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Wildlife Mississippi Magazine

Summer 2004

Mississippi's Poisonous Snakes
by Rob Ballinger

When we came to the bridge crossing Deer Creek, I noticed what I thought to be a stick laying across the bridge. As we got closer the “stick” began to move and then I knew it was actually a large snake, apparently basking in the heat being transmitted from the pavement.


Recently my family and I were coming home from the taxidermist shop. Rain had fallen throughout most of the day and the temperature was fairly cool, however the sun was beginning to peek through the clouds and the rain had turned into a light mist. As the temperature rose, steam began rolling off the pavement making the drive through the countryside somewhat eerie.

When we came to the bridge crossing Deer Creek, I noticed what I thought to be a stick laying across the bridge. As we got closer the “stick” began to move and then I knew it was actually a large snake, apparently basking in the heat being transmitted from the pavement. As we neared the bridge I began to slow down and saw that the snake had made its way to the side of the bridge and was lying against the retaining wall. At this point, I was the only one in the vehicle who had noticed the snake. I told my wife and two girls to look out the window on my side of the truck and see what was lying on the bridge. The girls were in the back seat and fighting to look out the window to see the snake. They were both excited, particularly my 7-year old Sarah who has always shown an interest in small reptiles and amphibians, but my wife Sherry was not the least bit impressed. She took one look at the snake and then simply turned and stared out the passenger window.

I identified the snake as a non venomous king snake. It was quite large, 4.5 to 5 feet in length and beautifully colored. After assuring the girls that it was safe to do so, I asked them if they would like me to get out and catch it so they could have a closer look. Shelby, who is 9 years old, gave me that nervous, but inquisitive yes and Sarah gave me an excited yes and to hurry up about it, but Sherry was screaming, “NO.” When I glanced over at her in the passenger seat, she gave me that look as if to say - well you know the look I am talking about. By this time the king snake had made its way to the end of the bridge and was crawling off to the safety and cover of Deer Creek.

The problem most people encounter is the lack of
knowledge to properly identify snakes.

I was not surprised by the different reactions of my family. I have known for many years of Sherry's intense fear of snakes. Just the mere mention of snakes would send shivers down her spine, not to mention the sight of a snake on the Discovery Channel or worse yet, a real life encounter. Shelby has become more and more weary of snakes as she is getting older, no doubt fueled by her mother's fear of snakes. Sarah is still young enough and inquisitive about snakes and hasn't taken up her mother's fear of snakes. She is still in the learning stages so I have been careful to advise her never to handle any snake unless I am present and have identified the snake as non venomous.

I will never forget the day that I found a small garter snake in the yard. Sarah was eager to hold it and inspect it and even though I knew better she wanted to go and show her mom. As soon as Sherry saw her coming with a snake in her little hands, she took off running and screaming headed for the house, Sarah running right behind her giggling the entire time.

All of this brings up an important point. The fear of snakes is a learned behavior. We are certainly not born fearing snakes. This fear is passed on or instilled in most people through years of listening to legends and superstitions concerning snakes.

At the Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Expos, which were held in Hattiesburg and Canton, this point was made evident by Terry Vandeventer, a professional herpetologist. During his seminars he would ask for young volunteers to come to the stage and assist him with a demonstration. The children were asked to handle an extremely large snake and each of them did so, usually without the least bit of apprehension; all the while, most of the adults sitting in the audience seemed to be terrified.

The problem most people encounter is the lack of knowledge to properly identify snakes. Of the 55 species of snakes found in Mississippi, only six of them are venomous. Becoming familiar with these venomous snakes is a sensible precaution for outdoor enthusiasts in Mississippi.

The venomous species of snakes found in Mississippi are the canebrake rattlesnake, copperhead, coral snake, cottonmouth, eastern diamondback rattlesnake and the pigmy rattlesnake.
All the venomous snakes found in Mississippi, with the exception of the coral snake, are known as “pit vipers.” The term “pit” is used to describe a sensory organ which is located, between and slightly below, each eye and nostril on each side of a snakes head. These sensory organs give the appearance of an extra pair of nostrils; however their function is quite different. These sensory organs are heat activated, striking and guidance systems which enable the snake to detect temperature differences in its surrounding of as little as 2 degrees. This aids these snakes in locating prey and directing lethal strikes.

