Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Snakes and Shudders

Nothing beats real-world skills practice. As part of that mentality, my Boy Scouts and I went camping last weekend. There were many lessons learned about the value of practical skills, and a few new skills were learned.

One of those teaching moments came when the boys encountered a snake. The boys did everything right by standing back and summoning an adult to identify the snake. A couple of us even got some decent pictures. 

(On a humorous note, I think this is the first time that I've been in a group that encountered a snake and NOT been the most scared adult. Snakes and I don't get along at all.)

The snake in question.
The first obvious concern was whether the snake was venomous. When no one else in my group knew how to identify it, I realized just how many folks have no information on how to tell if a reptile is venomous or not. 

With that in mind, here's a handy overview. There are only five types of poisonous reptiles native to the USA: Four are snakes, one is a lizard, and all of them are quite distinctive if you know what to look for.

Coral Snakes
A coral snake. Note the distinctive colors. Image from
  • The odd man out in American poisonous snakes, coral snakes have slender bodies and heads.
  • Their distinctive coloring pattern of red, yellow, and black bands is mimicked by some nonvenomous species, but remembering "Yellow, Red, Stop!" helps in identification, as only the poisonous snake has the yellow and red bands touching. 
  • Coral snakes are less aggressive than other species, with smaller fangs and a reclusive manner. 
  • Their venom is incredibly potent. A bite from a coral snake requires immediate medical attention and has a higher instance of fatality than other species. Coral snake antivenin is also in very short supply, and is no longer being produced.


While rattlesnakes are extremely varied, they all have rattles in common.
Image from
There are a wide range of species and subspecies of rattlesnake in the USA. Most of them are concentrated in the Southwest, but there are species ranging over much of the country. All of the species represent variances, but there are some common features to all of them:
  • They have vertical pupils, but the odds of noticing this on a live snake are slim. 
  • They have a blunt tail with bony rattles, which is the source of their name. They can shake these rattles very quickly when threatened, making a buzzing noise that sounds like nothing else. 
  • They have broad, triangular heads and thick, fat bodies. 
  • They also have sharp, pointed scales, in contrast to the smooth, sleek look of non-venomous species.

A cottonmouth making a threat display.
  • Also known as the water moccasin, the cottonmouth is native to the southeastern United States. 
  • It is semi-aquatic, commonly found along streams and rivers. 
  • It is a very strong swimmer, able to traverse large bodies of water. 
  • Like other vipers, it has a fat body and a broad head. 
  • They are particularly large snakes, with adults reaching and exceeding 3 feet in length, and some large examples weighing in at 10 pounds. 
  • They are very dark in color, approaching black in full-grown adults.
  • They behave more aggressively than other snakes, and will eat virtually any animal, including small alligators. 
  • Bites to humans are frequent, although not often fatal. 
  • Cottonmouth venom breaks down tissues around the bite, sometimes requiring amputation. It is  however readily treatable with antivenin.

Image from
  • Copperheads are the least venomous group of snakes. 
  • Their bite injects only small amounts of venom, and frequently injects none at all. 
  • They range throughout the southern and eastern US, with a preference for deciduous woodlands (areas with leafy trees). 
  • Like other venomous snakes, the copperhead has a broad, triangular head and fat body.
  • The copperhead is a master of camouflage, with a dirt-colored skin and the tendency to freeze when threatened. 
  • This habit actually leads to bites, as the snake is frequently stepped on, or startled by a nearby step.

Gila Monsters
  • Native to the desert Southwest, the Gila Monster is the sole venomous lizard in the USA.
  • They're also the largest native lizard, with some specimens reaching two feet long and weighing five pounds. 
  • They have pebbled scales and body coloration, with bands of black alternating with orange-to-pink shades.
  • While their venom can cause pain and swelling, it occurs in such small quantities that it is not considered lethal to healthy adult humans. 
  • Gila monsters are very slow-moving and easy to avoid. 

But What Was It?
Our snake at camp was a common rat snake, great for rodent control and completely harmless to us. The boys got some neat pictures and a fun brush with nature, and the snake slithered off to find some chow.

Discover Life has a great utility for snake identification in the field. Know your venomous snakes so you don't get bitten.


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