakes needs constant renewal. For this reason, when not hunting, they are often seen sunning themselves along the bank.

When a water mocassin bites a human, it rarely injects enough venom to kill. The main goal of the snake is to get away; it does not see humans as a prey animal. If the snake wanted to eat us, there would be no problem injecting enough venom to do the trick.

copperheadCopperhead

The Copperhead is one of the most commonly mis-identified snakes in the United States. Many types of snake, especially the Northern Water Snake, the Banded Water Snake, and the Brown Water Snake are mistaken for the poisonous Copperhead. Although you can try to learn tricks, such as looking for an elliptical eye pupil (venomous pit viper) instead of a round pupil (harmless), your best bet is to click on the below photographs to take a good look at what the snake looks like, and get the image firm in your mind, so that when you see it, you’ll know for sure.

The Copperhead is one of the venomous snakes that can be found in the east and primarily south east of the United States, and just the northern part of Florida. On this page I have maps showing the Copperhead Geographical Range. The name is certainly an accurate description for this species. Like many of the snakes native to the United States the Copperhead has a fairly stable population, and most people will come into contact with these snakes while walking or working in woodland areas. Although the Copperhead is a venomous snake, it is unlikely that a bite would actually be fatal as their venom isn’t particularly highly concentrated.

The Copperhead gets its name largely for the color of the snake, which will vary from a combination of light and darker brown patches to a similar pattern in a reddish brown color. The variation will often depend on the habitat in which it is living, as the key reason for the color is that it is an excellent camouflage while slithering through dried leaves and ground litter in woodland areas. This species isn’t as large as some of the more feared species of snake, with most Copperheads being between a foot and a half and three feet in length once they have reached maturity. The body itself is quite heavy, but it does narrow before getting to the wide head of the snake.

Like many of the other snakes in the ‘pit viper’ family the Copperhead hunts by lying in wait for its prey and then pouncing when it is close enough. It will then strike and sinking its teeth into the prey and injecting its venom into the victim, before releasing it and following the prey until it dies. The majority of the diet of the copperhead is made up of small rodents and mammals such as voles and mice, although they have also been known to eat insects and frogs. There are also instances where there have been Copperheads observed climbing into the trees in order to eat young cicadas.

pygmyrattlesnakePygmy Rattlesnake

The Pigmy Rattlesnake are very secretive so they are rarely seen, but they can become a pest or a danger if they are found in a domestic yard or garden. Because this species is one of the smallest of the rattlesnakes, its rattle is actually very small and this means that it is only audible from a very short distance away.
The color patterns that can be found on the Pigmy Rattlesnakes can vary depending on its natural habitat, and these can vary with blotches and uniform patches running down the body which can be of various colors, from black and blue to dark green and various shades of red or brown. These snakes are not the most heavy bodied of snakes, and they will usually grow to between fourteen and twenty-two inches in length, but the largest known examples have been up to thirty inches in length. The head is generally in proportion with the body, and they will usually be encountered coiled up in the woods.
Although the Pigmy Rattlesnake is a very small snake, this doesn’t mean that it is calmer and more docile when it encounters humans, and is likely to strike if it is cornered or threatened. Fortunately, the amount of venom that it can produce will not be life threatening for the majority of humans, but it can lead to a significant amount of discomfort and would need to be treated. One of the problems is that it can be very well hidden, meaning that many people may get bitten before they realize that they are threatening to the snake, especially because the rattle is very small and is often inaudible to humans. They will prefer to live in a burrow if possible, but because they don’t dig their own they will often be seen in those vacated by a Gopher Tortoise. The species is found in much of North Carolina, Oklahoma, Florida and Texas, and will often be looking for specific habitats that will suit their habits. This will generally mean that there is plenty of leaf litter, meaning that woodlands and mixed forests are particularly likely to be home to the Pigmy Rattlesnake, but sand-hills and marshes can also be home to these snakes.

timberrattlesnakeCanebrake or Timber Rattlesnake

The Timber Rattlesnake isn’t considered to be a particularly great threat to people, it does have potent venom and has long fangs to deliver it, but the numbers of attacks on people are relatively few and far between. The species became an important symbol during the American Revolution, and in 2008 the state of West Virginia adopted the Timber Rattlesnake as its official state reptile. In the southern states, it’s often called the Canebrake Rattlesnake. It does exist in Florida, but only in the very northern portions.

The Timber Rattlesnake isn’t the largest in the rattlesnake family, with the largest example ever caught being just over six feet in length, and weighing in at around ten pounds. However, most specimens are much smaller, usually between three and five feet in length and weighing less than five pounds. In terms of the pattern that is showed on the body of the snake, it is usually an irregular striped pattern, with narrow dark bands alternating with lighter green-brown bands. Although the majority of these snakes do have a striped pattern of green or brown scales, there are many of these snakes that actually are much darker, and in some cases can be entirely black.

One of the interesting aspects of the snake is that because it hunts at night it has an excellent ability to sense vibration, and even before it strikes at its prey it will know roughly the size of the approaching animal; precisely why it is generally quite docile when it comes into contact with people. It will generally use its rattle as a warning before striking, and is also known to feint a number of times to try and ward off a threat before actually striking. But because of its excellent vibration receptors the Timber Rattlesnake will often flee before even being noticed by people and will really only bite if there is no escape route and if it feels directly under threat.

Well there you have it. Six Venomous snakes, all preferring to never have to deal with a human, yet reality is that we all occupy this planet in encroaching proximity. It’s up to us humans to learn a bit more about snakes’ behavior and just be alert not to push them into a defensive predicament that leaves no other option but attack. If that happens however, make sure to clearly identify the attacker, so that medical assistance is in the know and can give the correct anti venom, as quick as possible.

Here are two interesting links to learn more about

Why not to kill Venomous Snakes and

Media sensationalism 

In episode 3 of this Florida Summertime Hazards series later this week I will talk about Alligators, Opossums, Armadillos and the likes and other reptilians to be aware of.

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