All pit vipers also have vertically elliptical pupils, much like a cat. Most native, non venomous snakes have round pupils. Pit vipers also have a large head which is distinctly wider then the neck, but some harmless snakes also exhibit this trait.

Pit vipers have long, hollow fangs which are hinged to the front of the skull and swing forward as the mouth is opened and back as the mouth is closed. When a pit viper strikes, these hollow fangs operate like hypodermic needles as muscles around the venom glands contract to inject the venom.

The coral snake exhibits none of the “pit viper” characteristics. Coral snakes have a round pupil and no facial pits. The head of the coral snake is also small in size compared to pit vipers and coral snakes have a very small mouth with short, fixed fangs.

If you are uncomfortable around snakes and uncertain of your ability to properly identify them, the best policy is to leave them alone. This may sound like common sense, but approximately 75 percent of all snake bites from venomous snakes occur when someone is trying to kill or harass a snake. Provoking a venomous snake, either on purpose or by accident can cause a snake to become defensive. When left alone, most snakes are docile and will either try to flee or remain motionless in an attempt to blend into their surroundings.
When outdoors, always try to walk in clear areas, paying close attention to where you are stepping. Snakes like to hide in stump holes, in brush piles, under debris and around fallen logs. When possible, wear leather boots at least 10 inches in height. There are numerous brands of “snake boots” on the market today, most of them 15 to 16 inches in height and they are generally waterproof which make them excellent for spring turkey hunting and early season archery hunting. When in a boat, pay close attention to overhanging limbs since snakes have a habit of sunning on branches. If you should encounter a snake, take a couple steps backwards and then go out of your way to avoid the snake.

In the unlikely event of a snake bite, the most important thing is to stay calm. Any increase in heart rate will only increase the rate that venom is distributed throughout the body. Immobilize the bitten limb (as in a fracture), treat the victim for shock and get to the nearest hospital or medical doctor as soon as possible. Never cut and suck, apply ice or cold packs, or use a tourniquet.

A high percentage of venomous snakebites occur on the extremities, most often the hands fingers and arms. Next most frequently bitten are ankles, top of the foot and legs.

Pit vipers' venom is a complex mix of lethal proteins and enzymes which target specific parts of the circulatory and nervous systems. At the onset of a strike, the venom begins to destroy blood cells, lymphatic vessels, capillaries and muscle tissue. Burning pain, swelling and skin discoloration are the most common early symptoms. Other symptoms may include weakness, nausea and vomiting, sweating, chills, muscular twitching and difficulty in breathing. The bite of a coral snake may produce similar symptoms, but immediate swelling and discoloration are rarely evident and the pain is mild and short in duration.

A non venomous bite elicits no symptoms. The bite may bleed freely and there may be bruising of the immediate tissue around the puncture, but essentially no swelling will occur and the severe pain that accompanies a venomous bite will be absent. No treatment beyond cleaning the bite site is generally required, however if you were unable to identify the snake, leave these decisions up to a physician.

Snakes are an important ecological component and serve as natural pest controllers, consuming large numbers of rodents. Although snakes are NOT mean and aggressive, they are accomplished predators with excellent tools for catching and killing prey. For this reason, snakes should be viewed from a distance and never approached. Never try to kill a snake unless it is threatening your life or the life of another person. One interesting final note; although there have been recorded deaths in Mississippi attributed to “snakebites,” there has never been a case where the evidence proved a snake was involved.


EASTERN DIAMONDBACK RATTLESNAKE
Crotalus adamanteus
Appearance: The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is medium brown or tan with dark diamond shaped markings. Each diamond is bordered by a single row of light colored scales and the coloration generally fades from a darker to lighter hue towards the tail. There is a wide, dark strip bordered with lighter scales on each side of the head and there is a rattle on the tail. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is massive in build and averages 4 to 4.5 feet in length, but has been recorded to nearly 8 feet. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the largest rattlesnake found in Mississippi.
Habitat: The eastern diamondback rattlesnake can be found in a variety of habitats including coastal lowlands and longleaf pine ecosystems and are most commonly associated with dry pine forests.
Distribution: The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is found in the southeastern most counties (boot heel) of Mississippi.


CANEBRAKE RATTLESNAKE
Crotalus horridus
Appearance: The canebrake rattlesnake is usually brown or pinkish gray with dark crossbands which often break into blotches on the forward body. The overall coloration grows darker toward the tail. A single dark stripe generally runs back from each eye and a narrow chestnut or rusty colored line runs down the center of the back. The canebrake rattlesnake averages from 3 to 4.5 feet in length and has a rattle on the tail. The most distinguishing feature of the canebrake rattlesnake is the uniform, black tail sometimes referred to as the “velvettail.”
Habitat: Canebrake rattlesnakes are found in a variety of habitats including wooded hillsides, river lowlands and canebrake thickets.
Distribution: Canebrake rattlesnakes are found throughout Mississippi with the exception of Hancock, Harrison, Pearl River and Stone counties.


PIGMY RATTLESNAKE
Sistrurus miliarius
Appearance: The pygmy rattlesnake is usually gray to reddish in color, with dark brown or black blotches along the middle of the back and alternating spots which run down the sides. It is the smallest of our rattlesnakes in Mississippi averaging just 18 to 20 inches in length. The pygmy rattlesnake generally has a rattles on its tail however the rattle is often missing but will grow back with subsequent moltings. The most distinguishing feature of the pygmy rattlesnake is the large scales which are symmetrically arranged on the crown of the head.
Habitat: The pygmy rattlesnake is found in a variety of habitats from pine flatwoods, cedar glades and mixed pine/hardwood forests to lakes and borders of small streams. It frequents wet or moist areas and is often found around abandoned buildings and areas cluttered with debris.
Distribution: The pygmy rattlesnake is found in most Mississippi counties; however they are extremely rare in the interior Delta.


COPPERHEAD
Agkistrodon contortrix
Appearance: The copperhead is brown, pinkish tan or chestnut colored (autumn colors) with darker brown hourglass shaped crossbands. These distinctive crossbands are often incomplete or broken at mid body. A thin dark line runs back from the eye to the corner of the mouth. Juveniles generally have a yellow or greenish tail. The copperhead's body is thick and stout and is usually 2 to 4 feet in length. The copperhead's soft colors blend in well with leaves on the forest floor.
Habitat: The copperhead occurs in a variety of habitats but is most often found in wooded, hilly areas sometimes broken by expanses of rocky terrain. Copperheads are frequently found in abandoned buildings, wood piles and areas scattered with debris.
Distribution: The copperhead is found throughout Mississippi, but is rare in the 3 coastal counties (Hancock, Harrison and Jackson).


COTTONMOUTH
Agkistrodon piscivorus
Appearance: The adult cottonmouth differs in appearance from the juvenile. The adult is usually yellowish brown to dark brown on the back with darker black, indistinct crossbands. A white face band may be present on some. Juvenile cottonmouths tend to resemble a copperhead and have bright yellow or even chartreuse tails. The cottonmouth is a very heavy bodied snake usually averaging 2.5 to 4 feet in length. The cottonmouth is the only venomous water snake found in Mississippi and it derives its name from the white inner mouth which is commonly exposed when the snake is threatened.
Habitat: The cottonmouth prefers aquatic areas ranging from brackish marshes to streams, lakes, ponds, rivers and swamps and bayous. Occasionally, cottonmouths are found on land away from any permanent water source, but they are most commonly associated with water.
Distribution: The cottonmouth is found in all 82 counties of Mississippi.


CORAL SNAKE
Micrurus fulvius
Appearance: The coral snake is most easily identified by the bright color pattern of black, red and yellow rings or color bands which encircle the body (the yellow and red rings are always touching, side by side). The head is small and black with tiny black eyes. The coral snake is a slender bodied, cylindrical snake averaging 2 to 3 feet in length. Coral snakes are easily distinguished from harmless members of the kingsnake family which mimic a similar color pattern, however the two warning colors of yellow and red are never in contact on kingsnakes.
Habitat: Coral snakes generally inhabit rocky hillsides and valleys, pine flatwoods and densely vegetated areas in forests.
Distribution: Coral snakes are generally only found in the 4 tiers of the southernmost counties in Mississippi.


This article was written by Robert R. Ballinger, a Certified Wildlife Biologist with the Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The photos and graphics are courtesy of Terry Vandeventer and the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science.

 

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